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The Life of Paper

Pangaea Arts Society

Origami – the art of paper folding – has long been relegated to the far corner of the craft store, considered simply a hobby or a child’s pastime. That view holds true even in Japan, the country long associated with the tradition of paper folding.

However, an original, new play called The Life of Paper reveals paper folding to be a beautiful, complicated art form whose journey is inextricably linked with the history of paper itself.

“I had no idea of the history of paper folding,” enthuses Heidi Specht, artistic director of Vancouver-based Pangaea Arts and the director/writer of The Life of Paper. “The journey of paper and origami is intertwined. It is a fascinating story.”

The play traces the history of paper and paper folding from its origins in second-century China, through its movement into the rest of Asia, and along the Silk Road to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

“The story of paper shows us how knowledge and culture were transferred between people in the past,” adds Specht. It was war – in particular, captured Chinese soldiers – that brought paper from the Orient to the Arab world.

In The Life of Paper, all the sets, props (including musical instruments), wigs and most of the costumes are made from folded paper. The unusual sets include a 13-foot-tall origami tree complete with owl, two armies of life-size soldiers, as well as the large, green dragon that appears in the last scene.

The extraordinary visuals are complemented by a range of performance styles. As each part of the story of paper moves through different time periods in different parts of the world, the play switches from Chinese opera to shadow puppets, to mime, stand-up comedy and modern theatre.

The artistic mastermind behind all the paper folding is world-renowned origami artist Joseph Wu. A resident of Vancouver, 38-year-old Wu designs and folds complicated fi gures, from mythical creatures to animals, people and objects. His paper creations have appeared in commercials, in editorials and in print advertising in such wellknown publications as the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone.

Being the chief artist for The Life of Paper was a labour of love for Wu. Three years in the making, hours and hours of designing and folding the sets and objects used in the play, and directing dozens of paper-folding volunteers, meant Wu had little time for his young family. “But I wanted to help people learn about a piece of history that is obscure.”

Wu also wanted audiences to see paper folding today as an art form – one that involves complex geometries, intricate detail, delicate papers and creative expression all rolled into one.

“It is my hope that The Life of Paper will help bring a greater awareness of modern origami to art lovers everywhere.”

Besides the theatrical production, The Life of Paper also included an exhibition of origami artists, as well as workshops and lectures. These additional elements helped to deepen the audience’s appreciation for and understanding of the topic, and are common in Pangaea productions.

Vancouver Foundation supported the development of The Life of Paper with a $15,000 grant. It is not the fi rst time the community foundation has funded a project by Pangaea Arts, which describes itself as an “intercultural, interdisciplinary world arts organization.”

The group focuses on introducing Canadian audiences to stories, traditions and performance styles from around the world, often blending different styles to create signature pieces that are both unique and educational. They are fond of introducing audiences to little-known histories.

Started 10 years ago, Specht explains why she created Pangaea Arts. “We weren’t seeing the kind of live theatre that refl ected this community, which is very diverse. Some of the stories, histories and traditions of our diverse communities have been forgotten. At the same time, we knew of professional artists and performers who immigrated to Canada and were now relegated to performing in amateur community productions.”

The name of the company, Pangaea, is inspired by the theoretical single continent that is believed to have existed about 200 to 250 million years ago. It serves as a metaphor for Specht’s desire to bridge the gaps between cultures, and mix old traditions with the new.

“Vancouver Foundation has been one of our biggest supporters of the type of work we are doing with Pangaea Arts,” notes Specht.

As for what is next for The Life of Paper ? Both Wu and Specht hope to take it on the road so more audiences can come to appreciate the story of origami and the magnifi cent ways paper can be shaped and adapted.

Looks like the paper dragon will be thrilling more audiences in the days to come. VF

More information on Pangaea Arts is available at, or to view Joseph Wu’s origami artwork visit

(Story written: 2008)

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