entertainment that scales well

In addition to big-screen public movie theaters, popular personal video display devices now range from mobile phones to personal computers to huge home television sets. Video first shown on a big screen to a silent crowd gathered in a darkened theater might come to be viewed on a small, mobile-phone screen by a single person on a noisy bus traveling in the afternoon.

Phone companies, software companies, and advertising agencies are developing “three screen” strategies for integrating information and serving advertisements across personal video display devices. But content convergence cannot be taken for granted. What sort of video content works well across display sizes and viewing circumstances remains largely an open question.

Liao Wen Ho Puppet Theater is an example of highly artistic entertainment that works well across a wide range of display sizes and viewing circumstances. The Liao Wen Ho Puppet Theater draws upon a rich tradition of Taiwanese puppetry. Taiwanese puppetry began with mid-eighteenth century theater performances displaying classical Chinese culture. In the 1920s, Taiwanese puppetry began to incorporate heroic martial arts fighting (wuxia). This produces the sort of performance that could draw a crowd on a street corner like that for a Punch and Judy show in late eighteenth-century England. Recently at the Sackler Gallery, Liao Wen Ho Puppet Theater performed an episode from Journey to the West, a great classical romance of Chinese literature. The performance combined classical Chinese culture with an attention-grabbing displays of heroic fighting.

The performance worked across a large scale. The individual puppets moved in subtle and expressive ways that could be fully appreciated only up-close or with a tight camera focus. At the same time, the performance occurred across a stage that I would guess was several meters long. The performance included large scale effects such as darting flames and clouds of smoke, and the dynamic spatial arrangements of the multiple puppets was an important part of the show. These aspects of the performance were best appreciated at a distance or with a wide focus. The puppets themselves ranged in size from traditional glove puppets (about 20 cm tall) to much larger hand puppets (about 120 cm tall).

In Taiwan, puppet shows have been hugely popular on television. Hand puppets, like shadow puppets, are framed in two dimensions, like video displayed on a flat panel. Television cameras offer the opportunity to give many viewers both close-up and long views of the puppets. Not surprisingly, Liao Wen Ho Puppet Theater has been successful both in theater performance and on television.

Liao Wen Ho Puppet Theater also provided a great example of interactivity. After the show, Liao Wen Ho and his company came out from behind the stage to demonstrate puppetry to the audience. They then shook hands with members of the audience, spoke with them, and patiently posed for photographs and videos with them. They thus combined new media possibilities with ancient human hospitality. That’s both smart and generous.

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