Berea College professor is devoted to Japanese bunraku theater

Berea College professor Shan Ayers once told a male theater student that the student would be worn out after his role in the class's production of a puppet play.

The student insisted that maneuvering a simple puppet wouldn't tire him out.

But after the 15-minute show, the student had broken a sweat and had cramps in his arms. He found Ayers and told him: "'You were right. This is hard work,'" Ayers said.

Ayers specializes in a unique, Japanese style of puppetry called bunraku, which dates to the 16th century. His hand-carved wooden puppets are large, about a third the size of a human, and much more difficult to maneuver than the simpler muppet-style puppets most common in American puppetry.

In bunraku, three humans are required to maneuver each puppet. One controls the head and right arm. One controls the left arm and any props that the puppet might use. A third controls the feet. The puppet operators appear in full view on stage with the puppets.

In traditional Japanese bunraku theater, puppet operators must train for 10 to 15 years to master just the feet before moving on to control the arms, and finally the head. It takes a lifetime of training to become the head puppeteer, Ayers said.

In October, Ayers received a $500 grant from the Kentucky Arts Council, which he matched with $500, to build a new bunraku puppet called Oshichi. She will be the sixth bunraku puppet that Ayers has made since 2002, when he was introduced to the theater form.

When finished, Oshichi will take on the look of a traditional Japanese geisha with a painted white face, red lips and black hair in an updo. Her story — whose title, translated into English, is "Oshichi of the Fire Watch Tower" — is a famous fable in Japan. In the play, Oshichi must decide whether to climb the fire tower to send a message to her lover that could save his life — risking her own life in the process.

Technically, the play is complicated to produce because the puppet operators must work in unison to have Oshichi climb an actual ladder on the stage.

Ayers said that was the challenge that convinced him that this was the next play he wanted to tackle. He expects it will take him 100 to 150 hours to build Oshichi from basswood. He'll do 90 percent of the carving by hand, using 12 to 15 wood chisels and whittling knives.

"If I'm going to bite off something that's hard to chew, I might as well bite off something that's really hard to chew," he said.

Japan trip in 2002 inspired him

Ayers, a former professional actor and stage designer with master's degrees in both theater criticism and theater design, joined Berea's faculty 25 years ago, in 1984.

In 2002, the director of Berea's International Center invited Ayers to join him on a study trip to Japan during the college's January term. While there, he and 30 students spent three weeks in residence with a professional puppet company in central Japan, learning bunraku. By the end of their stay, they had put on four traditional Japanese puppet plays, including doing all the required traditional chanting in Japanese.

Ayers was hooked, and that summer, he and three Berea students worked nearly around the clock for five weeks to create five bunraku puppets—a Native American lady, a young boy, two mice and a fox — that would be the stars in plays that Ayers' wife, Trish, a playwright, had written especially for them.

In late summer 2002, Ayers and his students returned to Japan to perform the plays at an international puppet festival. One, called Gregory and the Dream Slayers, was about a young boy who is encouraged to follow his dreams. Another, Release the Butterfly was the tale of a butterfly who was different and was nearly forced back into his cocoon before being accepted and allowed to soar.

"The puppets make it easier to write in my own storytelling style," Trish Ayers said. "I think of them as characters, and it's a great joy to write for them. I've seen them capture the hearts of children and adults. Everyone is just mesmerized by them."

Since 2002, Ayers has put on his puppet plays throughout Central Kentucky, and he often uses the puppets as teaching tools in his Berea classes. In 2007, he led a Kentucky Institute for International Studies class to Japan to explore the other two types of traditional Japanese theater: noh and kabuki, which use people as actors, but often with the same stylized movements of the puppets in bunraku, he said.

Ayers has applied for a professional development grant through the United States Institute for Theater Technology that would allow him to return to Japan this spring to take more detailed measurements of the puppets at the Tonda Traditional Puppet Troupe, where he studied before. He'll receive a decision on the grant request next month.

"I love the collaborative nature of working with these puppets," Ayers said. "The theater business is, at the very essence, collaborative. And these puppets are a great example of that. If one person goes out and does their own thing against what everyone else is doing, that sticks out like a sore thumb."

3 students, 1 puppet

Ayers' skill has enhanced his classroom lessons.

"Shan's expertise in Japanese drama and puppetry has been a valuable addition to our curriculum, said Verlaine McDonald, chair of Berea's Department of English, Theatre and Speech Communication. "Both in Berea College's classrooms and in the courses he has taught in Japan, Shan has introduced students to artistry and styles of performance that they might not have otherwise encountered."

Often, Ayers has students in his scenery and lighting design or stage-management classes take a stab at maneuvering the puppets together. It's a lesson in cooperation.

"Right away, I realized this was an applied way of using a style of theater to teach the rather difficult concept of collaboration," he said. "It takes three people to work just one puppet, and for this one puppet to look human, three separate humans have to work in concert."

This past year, Ayers has been on sabbatical, working on a compilation of plays by Kentucky women writers, but he returned to the Berea this month for the spring semester.

"I want my students to learn by doing, to get their hands dirty on a project," he said. "They understand it better that way."

And now that Ayers has made that first cut on his creation of Oshichi, he's excited about seeing her come together.

"I'd been sketching and sketching and doing more and more research, putting off making that first cut," Ayers said. "But now that I've started and actually have the wood shavings on the floor, I know it's going to be OK."