On Wayang – My Life With Shadows
by Larry Reed
I have been an actor since kindergarten working professionally since high school. In college I studied film, photography and languages. I can’t remember when I first noticed shadows, but it was very early on. Growing up I spent a lot of time in the woods, imagining things. Once I woke up from a nap and found myself watching the shadow of a bug on a leaf, inches from my nose. My first photographs were of shadows in the snow.
In the early seventies I traveled to Indonesia. I wanted to go someplace that wasn't being ravaged by war or tourism. I had just graduated from film school, and I set off to the Far East, camera in hand. Within weeks my camera was stolen and I found myself in a small village, revising my plans.
I didn’t understand a word I heard. I was in audio space, watching energy flow around the room as people were talking. One night everyone set off in the dark through the rice paddies with flashlights blinking like fireflies. There was a cacophony of frogs, and distant music. We came upon a clearing filled with people crowded around a small screen with a flame behind it making flickering shadows. A single performer was manipulating scores of puppets, creating incredible sounds with his voice, leading the orchestra with a mallet in his foot, and making the audience laugh and cry.
Four years later I was back, sitting behind the screen next to the shadow master night after night, watching him perform, studying with him all day long. I began to understand how powerful mythology can be when it is alive to somebody. I learned music, singing and dance. I used a tape recorder to study the rhythms and inflections of the various characters, and once in a while I would be allowed to handle a puppet.
I found out that an Indonesian meaning for “shadow” is close to our idea of “imagination,” and that shadows are a link between the small world inside us and the larger outside world. In fact mythology functions as a kind of public dream that goes back to the beginning of humanity. It is a repository for deep information about the psyche. The language of mythology is close to the language of nature and has to do with reading signs and seeing relationships. When you bring a myth to life it has a power that goes beyond mere storytelling.
The plots for wayang are drawn from a Hindu myth about five brothers who are pitted against one hundred jealous cousins in a struggle for power involving gods, demons, magical weapons, and the inevitable beautiful princess. Performances are improvised following traditional strategies. The main characters speak an ancient language (Kawi), which is translated into the modern language for the audience through the mouths of servant and clown characters in the play. Popular performers continually invent new episodes and reframe old ones in contemporary terms.
The flame of an oil lamp casts flickering shadows of silhouette puppets onto a cloth screen. The crowd buzzes with anticipation heightened by the live gamelan music. There is the whole village attending. Philosophical sections for adults; slapsticks for the children that give the adults freedom to laugh like a child. And the romantic section for the teenagers at the edges of the crowd. People watch the play from the front, move around to watch from behind, or pull back to a refreshment stand for an overview.
Since the stories are improvised, even the most ancient story is new every night. One of the dalang’s skills is to understand the prevailing taste of each village. Some are excited by battle scenes; others want new stories. Others want comedy to be emphasized. Before the performance, dalang listens to the conversations of his hosts and will often incorporate what he hears into the show. If there is a problem to be addressed, he will do it through the characters in the show without naming names. My teacher said it is like putting out a whole lot of shoes and people will put their own feet into the ones that fit.
After returning from Bali in the late ’70s, I formed the first Western group to study and perform wayang. For Americans, this was a totally new type of theater experience. The required silence of a concert hall or theatre gives way here to a relaxed enjoyment and timeless sense of togetherness. A wayang performance is truly a social event. We performed in public parks, community organizations, churches, schools and universities around the country. Beyond presenting the little-known form of theatre from across the seas, we believed it was a living demonstration of the fundamental unities of the human spirit.
After 20 years of performing wayang, I began to think about ways to engage the American audience on a much deeper level. I wanted to give people a better sense of the mythological experience I witnessed in Bali. I wanted to give people an experience of their own mythology. Then I thought about Drive-in Movies – a modern shadow play for the village!
I challenged myself to integrate the traditional with the modern by experimenting with a variety of light sources and materials, and delving into history as it relates to shadows, cinema, and storytelling. After much experimentation (and many failures), I arrived at a style that I now describe as “live animation.” Using multiple electric light sources, this method orchestrates a team of shadowcasters projecting shadows of landscapes and puppets, and performing with masks to create cinematic effects live on a giant 15’ x 30’ screen.
In the process of developing this method, I wanted to carry over certain values from my Indonesian training: 1) the story is often told in more than one language; 2) the music is always live and able to respond to nightly differences; 3) the target audience is a “village” of people of all ages; and 4) there is a respect for tradition and a contemporary point of view. I quickly found out that this framework could be applied to any culture in the world - just like cinema.
After the technical and stylistic aspects of my work became firm, I turned ShadowLight Productions into a non-profit organization with the intent to make theater and video that would contribute to cross-cultural understanding. I am particularly interested in making works that can serve as a bridge between underserved groups and general populations by highlighting their languages, mythologies and music. For example, I created COYOTE’S JOURNEY (2000) with the Karuk and Hoopa tribes of Northern California and PORO OYNA (2014) with the Aynu tribe in Northern Japan. GHOSTS OF THE RIVER (2009) was our joint effort with playwright Octavio Solis and activist/artist Favianna Rodriguez to put a human face on the contentious US/Mexico border issues. I am always aware that I am working in a continuum that embraces the most ancient of forms and its modern permutations. It is my hope that my work provides opportunities for my collaborators and audiences to cross “borders” to new domains of cultural enrichment, social contemplation, artistic inspiration and mutual understanding.