Shinergy Puppet Show on IXDA

Reimagining Traditions: How to Innovate for Cultural Sustainability

“In an increasingly interconnected global community, how do we enable local cultures to be resilient and sustainable?”

Xiang Pu Zhu 朱祥溥 (Photo Credit: IxDA Taiwan)

Zhu is the Director of Shinergy Puppet Show Theatre (新勝景掌中劇). In his talk, he share with us how he has recaptured the eyes of younger generations by creatively incorporating digital projection mapping technology into the performance of traditional Taiwanese outdoor glove puppetry shows (布袋戲).

Once upon a time, during the early 20th century, watching outdoor Taiwanese puppetry shows was one of the most popular types of entertainment around common households in Taiwan. Zhu, Director of Shinergy Puppet Show Theatre, also shared how his connections to traditional glove puppetry were rooted deeply in his childhood.

Young Zhu with a glove puppet in his hands (Photo Credit: Zhu)

“I grew up in a traditional Taiwanese glove puppetry family,” he said. “Along with my father, me and my brother had performed many outdoor puppetry shows in front of different temples across many villages.” Those puppetry performances were shows that acted out religious themes and stories for the gods to worship them. “That’s why me and my brother are both puppeteers of traditional Taiwanese glove puppets.”

A traditional outdoor puppetry stage (Photo Credit: Zhu)

For Zhu, the Taiwanese puppetry culture he grew up loving was also at risk and amidst great modern struggles. As contemporary entertainment consumption habits have changed, the traditional outdoor puppet show has long lost its human audiences. Nowadays, they are mostly performed in front of the statues of gods and goddesses in front of temples.

“It was quite common to have more puppeteers than audiences on-site while we were performing.”

(Photo Credit: IxDA)

Losing sight of the audiences’ appreciation, even a performance art with such rich traditions could no longer secure a puppeteer’s livelihood. As there was not enough demand to sustain their theatre, Zhu and his brother were pushed to the verge of almost shutting down their beloved family business.

Growing a New Audience- Taiwanese Traditional Puppetry

Zhu’s story of how he reshaped the traditional puppet show performing experience in order to appeal to new audiences is yet another success story of how one can become an effective cultural intermediary.

Zhu’s father, the founder of Shinergy Puppet Show Theatre (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Before taking over the family business, Zhu was already working as an Animation Director at an animation studio. “Performing outdoor puppet shows for a living is impossible in modern times,” Zhu said, as demands for the shows had shrunk immensely.

“Aside from the theatre’s business, my father also had to be a taxi driver to be able to support our family.”

Thus, when Zhu grew up, he left the villages and chose a job in the big cities that he deemed was easier to do. One that is reasonably paid and done in an office in front of a computer, instead of working outdoors with puppets, without audiences, and under the sun.

The day Zhu and his brother took over the theatre (Photo Credit: Zhu)

However, in 2015 Zhu’s father passed away. The future of their old theatre had fallen on the shoulders of Zhu and his older brother.

“After my brother became the new owner, even old temple customers became less willing to continue with our cases.”

They trusted Zhu’s father more than they trusted his younger generation. As the situation became tougher, Zhu and his brother had even considered closing their beloved theatre for good.

“I don’t want us to shut down.”

Amidst such difficulty, Zhu was still determined to preserve his father’s legacy. “We need to capture the eyes of a wider and younger audience.” To him, it was now or never. This was when his journey to innovations and reformations of his family tradition began.

A traditional outdoor puppetry stage (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Deciding What to Innovate

As an Animation Director, Zhu was no stranger to storytellings using computer animation and game art. To begin with his attempt towards innovations, he decided to incorporate both of his expertise with each other. To include modern technology within the performance of this ancient performance art.

“There are many different kinds of plays in Taiwanese glove puppetry. I had to decide which one to focus on,” Zhu said.

Choosing golden light puppet shows (金光戲) among other types of shows (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Among them, there was one named “golden light puppet show (金光戲),” which he deemed as one which was most suitable for his innovative experiment.

“This type of play is highly reliant on visual effects, as its stories are always filled with intensive fights, bursts, and explosions.”

By examining the basic visual elements of golden light puppet shows, he has chosen to apply projection mapping technology to the following traditional visual aspects of outdoor glove puppetry shows.

The Foreground (前景)

In the past, fluorescent paint was used on the foreground to depict cochin ceramics (交趾陶), an architectural decoration that appears on traditional buildings. Now, with projection mapping technology, Zhu can use augmented reality to present the foreground with more articulated simulations of real architectural structures.

The foreground presented via projection mapping technology (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Not only can the architectural decoration be presented with three-dimensional designs and detail, but Zhu can also bring the stone dragons on the carving pillars to life with animation technology. The foreground that once stood still in the shows can now go wild.

The foreground presented via projection mapping technology (Photo Credit: Zhu)

The Background (背景)

As golden light puppet show plots are stories that involve a lot of expeditions and dynamic fights between characters among the justice and evil, the shows had to allow the puppets to seem as if they are wandering around or racing each other intensely on stage.

Traditional backgrounds of an outdoor puppetry stage (Photo Credit: Zhu)

In the past, in order to create this kind of effect, puppeteers would have to use background paper that could be rolled from left to right, to make it seem as if the puppets were running from right to left, vice versa. In Mandarin, this was called “walking scenery (走景).”

The background presented via projection mapping technology (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Now, with projection mapping technology, Shinergy’s puppet shows could enable their puppets to run and change backgrounds dynamically without requiring anyone to manually roll the background over and over again.

The Special Effects

As mentioned above, intensive fights, bursts, and explosions are the most crucial elements that constitute golden light puppet shows. This is also where computer animation and game art comes in handy. Thus, Zhu used the art of projection mapping technology and animations to reimagine the effects that used to require traditional real-world small scale explosions and fireworks to be released on stage.

Traditional golden light puppet show special effects: lightning, fire, and explosions (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Moreover, he used modern animation visual effects to represent the effects of pugilistic arts (拳術). Therefore, articulating the beauty and allurement of different fictitious martial arts, which each kung fu master puppet character would specialize in within famous traditional glove puppetry show plots.

Pugilistic arts called “apolar baguazhang (無極八卦掌)” presented via animation (Photo Credit: Zhu)

After Testing the Waters

Zhu’s pioneering digital-physical hybrid puppetry showpiece turned out to be a great success. In 2018, their first debut performance at the 2018 Nuit Blanche Taipei attracted over 1,000 audiences.

“I was so happy! Our puppeteers were overjoyed to see that they were finally outnumbered by the numbers of the audiences seated in front of our stage.”

(Photo Credit: IxDA)

This well-received performance led to a series of surprising and exciting opportunities unforeseen by Zhu. They were invited to perform this modern-traditional art piece abroad, in eight big cities all across North America.

In Taiwan, Shinergy has won the hearts of a new crowd of Taiwanese audiences and sustained this momentum ever since. They continued to appear in the 2020 Nuit Blanche Taipei, as they persist with their innovations in new ways of storytelling in Taiwanese glove puppetry.

Attracting a big crowd at 2018 Nuit Blanche Taipei (Photo Credit: Zhu)

However, when Zhu recalled their performance tour in North America, he reflected on how cultural differences may have affected the audience’s responses to their show. While gaining popularity in many cities, one performance, in particular, was not quite appreciated.

“I only noticed it afterwards, that as we performed in a Mormon district, the intense violence depicted in our show plot might have upset our audiences a bit.”

Shinergy’s tour around 9 cities in North America (Photo Credit: Zhu)

This experience made Zhu realize that the scripts they performed on needed to be rewritten for different audiences.

“For Taiwanese audiences, they have more context and background knowledge of our shows, as what we present is a remake of traditional characters and plots familiar to them,”

Zhu said as he ponders on the differences. “For our audiences overseas, without providing enough context and knowledge, mere clashes and fights between the characters can seem too violent and hard to catch.”

The redesign of the glove puppet character’s appearances (Photo Credit: Zhu)

After this experience, Zhu included more narratives and debates within their plots that discussed the meaning and fuzziness between evil and justice, prior to intensive flights and physical conflicts. All in all, Zhu’s reimagination of a new cultural model that can be used to communicate his beloved traditional glove puppetry continues to bloom.

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