Gary Warner introduces Kraig Grady’s phantasmagoric shadow world of Anaphoria Island, a place no one comes from but anyone can enter.
It’s the last day of spring 2019, and I am sitting amongst others in a community hall in Sydney’s inner-west. It’s the gloaming hour when the sun has dipped below the horizon but night has yet to fully settle in. We are an audience facing a makeshift stretched fabric screen about head-height off the floor, a few metres wide, maybe 1.5m high, surrounded by theatre blacks.
The house lights dim and a quietly intoned music begins to shift the atmosphere of the room. Deep, slow metallic reverberations meld with a harmonium drone as a sprinkle of abstract light forms dance in a corner of the screen. We are being invited to depart on a journey charting the cosmological origins of Anaphoria Island. Tonight’s show, “The Brook of No Return”, recounts the marvellous adventures of a rambunctious fool and the plight of an orphaned log seeking safety beyond hostile borders.
Over the next hour, the strange, meandering tale transports us, charmingly told through the ancient trans-cultural medium of shadow play. The Log, and Bardo, the rotund wanderer, interact with a myriad of cutout characters including a female philosopher, a snail, a myopic Judge and a centaur solicitor, a bee, mystic symbols and a magical pool. American experimental composer Harry Partch makes a cameo, and a gender-switch surprise sparks the tale along. In a dreamlike universe invoked by delightful optical tricks and original microtonal music, the live cast performs an original script full of humour, pathos, dadaist chaos and surreal dialogue.
The evening is a rare performance of The Shadow Theatre of Anaphoria Island, directed by avant-garde composer Kraig Grady who performs along with five other friends of the island’s Austronesian Embassy. The Theatre’s first “off-island” performance was made in Los Angeles in 1996, a creative response to the traumatic 1994 Northridge earthquake that destroyed large swathes of Los Angeles. The transformative power of this epic natural event had a significant psychological impact on Kraig; and it destroyed The Crib of Brass, the first sizeable microtonal instrument he had built (each octave had 36 tones).
Kraig was born and raised in California and lived in Los Angeles through the 1980s and 90s. Along with composing for a found-object percussion ensemble, he made a series of expanded-cinema Super 8 films with cinematographer and collaborator Keith Barefoot. The pair used good cameras with glass lenses to give their movies high production values. Their multi-projector films were screened with live music composed and played by Kraig who was inspired by seeing Francis Ford Coppola’s restoration of French pioneer Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic, Napoleon. This four-hour marathon screened in American theatres in the early 1980s accompanied by a 60 piece orchestra playing a score written by Carmine Coppola. One of Kraig and Keith’s films used three Super 8 projectors in a simultaneous triptych, a direct response to the famous Polyvision finale of Gance’s masterpiece.
After seeing an Indonesian shadow theatre performance in Los Angeles by Maria Bodmann (sic), an American who trained in Bali in the wayang kulit tradition to graduate as a dalang or puppet master, Kraig began to experiment with the medium. A few years before, he had conceived of Anaphoria Island after experiencing a performance of Harry Partch’s “US Highball”. Its improbable on-stage orchestra of Partch’s hand-made microtonal instruments didn’t seem to belong to any known culture or come from any known place.
Decades later, the music we hear throughout every performance of the Shadow Theatre of Anaphoria Island is expertly coaxed from original microtonal instruments designed and built by Kraig. All are tuned very differently from the normative Western scale familiar on every ordinary piano, guitar or glockenspiel. The Theatre’s instruments are instead tuned according to ingenious tuning systems developed by Mexican-American music theorist and experimental gardener Ervin (Erv) Wilson (1928 – 2016), a central creative and spiritual influence in Kraig’s life.
Kraig met and studied with Erv in LA—not in an academic sense but in the older sense of elder to initiate. Erv had an exquisite ear and a sharp mind for mathematics and tonal relationships. He searched for unknown or ignored musical beauty and soulful sound, rather than a music of analytic detachment. He developed various intricate theories and innovative systems of tuning that he shared with Kraig. But Erv didn’t compose or play music in public, though he did play for himself and friends at home. Kraig decided to focus on developing instruments and performance contexts to explore, express and carry forward Erv’s work.
The relatively synchronous experiences of seeing the Partch performance and meeting Erv Wilson set Kraig on his lifelong journey of microtonal instrument building, composition, study and performance.
On being invited to develop a work for the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, Kraig thought he should be associated with a geographic identity. Like Harry Partch who famously lived for a time as a homeless hobo riding freight trains from town to town across the USA (the subject of US Highball), teenage Kraig had been homeless for a year. This experience of non-belonging led him to imagine a country comprised solely of exiles. For the Pasadena performance, he composed a suite of music with accompanying stories exploring exiled or abandoned ideas, and this was the origin of Anaphoria Island. Early versions of the Shadow Theatre then followed, also staged at the Pacific Arts Museum.
As a way of hands-on learning, Kraig built puppets by copying images from books about the traditional shadow theatres of Indonesia, China, India, Greece and Turkey. He purposefully selected minor characters, rather than the well-known lead players. In this way, he was able to give them new roles, new traits and adventures, while learning the crafts of how to construct and perform with them.
Traditionally most shadow puppets are made of animal hide—cow, donkey, camel, goat, water buffalo—whatever is most available and sanctioned within a particular culture. The skin requires careful treatment and skill to make a durable puppet that can withstand multiple performances, packing and travel. Following his Native American heritage, Kraig decided to work with deerskin bought from a local shoe repairer. But the material proved difficult: it buckled easily and lost shape in humid conditions. Cardboard and foam core were tried but weren’t robust enough for handling by performers working in the dim light backstage. The shoe repairman showed him another cobbling material, a rigid, durable opaque resinated cotton that can be cut, hole-punched and painted. All the Anaphorian shadow puppets since have been made from this utilitarian material.
As Anaphoria Island is a place that nobody comes from but is open to all to go to, its Shadow Theatre initially comprised traditional characters derived from many cultural lineages. Kraig moved to Australia in 2007 to marry Terumi Narushima, a fellow avant-garde musician and composer. Together they perform their original music as Clocks and Clouds. In 2012, Kraig began a Master of Creative Arts Research degree at Wollongong University intending to explore Asian shadow puppet theatre further. But, citing a lack of academic expertise, the University told him he couldn’t work with anything non-Western. Initially, this was a disappointment but soon became a creative challenge.
Remembering one of his mother’s favourite artists, the political caricaturist Honoré Daumier, he began developing new characters that would eventually include, among many others, Ned Kelly, Julian Assange, a shoe-throwing woman, a puff-chested hero, a female philosopher, security guards with attack dogs, and the wandering sage of the microtonal, Harry Partch, figured from a Rembrandt drawing of a beggar. Also present are animals such as the dodo and rhinoceros species exiled to the oblivion of extinction, and an inventory of geometric forms, spirit creatures, insects, trees and flowers. Kraig says the puppets are like antennae – as soon as someone holds one, they start to pick up on some unusual energy. The puppet guides them somehow, inflating a sphere of influence around them. I imagine the puppet as a kind of mask that allows the performer to inhabit and express parts of the self otherwise repressed, unvisited or neglected.
The screen of the shadow puppet theatre, where the static or lightly articulated handheld forms come to life, is a threshold space, a boundary between worlds – between the living and the dead, the mundane and the magical, the real and the imaginary. It is a place where the voiceless can be heard, where the nameless can be invoked. In our noisy world in thrall to notions of virtual and augmented reality and high-resolution imagery, the utterly truthful simplicity of hand-operated cutout puppets casting liminal shadows on a strip of cloth is as refreshing as a sea breeze blowing away an acrid smog.
For each new show, the Theatre’s performers make the significant commitment of dedicating three months of Sundays to rehearsal and must be open to taking on a range of roles backstage. Harry Partch stressed the importance of performative non-specialisation. In his performance works each player was musician, singer, dancer, performer and stage-hand. Similarly, behind the screen for each hour-long show, Kraig and his players constantly shift between manipulating and voicing the puppets, operating lights and effects, and playing the various hand-built instruments.
Together, back in the community hall, the hidden performers ply their shadow forms, sounds and inventive optical hijinks to transport our imaginations into the ongoing story of our gaggle of outcast strangers. Separately wandering in dry drought heat searching for water, they meet and become entwined together in a ramshackle quest for freedom. Along the way, we encounter a messenger dodo, a mysterious log that speaks in music and a seer philosopher with ominous warnings. We learn of a significant nocturnal event at a magical brook. We watch as they cross unseen borders into hostile territory, suffer injustice at the hands of corrupt officials, effect a riotous prison break, endure a storm at sea, and witness a bizarre birth bifurcation. In the end, we learn this to be the origin story of Anaphoria Island, where The Log found sanctuary, took root and became the great shading Meru Tree offering its branches for the creation of musical instruments.
After the show, the audience is always invited backstage to see the cast of surprisingly colourful puppets standing in their sandbox below the screen (where they rest between on-screen appearances) and the assembly of lights, effects and unusual musical instruments. Inevitably, audience members have a go at playing them, and a bubbling excitement arises as people chatter, twirl puppets and try their hands at microtonal music-making.
There is a loose international network of shadow puppeteers ranging from steady traditionalists to contemporary experimentalists. According to Kraig, not all approve of his post-modern character amalgamations and narrative detournements. But the audience in the community hall that night were little concerned with such arcane considerations. They were rapt by the archaic magic of shadow play, the players’ silly antic-voices, the strange and beautiful otherworldly music and the deft interplay of dreamy drift, dadaist nonsense, topical insight and willful playfulness.
The Shadow Theatre of Anaphoria Island appeals because of its mysterious sense of lost-in-time-ness and the beguiling charm of a make-do aesthetic entwined with virtuosic musical ability. It is a captivating manifestation of this obsolete form, demonstrative of its infinite capacity for regeneration and our innate, lifelong fascination with the ultimate simplicity of the immaterial moving shadow.
Gary Warner is an artist and art worker with a studio in Darlinghurst, Sydney and an off-grid bush retreat 50km north-west of there. In 1997 he started CDP Media, a cultural production company that has developed and delivered a wide variety of museum exhibition projects in collaboration with FRD and other designers, architects, artists and curators. His personal art practice spans various media including sound, video, drawing, installation and performance in contexts including writing, curating, collaboration, design, workshops and exhibitions. In 2016 he curated FIELDWORK: artist encounters at the Sydney College of the Arts and was commissioned by FRD to create a permanent multi-screen video installation for a new ceramics gallery at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. For more information, see garywarner.net, fieldwork.show and cdpmedia.com.au