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Field Lab: Pulling Strings in Myanmar

Professor Drew Kahn’s Introduction to World Theatre class had the opportunity to examine a unique style of theatre while in Myanmar, traditional Burmese puppetry. Professor Kahn explained to his class, “Theatre is a reflection of society.” In Myanmar, puppetry has a long history and was used not only as entertainment for the royal courts, but as a way to give social commentary. When the people weren’t allowed to have a voice, messages and opinions could be delivered through the stories of the puppets.

Although Burmese puppetry is no longer performed for royal courts, puppetry troupes such as Htwe Oo Myanmar¬†continue to maintain the tradition of their craft by staging shows for tourists and at pagoda festivals. Professor Kahn’s class was able to spend a day with the director of the puppet troupe, Khin Maung Htwe, and other master puppeteers observing how puppets are made, learning how to control a puppet, and watching a professional puppet show. Students discovered that every aspect of the art form of puppetry was intricate and deliberate, from colors and clothing to gestures and music. They would use these observations to help influence the final theatrical pieces they are putting together for the class back on the MV Explorer.

The heads and body parts of the puppets are hand carved using a mallet and chisels. Sein Aye Myint (left) continues the tradition of his father, also a puppet master, and can carve each of the characters from memory. Traditionally yamane wood (beechwood), considered holy and once used to carve the thrones of Burmese kings, is used to make the puppets but now teak is often substituted. The elaborate and intricate clothing is hand stitched (right) and then sewn onto the finalized puppet body.
After the body pieces are completed, they are joined to each other with string (left) and then wrapped with cotton cloth to allow for flexibility of the limbs. Puppeteers Cho Cho San and Tin Tin Oo move their hands artfully to control the strings and the H-shaped wooden jack of a puppet (right).
Sarah Miller from the University of Rhode Island takes a closer look at a completed puppet. The Htwe Oo Myanmar puppets range from 25-28 inches in height.
The class spent the day learning about puppetry at the House of Memories, a historical villa that now serves as a restaurant and museum (left). One room in the former villa was once used for secret meetings by General Aung San. John Redmond from DePaul University tries his hand at maneuvering a puppet (right).
All of the puppets for Htwe Oo Myanmar’s puppet show are carefully arranged backstage before the performance. Keinra, the half-bird, half-human character is on the left and characters from the music troupe are on the right. In traditional Burmese puppetry there are 28 figures, but modern stories have grown to include more characters.
Rodrigo Pinera from the University of Texas San Antonio, Angelique Ward from Ithaca College (center), and the other students in Professor Kahn’s class all had the opportunity to pair with a master puppeteer to learn how to maneuver the puppets.
The jungle ogre character, Taw Ba-lu, is decorated with colorful sequins on his face and clothing (left). Allegra Rumbough from Colorado College shares a laugh with Sein Aye Myint as she discovers that making the puppets dance is much harder than it looks as she moves the Royal Page Boy, or Tha-nge-taw, character (right).
Professor Kahn learns how to control the puppet from director Khin Maung Htwe’s ten-year old son Thet Paing Htwe Oo.
The puppeteers stand barefoot behind a curtain on the stage where the puppets perform. Here the Hand Maiden character, Ah-pyo-taw, dances for the crowd.
The students watched a shortened version of the puppet show. Regularly puppet shows, most often performed at pagoda festivals, start late at night, last for over three hours, and are accompanied by a live orchestra.
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