Myanmar marionettes in transition A caleidoscope of puppets and figures

Pieces of Mind
© Anne Klatt

Last November, the Goethe-Institut invited the German contemporary puppet artist Anne Klatt to hold a workshop with traditional Myanmar puppetry students and alumni from the Universities of Arts and Culture in Yangon and Mandalay. Over the course of three weeks they explored the boundaries and possibilities which emerge in the intersection between humans and objects.

Myanmar traditional marionettes Traditional Burmese marionettes | © Saw Oo Puppet theatre is one of the oldest cultural forms of expression in Burmese tradition. It has produced styles and contents which represent an original contribution to the large variety of similar traditions in South-East Asia. The first documents of the Burmese marionette theatre, Yoketay Thabin, stem from 1444, and it truly flourished during the Konyong period (1752-1885). It was considered a highly esteemed art and was a central part of the entertainment at the royal courts, where up to 40 artists would be on stage during a performance, accompanied by a Hsaing Waing orchestra. At the same time puppet theatre was also a popular spectacle for ordinary people, which could not be missing at the big festivities in cities and villages. Every year countless marionette ensembles travelled across the country with their mobile stages. Their performances were not only a contribution to the entertainment of young and old alike, but were also a crucial medium for the spreading of news and served as a commentary on national events and politics. Puppetry was thereby a humorous mirror held in the face of the mighty and powerful. It represented a platform for addressing issues which carried too much political risk if uttered by individuals in everyday situations.

After the Second World War, puppet theatre in Myanmar went through an existential crisis, suffering a lack of recruitment in a period marked by decolonisation, internal conflicts, and faced with the competition of modern entertainment media such as cinema and the TV. This was followed by decades of military dictatorship marked by a notorious refusal of modern arts and culture. With the rise of the military junta, puppetry’s function as a popular outlet for political critique was severely curtailed by increased restrictions on improvised dialogue, curfews and strict censorship.

The late 80s saw a resurgence of the puppet theatre, but in a new context. The establishment of the University of Fine Arts in 1993 under the Ministry of Culture ensured a continuation of the art and provided a platform for research and training. However, it clearly served the nationalistic and anti-imperialistic aims of the military junta in the face of Western cultural influence, encouraging the students to turn to a glorified, prosperous past to develop this traditional Burmese art.

Marionettes as a souvenir Marionettes as a souvenir | © Carsten Klink Today few good ensembles are left in Myanmar. With its problematic associations to the country’s recent military past and deprived of its initial important social role, puppetry is withering away into a folkloristic attraction for tourists, who understand little of the performances in hotels and leftover theatres (mainly in Mandalay), with a keener interest in purchasing copies of the neat old Burmese marionettes to take home as souvenirs.

The art of puppetry in Myanmar thus finds itself in an awkward position, first artificially sustained by a nationalistic military government, and now by consumer tourism. As a representative of the national heritage in a country still trying to articulate its national identity and asserting its place within a global culture, this traditional art form is struggling to adapt to this new, contemporary context.
Figure theatre - Two balls become human An example of figure theatre: two balls become human | © Anne Klatt The traditional puppet theatre in Europe suffered a similar crisis in the post-war years. However, in the past few decades the art form has celebrated a downright renaissance. From the conventional puppetry the modern and diverse so called “figure theatre” was developed, utilising new materials and shapes, innovative choreographies, novel lighting- and sound effects, and above all developing themes and contents which target and catch the attention of young people. In many European countries such recommencements emerged from the good old puppet theatre, and have again carved a secure niche alongside the “big” theatre for this art which was once threatened by extinction.

Under the current circumstances in Myanmar it seems improbable that a similar renaissance of the traditional marionette theatre will take place in the immediate future. Hence, a more natural approach close at hand is to inspire such innovations of the old art through impulses from the outside. In recent years there have been several initiatives aimed in this direction. The Goethe-Institut has continued these efforts and invited international artists, such as Anne Klatt, to work together with traditional puppeteers in Myanmar.  

Pieces of Mind - Shadow Scene from "Pieces of Mind" | © Anne Klatt After three weeks of exploring new methods and materials, reflecting and experimenting, the university students gave three performances of their production “Pieces of Mind” in the intimate theatre space at the Chin Tsong Palace to an audience of international and local spectators. Enchanting both young and old, this was a truly memorable and unique performance hitherto unseen in Myanmar. In a scenic kaleidoscope the students, using not marionettes, but everyday materials, took the audience on a dreamlike journey into a fantastic world in which figures, movement and drama were brought together in a visual narrative where words are superfluous.

Puppeteers have the ability to bridge the gap between what is real and unreal, allowing them, today just as several centuries ago, to address and enact things which live actors cannot. Through this workshop, and future projects of international cooperation between puppet artists, the Goethe-Institut hopes to create a platform for cultural inspiration and dialogue, to bridge the generational and cultural gap created by historical, social and political circumstances, and to once again establish puppet theatre as a source of pride and entertainment, both domestically and abroad.