From Muppets to Puppets: An Interview with Benjamin Ho

What is puppetry? How do you make a puppet? Are there different types of puppetry?

We chat with Benjamin Ho, puppet master and Artistic Director of Paper Monkey Theatre to find out more about puppetry, before Journey West: Web of Deceit takes place at the end of September, as part of Moonfest, our Mid Autumn celebrations.

This puppetry show by Paper Monkey Theatre tells the fascinating tale of Monkey King Sun Wu Kong, Piggy, Sandy and Master Tang San Zang when they meet the Spider Demon, who traps Master Tang and Piggy in her web.

How did you discover your love for puppetry?

It happened when I was very young I guess. I come from a big family with siblings much older than I, and was often left to play on my own. I had to be creative in coming up with playmates as I was not allowed to go out and play.

My favourite television programme back then was The Muppet Show (curiously, not Sesame Street even though it was not popular) and I got very curious to know how those puppets moved in such a life-like manner. It wasn’t long before I started looking for answers and came up with my own experiments to find out the “truth”. I also went to the library, read a lot about puppets and hence, started to make my own.

How many kinds of puppetry are there?

Typically, there are four basic kinds, namely hand, rod, string and shadow puppetry. However, there are also some exceptions, which are either combinations of the four—such as the Prague string puppets that combines rod and strings—or distinct forms belonging to specific cultures, such as bunraku from Japan or water puppetry from Vietnam.

Do you make your own puppets? If so, how long does it usually take you to make one and what does the process entail?

Yes, I do. A realistic estimate would be between two to four weeks, depending on how elaborate or complicated the puppet is. I usually start off with the overall look and feel, followed by the kind of mechanism I want to use on the puppet. I will then source for the right materials to make it. More often than not, I deviate from the original blueprint as I believe in adapting during the creation process.

Tell us about your three favourite puppets and why. Which productions were they used in?

This is not an easy question because each puppet is special to me. If I really have to pick, it would be the Sun Wu Kong puppet that I made from recycled materials. It was used in Journey West – Mount of Fiery.

Why this is special? As you know, I am trained in traditional Chinese hand puppetry and getting access to the puppets is becoming challenging and costly due to the diminishing trade of puppet-making. Hence, I turn to common and easily available materials to make puppets that are similar to the traditional standards, without compromising all regular features of the puppet.

Sun Wu Kong was the first that I succeeded in making with paper instead of wood.

Journey West: Web of Deceit is an interactive production for children. What can your audience look forward to?

I think they should get ready to step into a world of magic and fantasy. It is always tricky to serve an interactive production so I am not going to spill the beans on that. Come with an open mind and discover.

How did you get into children’s theatre? What are the challenges you face?

My interests have always been rooted in children's theatre. In my growing years, when I had exposure to children theatre programmes, I was immediately captivated by the creativity and energy, spell-bound, as one would say. I hope to share this experience with all the children out there.

One of the challenges is probably the misconception that children's theatre is secondary to mainstream adult theatre. Some perceive children's theatre as “child’s play” but believe me, it’s not. The younger audience and participants do not require anything less than a professional adult theatre production. Nonetheless, it is the children’s laughter that makes it worthwhile and keeps me going.

Where do you see your brand of children’s theatre heading?

Paper Monkey Theatre strives to create a place synonymous with creative fun and imagination through traditional Asian puppetry. For children, the little ones can expect a playground that inspires all sorts of vivid expressions; and for adults, they can enjoy unique productions that not only build on family bonds but also get them acquainted with Asian values. The experience should be liberating and educational.