Shadow theatre, welcome to the dark side

I recently wrote about a shadow theatre project for pre-schoolers that I had been involved with. In this article, I shall speak about shadow puppetry and why it can be a wonderful tool for teachers working with all age groups and levels.

As I mentioned in my previous article, shadow theatre is simple and flexible. The amount of materials and equipment needed can be minimal. However, that being said, it can also be very high-tech at times. In this way it is an ideal medium in that it is adaptable to whatever your situation, location and budget. However, the history and worldwide culture of the form is also of interest and can be the basis of a project, as well as allowing a teacher to cover all sorts of other aspects of learning (geography, history, religion, etc.).

Shadows around the world

Shadow puppetry is probably one of the oldest forms of theatre. If you think about those times when the lights go out at home, somebody fumbles for a torch or a candle, what is the first thing many people do in the darkness when a light appears? Yes, admit it… They try to make a dog or a butterfly shadow with their hands (yes, I mean YOU!). Therefore, we can imagine what some of our cave-dwelling ancestors might have done too on the long winter nights before Netflix was created.

In many cultures, shadow puppetry has been practiced for centuries. Today it is still possible to see traditional shows being well attended in countries like Indonesia and Bali. However, these shows are not just for children. They often portray stories from ancient Hindu classics, like the Mahabharata or Ramayana and can last for several hours. The plays often take place on special occasions and in the open air. People bring food, sit, and watch from sundown to sunrise.

These kinds of puppets are known as wayang kulit and are traditionally made from leather (buffalo hide). They have moving parts, such as arms, and often very delicate patterns cut out of the hide. They are performed against a large screen. Sometimes the male and female audiences are separated and the men sit on the side where the figures can be seen, whereas the women and children sit on the side where the shadows are visible through the screen. As I mentioned above, the shows can last several hours and each play may have over 30 different figures, all performed by one puppeteer (dalang) who remains sitting (crosslegged) for the whole show. On top of this, the dalang conducts the accompanying gamelan orchestra with a foot! One dalang I met told me his first full-length show was when he was ten years old and it lasted ten hours, non-stop!

Shadow theatre traditions also exist in countries like China and Japan. There has long been an association with magic and the otherworld in these traditions. In some cases many centuries ago a puppet-show about the person’s life was sometimes played at funerals. Indeed, one of the most famous stories about shadow theatre in China concerns a magician who supposedly brought back the spirit of a king’s favourite concubine to talk with him each night. Eventually the king realized it was, in fact, a shadow puppet. The figures in the Chinese tradition are very different from those of the wayang kulit. Often they make much more use of carving fine details into the figure. A friend of mine sent me a Chinese shadow puppet and it is incredibly carved with very intricate detail… I am too scared to use it! An interesting thing about many Asian puppets is that they are not necessarily opaque, casting a black shadow. Sometimes, depending on the thickness of the puppet or the way it has been made, the shadow can be colourful. Other traditions, which use this colour effect, are those of Greece and Turkey. In the Karagoz theatre of Turkey and the Greek Karagiozis (the Greek variant of the tradition) the figures are colorful and transparent. This tradition is based on comic stories and sketches along with quick, witty word play and jokes. The Turkish tradition is more connected with religious festivals such as Ramadan, whilst in Greece it is possible to find shows all year round.öz_and_Haciv

A more European form of shadow theatre was made famous by the German puppeteer, Lotte Reiniger; influenced by Asian traditions, she pioneered shadow animation in the new medium of cinema in the early 20th century. Her work is amazingly complex and often uses several layers of scenery and background.

This style might be familiar to some of your students who have seen the film Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has an amazing sequence at the end of the film.

Another useful source is the video for the Lenka song Trouble is a Friend.

Even more recently, there have been some stunning shadow shows using actors’ bodies on TV programmes such as Britain’s Got Talent.

As you can see, there are a wide number of uses for shadow theatre to explore. However, it can also be used at simpler levels for teaching theatre, literature and languages.

Why use shadow theatre?

There are several reasons why shadow theatre is a useful and ideal medium for teaching various ages. To be blunt, one of the most basic is that it can be cheap and disposable. I kid you not! A decent shadow show can be made with a cardboard box and an A3 sheet of paper. Afterwards it can be thrown away with no feelings of guilt about wasting resources (yes, I have done it loads of times). Here is a list of some of the benefits of the medium:

Cost: As I said, it can be really cheap, or free, to create a decent little show. Obviously, the more facilities and materials (and money) you have, the show can be more ornate and complex (I have done shows using huge screens and human shadows… No, I did not throw them in the bin later).

Time: Depending on your time requirement, a show can be made and devised in a couple of hours or over a longer period.

Space: You do not need a large amount of space to perform. Performances can be table top (my last one used A3 sheets of paper for the screen and figures). A friend of mine once did away with a screen and used the shadows against the roof and wall decorations in an old stately home. I have also seen one done on the entire side of a school at night.

Portability: OK, anyone who read my article about the Blues show will recall I could not get the screen into the car… HOWEVER, generally, a show can be very simple and easy to carry. The figures are light and usually small enough to pack in a folder; the screen can be dismantled and folded away (or kept rigid if it is too big). This means you can move the show from class to class or even outside the school. There is a wonderfully useful book Let the Shadows Speak by Franzeska Ewart, which describes in detail about how to create and organize a shadow show for “touring” around the school.

Skill: The style can be adapted to different levels of skill in areas, such as, drawing and performing. The students may not have great drawing skills, so another student (or teacher) could draw the figure for them, you could use templates or just let them create a figure with their own abilities. Performancewise, the show can be adapted to suit their motor skills or speaking/language abilities. The abovementioned book shows how tasks can be allocated and shared out between students of different abilities (and not everyone has to perform or make a puppet).

Aesthetics: This is one of the best things about this medium; the scrappiest, cheapest, most rushed figure (ripped and repaired, held together with a last sliver of sellotape) can look amazing from the other side of a screen (nobody actually sees the damage). The appearance of a shadow screen and puppets actually gives an air of wonder and mystery in itself.

Simplicity: The level of simplicity (up to the most complex ideas) is entirely dependent upon the teachers’ and the students’ imaginations. One of the most effective and charming pieces I have seen from a short workshop was a story of a tree. The main figure of the show was a tree which was visited by different animals (hedgehog, bird, and squirrel) and which grew and shed leaves through the year. It lasted about 2-3 minutes (vocabulary of seasons, animals and nature). On the other hand, a group of teenage boys created a wartime beach landing complete with assault crafts, artillery and machine gun emplacements (with moving figures) in the space of two or three hours.

Subject: Again, whatever you like; Harry Potter, superheroes, music videos, film parodies, battles, Titanic, Robin Hood, anime… (I have seen them all on different workshops). Here are two, which were created over a week (about 6-8 hours in total), by students on a summer language course (they are rehearsals, so please forgive the mistakes).

Books and resources

There is so much readily available information about making a basic (and not so basic show) that it is not necessary to repeat it in an article, although in my next piece I shall give some tips and advice for those of you who wish to try working with the medium (especially for the first-timers). Youtube, as you may have noticed, is a superb resource for films of shows but also for ideas of creating puppets, scenery etc. Likewise, there are many books about children’s art and activities (old scout books etc) and pages on-line which have basic information about how to create shadow shows. I have included a couple below: shadow-puppet-theatre (basic instructions) (more in-depth information and ideas) I really recommend the book I mentioned above. Although I am not sure if it is still in print, copies can be found online: books/about/Let_the_Shadows_Speak.html?id=3kVplwNbj0C& redir_esc=y

Below are pictures from a shadow show performed with SP34 im. Józefa Malewskiego primary school in Olsztyn, Poland. The figures are all static (no joints or moving parts) and are a mixture of figures cut out (the footballers, the soldiers) and “slides” cut into A3 paper to create a kind of “reverse” shadow. The text was the poem The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy (performed with the author’s permission) ( christmas-truce-poem-carol-ann-duffy)

Trevor Hill


Biografia autora etece . Jestem S.

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