Original puppet theatre collaboration The Shank’s Mare to premiere on April 10

Assistant director and MFA Theatre student Josh RiceSarah Lawrence College premieres The Shank’s Mare on April 10, the result of collaboration between renowned Japanese puppet master Koryu Nishikawa and Sarah Lawrence faculty member Tom Lee. The piece will combine traditional Japanese puppetry forms sanninzukkai (three person puppetry) and Kuruma Ningyo (cart puppetry) with live-feed video projection. Graduate student and assistant director Josh Rice describes the experience as a chance to learn from and perform with two masters of puppetry: “it’s exciting to be able to blend a traditional Japanese form with contemporary technology, like the live feed we’ll use. We’ll project the [set] miniatures in real time, and be able to manipulate the environment in front of the audience.”

Rehearsals also blend the old and the new—with the puppets and stage built in New York, the students tape their rehearsals and send the links on YouTube to Japan. Nishikawa views the video and sends back his comments and edits. Shank’s Mare takes its name from a traditional theatre piece that follows two mischievous merchants as they travel from Edo to Osaka. Says Tom Lee: “It’s derived from older stories, but [it’s] our own creation. We want to explore the time it takes to journey by foot.” The plot of The Shank’s Mare is being developed through the conversations between Lee and Nishikawa—and as the students learn the limits of what each puppet is capable of—but the crux of the story will a follow an amateur astronomer and his apprentice on a journey through the countryside. “For me, what’s so exciting is that it tries to answer the question of where things come from—artistically, in your life… there’s an unbroken line of [puppetry] tradition in Japan that’s so incredible. In America, we have no tradition— [but] we have a freedom that traditional Japanese puppetry doesn’t have,” says Lee.

Nishikawa, declared an “Intangible Cultural Treasure” by the Japanese government for his work in continuing the Kuruma Ningyo tradition, and Lee first met in 2005 when Lee traveled to Japan as part of a TCG-ITI Career Development Grant. “Cart puppetry is traditionally taught by a master to an apprentice,” explains Rice. “This story follows a journey archetype: a generation passing its knowledge on. And this performance symbolizes a passing of the torch from Nishikawa to Tom.”

The puppets are built by hand using a combination of traditional materials, such as leather and cypress wood from Japan, along with foam and contemporary materials. Each requires three students to manipulate it: one for the head and right arm, one for the left arm and waist, and one for the feet. “This has been a course in creative problem solving,” laughs Rice. For example, the miniature set is built from what might otherwise be called scraps: grasses formed from paint bristles, trees built from wires and foam coat, buildings constructed out of cardboard. When the students began performing with the puppets, they realized the heads were too large, and needed to be resized. “It’s physically such a taxing form,” continues Rice. “We’re manipulating the puppets through gears, through direct manipulation with our hands. The cart tradition relies on the puppeteer using their toes to move the puppet … You have to keep the puppet alive at all times, which means you have to disappear. It’s not about me, it’s about the puppet.”

In addition to working on The Shank’s Mare with Lee and the student cast, Nishikawa will also teach a master class, open to graduate and undergraduate theatre students, while he is on campus. “As a teacher, to have my students and me be in the same rehearsal with and learn from someone like Nishikawa is amazing,” says Lee.

For more information or to reserve your seat for The Shank's Mare, please call (914) 395-2412.

Spotlight On:
Tom Lee, Theatre faculty

Tom LeeDespite performing at 15 in a Japanese-style puppet theatre called bunraku, Theatre guest faculty member Tom Lee says, “I didn’t equate puppetry as something I would do [professionally].” But then he moved to New York to pursue his theatre goals. While working at experimental theatre and cultural institution La MaMa in the East Village, “I saw people making puppet theatre…that was so personal and dealt with weighty subjects. It felt like a call back to my youth.” Today, Lee is known internationally for his work as a puppet artist, director, designer, and performer. He’s performed with La MaMa Experimental Theater around the world, including in Japan, Poland, Ukraine, Siberia, Italy, Austria and Greece; stateside, he was a member of the original Broadway cast of the Tony-award winning production of War Horse. “[Puppetry fills] my desire to build and design, and perform,” says Lee. “I can make something, and then perform with it.”

In 2003, Lee was awarded a TCG/ITI Career Development Program grant, which supports designers and directors; he traveled to Japan to see contemporary and traditional Japanese theatre, and to meet the men and women working in the puppet tradition there. During this trip he met Koryu Nishikawa, a fifth-generation master in the cart puppet tradition Kuruma Ningyo. Lee returned to Japan in 2010 for a residency at Nishikawa’s Hachiouji Kuruma Ningyo (cart puppet theatre company). They formed a creative partnership, which has led to their current collaboration: The Shank’s Mare. “It explores the ideas of a life journey-- it’s like a puppet road movie.” It’s also the continuation of a long exposure for Lee to Asian American art forms and traditions. “I grew up in Hawai’i… by virtue of living there I was exposed to interesting Asian American theatre, like noh, kabuki, Indonesian shadow puppetry…”

That appreciation for the various forms of puppet theatre meant that teaching at Sarah Lawrence felt a bit like a homecoming for Lee. “Sarah Lawrence is a natural, wonderful place to be for puppetry,” he says. “And Sarah Lawrence is unique because so many people have gone on to perform professionally [as puppeteers].”