Watch the presentation on video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySGjfYKe_hw&feature=youtu.be
On Tuesday, December 6, 2016, the School of Theater at the California Institute of the Arts (commonly known as CalArts) hosted Shikô Yoshida, puppeteer of the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company, for an up close and personal workshop on ningyô jôruri, the traditional Japanese art of puppetry performed in coordination with a narrator (tayû) and a three-stringed lute shamisen musician. Although Awaji Puppet Theatre’s ningyô are typically controlled by three puppeteers working in unison to act out the story as told by the tayû, Yoshida was still able to demonstrate several impressive techniques on his own, relying on his over-thirty-years of experience with the art form.
After giving Yoshida a quick campus tour, Professor Janie Geiser welcomed the students and faculty in attendance by expressing her excitement for having the opportunity to welcome one of Japan’s National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties to CalArts. As someone specializing in the use of objects in theatrical performances, Geiser had extensively studied ningyô jôruri in the past, making the Awaji puppeteer’s visit to Southern California even more significant for the professor and her students. Adding to the experience was a rare chance for CalArts students to also showcase their personal work after Yoshida’s demonstration.
Rather than simply performing with the two puppets he brought along, Yoshida instead taught the audience the many techniques used by him and his fellow puppeteers. He started by introducing a number of different kashira, or puppet heads, used in performances, including a hundred-year-old samurai and several face-changing characters, all hand crafted from cypress wood, painted with finely powdered sea shells, and fitted with mechanisms that share many characteristics with automatons of old. Yoshida then demonstrated the proper way to hold an Awaji ningyô, with the main puppeteer controlling the kashira using his or her left hand and the puppet’s right hand using his or her own.
After showing how to bring life to ningyô by matching its line of sight to its hand, Yoshida demonstrated more complex techniques, such as the methods of crying and laughing specific to Japanese puppetry. The audience laughed as he also demonstrated how ningyô could be mishandled, presenting movements no human would typically make and comical movements that some humans actually do. Much of the workshop, however, was dedicated to letting members of the audience try their hands at Japanese puppetry; three theater students were tasked with making the ningyô call someone from the audience, clap, and walk, all of which were executed with great precision to everyone’s surprise and amusement, including Yoshida, himself.
Following an in-depth Q&A session with the audience, Yoshida then redirected the spotlight to give his attention to a select group of students who came to showcase their work to the veteran puppeteer. Some students exhibited their own handmade puppets while others showed more experimental work using lights and shadows. During the one-on-one sessions, Yoshida had a chance not only to share his wisdom but to learn techniques from the students as well, leaving him very impressed with the various projects on display.
For more on the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company, visit http://awajiningyoza.com/.
For more on California Institute of the Arts, visit https://www.calarts.edu/.