Pauline Benton was a pioneering puppeteer, whose Red Gate Players were the first professional company to bring traditional Chinese shadow theatre to audiences in North America. Her legacy laid an invaluable foundation for subsequent artists and companies.
This February, in celebration of the Lunar New Year, visitors at Flushing Town Hall will get a glimpse into Pauline Benton’s world in a rarely seen exhibition containing a selection antique shadow figures, detailed field notes of traditional Chinese shadow theater performance, a portable shadow stage, plus photos, programs, posters, playscripts, and films spanning a 40-year career.
Curated by Stephen Kaplin and Chinese Theatre Works, the exhibition features materials that Benton collected or commissioned on her frequent trips to China in the 1920’s and 1930’s (a few dating back to the 18th and early 19th centuries), her touring shadow stage, as well as materials from the Red Gate archives.
“This exhibition features a sampling from one of the largest private collection of Chinese shadow figures in the United States, and represents a significant historical and ethnographic treasure trove,” said Stephen Kaplin. “Most of the figures in the collection present a unique snapshot of the life and popular culture of early 20th century urban China. Much of the world depicted by these shadows was either destroyed in the fires of World War II or during the massive upheavals of the Communist Revolution.”
The Red Gate Players were active from the 1930s through the early 60’s– at first based out of New York City and later California. When Benton retired, her hundreds of shadow figures were packed away in several large steamer trunks. Before her death in 1975, she had donated much of her collection to the Minnesota Museum of Art. The remainder (including most of the company’s “working puppets,” archives and stage equipment) were passed onto the Gold Mountain Institute for Traditional Shadow Theater (GMI) in 1996, in keeping with Benton’s wish that the figures be used for performance, education and public display.
When the Benton collection arrived at GMI, the shadow figures had been stored their stuffy trunks for almost 30 years. During that time, the tung oil, with which each figure had been coated to preserve the animal skin and give the shadows added translucency, had extruded and turned viscous and syrupy. They had become stuck together and compressed into a solid, gummy mass. GMI arduously worked to salvage the collection, restoring them over several years.
Since 2001, when GMI merged with Chinese Theatre Workshop to form Chinese Theatre Works, further conservation efforts produced more pieces containing the restored figures, and they have appeared in exhibitions of shadow figures. Most recently, even more shadow figures – which Benton had given as a gift – surfaced, and these will now be displayed for the first time with the more traditional shadow figures.
“Pauline Benton’s company pioneered the presentation of cross-cultural puppetry forms,” Kaplin said. “This exhibit will feature fascinating material from the Benton archives that places her work into the historical context of American Puppetry. While it is commonplace today to see puppets from any corner of the globe, back in the early ‘30’s, Benton’s figures must have been a revelation to her audiences, and they still are.”
An opening reception will be held at Flushing Town Hall on Friday, February 3 from 5:00 to 7:00 PM. The exhibition will be on display during the Lunar New Year from Saturday, February 4 to Sunday, February 26. Gallery hours are from Noon to 5:00 PM on weekends.
Flushing Town Hall also will complement the exhibition with a Rooster Shadow Puppet Workshop on February 5, and a Lunar New Year Shadow Puppet Slam – for adult audiences only – on February 17. More details are at www.flushingtownhall.org.
Tickets can be purchased at www.flushingtownhall.org or by calling (718) 463-7700 x222. Flushing Town Hall is accessible by car, bus, train and foot – located a short distance from the 7 train at 137-35 Northern Blvd., in Flushing, Queens.
This season, Flushing Town Hall is opening its doors to teenagers – for FREE. Under the new “Teen Access Program”, all 13- to 19-year-old boys and girls (whether a member or not) will be welcomed to attend any performance for free. The program is designed to appeal to students and help foster a greater love in the arts and culture.