Monday, February 1, 1999

Name: Michael Schuster
Age: 46
Education: UCLA, UH
Occupation: Folk arts coordinator, State Foundation on Culture and the Arts
Hobbies: Weight training, reading

Preserving traditional art

For centuries, Burmese sat through long nights at pagodas, watching "yokthe pwe," or traditional puppetry.

But even in an isolated country like Myanmar, hours of puppets acting out the past lives of the Buddha couldn't compete with thrill-packed minutes of TV crime and movie-star romance. Yokthe pwe almost went the way of the dinosaurs.

Just in time, the puppetry started to change, becoming a better fit for modern, urban life. Now locals and a growing number of tourists can attend performances that last one hour, as well as eight, and see a variety of acts. In a major revival, young people are learning from aging master puppeteers.

Michael Schuster has just finished documenting traditional puppetry in Myanmar, and much of what he learned applies to his new mission as folk arts coordinator at the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts -- preserving the state's many forms of traditional ethnic art.

"There's incredible pressure on folk art not to survive the transition to technology," he said. "A lot of artists who love their culture suddenly saw it disappear. They have to change in order to reach modern audiences, and they are."

Hawaii's recent immigrants present Schuster with one of his biggest challenges.

"They have a harder time because they don't know how the system of continuity can work here," Schuster said. "They've been taken out of their context."

Schuster's own passion for traditional art took root 25 years ago in Burma, now called Myanmar. "I was overwhelmed by the beauty and knew I wanted to learn traditional art." A puppeteer himself, he made his way around the world studying in India, Indonesia and Europe. He worked as a professional puppeteer in Israel for 10 years.

"People are crying out for continuity with the past as things become faster-paced and more disassociated in our modern life," he said.

Hawaii, he said, is a "perfect case in point" for preserving traditional art. Native Hawaiians almost lost theirs to colonialists and new religions. But recent years have seen a great revival. "So much is reaching the public," he said, naming hula, slack-key guitar, saddle-making and chanting. "We've also seen creation of many new forms."

There are masters of traditional art from many cultures here besides native Hawaiian. Schuster said he will focus on reviving apprenticeship programs for all of them, whether they excel in Burmese puppetry, Laotian weaving, Cantonese opera or Okinawan music.

The main ingredients for preservation: Make sure the art continues through apprenticeships; make sure it reaches the public through festivals and other community events; and document it so that people in the future will see and understand it.

Susan Kreifels, Star-Bulletin

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