Papa’s Time Machine is a theatrical performance that just recently ended last month at Shanghai’s Daning Theatre. The play is a poetically orchestrated and uniquely fantastical project created by Chinese visual artist Maleonn. Both real people and puppets share the same stage throughout the performance. For this project, Maleonn employed techniques that are commonly seen in contemporary video art and installation art; by combining these techniques with his alternative storytelling approaches and live music, Maleonn has created an innovative and playful project that expands the notion of puppetry. He has pushed the boundaries of puppet theatre, and in the process, transformed the dying art form into a compelling and contemporary performance piece.
The concept for Papa’s Time Machine originated in an unlikely location – a swimming pool. One day, Maleonn’s father repeatedly asked him, “Do you know how to swim?” over and over again. Maleonn humored his father and swam every time the question was asked. His father’s declining memory was becoming more and more apparent around this time. The gradually worsening condition of his father became the very foundation of Papa’s Time Machine. In the play, the main character Makugee’s father also suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Being a brilliant scientist, Makugee constructs a time machine so that his father could relive some of their happiest memories together. Every instance of time travel in the play was presented as a beautiful and nostalgic journey. The entire play seems to be an affirmation of life and memories. It imparts a sincere message about the inevitably of passing time and how people must bid farewell to one another at some point. But at the same time, saying goodbye doesn’t break the continuous nature of people’s love and affection for one another.
This entire play is meant to be a gift from Maleonn to his father. Maleonn’s family worked in theatre, and his parents had hopes of him becoming a theatre worker. But instead, he paved his own path and went on to pursue his personal interest in creativity and art. Over the years, Maleonn had mentioned working together with his father to create a collaborative theatrical performance several times. But as his father aged, that idea became less and less likely. In 2014, with the support of producer Wang Kaili, Maleonn began to piece together this ambitious project.
Having never dealt with puppets or created plays before, he worked closely with the production team to fulfill his creative vision. With his keen artistic sense and unrestrained imagination, the entire play came together in a little over two years. Maleonn and the production team created a dozen life-sized puppets; each of these elaborately designed puppets consisted of over 1,200 components to put together. The play’s four main characters are mechanical puppets: Makugee as a child and his middle-aged father, and Makugee as an adult and his elderly father. These mechanical puppets were able to perform a variety of basic movements, and to some extent, perform more complex choreographed movements. Through the team’s meticulous design and engineering, the puppets are dextrous enough to grab ahold of objects and even precisely point. The uniquely designed system they use to control each puppet is state-of-the-art when it comes to puppetry.
“I’ve actually always enjoyed doing tedious and time-consuming tasks. I don’t like shortcuts, and I don’t like complacency. I admit that I’m not deep or an especially intelligent person, and I’m willing to devote my time and passion to do stupid things,” says Maleonn. “I respect those who are able to repeatedly draw tens of thousands of lines on a canvas – I think they’re better people than those who only have a concept and are unable to execute it. Some people try to give cleverly vague answers, but aren’t able to provide any concrete solutions. In my opinion, the only reason that any romance still exists in this heartless world is because of passionate fools.”