Studying Indonesian Puppet Theater and how it influenced my work.

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Studying wayang at UCSC:

In 1989 I spent a year at the Theater Arts Department of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) and registered for the Post Graduate Certificate.

The first thing I fell in love with was the University logo:

It was not an animal that symbolizes power, such as a sea lion, but a humble slug. I knew I had arrived at a place where the atmosphere was friendly, and the campus was lovely, amidst high redwood trees. There I saw the real banana slugs. Smart guys, they go around slowly but steadily on the forest ground with no need to camouflage, showing their true color! Only a few outwit them.

The second thing I fell in love with were Kathy's Indonesian puppets.

Professor Kathy Foley was Provost at the Theater Department and when I told her I was a puppeteer she asked me if I knew anything about Indonesian puppetry. "No" I said.

"Come to my house" Kathy invited me and I could not believe my eyes. In front of me were the most beautiful puppets I had ever seen. "You can learn with me".

Kathy had studied wayang golek with one of the most famous Sundanese dhalangs ( narrator/puppeteer) Asep Sunandar Sunarya and become a dhalang herself ( one of the few non Indonesian dhalangs invited to perform in Indonesia!)

Indrajit, a character from the Ramayana.

Kathy taught me all about the traditional theater of Sunda, its social context, the structure of the shows, the roles of the "dhalang" (the narrator/ puppeteer) and clowns, how to move and dance the puppets, the unity of music, movement and text, and encouraged me to learn not only how to animate the puppets but to take Javanese dancing lessons as well. "To dance the puppets you must dance yourself" Kathy told me. I participated therefore in her class of Javanese dance.

I had to make flash cards with the pictures of about dozens of puppet heads of characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha and had to memorize them by heart!! I still remember a few.

Kathy gave me private lessons ( I was the only student learning puppetry!) often patiently grabbing my hands to make me feel the right way of moving the rods.

Part of the training included watching her perform. I followed her around Santa Cruz whenever Kathy herself was invited to do a wayang show.

I still remember my utter surprise when, in the mini-van driving to the place where soon she was to play, I asked her " What are you performing today?". Kathy answered: "I haven't yet decided". I could not believe my ears. "WHAT?" Me who spend months rehearsing my puppet shows before going public! Ten minutes before the show and Kathy does not know what she is going to do?

Kathy of course knew. She and Undang always prepared a few sentences with the basic structure of the show but not much more. Kathy was teaching me that in wayang there is no need for rehearsals. Since there are sound codes between the puppeteer and the master drummer and between him and the rest of the orchestra the dhalang can decide on the spot what music she/he needs for a specific moment of the show. The master drummer as well, just by seeing a puppet come to stage, knows the drumming for that specific character.

As part of the complex "puppetry/dance/music" training, I took lessons with Pak Undang Sumarna, master drummer and director of the UCSC gamelan ( the orchestra that accompanies wayang) who taught gamelan music. And had private lessons with another Indonesian master, Pak Nano S who taught me how to sing the mood songs that are an integral part of the performance. The songs were in kawi, ancient Indonesian, and I had no idea what I was saying." Just imitate him sing the mood songs. No questions about what they mean" Kathy told me. "They are passed from teacher to pupil and some dhalangs don't know themselves what they are saying". Of course I had to know, and Kathy later gave me later the "explanations".

In the course of the yearly program I had the chance to see dalang I Nyoman Sedana who came to UCSC, perform wayang kulit ( the traditional Indonesian Shadow Theater)

Kathy offered me to help as an assistant. Kathy was in charge of passing the puppets to the dhalang, and I had to take care that the oil lamp above our heads kept lit.

My own end of the program project was a performance of Sundanese wayang golek together with the UCSC gamelan students directed by Undang. I was the dhalang and had the honor to have my teacher Kathy sit next to me as my assistant! At least I could be sure of grabbing the right puppets.

I brought back to Israel a suitcase full of original wayang golek puppets and for several years performed "Hanuman's Jump" as part of the repertoire of the Train Theater of Jerusalem. Click here.

Influences on my work

The two dimensionality of wayang golek puppet theater had an impact on me. In its evolution from wayang beber the short, narrow area where the painted scrolls are held in position, has remained as the area for puppet action. The puppets move along a left to right axis, only the kayon moves in an upward downward axis.

Back in Israel, 2 years after my studies in Santa Cruz, I created a show about Louis Braille's desperate wish to read and write. He was blind and at his time blind kids were not accepted in schools. I knew I wanted to arrive at a per-form-ance, a form, which would reflect by way of materials, movements, colors, shapes, sounds etc. this idea of reading and writing.

I chose the materials one has on one's writing desk...regular A4 white common paper, pencils. For the puppets and scenery I would use black ink. I would make the images as simple as possible, with only the necessary marks needed to allow the audience to recognize at a glance a tree, a cloud, a child, a house. These few essential strokes would function like the letters of the alphabet, of easy recognition, with no decoration.

Soon other materials entered the work: papers of different qualities and colors for only one scene in which Louis recognizes the different people of his village. Chalk and pencils for the school scene etc.

What I realized much, much later is how many wayang elements entered my work:

1- I sat crossed legged on the stage. Around and at the back of me were the light dinners and the puppets and a painter's easel which had the scenery image. In front of me was the playing area, a box of about 1 m x 70 cm full of sand.

2- There was no back stage, everything was visible to the public. They could see all my movements, both acting characters and animating puppets and the technical movements such as turning around to pick a new puppet, or aside to work the light dimmers. It was all together a choreography in space where mainly the arms and hands worked touching and moving as when blind people read and write. As someone told me years ago in France, " ton jeu...c'est une écriture" ( your acting/play is like writing)

3- I wanted to leave the puppets flat, just 2D cutouts. But it made it hard to empathize with them. Just a small round head made all the difference. A thin wooden rod allowed me to move the head. I built a sand box and the sand allowed me to plant them with ease. I sat cross legged next to the sand box and as I was sitting everything I needed, from light dimmers to puppets had to be around me, close to my hand.

4- A comic figure, the Captain Charles Barbier, appeared unexpectedly. Colleagues had told me I needed to introduce him , how could he make sudden entry entry like that? I wanted it that way...just like the clowns in wayang suddenly come in. Of course in Indonesia everybody knows them, and here no one knew who the Captain was. But that become clear after a few minutes...

5- There was an unseen world I was referring to all the time during the show. That was the inner world of Louis Braille. How he saw or imagined what was going on around him. For that I used direct shadows, that is, the audience could see the paper figure which represented something in the real world and its shadow, representing Louis's inner mind.

5- It was the first time I played a narrator, not only acting the characters and manipulating the puppets. The stage is so small, there is no room for big sweeping actions. The puppets come in, have minimal movements on stage, and are planted in the sand forming a small tableaux, like an illustration in a book. The narrator introduces the next scene and just as a new illustration appears when we turn a page, a new tableau turns the page.

The materials were also from the world of books, of writing: chalk, pencils, paper. So, besides the story, the show had a level which worked as a metaphor for the acts of writing and reading.

About the Louis Braille show click here.


After learning about wayang, I started looking into other cultures with traditions of Painting and Performance or Picture Storytelling. And I created three shows in which my pictures are shadow pictures:

1- The Earthquake in Chile. Based on the story by Heinrich von Kleist. Click here.

2- The Cellist. Based on the biography of Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. Click here.

3- Amanili Sings. A Shadow Show based on a Mesopotamian lullaby. Click here.

In this last show I had a Tree of Life open the show, like the kayon and a clown figure, the old wise midwife Munawirtum, who speaks directly to the public explaining Akkadian words and phrases.

There was not one shadow screen, but many. Each scene had a screen which had immovable images as part of it and into which entered the colored shadow puppets.

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