Atlanta and Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, have been Sister Cities for 40 years and have enjoyed both cultural and business ties. But this weekend that relationship is expanding into heart-to-heart diplomacy, going beyond just soft or economic power, with the arrival of the master glove puppeteer Chen His-huang at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
At age 89, Mr. Chen embodies the glove puppet tradition as a fifth generation puppeteer who formed his own company, the Chen Hsi-Huang Glove Puppet Theater Troupe in 2008 with the purpose of preserving and further developing the skills which have enthralled the Taiwanese for decades.
Before the era of television or the internet, Taiwanese had few sources of entertainment other than local puppet theaters. Raised on puppet shows performed in front of temples as children, they were used to having the puppeteers implore the gods to learn what they wanted to hear and see.
The puppet troupes would have to bring all the props for each of their shows, not knowing which ones the gods would desire. Meanwhile, once the shows began, the children as well as adults would be enthralled with every gesture and enraptured by how the puppets managed to capture the postures, movements and sounds of real people.
Underlying the tradition were an assemblage of skills requiring imagination and wit, much like actors who perform in today’s improv theaters, with the story telling skills of the performers actually being more important than the ability to manipulate the puppets.
For instance, directions for an interchange between two puppets might be just “two puppets talking” and the puppeteers would have to create the dialogue as they created the movements of the puppets and advanced the story line.
With the extraordinary pace of modernization in the second half of the 20th century, however, Taiwanese culture changed rapidly including the loss of the local dialect in which the story telling was done. The emphasis then became more of a “karaoke” practice where the puppeteers would have memorized set routines.
Mr. Chen, who had learned his art by carefully watching his father, who had learned from preceding generations, was profoundly affected by the changes brought about by modern lifestyles. In the 1980s he decided that his personal mission should be to preserve the traditions as best he could through teaching.
He told Global Atlanta during an interview at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Midtown after a more than 20-hour plane trip that he learned the value of performing silently because of his demonstrations in front of deaf and disabled children.
Today Mr. Chen is considered by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture as “a living national treasure” because of his mastery of the skills necessary to make the puppets experience human movements and emotions.
Now that the emphasis is more on the handling of the puppets, the glove puppets must be able to express the stories through their movements, placing enormous demands on the skills of the puppeteers.
The Taiwanese government has recognized Mr. Chen’s skill as a glove puppeteer and also as a creator of glove puppets to such an extent that two students every year are allowed to follow his teachings instead of attending high school.
Although they can learn a lot in four years, Mr. Chen said that many years are required to develop real mastery, and he hopes that the appreciation for glove puppets and the skills to bring them alive will reach beyond Taiwan’s borders.
For this reason, he already has performed in more than 30 countries. This visit to Atlanta in celebration of the 40-year relationship, however, is limited to this weekend, June 15-16, and he is to return home afterwards.
Titled “A Chance Encounter” the scheduled performances are to be stories related to a student who rescues a young lady from a gang of hoodlums, enabling a display of the personalities of the characters and their relationships with one another. In addition to the puppeteers, the performances are to be accompanies by five musicians playing traditional instruments, and Mr. Chen will be available to answer questions from the audience afterwards.
The Sunday performance on June 16 is already sold out, but the Saturday shows at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. still have available seats. The ticket prices vary ranging from $25 to $35 and are available for purchase online or by calling 404 873 3391.
The tickets include admission to the performance and the World of Puppetry Museum with the largest collection of Jim Henson puppets and artifacts in the world as well as a Global Gallery. As a special gift celebrating the 40-year relationship, Mr. Chen is donating to the Center for Puppetry Arts two of his handmade puppets.
The performances are sponsored in part by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, the Taiwan Academy of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States and TECO Atlanta.