Puppet theater has an uncanny ability to take on big themes, and such will be the case when Jane Catherine Shaw, co-director of the Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival, takes on world drought in "Thirst: Memory of Water," her newest puppet theater work. It's a big theme, but Shaw is trying to make it manageable by concentrating on themes of women and water because, as she writes, "around the world women are carrying (literally) the burden of maintaining life by walking for water."
The play's narrative is compiled from first-person writings about Ethiopia, China, Bangladesh, Korea, Japan and testimonials from Haiti, Tanzania, and the Jenin Camp on the West Bank. There will also be newspaper accounts from Saudi Arabia, excerpts from the Rig-Veda, Leonardo Da Vinci's Treatise on Water, and Book Six of The Aenead. Texts have been assembled through The Common Language Project (www.clpmag.org), the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, 1h2o.org, WaterAid America (wateraid.org), All China Women’s Federation (www.womenofchina.cn), Voices for Creative Nonviolence (Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator), and from personal recollections of the all women cast.
Imagery is created using such "theater magic" as elevated rod puppets with dancing puppeteers, shadow puppets, three-person puppets, a small baby puppet and a duplicate giant inflatable baby puppet, a small hand held vignette (performed in the palm of a puppeteer's hand), and a quasi-toy theater piece depicting the NYC Sand Hogs (who are digging the third giant NYC water tunnel as you read this). Shaw writes, "My use of puppetry is based on how the image/design/gesture/movement communicates--ideas like scale, material, relationship of text and sound to image, or relationship of puppeteer to these puppets--these representations of humans/humanity are the secret power of the puppet, for me."
Shaw's puppet theater productions often tackle scientific topics and she finds the world's water crisis, arising in part from global climate change as well as water mismanagement, too compelling to ignore. She says, “It has to do with scarcity and conflict--and whether or not water is accepted as a 'right,' therefore everyone should have access to it--or as a resource. As a resource it is a commodity that can be withheld or sold at high prices.”
Her script uses the example of the Mesopotamian Marshes, which were drained by Saddam Hussein in retaliation against the Marsh Arabs, the Ma'dan, after the Gulf War. After Saddam was toppled, Iraqis began to tear down the dikes and canals that had diverted the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and many areas of the marshes were re-flooded, but the next drought put the region in peril again. “Today there are many dams upstream of the marshes which restrict the flow of the Rivers and impact the lives of everyone and every animal downstream." Shaw muses. "Imagine if our treaties with Canada about the equitable use of rivers crossing our borders become difficult to maintain. We already have an existing treaty with Mexico about the quantity of water that is allotted to them from the Colorado River. But, for instance in the 1950’s the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation project pumped out large quantities of water and returned highly saline drainage that was unfit for Mexico’s farmers to use. In 1972 we resolved that water quality issue with a 'permanent and definitive solution,' but what happens if we have many years of drought? Will we honor the treaty, or withhold water to sustain ourselves and our lifestyle? It could happen—and it could happen around the world."
She continues, "The water crisis is too much material for one play, so I chose to focus on women and water because around the world women are carrying (literally) the burden of maintaining life by walking many miles daily to collect water for their families. The more severe the problems become, the heavier the burden on women—and children.” She found a little known style of puppetry from China in which a three foot rod puppet is held over the head of the puppeteer who is costumed and visible as a performer; “I became intrigued with the image of women performers carrying women puppets who are carrying water.” She adds, "I’m interested in this image and hopeful that it will heighten the drama of the story about women and water." Shaw also delves into mythologies which relate common understandings of water across cultures. Water as the world’s best solvent or as the best spiritual cleanser is a common theme. She notes that deluge stories are found in many cultures and ritual washing is also a universal practice.
The production has music composed by David Patterson. Choreography is by Hillary Spector. Lighting design is by Jeff Nash. Set design is by Gian Marco Lo Forte. Puppets, costume design and construction, script and concept are by Jane Catherine Shaw in collaboration with the all woman cast of Sophia Remolde, Ora Fruchter, Spica Wobbe, Margot Fitzsimmons, Kristine Haruna Lee, Cybele Kaufmann, Sheila Dabney and Eva Lansberry.
Jane Catherine Shaw is the co-founder/co-director (with Sarah Provost) of the Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival (www.voice4vision.org) at Theater for the New City, which was presented for the fifth time this fall. Shaw also has deep roots at La MaMa, which has presented the NY premieres of all her major full-length works for adult audiences, many with scientific themes. These include "The Lone Runner" (a play about Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, 1999), "Bed of Light" (an exploration of recurring dream imagery from anonymous sources, worldwide, 2001) and "Universe Expanding" a piece that explored physics, myth and religion.(2005).
Ms. Shaw began working with puppetry in Atlanta, Georgia at the Center for Puppetry Arts over twenty years ago. As a puppeteer there she gave over 2000 performances. She curated the Center's Xperimental Puppetry theatre, and co-authored the original main stage production “Dinosaurs.” She created an assortment of puppets for "Youth Without Age, Life Without Death," in the First Assos Festival in Turkey in 1995. She has worked with Lee Breuer, of Mabou Mines, on "Epidog," "Peter and Wendy," "Ecco Porto" and the Obie-winning "Dollhouse." Ms. Shaw works frequently with Theodora Skipitares on her many productions, in many capacities from puppet construction to performance, including her recent production of "The Traveling Players. Present The Women of Troy." She traveled to India with Ms. Skipitares and La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart to participate in the Ishara Puppetry Festival in Delhi. She has studied Bunraku sculpting and Kuruma Ningyo manipulation in Charleville-Mezierre with Designated Living National Treasure Nishikawa Koryu IV at the Institut International de la Marionette through a grant from the Institut and UNIMA USA. She recently graduated on the Dean’s list earning an MFA in Directing from Brooklyn College. While there, she directed an experimental version of "The House of Bernarda Alba" which combined live actresses, graphic and giant shadow images as well as life-size puppets.