[Theatre Review] Puppet Origin Stories by The Finger Players: Of Remembrance and Reïnvention

Courtesy of The Finger Players / Photo: Tuckys Photography

Puppet Origin Stories
The Finger Players
9 November 2022
One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre
9–13 November 2022

The site of Cairnhill Arts Centre was originally an estate surrounded by nutmeg plantations. The building was also once Anglo-Chinese School and the Teachers’ Training College, among other things.

I am aware of those facts not because I am well-versed in local history, but it was shared with us by the co-artistic directors of The Finger Players, Ellison Tan and Myra Loke, as the prelude to Puppet Origin Stories, a triple bill of performances by artists from various disciplines using puppets from the company’s repository.

With that rather surprising prologue, Puppet Origin Stories is more than a puppetry experimentation or reïnvention; it is also about remembrance and the company’s way of looking back at its history. 

Remembrance and reïnvention are present in all three works.

Chai Jean Yinn as Shadow (left) while Liew Jia Yi manipulates Peng (right) / Photo: Tuckys Photography

In “Jabber”, movement artist Hairi Cromo takes his childhood experiences and creates a piece whereby a boy interacts with a strange creature, which is a physical manifestation of his unresolved feelings. 

Liew Jia Yi deftly handles Peng, the puppet of the boy, by slipping into his feet like slippers while manipulating his hands and head through the rods attached to them. Liew’s movement work is quite detailed as she successfully creates nuances in the boy’s movements such as creating the illusion of distance as the boy greets his friends when they pass him by in school.

Chai Jean Yinn plays the teacher, who strips the boy of his prefect position after he was caught playing a fool in class, and the amorphous creature, Shadow, that haunts the boy. The former is portrayed by wearing a mask, while the latter is portrayed by Chai wearing a headscarf made from different cloths and an oval cookie tin for a face.

Apart from the sweeping movements which creates a ghost-like quality in the creature, Chai also haunts the boy by collapsing her body which lends the creature an amorphous quality.

While one can see the resemblances to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which is one of the main inspirations for the piece, it does not have enough thrust in which the boy is working through his feelings. As it stands the boy has a slight revelation and asks the creature to leave him. 

One hopes that this piece will be developed further in future and, if it could really tell the story from the boy’s point of view, it will fulfil the main goal of emphasising the importance of adult’s acknowledging the feelings of children.

Tan Beng Tian visits Ah Ma (handled by Yazid Jalil) in a museum / Photo: Tuckys Photography

“AH MA” by film-maker Tan Wei Ting remembers the past and invents a (hopefully) fictional future when puppetry is no longer practised, and it exists only as artefacts inside a museum display. A puppet, Ah Ma, is chosen to be preserved, but when Tan Beng Tian realises that Ah Ma is unhappy, a museum heist ensues.

Ah Ma is a rod puppet created for A.i.D, Angels in Disguise (2010). As she is suffering from dementia in the original production, she has a jewel inside her head that represents her memories. With a flick, expertly done by a puppeteer, the jewel is flung out, and Ah Ma loses her memories.

The theme of remembrance manifests in many ways. In the context of the piece, will we suffer a kind of cultural dementia as our performance practices die out from the lack of support? Are we truly remembering a performance tradition if it is no longer practised? Is curation a kind of reïnvention?

Tan Wei Ting traverses the past and the imagined future through the interplay of archival footage of A.i.D and having Tan Beng Tian—veteran puppeteer who was involved in handling Ah Ma in A.i.D, and has been with The Finger Players since the beginning—perform in the piece as she navigates a world in which puppetry is dead.

Yazid Jalil doubles up as the bureaucratic curator and the grumpy, but sympathetic security guard who assists in the heist. He displays versatility in both puppetry work and acting as he has to switch characters at a (sometimes literal) drop of a cap.

The duo also showcased some sensitive puppeteering. As the lines of Ah Ma are delivered through a voiceover, the timing has to be absolutely right with details such as breathing or crying added in.

Apart from a sense of poignancy, there is also a sense of child-like playfulness. While Ah Ma steals the show, there is also some—for a lack of a better term— “informal puppetry” going on. 

Tan would sometimes hold and move the curator’s spectacles or security guard’s cap while Yazid delivers his lines before quickly changing characters. This harkens back to the games of make-believe we play as children—perhaps carelessly moving a soft toy while giving it voices might be our very first contact with puppetry.

Mitchell Fang (left) and Deonn Yang (right) handle Moon Baby as it stands on the body of Becca D’Bus / Photo: Tuckys Photography

In line with the provocative title, “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, drag queen Becca D’Bus does not hold back and questions the premise of the whole endeavour. In her first monologue of the piece, she asks what is there to remember for a company with slightly over 20 years of history, and suggests that something only has monetary value if it has a history. 

While that might be incredibly cynical, one cannot help but wonder if there is a kernel of truth when most arts companies are so reliant on state funding, and they have to constantly justify their value to stay afloat.

Beyond the usual drag act of lip-syncing to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, the provocation continues in a pastiche of scenes with different puppets. 

In one scene we see Moon Baby hiking up Bukit Timah Hill, represented by the contours of D’Bus’ corseted body. In the course of people-watching, a taxonomy of hikers is created, as Moon Baby wonders about human behaviour and the image that we are trying to portray to others.

In another scene, we see Sponge Girl inadvertently hooking up with Samsui Woman. And we soon see both puppets laying on top of each other while Deonn Yang and Mitchell Fang, who are in full drag, create sound effects that suggest copulation.

In most puppetry traditions, the puppets are often seen as performers themselves and are often treated with a sense of reverence. As such, it might be initially uncomfortable to see the puppets in this new context, which veers into the profane. 

But it is the same reverence that allows us to imbue them with human qualities, and the provocation soon becomes an exploration of human frailties and desire.  

One leaves the piece unsure of what one has just witnessed, but there is a tacit understanding of the need for human connection. 

With Puppet Origin Stories set to be a yearly fixture, the premise and overall direction of the first instalment is a good start. I cannot wait to see how this platform evolves in years to come. 

Other Reviews

Theatre review: Open-ended challenges in Puppet Origin Stories that linger” by Charmaine Lim, The Straits Times Life! (Review is behind a paywall.)

“关于守护的问题——观 ‘Puppet Origin Stories'” by 杨明慧, 剧读 thea.preter

到经禧艺术中心作客—— 观《偶起源故事@126》” by 梁海彬, 剧读 thea.preter

Further Reading

[Interview] Puppet Origin Stories: Same Puppets, New Stories — My interview with the creators of the pieces.

Digital Programme of Puppet Origin Stories

Puppet Origin Stories: Peng — An article about how Peng, which is featured in “Jabber”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stores: Faceless Maiden — An article about how Faceless Maiden, which is featured in “Jabber”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Ah Ma — An article about how Ah Ma, which is featured in “AH MA”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Moon Baby — An article about how Moon Baby, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stores: Sponge Girl — An article about how Sponge Girl, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

Puppet Origin Stories: Samsui Women — An article about how Samsui Woman, which is featured in “Suck Sweat Dry, Baby!”, came to be.

[Interview] Puppet Origin Stories: Same Puppets, New Stories

L-R: Becca D’Bus (drag queen), Tan Wei Ting (film-maker), and Hairi Cromo (movement artist) / Photo courtesy of The Finger Players

As a company known for including puppets in its productions, The Finger Players has amassed an impressive collection of puppets. However, most contemporary puppets are created specifically for a production and are almost never used once the show is over.

In recent years, The Finger Players has been looking into sustainability in puppetry through programmes such as The Maker’s Lab. In its latest production, Puppet Origin Stories, co-artistic directors Ellison Tan Yuyang and Myra Loke invited three artists from various disciplines to breathe new life into the puppets and tell new stories.

I interviewed Becca D’Bus (drag queen), Tan Wei Ting (film-maker), and Hairi Cromo (movement artist) to find out more about their relationship with puppets and inspiration for their pieces.

Prior to this production, what does puppetry mean to you?

Becca: I grew up watching Sesame Street and listening to Victor Khoo and Charlie, so puppets have always been magical and fun for me. Later, I participated in my first protest action when I was in college in Boston mostly because it offered me an opportunity to operate a giant puppet down the street. For the most part, puppetry is not something I’m great at; I lack the hand-eye coordination. 

Hairi: To me, puppetry is magic. Puppetry has the power to create illusions by bringing to life the inanimate and the imagination.

Wei Ting: Before this production, I feel like I haven’t had enough of an encounter with puppetry to give it any real thought. I did watch many of The Finger Players’ shows because I am quite a fan of their works.

Becca D’Bus, Deonn Yang, and Mitchell Fang will perform in Suck Sweat Dry, Baby! by Becca D’Bus

What inspired you to create your piece?

Becca:  I fear that as a queer person, I live in a moment where we are not imagining hard enough and are insufficiently ambitious in what we want for ourselves, and I include myself in this. Suck Sweat Dry, Baby! is my attempt to paint a picture of what it feels like to be in this moment. 

Hairi: Jabber is inspired by my own childhood struggles. Upon recent reflection, I have recognised as an adult that these childhood experiences have affected me and my sense of self. This piece is in some part an attempt at coming to terms with these reflections, but ultimately it is inspired by the desire to have the emotional struggles of children be heard and validated by adults that would eventually help them overcome their insecurities. 

Wei Ting: At the start of the project, Myra and Ellison brought the three artists together to share with us all the puppets that we could choose from which are part of the Puppet Origin Stories. I remembered vividly that they laid out what looked like 20-30 puppets, and spent the first hour (or two) telling us the backstory of every puppet: how they were made, what shows were they part of, etc. Throughout the briefing, all I could think of was: “Can I play already?” That was the genesis of this piece.

It further crystallised when I met Tan Beng Tian for an interview. Beng Tian is the puppeteer who first worked with AH MA (the puppet I chose), and is who AH MA is sculpted after too. At the very end of the chat, I asked Beng Tian: “If you were a puppet, what puppet would you be?” At first, she said, “I think I will be a traditional puppet, so I can be preserved eternally in the museum.” She then quickly changed her mind and said “No! No! I think I want to be a contemporary puppet, so I can always be moving.” I think this piece, AH MA, is pretty much inspired by her.

The puppets used were created for previous productions by The Finger Players. Which puppets have you chosen for your piece and why?

Becca: I picked Samsui Woman, Sponge Girl and Moon Baby. I was looking for an incompatibility of size and aesthetic, and I liked the idea of puppets without faces. In part because I knew that they would appear in a VERY different context than their debuts. 

Hairi: I chose Peng and Faceless Maiden. I was the puppeteer of Peng in a recent performance by The Finger Players and have an understanding of the capabilities and potential of the puppet. Thus, I would like to explore him further.

As for Faceless Maiden, I have never manipulated a puppet of such a structure before. I was intrigued by its possibilities, particularly with my intention to include movement and dance elements in my process. I felt she would be an interesting tool to incorporate into the exploration of body physicality. 

Wei Ting: I chose a rod puppet, her name is AH MA. She is very fun to play with. She has this piece of thing in her head, when she drops it accidentally, she will temporarily forget parts of her memories. She was designed for a community show (A.i.D, Angels in Disguise) as a character who lives with Dementia. 

I initially chose it because I read that she was sculpted after the likes of Beng Tian, who is an actor-puppeteer whose craft I respect and admire a lot. After talking to Beng Tian and finding out more about her relationship with puppets and her journey as a puppeteer, I eventually wrote Beng Tian into the play, which she then graced with her presence as one of the performers of the piece!

Tan Beng Tian and Yazid Jalil will perform in AH MA by Tan Wei Ting

How has the process on working on this piece made you look anew at puppetry, as well as inform you about your own artistic discipline?

Becca: Before working on the show, I don’t think I had strong views about puppetry. Now, working with puppets has made me think about drag and performance-making in terms of images a lot more. 

Hairi: Often in puppetry, the puppeteer serves mainly to manipulate the puppet. In this process I have attempted to activate the actors’ bodies in their own right, thus having their physicality and physical expressions become an extension of the puppets’ characters and expand the breadth of the performance as a whole. 

The process has also impacted my practice particularly in the area of generating movement. Usually, I improvise through gestures and viewpoints, but this work has allowed me to think more about text and dialogue as jumping-off points for movement improvisations.

Wei Ting:  Puppetry to me is the inner child in all of us. That imagination that we all had (and hopefully still have) when we made our favourite toys come alive for the first time without ever needing to be taught how to! It’s an art as much as it’s an instinct.

AH MA is my first attempt to play with the theatre medium, which I find really fun. As a filmmaker, I sometimes find it harder to play because the end result is a fixed piece of work that is sealed in time. I’m a terrible perfectionist, and I tend to craft every little detail of it in post-production, which can be rewarding in terms of artistic control. AH MA gives me that liberation to really enjoy the process because the end show is not within my control. Every show is a little different, and in every show and rehearsal, the performers, stage management team, and I would think even AH MA, bring something a little different each time, keeping each encounter and experience alive. 

I think this liberation is something I will bring along with me after this piece ends its course.

Liew Jia Yi and Chai Jean Yinn will perform in Jabber by Hairi Cromo

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

Becca: That I might be allergic to dust. Also, I can look quite booby!

Hairi: The entire process is one big interesting discovery! As this is my first attempt to both write and direct my own work, every step is a first step and an opportunity of learning.

Wei Ting: Yes. So many that I don’t know where to begin. But I think they are more in relation to the background that I come from. 

I think the purpose of film and theatre are very similar, which is to tell stories. One happens on stage, one happens on screen. But the way of working within the creation process is drastically different. When I make a film, I often have to carry the project all the way from start to end myself. I pick up many collaborators along the way, they add a little something to the story, most of them don’t ever meet each other, and I continue on to the next phase with the project myself. Mostly, I start and end the filmmaking process myself.

But in theatre, it is a lot more collaborative. Once you hand the show over to the actors and the stage management team, they are the ones meeting the audience every night and theatre happens in that space every night without you. Even when you are there, you are not a contributor to the piece, but just an audience. I feel much more like a midwife in this process! And my role is to create a creative environment for everyone to tell this story together. It can only be done together, there isn’t any other way, which, honestly, is really, really nice. 


Catch It!

Puppet Origin Stories will run from 9 to 13 November 2022 at One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre

[Theatre Review] No Disaster on This Land by The Finger Players — What disaster? What land?

Hairi Cromo as Table Boy and Vanessa Toh as Debris Girl / Photo: Tuckys Photography

No Disaster on This Land

The Finger Players

25 February 2022

Drama Centre Black Box

24–27 February 2022

In its bid to place the process of puppetry construction at the forefront, The Finger Players decided to create No Disaster on This Land around the puppets crafted by Loo An Ni during her stint with The Maker’s Lab

The production is helmed by the co-artistic directors of the company as Myra Loke directs, while Ellison Tan came up with the general narrative through a workshopping process.

The two puppets featured are Table Boy and Debris Girl. Loo wanted to work on exoskeletons and a modular system which would allow one to easily make modifications to a base structure. This prevents wastage from creating a completely new puppet for every show. 

Both puppets have an exoskeleton with aluminium extensions. For Table Boy, different table legs are attached all along the extensions. For Debris Girl, intimations of flesh and concrete pieces are placed along the extensions. 

In the show, these two characters are placed in an apocalyptic scene with concrete bricks and a backdrop of a partial grid wall, as we see how they interact.

The information above was mostly gleaned from the digital programme booklet. The information that we should be getting from watching the production, however, is fuzzy. 

Who are the characters? What sort of world do they inhabit? Why are they there? These questions are hardly answered as we see two characters tentatively existing in the same space. 

Beyond the initial encounter, as the characters suss each other out, it is difficult to make out the dynamics of the relationship. What are they disagreeing about? How are these conflicts actually resolved? How did they fall in love? (I only know they fall in love because the synopsis mentions a “love story”.)

A love story? But how did it develop? / Photo: Tuckys Photography

What about the puppets themselves? Do we ignore the human puppeteers and take the built structure as characters? Or are the structures extensions of the puppeteers, and both man and mechanics form a creature?

Given the skeletal nature of the puppets, it would seem that the latter is the case. But what sort of creatures are they? What do the extensions do? Are they hands or do they have some sort of magical power? 

In terms of actual movements, the extensions are used to move the concrete bricks perfunctorily as the puppeteers still use their hands when not manipulating the extensions. 

To make matters worse, the general rigidity of straight aluminium rods for the extensions meant that there is a limit to what the puppeteers could do with them. In manipulating Table Boy, Hairi Cromo carries the structure like a shell. And the extension occasionally gets in the way of Vanessa Toh’s movement work as Debris Girl—she has to figure out how to tuck it away when she is on the floor. 

All these limitations mean that whatever metaphors or concepts that the show is trying to convey are not articulated clearly. For example, a baby doll and a cradle feature quite strongly in the show. Do they symbolise birth, rebirth, or a literal baby?

Despite all the flaws, there are a couple of lovely moments.

Lovely moments emanating from the anguish of Table Boy / Photo: Tuckys Photography

When we are first introduced to Table Boy we see Hairi Cromo seemingly struggling against the structure placed upon him. Despite the black box being a rather small space, the intensity of his physicality, coupled with the garish strains of the electric guitar and the distortion of Hairi’s voice provided by Ctrl Fre@k, amplifies the struggle to tectonic proportions.

In another moment of anguish later in the show, Hairi rears his puppet up like a pair of wings, and the table legs attached look as if they are floating above him. This seems to suggest a certain sense of implosion or disintegration. 

Unfortunately, those moments could not save the show that is vague in its intent and story-telling.

Further Reading

Interview with director, Myra Loke

Interview with Loo An Ni