In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, Pauline Benton travelled to Beijing and fell in love with Chinese shadow theatre. She bought some figures in the antique markets and commissioned a large set of figures from traditional craftsman. She received training in shadow theater performance from masters in the field. Upon returning to the US, she founded The Red Gate Players, the first professional Chinese shadow company in America. For decades the Red Gate Players performed authentic Chinese shadow repertoire to American audiences until Ms. Benton’s retirement and death in 1974.
Twenty years later, the Benton collection of 350 shadow figures, scenic pieces, musical instruments, stage. Props, scripts, books and detailed notebooks full of research into Chinese shadow technique and repertoire, were presented to Jo Humphrey, founder of the Gold Mountain Institute for Traditional Shadow Theater. Ms. Humphrey spent years cleaning and refurbishing many of these shadow figures(that had badly deteriorated and stuck together after decades in storage). She mounted many of the best figures onto panels for display and exhibition.
Since 2001, CTW has been guardians of this unique cultural treasure. They have created performances that have starred Benton figures, including Kun/Shadow Whitesnake, Tiger Tales and Birth of the Monkey King among others. They have displayed some of the large panels of Benton figures, created by Humphrey in exhibitions at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library and at Flushing Town Hall. In 2011, another collection of 100 figures was given to CTW. These had been given by Benton to her friend Polly McGuire, a storyteller from San Francisco. This unique collection includes many fairy tale and Mother Goose characters, based on illustrations from Arthur Rackham and Kate Greenway, but carved out of leather parchment inthe traditional manner by the same Chinese craftspeople who made other portions of the Benton collection.