Thursday, December 22, 2005

Nang Ta Lung: Shadow Play

Nang Ta Lung is a traditional form of shadow puppetry used in Thailand. Nang Theatre, or Nang as it is commonly known among the people, is an “ancient form of storytelling and entertainment using opaque, often articulated figures in front of an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images.”[1] The most fascinating aspect of Nang, however, is not the shadow play itself but the audience’s freedom to sit wherever they choose during these performances, particularly behind the backdrop. From this vantage point, observers are free to study the movements of the puppeteers and see them switch characters, moving and manipulating the light and puppets, interacting all the while with the audience.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show[2] is one western example of this kind of audience interaction, and is typically shown at midnight in front of a singing, costumed audience as they interact with the props they’ve brought.[3] Similarly, the work of Robert LePage and Peter Gabriel to project the “behind the scenes” movements of Gabriel’s rock concerts allow the audience a glimpse into the production of such an event, a feat that LePage admits was inspired by Nang Theatre. Perhaps most Nang-like, however, is the emergence of such things as blogging, flash mobs, and now the maddening example of sites like Ineradicable Stain.[4] Ineradicable Stain, or IS for short, is a site designed by author Shelley Jackson used to promote her new book which IS being presently tattooed on the skin of 1780 participants, who are all now identified by Jackson as their “words.” In a year’s time, these “words” will gather together to stand in sentences and “be” Jackson’s book, though that book will never officially be published. No one outside of the words themselves will ever know what it says. This generates such a depth of community expression that Jackson promises to attend the funerals of all her words, and will replace them only upon their death, because their stories must be told.

This is how we do Nang Ta Lung in the West.

“The French and Italian,” says Robert LePage “come to see a show, the English to hear a show, and the Asian to be immersed in it.”[5] This fascination with being immersed in Story is not new (Nang Ta Lung dates back over a thousand years), but is newly western and a poignant example of voxpop globalization reframing the West. Nang is a kind of apophatic mysticism,[6] where God is known only in the shadow of all things, not in the things themselves. It is a perspective that wants to look at life, not just art, from “behind the scenes” and discover what the artist intends while s/he is creating. LePage goes on to mention that “Japanese Taoist consciousness is aware not only of the light side of theatre, but also the shadow side…in other words, they’re aware of theatre as a whole, and what goes on in the wings, in the control room, and at an organizational level is just as important as what takes place on stage.”[7]

As Christ followers we find ourselves drawn to the compelling story of redemption, a story with many characters played out over a hundred thousand chapters. This great story is comprised of many smaller ones, stories that charm us through tension and conflict, complexity and characters, stories that don’t always seem to resolve. Nang theology is a way of understanding faith “behind the scenes”, of seeing God at work in real time, without feeling the need to have everything resolved before each day is done. Nang allows us to watch the story unfold dramatically, not just grabbing the bullet points, and recalls us to the days of storytelling stones and stump meetings with village Elders reciting history.

Nang is a new way of telling a story for many of us, inviting us to see the larvae dei, the mask of God, which reveals His many aspects without revealing His fullness all at once. It allows all ordinary things to “assume new importance”[8] and offers us the ordinary world as a hiding place for moments of extraordinary holiness. This incarnation takes varied forms, for the mask God wears could be humanity or creation, vocation or pleasure. It is that which we see “through a glass darkly”[9] but shall see more clearly soon.

We have begun to see it in cyberspace. The online audience is becoming more a part of the performance, more connected to itself, every day. As such, there is actually less true performance online and much more community performance and participation. Advertisers are having a hard time responding to this shift, due to the audience understanding entertainment less as broadcast and more as environment, and advocates of a “smart audience” are growing increasingly bold in their disregard for advertiser’s perceptions. “We are not seats or eyeballs” says Doc Searles “or end users or consumers…we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp.”[10]

The Great Commission was never to bring everyone to church, but to bring the church to the people. We are to “be these unique kinds of people [transforming] the places [we] live and work and play because [we] understand the whole earth is filled with the kavod[11] of God.”[12] Nang theology gives us a choice about who we are and a choice about what to look at. It allows us to distinguish between faith that is missional and broadcast Christianity. Nang theology gives us the “livelihood, craft, connection, and community”[13] offered by the internet in practical spirituality. It reminds us that we are connected to one another in love, not as representatives of church or organization, but simply as who we are. It has less to do with our performance, and more to do with everything behind our screen, projected by our lights.

[2] Cf.
[3] For a complete audience particpation guide see
[5] LePage, Robert. Connecting Flights (Quebec: Theatre Communications Group, 1999), 61.
[6] Apophasis is an allusion to something by denying that it will be mentioned, as in I will not bring up my opponent's questionable financial dealings. Cf. There is a lengthy recorded tradition of apophatic mysticism, prompted by Moses’ encounter with YHWH on Sinai where Moses was unable to behold God Himself and was forced to look at His reflection on the stone. See also
[7] LePage, Robert. Connecting Flights (Quebec: Theatre Communications Group, 1999), 61.
[8] Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Georgraphy and Narrative in American Spirituality (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), 67.
[9] Cf. 1 Corinthians 13.11
[10] Locke, Christopher and Rick Levine, Doc Searles, David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, (New York: Perseus, 2001), xv.
[11] Hebrew, lit. “glory.” Cf. Strong's Number: 03519.
[12] Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 85.
[13] Locke, Christopher and Rick Levine, Doc Searles, David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, (New York: Perseus, 2001), 22.

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