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Interviews | For The Young

From Muppets to Puppets: An Interview with Benjamin Ho

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

To find out more about this well-loved art form, we chat with Benjamin Ho, puppet master and artistic director of Paper Monkey Theatre, which won Best Production for the Young at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2017.

As part of Esplanade’s Moonfest – A Mid-Autumn Celebration, Paper Monkey Theatre has staged various productions in the past, including the award-winning The Magic Lantern in 2016 and The Magic Paintbrush in 2017.

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 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.

Puppeteers in action, manipulating Chinese rod puppets from behind a curtain

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.

Chinese hand puppets of the characters from The Magic Paintbrush

Tell us a little more about The Magic Paintbrush and the types of puppets that were used in the production.

The Magic Paintbrush is a fascinating tale about a poor orphan boy, Ma Liang, who owns a magic paintbrush that brings to life everything he paints. An evil emperor finds out about his magic paintbrush and makes him paint a mountain of gold and silver. Ma Liang refuses to give in to the emperor's demands but is threatened that his friends will be harmed. In the show, we used two kinds of puppetry – modern shadow puppetry and Chinese hand puppetry.

Modern shadow puppetry is different from traditional shadow puppetry. Traditional shadow puppetry originated from China but is the West that propelled it into the modern era. One big difference between the two is the light source – in the past the light source was an oil lamp. The other difference between the two is the material used to make the puppets. Modern shadow puppets are usually made from paper whereas the traditional ones are made from leather.

Another form of puppetry that was also used in The Magic Paintbrush is Bu Dai Xi, or Chinese hand puppetry. We used both traditional hand puppets from China and the modern and bigger ones from Taiwan. The latter is more lifelike than traditional ones.

Traditional Chinese glove puppetry or Bu Dai Xi

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.

What are some memorable reactions you have had from young audiences who attend your shows?

A mother once shared with me that she had to drag her son to our show as it was in Mandarin. To her surprise, the son responded well to the show and even asked the mother to buy the storybook in Mandarin for him.

Another unforgettable memory for me was of a father who had brought his daughter with autism to our show. After the show, he came up to me to apologise for his daughter’s outburst during the show. However, I shared with the father that I was observing his daughter’s reaction and noticed that she only cried out whenever the villain appears on stage – it was her way of responding to the show.

At the end of the day, seeing children getting excited as the story progresses still remains the most remarkable reaction for me.

Making use of modern shadow puppetry in a production by Paper Monkey Theatre

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.

What has winning the Best Production for the Young for The Magic Lantern at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards 2017 meant for you and the company?

It was indeed recognition by the industry for what I do and believe in – to create quality theatre for the young. Paper Monkey Theatre will continue to push boundaries to provide good quality theatre for the young.