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Khmer focus in giant puppet parade

THE increasingly popular Giant Puppet Project in Siem Reap will kick off again on February 19, with master classes and workshops beginning from February 1.

One emerging feature this year is that the project is no longer organised only by westerners, with the reins now almost ready to be handed over totally to the Khmer artists who participate.

Project director of the Giant Puppet Project, Stuart Cochlin, said that this year there would be two international artists in Siem Reap working part-time to assist the Cambodian artists.

He said artistic director Jig Cochrane from the UK, who normally organises and runs the workshops, would now take more of a backseat role.

The other international artist, Peter Rush, a paper sculptor and painter also from the UK, will be in Siem Reap in February and will help with a few different workshops.

The focus for February, according to Cochlin, is to improve what was already accomplished last year, rather than focus on making the project bigger. “We’re trying to turn it into a well-oiled machine,” he said.

At the last puppet parade there were about 550 children who took part in the workshops, and Cochlin expects around 600 in February Organisers are also trying to get local schools involved with a brass band marching with the parade.

“Ultimately what I would like to see would be all the wats and schools of Siem Reap participating,” he said. “Giant puppets created by every wat and school in town – now that would be something.”

Talks have also been under way with the organisers of the puppet parade during Khmarnaval, an annual three-day celebration in Sihanoukville, to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia.

Cochlin said the Sihanoukville parade will be held one week after the Siem Reap version and the Siem Reap organisers hoped to take some of the giant puppets down for it.

“We could also look at the possibility of having some of the Sihanoukville puppets here,” he said.

The Giant Puppet Project began in 2007 and has rapidly increased in popularity. About 200 children attended the workshops in the first year, but this has more than doubled since.

The project’s first week involves Khmer student artists from nearby Battambang taking a master class, run by artistic director Jig Cochrane, to exchange skills and ideas.

The second aspect involves children’s workshops from participating NGOs, taught by the Battambang student artists, where they learn how to create and manipulate their giant puppets. This includes learning about the issues behind the theme of the puppet.

Cochlin said it usually takes two days for the children to create the giant puppets. “New guys usually say ‘we can’t do that’. But then they learn and they make it and they see it’s possible.”

The project climaxes with the puppet parade through the streets of Siem Reap. The parade starts at Old Market, goes past Cafe Central, down Pub Street, and then onto the park near the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor where the finale takes place.

A shadow puppet performance is also being planned for the finale, as well as other performances including bokator demonstrations.

“Last year saw a shadow puppet theatre show made by children from Pre Se Ar Pagoda near the Bayon temple, clowns from the Battambang Circus, and a musical troupe from [the NGO] Krusar Thmei playing classic 1960s Khmer rock music,” said Cochlin.

He said the organisers are open to sculpture, music, or anything creative being incorporated in the project.

“We’re open to anything, as long as its fun, but we want to keep it as Cambodian as possible.”

The Giant Puppet Parade is always a brilliant spectacle and has fast become a highlight of the Siem Reap calendar. How could it not, when organisers say they will try to make it “as loud and noisy as possible”.

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