By Zech Wheeler
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
While most Americans are familiar with the art of shadow puppetry, comparatively few are likely to have been exposed to the ancient art of Thai shadow puppetry, or Nang Talung.
“I was fortunate to discover that this form of puppet theater existed,” said Jim Lile, director and head of the theater department at Missouri Southern State University. “And that we could find this epic story by Sunthorn Phu, which was beloved in Thailand. There are several places where there are statues of these characters set up because they like these stories so well.”
The Missouri Southern Theatre Department will present “Phra Abhai Mani: A Thai Shadow Puppet Play” today and tomorrow in the Bud Walton Theatre.
Nang Talung originated in the southern part of Thailand around the 17th or 18th Century. Companies perform episodes taken from folk tales and the epic “Ramakien” or “Ramayana.”
The Southern production began as the focus of an independent study class. Students found a folk tale they adapted for a unique production.
“We studied the form, we read the novel, we selected the episodes that we wanted to dramatize,” Lile said. “The members of the class wrote the script, designed the puppets, built the puppets and are performing the puppets.”
Students augmented the script to make the show more relatable to an American audience, including their own touches and brand of humor.
“Not all of us are designers, not all of us are actors, not all of us are playwrights,” said Amber Julian, a senior theater major. “So this class gave us the opportunity to write dialogue, to design our own puppet, and there are four of us who are doing voice-overs. It gives all of us an opportunity to do each aspect of putting together a show.”
The project also offered a distinct way of studying Thai culture, which is the international theme at the university this semester.
“We learned so much about the culture, even just through the puppets,” said Taylor Haddad, freshman theater major. “We learned how they dress. We saw a dance video. We saw how they moved in performance. It was really interesting.”
While Haddad expressed some difficulty moving into such project as a freshman, she said that the experience has been enjoyable and educational.
“I think it’s just something that you wouldn’t expect,” Haddad said. “You’re being entertained by pieces of paper. You realize that in the beginning, but then you get involved with it, and then you forget that they’re just pieces of paper moving in front of a light. People get really entranced by it, even though they’re simple pieces of paper held with tape and string.”
While shadow puppetry is something of a novelty in the U.S., the people of Thailand take the age-old tradition very seriously.
“In the tradition of Nang Talung, it’s really very true that the character comes to life in the puppet,” Lile said. “So you treat the puppets with respect and care because effectively the person that you are representing is in that puppet.”
Lile said that the tradition is also full of superstition. Facing the theater west is said to invite negative spirits, so the screen for the performance was tilted northwest.
“I think our favorite (superstition) is if a rival company is performing anywhere in the neighborhood, your leader is obligated to say certain prayers to try and jinx their performance,” Lile said.
Want to go?
The Missouri Southern Theatre Department will present “Phra Abhai Mani: A Thai Shadow Puppet Play” at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday in the Bud Walton Theatre. Admission is free for MSSU students. Tickets cost $3 for adults and $1 for senior citizens. Details: 417-625-9393.