Designs: Theater: Transformation

The Shadow Puppets of Wat Bo

In late 2012, I was asked to work on bringing this troupe from Siem Reap Cambodia for "Seasons of Cambodia", a city wide festival that was to take place in New York in 2013. I had seen the large scale puppet form when I lived in Cambodia for a short time ten years earlier, and my first thought was "Why do they need a lighting designer?" because in Cambodia the screen around which the dancer/puppeteers perform is lit from behind with a fire of burning coconut shells which are re-stocked throughout the performance. For indoor performances, electric lights have come into common usage, and I and everyone involved in the festival assumed that we would do the same for the New York presentation. So, with this assumption, I offered to skip the trip of going to Cambodia, to save the festival some money,

I received a strong reply from one of the producers, Fred Foster, who lives in Cambodia who has a deep understanding of the form and the Wat Bo Troupe. I have known Fred for many years and have worked with him on several other productions of Cambodian dance and theater. He asked me to go, writing just that he felt my physical presence would be important to solving the issues of the presentation in New York. And so I went.

Two months later, the performances took place within the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center and were a huge success for the troupe and the festival. But for me personally, the show and the experience utterly transformed the way that I think about my work. Below is the story of this journey...



The Company:

Founder:  His Venerable Pin Sem                              

Troupe Leader: Vann Sophea Vouth

Artistic Advisor: Proeung Chhieng

Production Designer: Clifton Taylor

Puppeteers:Hang Sarmon, Keo Sopheap, Pin Chomrouenroth, Puy Poeun, Riem Vireakh, Sa Ang, Sum Sothy, Von Chan, Vung Rasmey

Narrators: Hang Sarmon, Soeun Sarom

Musicians: Chock Kim Own, Iem Vichet, Lonh Chanvuthy, Lonh Kang, Ly Luch

Movement Coaches: An Chhea Heng, Prak Siphannarath

Narration Coach: Seng Sam An 

Background on Sbeik Thom – Cambodian Large Shadow Puppets:

Shadow puppetry is an ancient form of Cambodian theater that has its origins from the Province of Siem Reap. Cambodian Puppet Theater comprises three different forms. Large Shadow Puppets (Sbeik Thom), Small Shadow Puppets (Sbeik Toich) and Colored Puppets (Sbeik Phoa).  All three incorporate two-dimensional figures hand cut from cow hide. The Large Shadow Puppet is the most formal and classical of the forms. Sbeik Thom (literally ‘large skin or leather’) always depicts scenes from the Reamker – the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.   

Shadow Puppetry is likely to have developed during the pre-Angkor period.   Bas relief from 7th century temples in Kompong Thom feature woman puppeteers using figurines in a ceremony invoking Sarasvati, the goddess of Learning and the Arts.

Sbeik Thom is considered a sacred theater form and as such, a performance is an act of worship. The entities revered in these performances include supernatural beings, deities, spirits and venerable teachers.  Traditionally, Sbeik Thom took place either in rice fields or within pagoda compounds.  It is often performed at ritual ceremonies and birthday ceremonies for monks and venerable members of society.  

The puppeteers, all trained in the Lakhaon Kaol form (classical male masked dance), manipulate the puppets from both behind and in front of the screen. The performance is accompanied by the classical Pin Peat orchestra made up of percussion and wind instruments plus two narrators.

In 2005, Cambodian large shadow puppetry (Sbeik Thom) was awarded world patrimony status of intangible culture by UNESCO. 

A Story of Transformation and Collaboration