Friday, January 2, 2009

Joe Louis Thai Puppet Theatre. A second visit.

The new visa regulations set in China in the run up to the Olympic Games forced me this July 2008 to travel suddenly to Thailand; I was a few days in Bangkok trying to get my papers in order as soon as possible and continue my stay in China . Of course, I also took the opportunity of the trip to make a second visit to Joe Louis Puppet Theater, see again its staging of the plays and calmly take a few pictures of his collection of puppets on permanent on display.

The company

Two years after my first visit I could verify my observations (expressed in my posting of June 17, 2008: Nattayasal Hun Lakhon lek: Joe Louis Puppet theatre of Thailand) on the importance of the puppet theater of Joe Louis and his role as classical theater in Thailand, Asia and the world. I verified the permanence of its codification, of its dramatic structure and of its staging, as well as the quality of the interpretation.

The first time I was there, in December 2006, we were informed that Joe Louis was ill and that he would not be able to attend the theater to see the work of his company or to greet people as customary. Joe Louis died in May 2007.

In mid-2006 the company took the global prize for puppet theater in Prague, Czech Republic. Although it was an important prize that placed them on an international level, the demise of Joe Louis a year later brought to the company problems and challenges to its survival.

Apparently the living figure of Joe Louis in Thailand lent a big weight to his work and continued support to his work; once he passed away such support has been increasingly difficult to achieve and I understand that the theater today is in danger of disappearing due to the construction of a shopping mall in the land they occupy; construction plans are imminent and so far the construction company and the theater have not been able to reach an understanding to designate a space for the theater inside the mall.

The performances

Joe Louis conceived his puppet theater by following a classical structure with elements of the most respected traditional theater in Thailand, Khon, but including modern stage elements; and so we can see in their performances both video and background sound, photographs and the use of modern materials (such as plastic and foam) in the construction of some puppets; smoke machines, for example, are used for the mystical atmosphere of certain scenes.

His position was open to the idea of spectacle and public attention, leading him to create a performance structure with a certain uniqueness, which I define in a few points:

- The performances are of a strong educative style and are directed mainly to tourism.

- Before each performance a video documentary presents the history of both the theater of Joe Louis as well as of Thai puppets;

- An explanation-demonstration (in Thai and English) of the origin of the dance of the puppeteers and the puppets themselves, and of the origin of the stories that will be told in the piece to come, is staged

- The representation itself, with all the elements of the Thai stage culture, takes about an hour.

- Once the performance is over, some playful interaction (which has nothing to do with the piece represented) with the spectator takes place: they play with the spectators, give them kisses, hide objects, and so on.

All these elements, unrelated to the piece of art itself but necessary for the functioning of the physical theater, provoked in me (having seen him for the second time) a certain weariness and disappointment that vanished only during the course of the representation of the piece.

The play represented is the same that I saw two years ago, "The Myth of Rahoo and the lunar eclipse." Although the Joe Louis theater has other plays ( "Mayarap" and "The Birth of Sudsakorn," among others), they show none of them but only "The Myth of Rahoo ...", dedicated to tourists.

The company does not appear to have a project to create a group of connoisseurs or followers of their work, I noticed that, on the contrary, they are not open to research, analysis and criticism. Apparently they do not have a plan to deepen their creative work, or at least there are no conditions to implement it. With the exception of a few books and printed newsletters, actual information is scarce, with most of these booklets devoted to recounting the legendary story of Joe Louis’s puppets.

I see in all this a threat of extinction, because the creative movement of their teacher has been stalled and its evolution halted. With Joe Louis dead, his heirs are apparently trying to survive in the chaos of loss with just what they inherited.

Puppet Gallery

Before the performance one can take a stroll through the corridors of the theater and find a gallery-museum where they have on permanent display about twenty puppets (medium sized) and masks built by Joe Louis. The exhibit is interesting, the work is truly beautiful. We have the opportunity to meet Joe Louis, as he’s been immortalized as a wax figure (of sorts) in which we see him handling one of his dolls.


It's a real shame to see the fragility with which the company maintains itself at both the physical and aesthetic levels, and I do not know how far it'll be able to stay and, furthermore, evolve.

There will be time to return in a few years and discover the path that helped them to continue their "revolution" or the path that led them to disappear.

Joe Louis Pupet Theatre Web site:

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