Words Alexandra Wong Photography Courtesy of Malaysian Puppetry Association & Horng Yih Wong

Historically a popular form of entertainment in Malaysia, puppet theatre is now largely restricted to a parochial audience, no longer considered a mainstream art form.

Consequently, audiences in urban areas have little exposure to it, something that a pair of performing arts advocates hope to change by bringing an experimental theatre production to the streets of KL.

Featured for the first time in Kuala Lumpur’s longest-running creative arts festival Urbanscapes, the premise of Warung Panggung is an intriguing one: set 200 years in the future, the story is about a man who travels back to the past in order to save a dystopian Kuala Lumpur. Combining the art of puppetry, wayang kulit and music rolled into one, the show will be presented through a mobile street cart to evoke the quintessential Malaysian experience of hanging out at a warung (Malay for roadside food stall).

And to give a flavour of the travelling theatre still practised in countries like Portugal, the performers will carry a large backpack that contains essential props, puppets and instruments that they can unpack to perform on the fly.

“Theoretically, traditional theatre performers can perform anywhere there is a stage,” explains Easee Gan, senior production manager at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre and Warung Panggung’s co-producer. Award-winning Gan is the driving force behind some of Malaysia’s most acclaimed experimental theatre fare. But even he admits Warung Panggung is a creative gamble of sorts.

“We’re breaking a lot of rules,” he shares. “Yes, we employ commonly-used puppets such as mask puppets, rod puppets and doll puppets, but their look will not be typical. One of the key messages is how technology is killing interaction between humans. To represent how we are becoming overly focussed on our devices and only communicate text, the puppets are designed without mouths, while the head is very big because it’s exploding with information!”

Gan developed a strong interest in traditional puppetry while pursuing his Bachelor of Performing Arts at University Malaya, where his lecturer Dr Loy Chee Luen would turn future collaborator. Together, the duo founded the Malaysian Puppetry Association in 2014 to promote Malaysian puppetry at festivals and exhibitions locally and overseas.

Dr Loy, who currently lectures at the Faculty of Education and Human Development at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris in Tanjung Malim, Perak, shares that the function of puppetry goes beyond performance or entertainment. “It can serve as a powerful pedagogical tool and in fact, puppets are widely used by government dental clinics in Malaysia to educate young patients and families,” he says.

Gan points out, “Puppetry is a universal learning tool that is easily understood because it is not language-based. When we use puppets, we can connect with each other even if we don’t have a common language.”

To demonstrate this point, Warung Panggung will not even have spoken words. “We rely entirely on physical movement, music, and props to communicate the story. By taking language out of the equation, we hope to show that puppetry is a medium that is accessible and bring people together.”

Which is to say, a lot will be riding on the skills of the puppeteers to execute these objectives. “Puppeteers have to be extremely versatile because they have to do it all – manipulate the puppets and props, and play the musical instruments. Our puppeteers, Paige Chan and Wendy Ng, are both theatre actors, which helps them to adapt quickly, but they have to undergo an intense training to pull this off.”

Contrary to popular belief, Malaysia is not lacking in puppeteering talent. But the bulk of good traditional performers are hidden in pockets away from urban spaces, where the action is. In states such as Penang and Johor, during occasions such as the Hungry Ghost Festival, puppet practitioners will come out of the woodworks. “Which is why, our next important mission is to track them down and compile a directory of the talent pool,” says Dr Loy.

“Our country has an astounding diversity of performance arts,” says Gan. “Ultimately, starting with collaborations such as this one with Urbanscapes, we hope to provide a platform to bring lesser-known art forms out of their local domains and present them on bigger stages, to a wider range of audiences.”

Warung Panggung will run twice a day over three weekends from 3-18 November. Check urbanscapes.com.my for scheduling details.