Theater director Wang Chia-ming (王嘉明) has a mission. He wants to bring Taiwanese glove puppetry to the contemporary stage with Inside Out: A Tale of Allure and Enchantment (聊齋─聊什麼哉?!), which premieres March 21 at Taipei’s Experimental Theater. But Wang believes that the boundary between traditional and modern isn’t black and white.
“I see many contemporary theatrical elements in glove puppetry, most notably the performers’ improvisation that makes each performance unique,” Wang told the Taipei Times.
The five acts of Inside Out: A Tale of Allure and Enchantment are based on six stories from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異), a collection of nearly 500 supernatural tales written in classical Chinese by the 17th century writer Pu Songling (蒲松齡).
The first two characters in the title of Pu’s collection, liaozhai (聊齋), refers to the venue where casual conversation takes place, while zhiyi (誌異) means the strange stories that are discussed.
Wang says that even though Pu portrayed characters in the stories as supernatural creatures — ghosts, fox spirits and demons — the author’s motive was to depict the life of ordinary people, as well as the corruption and inequality in society.
Inside Out is set in an old-fashioned laundry shop, where employees gather around a table for tea, and customers stop by for some chit-chat.
One moment, puppeteers from Shan Puppet Theater (山宛然) and Hong Puppet Theater (弘宛然) are laundry shop employees who take dirty clothes from customers. The next moment they become the characters played by the puppets in their hands, with which they talk, act and squabble.
Unlike traditional puppet performances, where puppeteers manipulate the puppets from behind the stage, Wang has all the performers, puppeteers and musicians on stage.
One act, however, will unfold behind a tsailou (彩樓), a stage resembling a temple decorated with elaborate wood carvings where glove puppet performances typically take place.
Wang says the show keeps glove puppetry’s outfits, music, performing style and language, which is a mix of Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Hakka and Mandarin. Chinese subtitles will be provided.
“The well-trained puppeteers have total control over their acting. They can improvise all they want without straying from the plot,” Wang says.