Campus News

Teaching in the New Normal: Epics, Puppets and Music with Jennifer Fraser

June 1, 2020
Communications Staff
paper puppet.
Students were challenged to design their own wayang, Indonesian performance practice that uses handmade puppets.

These days, the classroom has taken on new meaning for both faculty and students at Oberlin. In this series we are sharing stories from faculty on how they are navigating this new normal. 

Jennifer Fraser, associate professor of ethnomusicology and anthropology, describes how students in her course, Epics, Puppets and Music, successfully transformed what would have been an in-person final project into a highly creative, socially-distanced version. While working in different locations, students created a virtual wayang, an intricate Indonesian performance practice that uses handmade puppets and incorporates live gamelan music.

According to rising senior and musical studies major Olivia Fink, her experience creating the piece was a collaborative and creative endeavor. 

“I think my other classmates share the same sentiment—our socially-distant wayang was a fun, creative outlet for all of us,” she says. “Each student had skills that were utilized in different ways; student Lexie Pratt is a visual artist and made individual puppets and sent them across the country to our classmates; audio-editors reworked the dialogue tracks to fit over gamelan music, editors edited, and of course our professor, Jennifer Fraser, helped in every way possible. My favorite part was the overwhelming sense of collaboration and community that I hadn't felt since I left Oberlin. I think our wayang performance really was something for us all to look forward to and know we accomplished it together.”

Fraser shares the story of the original piece. Watch the full presentation below, and read the program notes

From Fraser: 

This semester, students in the course Epics, Puppets and Music (ETHN 202) were challenged to design their own wayang performance. The course took an interesting turn when in-person classes were suspended in March, and we switched to online learning. Through this all, students created something truly unique: a socially-distanced wayang. 

Not only does the final product speak to their creativity, but it speaks to the depths of their learning in truly internalizing and embodying the principles of the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic of ancient India, and its adaptation to the wayang format in Indonesia. The script they wrote embraces the ability of the art form to be responsive to the times, and it uses the Ramayana as the basis to talk about the spread of an infectious greed that traps the population inside. The only creature immune is Anoman, the monkey king, who sports a facemask for extra protection as he roams about, protected from the Covid Ogres who speak in rhyming verse. Rather than opting for recording individual scenes and stitching them together, the students decided to coordinate a performance over Zoom where the puppets meet in boxed-in screens. 

The script is not only original, but collaboratively produced. Students all took on different tasks for the final production from editing the script, to making the puppets, narrating, speaking, moving the puppets, editing the soundtrack, and editing the whole thing. We collectively wrote the program notes and most of the music comes from former Oberlin students during Winter Term intensives in Oberlin or Indonesia. What they have produced is a brilliant piece of creative work in response to the current crisis, and truly exemplifies deep learning through experiential pedagogies. In some ways, I doubt the production would have been quite as creative had we proceeded with an on campus performance as planned. This is all their work. I had very little to do with it, and I would love to share it with the world.

Jennifer Fraser

Jennifer Fraser

  • Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology
View Jennifer Fraser's biography

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