China’s ancient art of rod puppetry will meet up with Maine’s maritime history in a rich abundance of offerings for children – and adults – in the Children’s Area of the 66th National Folk Festival. On Pickering Square, behind the Maine Discovery Museum, festival-goers will discover games both quiet and active, animals, music, fish printmaking, and those famous Chinese puppets, as big as 2 or 3 feet tall and brilliantly colored.
Puppeteer Yuqin Wang is a native of Beijing and a veteran of the Beijing Opera. She now lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband, Zhengli Xu, and their daughter, Brenda. Collaborating as the Dragon Art Studio, they have performed at the Olympic Games in Atlanta and at the National Folk Festival in East Lansing, Mich., and have been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award for traditional artists given in the United States, according to Amy Grossman, programmer for the National Council for Traditional Arts in Washington.
“The puppets feature stories about animals and humans and include social and moral lessons about kindness, hard work, bravery and patience,” Grossman said.
The puppets are controlled by rods, so they can weigh up to 10 pounds. They should appeal to children because they are “very visual” and attract the eye as well as the ear.
According to the Dragon Art Studio Web site, Chinese puppetry is more than 1,000 years old and combines artistic expression with detailed craftsmanship, traditional Chinese opera movements and music, special effects and humor. Titles of typical performances are “The Crane and the Tortoise,” “Old Man and the Monkeys,” “A Donkey’s Best Friend” and “The Super Duper Ping Pong Match.”
Back in the 19th century, Maine was famous for its sleek, elegant and speedy clippers, which sailed halfway around the world to China, filling their holds with porcelain and silk to satisfy the tastes of increasingly prosperous Americans.
It is, therefore, altogether fitting that at this last National Folk Festival on the shores of the Penobscot, East should meet West again, when Yuqin Wang and Zhengli Xu bring their Dragon Art Studio to Bangor.
Andrea Stark, director of the Maine Discovery Museum, has been heading up the activities in the Children’s Area. In a bow to Maine’s maritime history, knot-tying will be offered in addition to games such as chess and cribbage. Children will learn to construct a variety of boats from foil and other materials and will be able to try out their sailing vessels in small pools. They will make hats with a nautical theme, design flags and paint their faces – always a popular activity.
Hoop-rolling, jump-roping and juggling will be part of the mix.
The Children’s Area is not a drop-off place, Stark cautioned, but is a great opportunity for people of all ages to participate in both quiet and vigorous activities.
One of the more unusual arts and crafts, Stark said, will be making fish prints, an ancient Japanese art. Before photography, Japanese fishermen made prints to document their catch. Children and adults will use plastic forms and perhaps also fresh (dead) fish to create colorful and beautiful prints.
The Pickering Square setting will have a stage providing a cozier experience than other venues at the festival. “There’s not a whole lot of difference in entertainment as far as children and adults go,” Stark said. Last year John Styles performed a Punch and Judy show that appealed to all ages, she noted. “The philosophy is to expose everyone to the best music, but here it’s more intimate and easier to get close.”
One of the music presenters this year is the McFravis Family Fiddlers, a traditional fiddle group. McFravis is a combination of the performers’ names: McMahon, French and Davis. Judy McMahon is from Swanville, Maine, as are her two daughters, Maya and Anna French. Her sister, Janet McMahon, and her two daughters, Sophie and Josie Davis, are from Waldoboro.
Tony Sohns of Bucksport, who has been at the last two festivals, will be back with his tent housing reptiles, amphibians and insects. Known as the “Bug Man” for his Bug Zoo programs in schools and libraries, Sohns is on the staff of the Maine Discovery Museum.
Sandra Piechocki of Belfast will offer “At Home At Sea,” a program based on the life of the Colcord children of Searsport, who sailed with their captain father in the 19th century, spending months at sea. Piechocki and Linda Stec are known collectively as OutofHand Productions, performing a blend of fantasy and comedy at libraries, schools and fairs in Maine since 1983.
Other acts attractive to children will be announced later, said Heather McCarthy, executive director of the National Folk Festival in Bangor.