The Art and Craft of Shadow Theatre

I have always been intrigued by the traditional art form called Wayang Kulit, which means, “shadow puppet,” or literally translated, “theatre of skin.” This beautiful art form was not very common in Kuala Lumpur while I was growing up, so I never got the chance to see it performed live.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a couple of months ago I stumbled across MaRia Bodmann’s website, www.balibeyond.com, and learned about the free Balinese Wayang Kulit workshop she would be teaching on Saturday afternoons from February through April 2018. Thrilled, I jumped at the opportunity to attend.

MaRia is America's first female dalang. She is an alum of the prestigious CalArts (based in Southern California) and spent many years in Bali studying traditional gamelan music and later shadow puppetry. 

MaRia eventually went on to found Bali & Beyond here in Los Angeles with a mission to share and promote the incredible Balinese culture and traditions with both Westerners and Americans. MaRia describes Wayang Kulit, an ancient tradition that started in Asia over a thousand years ago, as the “epitome of multicultural art.”

Not only do I admire MaRia’s passion, commitment, and dedication for learning and then teaching Balinese Wayang Kulit, but I’m also fascinated by the fact that she is a female dalang (puppeteer), which is extremely rare because dalangs are traditionally male. I was very curious to know more about MaRia’s experience learning to be a dalang in Indonesia as a white, female American.

I was also interested to see how she would incorporate modern Western puppets and stories into a Wayang Kulit performance to make it more exciting and relatable to American audiences.

Walking into my first class, I was floored by MaRia’s beautiful array of shadow puppet characters that she had on display. Some were traditional, and some modern, such as her version of the Mad Hatter from “Alice and Wonderland.”

Our first task was to make a puppet. MaRia instructed each of us to pick out one of her puppet characters, which were already sketched out for us, and a piece of cardboard. She let us know which characters would require more work than others so that we could decide for ourselves what we could handle. I chose a horse character because I have loved horses since I was a kid.

After picking out our character, we were each given a plastic chopping board, a wooden mallet, nails, and metal chisels and instructed to nail the cardboard to the chopping board. We then began engraving our puppets with our mallets and tiny chisels, each of us tracing over our puppet sketch.

For about three hours we all banged away, creating our own impromptu percussive hammer suite in the process. In our second class the following week, we each picked out another character to make. In the classes that follow, we will create our stories and rehearse for the play, which we will eventually perform in front of a live audience at the end of April.

Thanks to this amazing workshop, I’ve gotten to meet some new and interesting people. There is Julia, an elementary school music teacher, Cynthia, an animator, and Janet, a longtime studier of gamelan music whose daughter, Lydia, is one of the founding members of the group GamelanX. Lydia’s band plays a fusion of samba and Balinese gamelan music they call “Sambelan.”

My curiosity piqued, I have already made contact with Lydia, and not only will I be writing about this unique ensemble, but they will also be featured on my upcoming YouTube series.

In the end, I think it’s both funny and ironic that I ended up finding ways to learn both gamelan, which I learned in graduate school in Illinois, and the Wayang Kulit here in the United States rather than in my homeland of Malaysia, although, it was not for lack of trying.

I guess the universe has other plans for me. Like they say, sometimes you have to travel the world to find home.

For those interested in joining “The Art and Craft of Shadow Theatre” workshop, you can find more information about it here: (http://www.balibeyond.com/msc.html). 

Come and watch: HOTEL MAYA - An Original Shadow Play on Saturday, April 7th at 2 pm at The Onion (SUUS), 9550 Haskell Ave, North Hills

 

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