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  • Hannah Hightman

Timmy Ong

When she found out I was doing a project about puppets, my friend Paige Barry (herself a puppeteer and photographer who helped with the images in this book) introduced me to Timmy Ong, a true multi-hyphenate who had recently entered into the world of puppeteering after performing as an actor, a dancer, and a musician. Ong hails from Malaysia, where he spent years working for an energy company and then in administration at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra before moving to NYC. His foray into puppetry began when he played cello in a show put on by notable puppeteer Maria Cama. As we were talking, I was really struck by Ong’s exuberance for all art forms and his firm belief that they all enrich each other and should not be viewed as separate.

How did you come to be involved in the puppetry world?

It is a very westernized thing to have your art forms very separate, like a dancer dances, an actor acts, a musician makes music and all of that. In a lot of Asian cultures, you should be familiar with all of the different types of performances. Having said that, I don’t have that kind of experience. There’s traditional shadow puppetry that originates in the islands of Malaysia. We have a shadow puppet tradition, so I’ve always known that they exist but I have not actually done it. As a performer, I just make it work. I don’t believe in this traditional structure of like ‘Oh, I’m an actor, I can’t dance.’ I’ve always wanted to get involved in other types of performances. I’m just thinking of the best ways to articulate a story, is it through movement, song, acting? I’ve always been open to puppetry but I really only had a chance to do it these past few months when I submitted a proposal A.R.T. New York. They were having a 50th anniversary celebration and instead of having a gala, they turned the whole space into a big exhibition with performers sprinkled all around the building. They were looking for independent artists in the city to propose something. And I proposed two things. Back in Malaysia, aside from being an actor, I also do a lot of site-specific theater, multidisciplinary performances. So I proposed a site-specific performance that’s like on a star case. They call it a mechanical platform, it’s like this catwalk space. They also said that their windows were able to hold a full human body, like you can sit and stand on the windowsill. So I was thinking of this semi-puppetry thing, where there would be a person wearing a puppet-like costume and standing on the windowsill telling a story. I wasn’t sure what the story was going to be but that was the visual I had in mind. As the proposal went through, they were trying to accommodate as many people as possible, so they were tweaking proposals and asking for alternatives. They changed me from the windowsill to a different location, and I ended up in a space under the staircase. But it seemed like they were keen on the idea of a wearable puppet. Because the location kept changing, I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell. But I knew I wanted the puppet to be a pig, because people on earth have so many ideas about what a pig should or should not be. There are religions where you can’t eat pig, pigs are intelligent animals, they have a reputation of being unclean but they actually keep themselves very clean. From there, I just sat down and wrote a story. It just came out. This pig is almost like an alien life form that is traveling from one part of the universe to another part of the universe, and it just so happens to be landing on Earth. My idea is to have a physical body because that’s how things are on Earth, so once on earth, this life form just sort of collects all these materials and it forms into this image of a pig. And then, it’s a story about her being stuck on this place and not being able to get out. And then she’s finally released from earth to go to somewhere else. So that is how I got into puppetry I guess, as far as making puppets. But my first close encounter with puppetry was actually last year. I have a friend of a friend, Maria Camia, who was putting on a show and needed a musician to play for her. My friend found out she wanted a cello player, so she hit me up, and I agreed to do it. When I went to her apartment and saw all of her puppets I was like ‘Holy shit.’ To be in such close proximity to someone who actually built puppets and performed with them, that really inspired me. The seed of puppetry was planted. That was last year and then this year I’ve had the opportunity to let it grow a little more.

How does puppetry differ from other performing arts?

With other art forms, music aside, my body is the medium. As an actor and dancer and singer, my body is the vessel and the focus. Puppetry is a bit like playing an instrument, where it’s not about you, it’s about the thing that you’re handling. Even if you wear a puppet, once you put it on, it’s no longer about you. It feels kinda nice. It’s kinda like a mask. You have to honor the thing you’re maneuvering. That’s the beauty of it. Sometimes you can’t find a voice or there are things you don’t feel comfortable sharing in your body. By channeling that into something else, that gives you a voice that is safe for you to explore.

How does your background as a musician and dancer inform your puppetry work?

When I have a wearable puppet, I get very physical. When you wear a puppet, it’s easy to still be in your body. But I’m very grateful I have the physical training to put it on, and when I look in the mirror I know what I need to do with the rest of my body to honor the form and shape of the puppet. When you’re using a puppet, language isn’t really necessary. You can choose not to use it and just make sounds. Telling a story using sounds is very childlike but it also transcends language. As a musician that is what is helping me. In Maria’s show, there were certain songs she wanted me to play, but I proposed having some incidental music here and sound effects there. Because of my music background, I have the capability to do that.

What makes a good puppeteer?

To me, if the puppeteer is versatile and adaptable and flexible mentally and physically. Also, if the puppeteer is able to be selfless. If the puppeteer has struck the balance of I am using my body to tell a story, but it’s not about me. I have seen some puppetry work where I can still see the puppeteer is not completely giving themselves over to the puppet, for whatever reason, maybe lack of training, not enough exploration, or they just couldn’t make that leap.

What do you see as the major themes of your work?

Challenging the status quo of the world. With or without puppets, I like to make people think about the things we are taking and doing and being, like thinking about capitalism, thinking about gender equality, thinking about climate change, and consumerism. It’s not my goal to change the world, but I like encouraging people to think about the things that they’re doing and whether or not they benefit anyone or anything. With the puppet I made for A.R.T. New York, I made it a point to create mainly with recycled materials. The things that I bought to make the puppet were just hot glue and masking tape. The outer decorations, I used random flyers and bottles and cans. It’s not an explicit thing where I’m like ‘Look I used recycled materials’ but I hope when people see it they’re like ‘Oh that’s cool he used bottle caps as the eyes.’

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