Sun, Jul 13, 2008 - Page 14 News List

[SUNDAY PROFILE] Bringing new life to puppets

Jean-Luc Penso puts a European face on traditional Taiwanese glove puppetry

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

"The beautiful thing was that he accepted me very quickly and very deeply. At the beginning he was very cold, of course, he was inquiring about what I was doing, why I was there. And then I thought I should pay him, so I give him an envelope (with money) and he put the envelope to one side and then nobody talks more about this, and one month later he gives me back the envelope."

After Li died, his son asked Penso if he remembered the incident and if he knew that, at the time, the family really needed the money. Penso asked why Li didn't take it. Li's son said the children told their father he should teach Penso as seriously as he had taught them, as if her were his own child. Since they did not pay Li, neither should Penso.

"So it was the whole family that accepted me. It took me 25 years to know," Penso recalled, almost tearing up.

Penso embarked on a taxing schedule of study, financed by teaching French at Tamkang University (淡江大學), where he has entered into student lore as the teacher who fell asleep while teaching.

"I studied every morning for two hours, studying how to move the puppets. I did this for months and months. When he was performing in the afternoon I was following his troupe at many shrines, watching at first, then he put a puppet on my hand and told all the audience that there was a foreigner performing ... And so everybody rushed backstage, for they were more interested in my nose than in what I was performing," Penso said.

At the performance on Friday, Penso's nose was not what was attracting attention. Rather, it was his own unique take on Taiwanese glove puppet theater.

"In Taiwan, puppets are important, they are the symbol of the island, but many of the traditional troupes like I-Wan-Jan (亦宛然掌中劇團) perform almost more abroad than in Taiwan. The Taiwanese love puppets, but they love it more as a symbol ... and there is a problem with the lack of creation and the very small number of troupes," Penso said. "In France it is quite the reverse. We have 720 puppet troupes. They all make creation, but (their work) depends more on imagination than on technique."

"I come from another world, another culture, where creativity is venerated, ... we have 80 percent of bullshit, but also 20 percent of nice things ... Traditional arts in Taiwan still need to find their way, because if you do not touch the traditional arts, they will become a museum and they will die," he said.

Penso is participating in the 2008 Taipei International Puppetry Festival (第一屆大台北國際偶戲節), which was created to commemorate Li on the 10th anniversary of his death. He will perform today at 3pm at Hsinchuang Stadium (台北縣立新莊體育館), 66 Hehsing Rd, Hsinchuang City, Taipei County (台北縣新莊市和興街66號).

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