“Tape is the answer,” Ya Wen Chien laughed in an interview with The Daily Californian.
Feathers taped to cuts of blue plastic and tulle attached to scraps of recycled cardboard might look like garbage to the unacquainted eye. But once the lights are in place and the shadow puppeteers start moving, taped-together fragments transform into talking creatures and space adventurers exploring strange planets.
Chien and I Made Moja are the lead designers and shadow performers for “Sojourner ZY: An Asian American Science Fiction Fantasy.” Premiering March 2 at San Francisco’s Presidio Theater, the play intertwines the shadow puppetry of ShadowLight Productions and the invented instruments of Paul Dresher Ensemble. Experimenting with ways to visually portray the galactic voyage of spacecraft pilot ZY, Moja and Chien have found that mundane objects usually produce the most imaginative shadows.
“Sometimes simple cardboard looks really fun in the shadow,” Moja said, musing over the range of materials he’s used to handcraft shadow puppets. “The other day I brought in a special glove that looked nice for a hand bend, but the cardboard looked better. It’s more important how it looks on the screen, how the shadow casts.”
When one peeks behind the “Sojourner ZY” screen, a magical world unveils. Shadow puppeteers angle their bodies to manipulate deer puppets over their heads. Masked shadow performers enact video calls from separate planets. Voice actors morph their voices into various accents while musicians transform environments with the whistle of zinging arrows and the bubble of a liquid world.
“All the action, all the movement of the characters, is live,” Moja said, stressing the real-time performance behind shadow theater. “When you look from the audience, it looks like you’re watching a film.”
Large-scale cinematic shadow theater is nothing new to ShadowLight Productions. Trained as a “dalang,” or “shadow master,” “Sojourner ZY” director Larry Reed has been merging traditional Balinese shadow theater with film, theater and dance for decades. For this production, a new innovative layer was added to the mix: digital video backgrounds.
“It was like an accident. I haven’t done digital stuff for a long time. That was my degree,” Chien said. “On this project, we were thinking of a digital background, and next thing I know, I’m doing it.”
Digital technology also helped in the making of puppets. Many of the shadow puppet cut-outs were drawn using a vector file and printed with a laser cutter — a big feat considering Moja handmade over 1,000 puppets on a previous non-digital production to account for the wear and tear from repeated use. Despite the inconsistencies of printing, this system came in handy when creating numerous puppets of varying shapes and sizes.
“In a shadow with a light, you want to experiment with sharpness,” Chien explained. “If (a puppet) is too small, you will not be able to see it well. It’s blurry. Sometimes you need a bigger one, sometimes you need a small one.”
To create the main character ZY, Moja wears a mask that he chiseled by hand, using the entirety of his body to form the shadow of the space traveler. His background in Balinese dance and acting has helped him to stay mindful of spatial and body awareness, consciously keeping his body parallel with the screen so that his shadow doesn’t collapse into a thin line.
“It’s a totally weird way to move,” Moja expressed while he and Chien demonstrated how unnatural body positions and slow gestures are key to casting clear shadows. “It’s not just shaking the puppet. It’s knowing how to turn it, how to walk and how to respond — there’s a lot of practice in doing it.”
Although Moja is the shadow performer behind ZY, he’s not the only one bringing the space traveler to life. As Moja moves, voice actor Gianni Piña speaks the character’s lines while the digitized background and live music from Paul Dresher and Joel Davel sets the tone. Precise blocking, common cues and attentive mindsets ensure that the various characters and elements of “Sojourner ZY” are in sync. It’s a collaborative process in which no one person is the leader.
Describing the challenges of having to match his body position to the mask while also matching his gestures to the varying strength of Piña’s words, Moja said, “Sometimes you feel like you’re a puppet. Your body language is so important to building this character and what the character said.”
The numerous collaborative factors involved in “Sojourner ZY” mean change is constant. Moja and Chien understand all too well the importance of being able to kill their darlings in place of what works best for the production as a whole. “In this world, you cannot be fixated with things that you make,” Chien remarked. “You need to prepare to experiment.”
With just days away from opening night, the many artists of “Sojourner ZY” are fine-tuning their collective performance, finding harmony in chaos. Remember, behind every shadow lies a team of imaginative individuals — and a lot of tape — working together to create live theater.