“I’m driving to rehearsal in a truck loaded with banging metal shadow puppets,” said shadowmaster Larry Reed of Shadowlight Productions, who is co-directing the spectacular aspect of Dan Cantrell’s The Rootabaga Opera, featuring actors, dancers, shadowplay, women’s vocal group Kitka singing to live music. The show takes place tonight through Sunday at The Crucible’s annual Fire Arts Festival in West Oakland, which also hosts performances by several dozen other musicians, dancers, theater and circus artists, as well as demonstrations of the fire arts The Crucible teaches in workshops at its nearby facility.
Cantrell, an Emmy-winner, also known for his accordion playing, has combined several of poet Carl Sandberg’s Rootabaga Stories (1922) in an ongoing narrative, “with a variety of means of telling, including different ones simultaneously—some spoken, some sung, with puppets going on and off, a troupe of dancers, and a narrator, the Potato-Faced Blindman,” said Reed.
Working with the voices of Kitka and a septet he’ll direct (which will include a theremin for one number), Cantrell will play keyboards—“but I think he’ll pick up the accordion, too,” Reed said, describing the music as “varied, sometimes with a Bluegrass feel, sometimes like modern compositional music—Eastern European choruses—I don’t know how to describe it.”
Reed, founder of Shadowlight Productions, will co-direct with Christine Marie, for 10 years with Shadowlight, now studying at CalArts, “who is close to the fire artists as well.”
Another primary component, the shadow puppets cut from sheet metal, about 105 of them, were designed by East Bay artist Mark Bulwinkle. Some of them can be seen online at: markbulwinkle.com.
“Mark has a whole bouquet of shadow puppet characters in his Emeryville studio,” Reed said.
Cantrell approached Reed for the shadow work involved in the show. “Twenty years ago, I was thinking of the same thing, using the Rootabaga Stories. I spent about 10 years considering the project, but it never happened. This isn’t strictly a shadowplay, but I reread the stories and saw them in a new context. I saw the characters as metal puppets, and asked Mark to create them. I’d wanted to work with him for years and wanted to work with an arc welder as the light source. There’re fewer rehearsals than in the way we’re used to working, but the way the puppets are designed and shown, the technique’s fairly simple. It’s kind of exciting.”
Reed described it like primitive film animation. “We don’t have to do a lot with them, just move them a little with the arclight behind them,” he said. “We’re using carbon arcs, like the old movie projectors.”
Reed, one of the true originals in Bay Area performing arts—and one of the few to make fundamental contributions and changes to the medium he works in—studied French theater as an undergrad at Yale, then came to the San Francisco Art Institute for film with Robert Nelson (noted for Oh Dem Watermelons! with the Mime Troupe).
After a stint in the Peace Corps, directing theater in Costa Rica, with the Vietnam War on going, “I wanted to go to Southeast Asia, but someplace at peace,” he said. “I wanted to live in a village, after the urban experience I had in Costa Rica, and learn about musical theater that was not Broadway.”
He went to Bali as a filmmaker. “The camera got stolen and I saw shadow theater there in 1970. I realized it was a kind of movie, the original screenplay.”
During the ‘70s, Reed studied intensively in Bali, returning to the Bay Area to perform shadow puppetry.
“I went back to learn more, maintained relations there for over 30 years. I realized I learned everything I could.” he said. “With Shadowlight, I’ve made explorations of the shadow world through different cultures, different iterations, using cinematic technique, a big screen and so on.”
Reed’s shadowplays employ more than puppets. There are projections, live “shadow actors” with specially designed masks ... in one show, based on Native Californian coyote myths, a Karok storyteller appeared in live video projection above the screen, intoning the tales in a mixture of English and Karok, all in “Indian time.”
Besides playing in the Bay Area, it was played for Native Californian audiences in the state’s northwest. Octavio Solis’s Seven Visions, Latino-Indian stories, was performed at different California Missions.
There has always been live music, “something I carried over from Bali,” either original or traditional. The Wild Party, from a 1920s poem, became a jazz piece shadowplay with guitarist Bruce Foreman.
Reed has continued to collaborate with Asian artists, performing traditional Balinese shadowplay, producing a gamelan festival in San Francisco, creating the stunning In Xanadu about Kubla Khan in China, and collaborating with a Taiwanese theater company on Monkey in the Spider Cave, which toured Taiwan “and may be coming back to life, hopefully to tour Europe.”
“Taking my work full circle,” Reed has produced eight shadowplays on DVD, available though Shadowlight. “I’ve completely upset the genre sense” of a form that was often considered mere decorative entertainment. With Reed’s innovations, “it’s a new way of telling stories, a new visual language.”
9 p.m. Thursday, July 16 through Saturday, July 18 at The Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival at Fire Arts Arena. Free parking at West Grand Avenue; free shuttle from West Oakland BART. $25-$95 advance festival admission, plus $5 at door. (877) 840-0457. www.thecrucible.org, shadowlight.com.