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The Power of Hindu Buddhist archetypes for  Theater and Community.

 
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To kick off the Bangkok Archetypes and Ideals Festival, Hanuman jumps around the stage

 

I entered into a wonderful dream a few weeks ago and I’m still not quite sure if I’m about to wake up. I know it sounds like a cliché but as my usual life at home sets in and I question if my recent trip to SE Asia happened the way my memory suggests. The Theme for the ISTA Theatre Festival at the Bangkok Patana International School was ‘Archetypes and Ideals’… indeed I spent a week in Budakeling, Karnangasem, Bali, Indonesia, before I reached Bangkok and I believe that same theme sums up the whole trip.

For a couple years now I’ve been touring a performance of ‘Sita Returns’ with my son, Toby Jacobrown; our interactive mask and puppetry version of ‘the Ramayana’. Our program has been well received because our audiences are all encouraged to wear our baby orangutan masks, become monkey soldiers and rescue the Sita who lives in that deep dark place within us all. Here is a little video Jesse Nichols produced featuring the show.

The last time I was in Budakeling it was with a group of artists who joined Zann, Jonah, Toby and I to immerse themselves in a culture that doesn’t draw a line between art , religion and spirituality. I have a long standing collaboration with a family of shadow puppeteers and mask dancers in the Budakeling region. Members of the family set up small groups with the local artisans of the village willing to tutor. The region is very well known for weaving, silver and gold work, and ‘sajen’ ceremonial cooking and creating artistic palm and banana leaf religious ‘offerings’. In the village we provide wood  and leather puppet carving opportunities as well as gamelan, granteng and bamboo flute lessons. During my visit I reformed my strong bond with the people of Geria Tengah, the  Brahmana (spiritual artisans of the Bali Hindu/Buddhist compound) in Budakeling and Zann and I will be returning to that village in August of 2015 with guests who wish to join us on that cultural immersion journey. Watch for another blog post about our plans for 2015.

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My students study Buddhist virtues at a local temple

After my brief visit to Bali I had shaken my jet lag and was ready to proceed to the Bangkok ‘Archetypes and Ideals’ theatre festival. The Bangkok Patana International School had selected the Hindu/Buddhist epic ‘Ramayana’ for it’s powerful archetypes that translate to many other stories throughout many other cultures. All festival attendees were immersed in the strong values of Buddhism painted all over the walls and carved into the sculptures of the monastery compound we visited. My students were impressed with the importance of five Buddhist precepts including, loving kindness and nonviolence, generosity and open heartedness, stillness and contentment, honesty and integrity, and mindfulness and awareness. The Ramayana story itself is perfect for the middle school age group that can recognize it as both a classic hero’s journey that fits each of the ‘Joseph Campbell’s hero journey stages’ and a spiritual journey that helps trace the steps all humans must take toward enlightenment. In my theater workshop my students wrote about the problems of the world they would tackle if they could, listing the human frailties that stand in the way of solving our problems. Student critical thinking explorations were directly parallel to the five precepts of Buddhism that we studied on the field trip helping integrate our class exploration of the ideal human with Hindu/Buddhist archetypes.

One more brilliant device our hosts offered was the ‘Theatre of Objects’ puppetry we used to bring to life our explorations of the Ideals of Hindu/Buddhism. I have found that the process of ‘reading an object’ for it’s lines, shapes, weight and texture translates directly to the process of reading a mask for the same qualities which can then be reflected in the human body. A bodies stance, gestures and lines of movement carry all that the object can provide a character when it is ‘attached’ to the actor building a character. The combination of objects I brought from my home and  was able to scrounge from around the school made for strong drivers of a selection of interesting characters that motivated each of the demons who emerged from the exploration of these objects. Reading and then embodying these ‘object demons’ helped us to take a deeper look at the monkey masks and Commedia del Arte masks each student donned for the performance. Our chorus work and our character work coupled with the archetypes of Sita, Rama, Hanuman, Ravna and the Ramayana storytellers were beautifully supported by the insightful festival theme.  As any festival of archetypes should, the flow of my workshops and the subsequent presentation, felt like a dream come to life.

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Noning the Orangutan ready to rescue humanity

For me, the climax of the weekend was watching our chorus of monkeys, all flying in airplane formation, make a couple yaws and turns before landing in Ravnas land of the demons where they immediately began the Thai boxing sequence that they choreographed themselves. As our object Demons fell by the wayside, Sita ‘boarded the plane’ before, once again, taking off with the newly rescued Sita. I’m a sucker for that ensemble movement and I believe it represents the ultimate archetype..

Over the years I have developed a teaching formula that embraces a fully democratic atmosphere. My students are all encouraged to make all the decisions regarding presentation in a democratic and cooperative process. Our artistic director, Rebecca Bell, inspired me and the other teachers, to use a process oriented approach in our workshops, offering students and teachers a quality theater experience. She helped us all to keep our work simple, succinct and success oriented. The other teachers in my cohort also became a tremendous support for me almost immediately. Rui, confidently offered to provide me with a fresnell lamp he had secured that he believed might be good for a shadow puppet display I could use for the ‘carousel’ Ramayana storytelling at our first session.  I’m now well aware that the shadow lamp I had brought for the display flickered with a different amperage and although it provided the most crisp puppet image, with Rui’s support I was able to decide to experiment with both of the lights in the middle of the story…a perfect display of ‘process orientation’ for our students. Sherri kept the exploration alive and relevant and Desta was able to keep her emphasis squarely upon the moral fiber of the stories our students chose to develop. Finally, being a physical theatre fiend, I immediately used a couple of the exercises I learned from attending a portion Mark’s taster workshop for my workshop, focusing on the group awareness which he expertly reinforces.

The only portion of the residency that I might attempt to bolster is the ISTA policies that would allow teachers and students to obtain video footage of the performances. In the residencies I perform in schools in the US, without spending too much time in the presentation I have been able to get video footage and edit together very dynamic documents of the performances my students create. These could not only be good for students to review for their own learning but could also be used to promote the ISTA organization.

The teachers and staff of this festival were the embodiment of the ideal for the theater styles we taught and at the same time they were also really fun and interesting people to spend a long weekend with. I still feel I am about to awake from a wonderful dream but the experience will certainly remain with me as a model of how a festivals can be a great benefit to everyone including the teaching artist.

 

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Rama, Hanuman, Sita and one of our storytellers join me in their ‘ideal human’ form after the Festival