SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — It’s rare that a college student is invited to perform Japanese puppetry at the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital, but that’s exactly what Wittenberg student Rebecca Stewart did in April.
Stewart, of Knoxville, Tenn., class of 2006, was invited by Professor Martin Holman, Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Massachusetts, to participate in two one-hour performances because of her prior training in Japanese puppetry. Stewart performed with the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, held March 26-April 10.
In front of a crowd of more than 200 people, Stewart manipulated a Sambaso puppet on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage as the ashi-zukai, the foot puppeteer. Dressed in a black-hooded robe, she crouched down behind a colorful puppet throughout the entire performance, hidden from the audience a majority of the time. Though she has had significant training with Japanese puppets, she admitted being nervous.
“We only practiced once before we performed it live,” she said. “Even though my part wasn’t too difficult, it had been a long time since I had performed those movements.”
Stewart, a biology major and a chemistry minor, learned of Japanese puppetry last summer when she studied in Biwo-cho in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan. She enrolled through the University of Massachusetts Summer Japanese Culture and Theater Program — an opportunity afforded through Wittenberg’s Freeman program, established through a $1.9 million grant awarded by the Freeman Foundation to provide more travel and study experiences in Asia for students at Wittenberg.
“I didn’t even consider traveling to Japan [in college], but the Freeman grant sparked my interest,” she said. “Life surprises me and makes me grateful that Wittenberg stresses a liberal [arts] education.”
Stewart was inspired to study in Japan because she wanted to improve her language skills while experiencing the culture. “I love the uniqueness of Japanese art and culture, and I didn’t want to learn out of a textbook,” she said.
While in Japan, Stewart was introduced to Bunraku puppetry, traditional Japanese puppet theater involving puppeteers, chanters and shamisen instrument players. Three puppeteers work in sync to move one nearly life-size puppet by hand, rather than by strings.
Stewart trained in a traditional Japanese theatre with the Tonda Bunraku Puppet Troupe. The renowned 170-year-old troupe performed at Wittenberg in 2001 as part of the Wittenberg Series, which sponsors numerous culturally diverse, intellectual and value-centered programs on campus.
“I knew nothing about Bunraku coming into the program,” she said. “Throughout the summer, my appreciation and love for this ancient form of puppetry grew.”
Stewart explained how the Japanese government has tried to preserve and support its nation’s heritage, and Bunraku is among the traditional art forms. The original puppets used for performance are more than 170 years old, and all the students train with practice puppets, allowing for wear and tear. However, the heads, which were interchangeable, were part of the original puppets, and students were often reminded not to touch them because the heads are considered national treasures.
The most interesting part for Stewart about working as a puppeteer was being able to convey emotion and laughter with the puppets on stage. As the ashi-zukai, she helped bring life to the puppet.
“To me it seems the foot puppeteer has the easiest job,” she said. “Basically, I move the feet when the puppet walks, sits or dances.”
The job may have seemed simple for her, but it took weeks of training with practice puppets before Stewart was able to perform with the troupe for the local town, Biwa-cho. She later demonstrated her skills with a performance at the Iida Puppetry Festival last summer, Japan’s largest theater festival devoted to puppet drama.
“We had newspapers come and report on our training in Biwa. The coolest thing was [when] a children’s TV show came to videotape our practice and interview a few of the students for an excerpt on Bunraku,” she said.
Stewart’s performance at the Kennedy Center, with the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, was recorded and housed in the Library of Congress. It is available online. Search "Japanese puppets” to view the performance.
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