The ecological disaster brewing in our oceans that is the marine trash vortexes – the soupy collections of debris, mostly plastics – has rarely gone beyond the headlines in Malaysia.
But a group of six young artists from Penang who call themselves the Plasticity Theatre Troupe are looking to change that with their contemporary shadow play Plastic City.
“Usually people use scientific facts or statistical figures to talk about this common yet often neglected environmental issue, but with Plastic City we are using light, shadow and music to discuss it,” says Fish Lim, who is the sound and music designer for the show.
Lim says they are using recycled plastics and other materials to create the images to tell the story of the plight of marine life in the blue ocean against the non-biodegradable “monster” in their shadow puppet performance that will be on at The Play Haus, Old Klang Road in Kuala Lumpur, starting May 26.
While Plastic City is the first environment-themed performance by the troupe, this will be its third staging – the shadow play premiered at the Sinkeh artspace in George Town, Penang, in March last year and participated in the Tua-Tiu-Tian International Festival of Arts in Taiwan in November.
The show has been a good exercise for the young creative team to marry its strong interest in the environment with its deep passion for the arts, especially shadow puppetry, says Goo Zhuan Xuan, the show director.
“It has not only given us a chance to explore scientific facts like the impact of excessive dumping of non-biodegradable rubbish into the sea, but also the ugly side of human nature that is causing the contamination of our oceans and its marine life,” shares Goo.
Crucially, he adds, it has given them a chance to practise what they are preaching by recycling and upcycling materials.
“We support and advocate the idea of upcycling or reuse of resources. All materials that we use in the production are collected from what others have thrown away. We wanted to start with ourselves by extending the life of used objects,” he says.
The Plasticity Theatre Troupe members, all in their 20s, collected various materials they could find – from magazines, flyers and brochures, food packaging, plastic containers, plastic bags, plastic bottles and even a raincoat – at events, on the streets, from friends, family and others.
“One thing that we are very excited about this project is not only we learned about ‘upcycle’, but also the process of turning waste into a kind of performing arts, indirectly giving the rubbish a second life,” agrees Lim.
It all started back in 2015 when Goo and the troupe’s artistic director Tan Lay Heong accidentally discovered plastic’s translucent character when they were doing a children’s play production.
“We immediately became fascinated and started experimenting with different plastic materials for about three months. Lay Heong then suggested we adopt the upcycling concept in our creative process and we decided to take it as the core base of this show.”
Goo, who has been involved in theatre since his secondary schooldays and undergone an apprenticeship on Potehi (Chinese Glove Puppetry) with one of the few remaining Potehi troupes in Penang, admits it was challenging at first to practise the concept, but with extensive research and lots of “testing”, they managed to adapt to it along their journey in making the show.
“It was difficult in the beginning because we were so used to the buy-to-make way,” he says.
But the beauty of the shadows that the materials allowed them to create, especially plastic, encouraged them to continue, Tan interjects.
“The main character of plastic is that it creates beautiful images through the reflection and refraction of light. This is why we started to fall in love with creating shadows, using different shapes, designs, textures of plastic products that can easily be found in our daily lives,” says Tan, noting that they were able to create two types of shadows in the show based on these materials: opaque shadows and translucent shadows.
As the show’s title suggests, she asserts, they want to remain true to the original shape and character of the plastic materials.
Tan, who is also a visual artist, concedes that she has always loved using recycled items and waste materials in her installations and other artworks.
“I believe that everything is uniquely different,” she says.
This seems to be something that the rest of the crew – technical coordinator and puppeteer Low Zhi Kai as well as fellow puppeteers Ch’ng Yee Von and Jason Ong – believe in.
Low, who made his debut as a puppeteer after his interest in puppetry was sparked when he got involved in puppet shows Sang Kancil & Tapir and Wayang Time, which used wayang kulit and Chinese puppetry, says the recycling element makes Plastic City special for him.
“There’s a saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. With Plastic City we try to find a value in everything around us. And true, we found that something might be a waste product for others but it is a gem for us,” says Low.