The ‘Joe Louis’ Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre
The Joe Louis Puppet Theatre was founded in 1985 by the famous Thai puppeteer Sakorn Yang-keawsot (1922-2007). His nickname was ‘Joe Louis’ and he was acknowledged as National Artist for performing arts in 1996. Hence, he falls into the same category as Thai National Artist and painter Chakrabhand Posayakrit who also created Thai puppets and Dioramas.
Today, The Joe Louis Theatre is situated on the banks of the Chaopraya River at Asiatique the Riverfront in Bangkok.
The marionettes of the Joe Louis theatre are modelled on the characters of the Thai Ramakien which is the epic story of Rama. Hence, the traditional Thai puppet theatre resembles Khon performances and the stories are thus similar too. What is more, like the Khon masked dance, Thai puppet theatre was originally only performed at the royal court until the 20th century.
The Joe Louis Puppet Theatre
Sakorn Yang-keawsot came into contact with the Thai masked drama early in his life because his parents were Khon performers and puppeteers. They were in Krae Suppavanich’s troup where Sakorn also started his career as a puppeteer and a comedian in Thai folk operas which are known as ‘likay’. However, Sakorn, or Joe Louis as he was nicknamed after the American heavyweight boxer, developed his own style of Thai puppets.
He preferred the hun lakorn lek marionettes to the larger hun luang, royal puppets. The main reason for this was that the smaller dolls were easier to handle and thus more lifelike and realistic in their mobility. However, there are mostly three people needed to control the movements of a hun lakorn lek. Here is a short video clip to show you how such a marionette is operated with the help of several persons.
The puppets are commonly made from “chewed paper” (papier-mâché), light wood and fabric. They are also full-bodied, i.e. they have limbs, a torso and heads. The individual parts of the dolls such as the fingers can also be moved by pulling on respective strings. This kind of traditional puppet theatre is always accompanied by a classic Thai music orchestra similar to that of Khon performances. The orchestra is called ‘piphat’.
The following clip shows you very nicely how the puppeteers move the fingers of the dolls. I think this makes the show very elaborate.
Joe Louis’ greatest success was winning the highest award of ‘Best Traditional Performances’ in puppetry at the World Festival of Puppet Art in 2008. On this occasion, the troup performed ‘the Birth of Ganesha’ who is the Hindu god of arts, success and divine powers. The show also tells of Ganesha’s efforts to maintain peace on earth.
Since Sakorn’s death in 2007, his children and grandchildren have been in charge of the performances. Their aim is to constantly improve the puppet shows so that they become even more refined and detailed and therefore extra enjoyable. Hence, they increasingly use spectacular effects to enhance the show.
In a nutshell, we may say that the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre is truly elaborate, amazing and stunning. The marionettes dance gracefully and there is much attention paid to details concerning their costumes and scenography.
Have you been to this kind of puppet show?