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Corrie Tan
Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

Showbiz

Hail the puppet masters

The Straits Times | Corrie Tan | Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

In the late 1990s, theatre practitioner Tan Beng Tian called up a school and asked it if it wanted to bring in a puppet show for its students.

The co-founder of The Finger Players, 48, chuckles as she recalls the conversation. "They went, 'Carpets? Huh? No, we don't want to buy carpets'," she says with a laugh.

"Schools had hardly heard the word 'puppets'. It was very alien to them and we had to explain it to them and give them references such as 'Do you know Kermit the Frog?'"

Today, 15 years after The Finger Players split from its parent company The Theatre Practice to carve out its own niche, puppets are very much in demand - and not Sesame Street-type muppets, but the sort of puppetry that breathes life into everyday objects and has made the traditional art of Chinese hand puppetry contemporary.

The award-winning company performs for about 80,000 students and members of the public each year under its Reach Out! arts education programme, and another 2,000 attend its main season showcases, usually held in an intimate black box space.

While it started out developing shows exclusively for children, it has since cultivated a strong following of adults with a brand of serious, cutting-edge and inventive theatre, be they historical epics or socially conscious productions, by reinventing the very genre of puppetry that could have pigeonholed the group in its earlier years.

The group tends to blend strong, sleek production design with good, old- fashioned storytelling, creating images that stay with audience members long after the curtain call: Actors channel life-size marionettes to a T with their stiff gait and swinging limbs (Furthest North, Deepest South, 2004); a young girl remembers her dead father, whose disembodied head seems to float in a sea of black (Poop, 2009); the Milky Way seems to unfurl on the walls of the theatre by way of shimmering, spinning globes of intricate paper cut-outs (The Book Of Living And Dying, 2012).

While the company's aesthetic has varied largely from piece to piece, there is a certain je ne sais quoi to each work that makes it deeply recognisable as "a Finger Players production".

Company director Chong Tze Chien, 39, says: "I think it's always visceral. Because it's always a seamless blend between the text and staging devices. You can't separate the two.

"The Finger Players' aesthetic is very much about equal emphasis on the text, as well as the mise-en-scene and the imagination. It becomes something that's organic. So you can't quite put a finger on it. Which is why, especially when things work, it blends seamlessly and that's what we go for all the time."

Academic and theatre critic Dr K.K. Seet has described each Finger Players' production as "a veritable totality of different artistic devices" - a sentiment that has been echoed by various theatre critics and reviewers here.

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