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Toy Theatres

For her residency at Pollock’s Toy Museum Vaishali Prazmari is making a toy theatre for the 1001 Nights. She focuses in particular on Pollocks’ amazing historic collections of toy theatres and archives. Variously known as model theatres, miniature theatres or paper theatres, toy theatres hold a special place in her heart as paper and stories come to life. She is using her miniature manuscript painting training in combination with Pollock’s toy theatre expertise to make a theatre for the 1001 Nights that will contain the potential for all 1001 stories. Although popular stories associated with the Nights such as Aladdin and Ali Baba were firmly placed in the toy theatre tradition, attempting to encompass all 1001 tales is to our knowledge something that has not been done before. Vaishali believes that Indo-Persian miniatures inspired many of the golden age illustrators of the Arabian Nights and she marries the knowledge of this unique painting tradition with the toy theatre tradition to create her own hybrid, updated form.


She is very excited to be combining several of her interests in this piece and residency which will culminate in making her unique wooden toy theatre and designing smaller published paper versions for you to make at home in both black and white and full colour, in the old style of ‘a penny plain and tuppence coloured’. 

Vaishali used to make toy theatres as a little girl and is fascinated by the feelings of wonder and power children have in small world play. A small child at heart herself, she also loves toys in general and what Virginia Woolf described as the ‘cathedral of childhood’. 

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A rustle at the back… giggles of excitement at the front… a swish as the curtains are revealed and the play begins. Introducing ALADDIN - the original rags-to-riches boy hero everyone loves - made into a paper toy theatre. Inspired in equal parts by the glorious tradition of Pollocks, Redington and Webb toy theatres and juvenile drama as well as her long training in the Indo-Persian miniature painting techniques of her heritage, Vaishali Prazmari presents the first of her intricate toy theatres for the upcoming festive season. And what better play to welcome the festivities…This series of posts will take you to backstage ALADDIN. 


Aladdin is set in China and Prazmari has taken this literally. This toy theatre is an intricate Chinese box that contains layers nestled within layers and subplots and metanarratives. We’ll uncover the meanings behind each symbol and plug into her deep research as she has poured a wealth of Chinese culture, her Hong Kong childhood memories and imagination into this highly detailed, highly researched, highly collectible and highly small toy theatre. 


In each behind the scenes post we’ll dive down into the smallest tiny details that make up the whole of ALADDIN, from the meanings behind each ancient pattern to the very dastardly poses of the little characters. We won’t show the full images of the toy theatre as it goes to press, only parts; the whole will be revealed after these glimpses of its intricacies. We are sharing the black and white ‘penny plain’ version first here. Expect dragons, brave heroes and heroines, wicked magicians, powerful genies, glittering gems, giant eggs, bustling marketplaces, gorgeous palaces, trapdoors, flying beds, swords, glowworms, jewelled trees, vast deserts, magic lamps, skullduggery and more…

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Curtain call: this curtain is based on an old Victorian original from an Ali Baba toy theatre in the Pollocks archives. Completely symmetrical, it echoes the Chinese architecture that also inspires my ALADDIN toy theatre. (Asymmetric curtains I love, and will appear in future toy theatres). 

Chinese architecture is very symmetrical, and based on the square. A lot of Chinese culture is in fact based on the square, or the union of the circle and the square (heaven and earth). Even the formation of Chinese characters take shape in a square. Nice, neat, orderly and symmetrical. 

However, Chinese gardens are noted for their asymmetry, their winding paths, and their subtle and refined manipulation of nature to make it look ‘more natural than natural’ - pure artifice in the service of nature. I have always found this to be a wonderful paradox. Compare this with the winding tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, and the asymmetry inherent in those as well as in the deep structures of Indo-Persian miniature painting… and think about orderly, perfectly symmetrical-geometrical Islamic gardens, stand-ins for paradise on earth...

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A Chinese inspired theatre needs a Chinese roof. Scroll through to see the one I settled on for this theatre: it’s actually the simplest one, to offset the intricate designs of the rest of the proscenium. Chinese architecture (and indeed much of Chinese culture) is based on the square. China in the past had a lot of space and carpenters (there was no profession of ‘architect’ as such, and carpenters did the work of making buildings, which were made of wood) built horizontally, not generally vertically. Chinese traditional houses are not often multi-storey. They sprawl horizontally and rooms lead into other rooms in the manner of the 1001 Nights, so this is where my research interest appears (my Memory Palace is also based on this principle). Buildings are made for the cultures they house - many well-to-do Chinese families were multigenerational and housed big families. ‘4 generations under 1 roof’ - this is a traditional Chinese aspiration. Our family made it, briefly, when my beloved grandmother and my eldest son spent a couple of memorable Christmasses together. Quarters were strictly defined (this is imperial, patriarchal China)… and often they had family theatres! To welcome travelling theatre troupes - who would stage operas and plays for the family, and sequestered women and children would watch from different levels and enjoy the performance with the same good views.


So the house is a square, or a cube. But the roof - oh, those iconic, unmistakably Chinese roofs - they are triangles. And I love them. Here are my variations, and the simplest is the most iconic of all. Reminiscent of a poet’s pavilion on a faraway mountain, they are instantly recognisable and much loved. They can be classic green of the mountains. Even blue of the seas. Even blue-green, like a Classic of Mountains and Seas of their own: the colour 青 qing - one of the oldest Chinese colours, which can be green, blue, green-blue, the colour of nature or springtime or even black. No Chinese I’ve met has ever agreed on this colour.  I’ll tell you my theory later - the first version of my theatre will be black and white, penny-plain, for you to colour in however you like…

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Did you know there is not ‘one’ standard Chinese dragon but several? The dragon has 9 sons, each with their own personality. Why nine? Well, perhaps because much of Chinese culture is based on a square, and a square can be nicely divided into 9 parts like a magic square. One dragon son likes music and is seen on musical instruments; one likes to fight and is seen on weaponry and armour; one likes to scream and can therefore be found on bells; one likes to sit down and is placed under Buddha’s feet; one is able to uncomplainingly carry heavy objects and is found under stele (stone tablets), graves or tombstones; one likes the law and guards prisons; one likes to drink water and ornaments bridges. That’s 7 dragons so far. 


Another, the adventurous chaofeng 嘲風, is placed on the four corners of roofs. The toy theatre doesn’t have a roof, it has a façade, so we’ve featured the 9th son of the dragon, the chiwen 蚩吻 ‘fish dragon’, placed on the edges of the roof ridges, said to swallow evil influences as well as guard against fire. He swallows fire and sprays waves of water instead. Chinese houses were traditionally made of wood so naturally this was a concern - just as it is for our paper toy theatres. I’ll have to find a way to have safe indoor fireworks, unlike the Victorians who used real gunpowder for their explosions, resulting in the burning down of many a toy theatre. I’ve scoured books on Chinese architecture and racked my memory and yes, they are always there on the roofs. Look out for them now that you know. My chiwen 蚩吻 fish dragon above is a talisman for good luck!

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The theatre needs a stage… the stage needs a floor… and this is the Hong Kong wooden parquet floor I had in my flat as a child growing up in the Far East. Very typical of Hong Kong flats, as it’s subtropical South China where there are hot, humid summers and mild, dry winters. You can paint it chequerboard style, or all wood veneers, or a multicoloured pattern. The stage is set for you…

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Desert scene with huge dunes dwarfing the tiny city in the distance. And a night sky full of stars. This is the backdrop for the stage of ALADDIN as well as a scene in itself. The wicked magician, the fake ‘Uncle Abanazar’, takes Aladdin into the desert where he conjures up a trapdoor leading down deep dark steps to a cave of wonders holding a magic lamp…

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100 Children are a common motif in Chinese art. There aren’t actually 100 children, there are just loads of kids. There was actually a historical figure, Zhou Wenwang (the founder of the Zhou Dynasty) who had 99 sons from his 24 wives (!!) and then he adopted a baby orphan boy to make it a neat 100. Of course they symbolise prosperity, fecundity and fertility as well as joy and happiness. Marguerite Fawdry of Pollock’s toy theatres fame notably loved Chinese art and especially this motif which features in her book ‘Chinese Childhood’, so this is also in homage to her as well as my own Chinese childhood…

















I have taken as a source inspiration a handscroll of 100 children in the British Museum: and here are some of them merrily playing, fighting, looking after each other and even putting on a theatrical play, all at one side of my stage, blissfully unaware of the action happening upstairs on the main stage, like a marginal scene…

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The Literati are having their own party… it’s downstairs from the main stage, opposite the kids who are being entertained on the other side. The elegant intelligentsia debate poetry, literature, calligraphy and painting at their leisure, and cups of wine gently flow down the stream to be picked up and tasted by the next person. These intellectuals know how to relax. The ideal life of a scholar-official is to paint in your country house, away from the frenzied city (at least for a little while). They lounge and finish each others’ poems or strings of chengyu - Chinese pithy 4-character idioms - and play drinking games amid elevated conversation. I’ve caught at least one of them napping.

They don’t sell their paintings for money but paint for pleasure only, and for their friends. The cultivated amateur has a higher social status than the professional painter, who must sell their paintings for a living. These gentlemen already have jobs - they even work at the highest echelons of state - they just want to get away from them for a bit. Who doesn’t want a holiday? Hope you get invited to the Literati Party where wine and inspiration flow freely under the moonlight. 

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The Orchestra: What is a toy theatre performance without music? The orchestra is there, all set up and already waiting below the stage. My Chinese musicians are girls and ladies. The tomb of Yi of Zeng from 477 BCE revealed a large number of female attendants who may have been musicians in his orchestra. Music could be ritualistic as well as celebratory and for entertainment… as well as an accompaniment to theatrical productions. Musical instruments signify harmony and conjugal harmony. A zither represents a scholarly gentleman, though women were also musicians. It’s also known as a lute or a lyre. The wood should be the dryandra tree since that is the only tree on which the Phoenix is said to alight, thus giving the instrument a touch of magic. The wood would be soaked in pure water for 72 days to correspond with the 72 divisions of the year. Every part was symbolic. 

The 8 Classical Chinese instruments were made of different elements and materials and include a bell (metal), chimes (stone or jade), a wind instrument shaped like an egg (representing clay or earth), a zither or qin (silk or strings), a percussion instrument (wood), a drum (leather), a reed pipe or sheng (a gourd; this homophone is also related to birth and/or success) and a flute (bamboo). 

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Chinese Patterns and objects 

I know some of you are very interested in patterns so you may like to know the origin of the Chinese patterns in my toy theatre. Here are some of my border patterns and I’ll go through their motifs. The lattices are geometric patterns. 


Rhombus/diamond and lozenge pattern - they can overlap. They are lucky, but their origin is obscure, as I suspect most geometric forms are since they are so ancient. You find them on doors, architecture, textiles and more. An ancient headdress worn to symbolise victory and to exorcise evil spirits may have been the inspiration, also believed to be worn by the Queen Mother of the West Xi Wangmu or Wangmu Niangniang. Our Chinese teacher taught the kids that the ancient way to address your parents is ‘niang’ for mother and ‘die’ for father, which strangely does still sound ‘right’. (Later this changed to the still-current form of ‘mama’ and ‘baba’, and you can guess which is which; although Chinese is basically completely unrelated to Western languages there are some things that are mostly universal.)


Ruyi - following on from clouds, the Ruyi is the wish-fulfilling sceptre and may also be found repeated as its own pattern. It is a homophone for ‘as you wish’. It also resembles the lingzhi mushroom of immortality. There is a theory that the Ruyi sceptre originated as a backscratcher! This is something I can relate to - my grandmother had several backscratchers made of wood fashioned with a hand at the tip so you could scratch hard to reach places by yourself. Those, and toothpicks, just seem very Chinese, very practical, and quite humorous at the same time, with more than one use. In my kids’ hands backscratchers become fighting sticks. They are not allowed to touch my mirrored Ruyi of course. The Inuit also made backscratchers, theirs carved out of whale teeth. Similarly to the Native American talking stick, when holding a Ruyi it’s your turn to talk.

If the Ruyi is related to the Chinese cloud forms, then so is the cintamani - which is yet another wish-fulfiller, a stone or a jewel, said to be the equivalent to the Philosopher’s Stone. In my Clouds class I relate both to the origins of the spiralling cloud form itself. In Tibetan tradition it falls from the sky, and it’s also common to Hinduism and Buddhism. In Ottoman Turkey, only rulers were allowed to wear this pattern, which is actually very simple (though ancient). In Turkish and Islamic tradition, it may also resemble the markings of animals…

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Yin yang - this symbol is familiar to many. It originates in the 4th century BCE. These are not necessarily related to gender but to principles. Yin is the female principle, night, shadow, darkness, quiet, inaction, weakness. Yang is the male principle, light, sunlight, day, hot, dynamic, strong. Understood more as polarities than opposites, there is a little bit of masculine in the feminine, and a little bit of yin in the yang. They are not at war with each other, as they may be in other ancient conceptions. Indeed, they are exchanging - one rises and then curls down to sink while the other one rises…It’s the everlasting circle of life and movement and my favourite Chinese symbol, so commonly seen, yet so fundamentally misunderstood. In Daoism, it is all about balance. Yet the yin is also singled out for praise as it is tranquil. There’s a reason it’s known as ‘yinyang’ and not ‘yangyin’. If you look closely, the yin is in fact on top…


Clouds - my favourite and one of the oldest and quintessentially Chinese designs. These little spiralling clouds can also be found as squared spirals, like Ancient Greek ones, and date back to the ancient Shang period, 1523-1028 BCE. The patterns that look like question marks represent thunder (very kind and gentle thunder!). The earlier clouds have fewer curls and curlicues; the later ones are more ornate and frilly and sometimes resemble the Ruyi wish-fulfilling sceptre or lingzhi fungus so can be confusing - although those will have stems and other features - and all are good omens. I teach a whole class devoted to Clouds; there is so much to tell about these merry designs. (Clouds themselves may have inspired the watery wave patterns, which is why my next class in the Elements series is Water. You’ll also see the same spiralling forms in Fire.) 


The wave pattern can occur as pyramids with foam sprays at the top, most famously seen on royal robes, and I’ve included them on the robes of my Emperor and Empress. The waves indicate the distinction between our human world and the legendary Isles of the Immortals (a favourite subject of mine - more on these later) - immortality, relegated to longevity, is a central Chinese concern. In terms of colour for both clouds and waves, reality is strictly ignored - they are multicoloured. Then again, if you think of the many moods of the sky and see, perhaps it is not so far-fetched after all. There is a tradition of 5-coloured clouds which signifies peace. Clouds mean good fortune and good luck. 

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