I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Shadow puppets are usually flat silhouettes, made out of a strong animal hide (traditionally speaking), cardboard or plastic (modern versions). These silhouettes can include animal, human and creaturistic figures. The figures have rods attached to the parts that need to be moved, and joints made out of string or wire.
Some figures have rotating or removeable rods, in order to facilitate better manipulation, and to allow the silhouette to face different directions. Figures can also be highly simple, with little to no moving parts; or they can include moveable limbs, heads, and bodies.
|Examples of karagozis, on display at the UNIMA 2008 festival in Perth, Australia.|
While shadow puppetry seems to be an Eastern thing, it has a long tradition in European countries as well, especially in France and Greece. Each country has its own style of shadow puppets, with France using more humanlike figures to represent battles and historical tales. Greece includes more farcical characters, which is reminiscent of commedia del’arte, and the most famous of characters is Karagozis, a sort of Everyman for shadow puppets. He’s a farcical character, of low status, that manages to outwit those around him.
In the Eastern countries, there are other traditions: Javanese puppets (wayang kulit) are highly stylised, with the recognisable broad square shoulders and long, slender limbs; China has realistic figures, with intricate and delicate patterns and lots of moving parts. In all styles and countries, puppets can also include set pieces, and range in shapes and sizes.
Staging is relatively simple: a large white sheet or screen is held up - either using poles, or a frame - slightly tilted downwards. The tilt assists in keeping the figures flat against the screen, as well as ensuring the best position possible for the audience to view the performance. The puppeteer works from behind the screen, taking care not to be a shadow themselves: which is why the white screen is usually above the puppeteer’s head. Lighting is done from above, behind the screen. Some Eastern performances use bamboo, which is cut in half and filled with sand; laid out directly behind the screen, this allows a resting place for the shadow puppets, as well as a shelf for other stage properties.
|Examples of Thai shadow puppetry, on display at the UNIMA 2008 festival in Perth, Australia.|
The puppets are painted in a variety of colours, in a manner in which the colour is translucent; therefore allowing the light to pass through the material of the puppet and can be visible through the screen. Alternatively, the figures are black, allowing only the silhouette of the shape to be seen.
If you’d like to see excellent examples of shadow puppetry, you can do no better than finding videos of Australian puppeteer Richard Bradshaw (he’s been featured on The Muppet Show and Australia’s Play School).
Though it might seem like a type of performance best suited to the indoors, shadow puppetry can be produced very well outdoors too: obviously the best time is at night. Shadow puppets can also be very large, or very small, making it ideal for any venue size. Modern performances use modern techniques - data projectors are used as a light source, with sheets of acetate passed over it at different times. It can create a range of fantastic moving scenes, landscapes, and atmospheric features.
Another benefit of shadow puppetry is it is relatively cheap to do, puppets can be made with little to no training or experience, and performances can be done by people with a range of performance experience and ages. However, because of the nature of the staging, for inexperienced performers, it is often wise to have an outside eye, or director, when creating a shadow puppet performance.
Read this post on how to make shadow puppet joints; make one of these puppets here AND here, materials are discussed here, learn how to make a screen here. Here’s a list of free patterns. How shadow puppets are different to silhouettes is discussed here. [links to be added] Read more on wayang kulit, the Indonesian shadow puppetry; or karagozis, the Greek shadow puppetry.send feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.