Figure Theater: Nori Sawa blends Japanese and Czech puppetry

(courtesy of the artist)

(courtesy of the artist)

In a Japanese legend, a wounded soldier collapses unconscious in the woods, where a white woman appears to him and lures his spirit from his body. He soars skyward with her, but glimpsing his body still lying on earth, decides to return to it. The white woman disappears; the soldier awakens and continues his life as a soldier.

Nori Sawa, a puppeteer and instructor of theater arts at the Academy of Performance Arts in Prague, will be on the University of Chicago campus this weekend performing a puppet theater adaptation of this tale, entitled “Forest.” Sawa blends traditional Japanese bunraku puppetry with modern Czech “Figure Theater.” A traditional puppeteer imparts character to his inanimate puppet, so that the puppet seems to acquire a distinct personality and act of its own will. Figure Theater artists, on the other hand, emerge from behind their puppets to interact with them; they control the puppets and are also manipulated by the puppet-characters they have created. In his production of “Forest,” Sawa plays the soldier’s soul while controlling the puppets representing the soldier’s body and the white woman.

Sawa explains that his mother’s work as a kimono maker led him to puppets: “I grew up in the material of Japanese fabrics, and I wanted to make something with them, so I made puppets.” He studied puppet theater at institutions in Tokyo and France before settling in Prague to work. In the Czech Republic, puppet theater is not just entertainment for children, but a legitimate art form incorporating acting, music, singing, and other dramatic elements. Productions include works not originally written for puppets, such as plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov.

Making crafts and playing with puppets are often considered childish, since they’re used by children to create their own worlds. But adults retain the desire to create and control even after they abandon these pastimes. It is possible that all the broken motion of historical progress–inventions, discoveries, technology–reflects that desire. Sawa’s brand of puppet theatre exposes this reality: we can’t manipulate without being manipulated in turn, and as we dream and create, our creations impact us in ways we don’t foresee.

Though tickets for the “Forest” performance are sold out, Sawa will also present two free workshops focusing on the creation and manipulation of shadow puppets. Attendees will learn to create basic shadow puppets and will practice manipulating them on an overhead projector screen, on the wall, and on their own bodies. Sawa hopes that after the workshops, his students will “have a new image of lights and shadows in ordinary life…I’d like to inspire them [to understand that] light makes shadows behind objects.” Even by just looking out a window or at lamplight in a dark room, simply noticing this basic fact more often, he says, will “enrich ordinary life.”
Performance (sold out) in the Third Floor Theater, Reynolds Club, 5706 S. University Ave. November 6. Friday, 7:30pm. Workshop for families at the Hyde Park Arts Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. November 8. Sunday, 1-4pm. Workshop for University of Chicago students at Midway Studios, 6016 S. Ingleside Ave. November 9. Monday, 4:30-7:30pm. ceas.uchicago. edu/events/Nori_Sawa.html