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How is Japan helping to shape British theatre?

Posted on 16/08/2011
Jeremy Bidgood

With the internet and global travel making the world seem a much smaller place, the influences of far-flung countries like Japan have been enriching our culture and tastes. Now a researcher at Royal Holloway, University London is looking into how Japanese art is influencing mainstream British theatre.

Jeremy Bidgood, from the Drama Department, is heading to Japan’s Iida Puppet Festival to carry out a research project to explore the role of Japanese puppetry “ningyo joruri” on the British stage.

This style of puppetry, which involves the manipulation of life-size puppets by three puppeteers, has already been used in the award-winning West End favourite The Lion King and English National Opera’s 2008 production of the classic Madam Butterfly.

Mr Bidgood said: “The blurring of global artistic traditions is clearly happening as global travel and communication gets easier. The internet offers an amazing opportunity for people to see and discover performing arts from across the globe through sites like YouTube.”

The project, funded by Puppet Centre Trust, the Japan Foundation and Arts Council England, will investigate the shift in puppetry in Europe and North America towards larger scale puppets, manipulated visibly and often by multiple people.

“This influence is fairly widespread but obviously the extent of the influence varies and the ideas taken from ningyo jorurihave been combined with many other ideas before they have got to the West End,” explains Mr Bidgood.

“The influence of ningyo joruri can be seen in many contemporary puppet and theatre companies in the UK, with Blind Summit (which is tipped as a favourite at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival) probably the most famous. The original production of War Horse featured a puppet girl that had strong links to ningyo joruri. It was removed from the subsequent revivals, but the manipulation of the horses still displays some influence from ningyo joruri,” he adds.

The Iida Puppet Festival is the largest gathering of Japanese puppeteers and takes place every August. It features nearly 200 shows, which includes several traditional ningyo joruri troupes, as well as, a whole host of contemporary Japanese companies. Mr Bidgood will be looking to observe these companies to try to start to understand which technologies and techniques from ningyo joruri have been adapted into British theatre practice.


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