Thursday, 27 June 2013

Oh, What a Circus! The Pitt Rivers tent on tour

Last week the Need, Make, Use team ran away with the circus! For a couple of days we teamed up with the 1930s-style Gifford Circus - a perfect fit for the project's focus this year on performance and music.

After much preparation for the event ordering and sorting art materials, printing out templates, creating prototypes we loaded up the van with tables, chairs, equipment and miles of bunting and set off for the lovely village of Stadhampton, around 9 miles from Oxford. Our excitement grew as we rounded a bend and saw the Big Top commanding the village green, surrounded by retro caravans. This year, the Giffords performance involves some hilarious puppets, so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to bring along the Museum’s considerable collection of beautiful Indonesian shadow puppets and give families a chance to make their own!

We set up in an adjacent tent, decorating it with bunting and pictures, and laying out our wares in time for the visitors arriving pre-show. The atmosphere at the circus was lovely with our chandelier-lit tent (we might ask to replace our ordinary office lights with chandeliers!), riders rehearsing outside, and the performers putting on their costumes and greasepaint - a great atmosphere in which to demonstrate the playfulness of some of the Museum’s objects. 

We had brought wayang kulit - puppets used in Indonesia, especially on the islands of Java and Bali - to perform shadow plays. Visitors got to touch and play with the intricate puppets - hand-made from buffalo skin, horn and bamboo - and hear recordings of the gamelan music that traditionally accompanies the performances. 

Volunteer Olly with some Indonesian shadow puppets

Our puppets were characters from the Ramayana (you can see some traditional shadow puppet characters here) and it was nice to see recognition on children's faces who knew the story from lessons at school. We also took with us this short video made by UNESCO demonstrating the puppets in action so people could get a real sense of the skill, movement and context involved.

Families could then, if they wanted, make their own versions of Prince Rama, Princess Sita, the demon Ravana, or the monkey god Hanuman and perform with them in our mini, portable puppet theatre. The glorious Midsummer sunshine, although appreciated, did make getting shadows from torches a little difficult at times, but the team were able to improvise using the ready-made theatre of the tent walls and the sun!

Video (90 seconds) of the puppet theatre booth in action!

It was great to take our event to people outside Oxford who might not have heard of the Museum, or realised just how close they are to it, or who maybe needed some inspiration to re-visit. More than 350 people of all ages flowed through the tent over the course of the two evenings, including some of the circus performers who were curious to learn about other performance traditions from another side of the globe. In turn, we had the chance to watch the spectacular circus ourselves before rushing back to take the puppets out to greet people during the interval.

All in all, the event was a great success and a lot of fun, with one visiting parent commenting, "This was an absolute joy – wonderful to have the children distracted during the interval and continuing the creative process! Thank you. More please!"

For more information about shadow puppets, the Multicultural Canada website features an interesting collection held at the Simon Fraser Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Giffords Circus info and tickets here.

Alex Ross, volunteer

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