mask and puppet archive: sea monkey sea in china

photo: Cindy Stern

See Monkey Sea Mask and Puppet Show
with Bochay Drum, China, 2004

In 2004, my brother and I toured China, street performing in cities and villages. We also had engagements in art galleries, bars, and schools. We were inspired by commedia’del arte, Yiddish street theatre, and other traditional street entertainments, probably incuding our own exposure to the SF Meme Troup and Bread and Puppets. Not to mention 1990’s San Francisco performance art, punk culture, and the American low-brow puppet revival. In retrospect, I was heavily influenced by the writings, films, pictures and stories of the works of the Living Theatre, the Wooster Group, Eugenio Barba, and Jerzy Growtowski.

Our show was a small adaptable repertoire of short stories and a mess of improvisations and schtick. We wore our long coats and pointed hat costumes and fox masks all the time and carried suitcases with our mask and puppets. We would just find a place, open the cases and perform.

Our original manifesto from 2004:
See Monkey Sea Mask and Puppet Show:
China Tour

The See Monkey Sea Mask and Puppet Show is the creation of emerging American performance artists. Duskin and Bochay Drum. Since 2002, Duskin and Bochay have been producing mask and puppet entertainments staged in sites where people gather; streets, plazas,festivals and private venues. Their engagement of a viewing public through the recovery of an ancient and intimate form of popular entertainment was developed against the background of the late 20th century’s increasingly mediated cultural environment. In the fall of 2004 See Monkey Sea will tour China, staging mask and puppet shows on the streets and in select venues. Ideally, they will be working with a Chinese digital videographer/artist to create a documentary of the tour.

[Our videographer and photographer ended up being Cindy Stern]

Hong Kong, photo: Cindy Stern

Why Mask and Puppet?

Mask and puppet entertainments have appeared historically in most cultures. They are characterized by intimacy between performers and audiences, the ability of few performers to play many roles, and the presentation of traditional themes through allegorical storytelling. The use of masks, puppets and dolls is conducive to a largely gestural and visual presentation that is easily accessible to diverse audiences. The legibility of puppets and masks both overcomes language barriers and enables the distillation of large and universal human themes into simple narratives. See Monkey Sea innovates by combining theater with puppets: the human scale actor, masked and unmasked, is choreographed in contrast to the small hand puppets. This contributes spatial elasticity and an expressive scale to the production mis-en-scene, which can be seen as a strategic translation of cinematic moves into live performance.

photo: Cindy Stern

The Traveling Theater

One person can carry an entire mask and puppet theater company in a suitcase, allowing a mobility that facilitates bringing performance to out-of-the-way locations with low production costs. Prior to the advent of cinema, the traveling show was a staple of entertainment and cultural exchange. With their experimental form of mask and puppet entertainment,See Monkey Sea continues the age-old tradition of itinerant performance such as commedia’del arte,vaudeville, and the medieval troubadour. The traveling performer has an obvious pretext for visiting: to puton a show. It enables a context beyond sight-seeing,creating possibilities for more complex interactions with locals than conventional tourism. At the end of the tour, the performers return home bringing with them the voices and impressions of inhabitants of the far-away places they have visited. By visiting locations off traditional routes of tourism and economic exchange, the performers operate as emissaries between cultures.

Why China?

China has a long tradition of mask and puppet entertainment. The theatrical elements of See MonkeySea should be familiar to Chinese audiences, while theperformance itself introduces a cultural mode unrepresented in American mass media exports to China. The media conglomerates of the United States tend toflood new entertainment markets, giving a falsely homogenous impression of Americans and American culture. Through the unique and intimate context of mask and puppet theater, See Monkey Sea seeks to participate in building new artistic and cultural bridges that will develop in parallel to China’s expansion into the global economy, forging new crosscultural identifications. See Monkey Sea is one demonstration of the truly heterogeneous nature ofAmerican expression.

Why street performance?

Street performance is efficiently and creatively delivered to an audience where it is situated:en-route, conducting business, leisure time outdoors. Art galleries and formal stages have social values that intimidate people for whom these values are unfamiliar. The art world can feel exclusive to outsiders, but this wall of exclusion can be eliminated through face-to-face encounter. Street performance is immediately accessible and invites anyone to enjoy and judge.

Why make a documentary?

See Monkey Sea will create a fixed media piece documenting their experience as foreign street performers in China, and their exchanges with local audiences. They want to collaborate with a local video artist to break the mold of US artists using exotic locations to create sensational romantic pieces that exclude local voices. This collaborative documentation of, and reflection upon this cultural exchange will create new voices in the discourse of trans-national communication and understanding.

The See Monkey Sea Mask and Puppet Show will be arriving in China the first week of October.