INTERVIEW: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew

Every Single Visual Image is a Code for Something

Designer, Puppeteer, Director Jeanette Yew is one of the main creative forces behind Experiments in Opera’s premiere production of And Here We Are.  Jeanette has been collaborating with composer Matthew Welch and librettist Daniel Neer for the past year on bringing this chilling story to life through a hybrid form of shadow puppetry.  EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady talked with Jeanette recently about the history of shadow puppetry and why she can understand that God has been pictured as an old man in paintings throughout history.

JASON CADY: First, could you tell us about yourself and what you do in the theatre?

JEANETTE OI-SUK YEW: I am the lighting and projection designer for live performances, and art installation. I also direct, and design, and create contemporary puppetry performances. And I teach design, actually starting this fall, with NYU.

CADY: When did you become interested in puppetry?

YEW: I started when I was at the University of Washington as an undergrad, because there was somebody that teaches puppetry there. I was just fascinated by this idea of marrying craft, skills, object, and performance together. And then I went to CalArts and studied with Janie Geiser, who is an experimental filmmaker and puppeteer.

CADY: Could you tell us what And Here We Are is about and your roles in it?

YEW: And Here We Are is a surreal exploration of a person’s coping mechanism while being interned during World War II in an internment camp in the Philippines. My role in this project is to design and direct it as a shadow puppet opera. The psychedelic aspect of shadow puppetry is a great vehicle to explore this intense psychological landscape that Edgar, the main character, is experiencing. The opera is conceived to have shadow puppetry as the main visual storytelling, so I’m directing that. And there is going to be a band on stage along with the singers.

CADY: Do the singers also act?

YEW: There’s a little interaction in the beginning to set up the convention. The puppets, and puppeteer are an extension of the singers who embody the character through their voices. So there’s a staging aspect in the beginning so the audience understands this puppetry tradition of splitting up the vocal and the visual.

CADY: Do the puppets allow the singers to portray multiple characters?

YEW: Definitely. Although the design centers more on an abstract exploration in that it is not a one-to-one relationship. The wonderful thing is that puppetry allows you to go psychologically to different terrains for understanding storytelling, compared to when the singer portrays the character physically as a human being, we assume that the presence of the person is the same as the character.

But with puppetry we’re separating all these different elements so the voice is associated with the singer, while the physical form is portrayed visually. The physical portrayal is not necessarily a straight portrayal. At times it’s almost like an essence of a human being or a thought, rather than an exact representation.

CADY: Plus, it’s an opera instead of a play, so the voices themselves are one level removed, as far as abstraction.

YEW: Yes, definitely. I love working in opera precisely because the voice itself is, as you said, one level removed. So now, in this case, we dive even deeper into further abstract experiences.

CADY: For anyone not familiar with shadow puppetry, could you just explain what it is?

YEW: Shadow puppetry relies on putting a light source and a surface, and in between it is where the form of the shadow, the puppet exists, which then casts a shadow onto the surface.

CADY: And could you tell us a little about its history?

YEW: In the U.S. puppetry does not really have a long history. But shadow puppetry on the worldwide stage has a long tradition, particularly in East Asia. The Greeks, for example, have a long tradition. So does Turkey.

CADY: When I think of Greek theater, I just think of Sophocles and Aristophanes and Euripides, I didn’t know they had shadow puppets.

YEW: The Greeks and Turks actually have a long tradition, they both have this character—in the Turkish version, it’s called Karagöz. And this particular character is very political, and goes around the villages telling stories and making fun of current affairs and the monarch and society. For example—Punch and Judy, which is an Italian puppet—Punch is a despicable character. He hits his wife. He threw his baby out the window. He killed a policeman. He killed a crocodile, and eventually the devil. It’s a long and widely loved form of political theatre, of challenging and saying to the world, “I don’t care. This is what I do. This is who I am.”

CADY: So the puppets can do things that ordinary people can’t?

YEW: For many cultures, human beings are not allowed to portray divine beings. So part of the function of puppetry is that it can embody divine beings and pass on the stories and perform them in public.

CADY: It’s taboo for humans to represent deities?

YEW: It’s not that there’s something wrong with humans portraying deities, but that the human is not the right vehicle to channel these ideas.

CADY: So it’s just that humans aren’t really qualified?

YEW: Yeah, sort of like how we discussed earlier, in opera, the voices become something else. The sheer fact of singing—even though you’re delivering the same text—the singing itself elevates it into something more abstract.

CADY: I always thought it was funny how God is depicted as an old man in Christian iconography. As great as the Sistine Chapel is, it’s bizarre to think God would exist in human form.

YEW: You have to think in context of when the culture was founded. In Christianity’s origin, human beings didn’t live that long, because the world was harsh, and there were no antibiotics. So this idea of the Christian God, being an older person shows a level of power because human beings couldn’t live that long.

CADY: That’s a great defense of Michelangelo.

YEW: Well, I believe every single visual image is a code for something.

CADY: You convinced me.

YEW: [laugh] That’s great! I hope the Pope will invite me to dinner one day.

CADY: And what is your take on shadow puppetry in And Here We Are?

YEW: We were inspired by Indonesian puppet design. Traditionally they use leather and bones to create their puppets, and then there will be a giant group of gamelan players.

We’re contemporizing it by using video projections, and live feed camera, to create shadow puppet effects, in addition to a more traditional idea of using a light source and screen.

CADY: That sounds incredible. It might not even need any music!

YEW: [laughs] I don’t think so! I think the music is what makes it good.

CADY: What other projects do you have coming up?

YEW: I’m developing a piece that explores how we want our communities to look in the future, How would we actually like to live as human beings, assuming we all survive.

CADY: I am often struck by the realization that the world we live in is one we have made and chosen. I don’t mean nature, of course, but society. There are so many problems in the world, and humans just collectively decided to tolerate them. We decided this is the best of all possible worlds, instead of some utopia.

YEW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of debate. Some people believe the only way to achieve a better community is to go small. Some people believe that it is about density. And part of it actually originated with the Bible, the book of Genesis, which is all about how the world was created, and all these different stories of people creating community for themselves, or in some cases God dictating how they would create communities. So, I just want to ask how we really want to live.

CADY: Do you have an answer? Or are you just interested in examining the idea of this question?

YEW: I am interested in the idea of the question. I grew up in Hong Kong, so I think there are huge advantages to high density. But at the same time, I understand people who prefer to live in the woods with 100 acres around them. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but we should start asking these questions. Just because of how something has been doesn’t mean it is the best way to do something. In every single journey someone, at some point, asks a question, and that leads to the evolution of ideas.

CADY: This reminds me of Walden Two, which was an inspiration for the commune movement. It’s been years since I read it, but I remember thinking it was a surprisingly interesting and compelling novel, considering it was written by B. F. Skinner.

YEW: Yeah, it is. There’s a community in New Mexico where the center of their community is actually a performing space, which is a very Greek idea: performance as a public debate, as a way to converse.
And Henry Ford built one of his factories in the rainforest as an ideal way of living. He was preoccupied with how to create a utopia for his workers to live in and work. So many different people over time have many different ideas of how to organize society. And honestly, I believe that religion started out as a way to organize society.

CADY: Henry Ford was a terrible person in a lot of ways, but also pretty interesting as a historical figure, I’ve been to his Greenfield Village before. Do you know Greenfield Village?

YEW: I’ve heard of it. So you’ve been to it? Wow.

CADY: I’m from Flint, Michigan so I went there as a child, and also this last Christmas. Ford had the Wright Brothers house transported there, and some other homes that were just old. And you can ride in a Model T. But, speaking of Ford, what about communism? Is that one of the utopian ideas for your piece?

YEW: Yeah, definitely. Although I think communism is often misunderstood, because you have to go through capitalism before you get there, and none of the countries have actually gone through that process. But the idea that you can create a system where it promotes a level of economic equality is something I think every country, as an organism, is striving to get to. I think the idea of communism is trying to be a kind and empathetic system, without addressing greed or other kinds of human desire. But fundamentally it’s really trying to think, what does fairness look like? What does equality look like?

CADY: And what’s next for And Here We Are?

YEW: We’re hoping to tour, so if anybody is curious of bringing And Here We Are to their city, let us know.