In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we spoke to the Makers and Designers of the puppets we have in The Finger Players (TFP), to create the repository that is the Puppet Origin Stories – a humble effort to highlight the background, and the making and design history of these puppets. We hope that this can be a continued endeavour at TFP, and we hope that you can go on this journey with us.
The Oiwa Shrine was featured in Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya, commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). This production had three phases – Research & Development (2018), Work-in-Progress Showcase (2019), and the final production (2020). Due to Covid-19, the final production was postponed to 2021, with audience capacity for each show only up to 150. This shrine was designed and built by Daniel Sim, Programme Manager of The Maker’s Lab.
The first iteration of the shrine was built in 2019, for the Work-in-Progress Showcase held in Centre 42’s Black Box. At that time, having been introduced to Youki Magosaburo XII, Director of the oldest marionette theater in Tokyo, the production included marionette elements. Chong Tze Chien, the Playwright and Director of the show, wanted the imagery of the shrine coming apart, with the marionette, designed to resemble the titular character, Oiwa, crawling out.
The shrine was built to house the marionette fittingly, and in order to maintain the integrity of the marionette’s controller, the shrine had to be designed with the controller’s shape and size in mind. To achieve the effect that Tze Chien wanted, Daniel experimented with having the controller become the ‘key’ of the shrine. It was placed at the top of the shrine, becoming part of the roof. When a puppeteer removes the ‘key’ from its ‘lock’ (in this case, the shrine), the four walls of the shrine would fall outwards, creating an ‘explosive’ effect of the shrine breaking apart. As such, in order to turn the controller into a key, Daniel added four short dowels into the corners of the square controller. These dowels locked the walls into place. When the prototype was built for the showcase however, the explosion effect was not as powerful as intended as the walls of the shrine were too stable and lacked the weight needed to set them in motion. As such, the puppeteer, Myra Loke, had to overcome the inertia by pulling the controller out with a larger amount of force so that the walls would fall outwards quickly.”
As the production of Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic, the creative team had more time to mull over the design. When the prototype was built for the showcase however, the explosion effect was not as powerful as intended as the walls of the shrine were too stable and lacked the weight needed to set them in motion. As such, the puppeteer, Myra Loke, had to overcome the inertia by pulling the controller out with a larger amount of force so that the walls would fall outwards quickly.
Daniel went back to the drawing block, as this time round he wanted to create a shrine that could break apart with the theatrical effect that he envisioned. He did a fuller, more complete drawing of what he envisioned, and upon getting approval from Tze Chien, built a scale model. Since the size of the shrine no longer needed to be proportional to the marionette’s controller, Daniel could, in his words “go big or go home”. Discussing with the team, they decided to use the Oiwa masks as the head of the rod puppet. The shrine and puppet dimensions were then sized proportionately.
With the knowledge that there would be two puppeteers in the scene (Hui Bin and Myra), Daniel could design the shrine to be broken into 3 large pieces. The shrine had to already be ‘broken’ so that the puppeteers could easily pull it apart. To achieve this, Daniel started with having each side of the shrine being a laminated wall made of a 3mm plywood piece and a 6mm plywood piece, ending at different heights. This allowed the broken pieces to ‘lock’ into one another without falling apart until the right moment in the play. Working with plywood thicknesses of 3mm, 6mm and in some parts 9mm allowed him to also rely on laser cutting technology to cut the walls in a time efficient and highly precise manner.
The aesthetic design of the shrine was inspired from traditional Japanese Shinto and Buddhist shrines which often incorporated detailed motifs like the Japanese Bonsai and cranes. These details worked well to hide the pre-made “cracks” in the walls of the shrine. Daniel obsessed over the details of the finishing; for example using the Dremel to carve lines into the shrine’s walls to make the wood grains more apparent. He then finished it with wood dye and a satin finish, before painstakingly hand painting the edges of all the cut-out details in gold.
There were two shrines that had to be built – a Grand Shrine and a Villagers’ Shrine. Besides its ability to be broken apart, the Grand Shrine also had a fabric screen mechanism that could drop quickly to conceal the Oiwa puppet. Its base had holders built and castors installed so that the shrine could first be carried in ceremonially and then rolled off stage quickly after breaking apart. The Villagers’ Shrine was a simplified replica of the Grand Shrine that did not contain the aforementioned mechanisms and did not need to be broken apart. It also did not have many of the design motifs that the Grand Shrine had.
The Oiwa puppet within the shrine was a modified rod puppet that had an upper body built out of wood and sponge attached to a castor-type joint on the base of the shrine. The Oiwa mask was then built onto a styrofoam head of the puppet. The costume of the puppet was built by Myra and Siaw Hui and was a scaled down version of Max Tan’s Oiwa costume.
Due to the heavier mask, the head initially kept falling out of position and Daniel had to build additional holders to keep the head in place when not manipulated by a puppeteer. Three rods were attached to the puppet – one to the head and two to the hands. This allowed the Oiwa puppet to ‘come alive’ and be manipulated to crawl out of the shrine before suddenly returning back to its statue form.
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