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This shadow theatre performance in New York enthralled audiences
This shadow theatre performance in New York enthralled audiences.​​ PHOTO SUPPLIED

Taking shadow theatre to the world

Vann Sopheavouth, the leader of the Shadow Puppet Troupe of Wat Bo, is on a mission – not only is he taking the ancient shadow puppet art form of sbek thom to the world at large, he is also ensuring that local audiences get to see performances.

In April, his troupe performed sbek thom for the first time as part of the Seasons of Cambodia Festival in New York, and Vann Sopheavouth said, “We had such a great time in New York. Our sbek thom performance attracted a lot of people and we were so proud to perform on the international stage to promote our leather theatre.”

In November this year he plans to lead his team to Thailand to perform, and then in November 2014 the troupe will perform in Indonesia. Meanwhile, back home in Siem Reap the troupe is planning to hold daily performances at Wat Bo next year and at present performs daily at the five-star Amansara hotel.

Shadow Theatre is one of the most traditional story telling formats throughout Southeast Asia, and there are three forms of shadow puppetry in Cambodia: sbek toch or small skin; sbek por or colourful skin; and sbek thom or large skin.

The latter was almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge but has had a revival since 1979 due to a handful of surviving artists, and in 2005 UNESCO officially recognised it as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Unesco describes sbek thom as, “a Khmer shadow theatre featuring two-metre high, non-articulated puppets made of leather openwork. Dating from before the Angkorian period, the sbek thom, along with the royal ballet and mask theatre, is considered sacred. Performances, dedicated to the divinities, could only take place on specific occasions, three or four times a year, such as the Khmer New Year, the King’s birthday or the veneration of famous people.

“The shadow theatre was weakened after the fall of Angkor in the last century. However, it has evolved beyond a ceremonial activity to become an artistic form, while retaining its ritualistic dimension.

“The puppets are made from a single piece of leather in a special ceremony for each character. Shiva and Vishnu, for example, are cut from the hide of a cow, which died accidentally or naturally and are finished in a single day following a specific ritual. The hides are dyed with a solution made from the bark of the Kandaol. The artisan draws the desired figure on the tanned hide, then cuts it out and paints it before attaching it to two bamboo sticks which enable the dancer to control the puppet.

“The performance is accompanied by an orchestra and two narrators. Performances from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, might last several nights and require up to 160 puppets for a single session.”

Unesco added that during the Khmer Rouge period most puppet collections were destroyed, but are now being remade.

Vann Sopheavouth and the Shadow Puppet Troupe of Wat Bo are one of three recognised practitioners of the art form, and the Siem Reap outfit tends to lean toward more traditional practices when performing.

He said, “Large Skin art is considered sacred and visitors will experience difficulty in understanding, watching and listening to it because the storyteller uses the royal languages.”

But he added that before the performance he provides the story script to visitors and then their tour guide explains the story.

Princess Norodom Buppha Devi and Vann Sopheavouth, the leader of the Shadow Puppet Troupe of Wat Bo, take time out in New York
Princess Norodom Buppha Devi and Vann Sopheavouth, the leader of the Shadow Puppet Troupe of Wat Bo, take time out in New York. PHOTO SUPPLIED

He also explained that the troupe eschews the use of electric lighting during nighttime performances.

“We could use electric light to make the shadows in our performances,” he said, “But I do not like to do something that is different to what our ancestors did in the past. They didn’t have electric lighting – they just used torches to cast the shadow.”

Plus he thinks firelight makes the shows more beautiful.

Sopheavouth also discourages spectators at shows from having dinner during the performance.

“This is the rule that visitors have to know,” he said. “I want them to concentrate because the show is only 40 minutes in duration and they can have dinner after the performance.”

The Shadow Puppet Troupe of Wat Bo charges $400 to stage a performance which includes 25 artisans and 11 musicians who make up the Pin Peat orchestra.

Sopheavouth declares that the fee is not expensive as it covers any number of spectators.

“Visitors can come to see our performance as a group,” he said, “And all money raised is invested back into the puppet school, helping to preserve a beautiful facet of traditional Khmer culture.”

He adds, “Most of the artisans and musicians are pagoda boys from poor families, but they are the new generation who could spread our artistic value to the world and they will be the ones who could take care of Khmer art and pass it to the next generation.”

Sopheavouth, who has spent almost twenty years since 1993 to conserve Khmer traditional shadow theatre, said that some young Cambodians have almost forgotten their culture because there is a flow of other cultures in this country.

“We therefore have to show them how important our art is,” he said.

The troupe also runs a training class, and rehearsal normally occurs every Saturday and Sunday from 8pm until 9pm.

“We practice our show every weekend, but we perform the show only when there are bookings,” said So Pheap, the troupe’s performance assistant.

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