I’ve been searching for silver linings anywhere I can find them these days. For example, idle time, which used to kind of terrify me, has recently become very liberating. I know not everyone feels this way right now. It’s rough out there. But pre COVID-19, I felt like I literally never had any time. As my fellow teachers out there know, our labor of love (teaching), requires us to find time beyond the normal work week to prepare six hours of engaging, LIVE entertainment with deliverable results every day, five days a week, for 30 kids at a time. Mildly put, that’s TIME CONSUMING!
ENTER STAGE LEFT: New found time (silver lining). Lots of it.
And it’s not that Distance Learning is easy. Bahahahaha! Lord no! However, my credentials as an art teacher of young children, with young children of my own at home to creatively Distance TEACH, are remarkably good for the impossible job of
c) young children
d) from home
But even with this time, I greatly miss my energy-giving students. I often feel claustrophobic being trapped at home and want nothing more than to congregate at playgrounds, physically touch people, sit alongside strangers at restaurants, swap sticky library books, ring doorbells without using my sleeve and high five the heck out of my students.
So until I can do the extroverted and germy things mentioned above safely with you all again, I will choose to balance the relationship between positive and negative, peace and panic, light and dark, with the mystery and magic that can only exist among such extremes. In this case, let’s let the metaphorical interplay of light and darkness bring us…
Shadow puppetry is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with. I helped DCPS write a Cornerstone unit about it many moons ago and am always impressed by the way students connect to this medium.
The hyperlink above tells you a bit about the history of the art form, dating way the heck back to ancient China and Emperor Wu Di. I am positive shadow art began way before then (caves and firelight lend themselves very well to the medium so I’m pretty sure prehistoric man dabbled in the art form), but as far as the records are concerned, a sad, lovesick emperor used the delightful shadow play for cheering up. Oral storytelling was enhanced by the flexible, lightweight visuals, which transitioned from puppets made of wood to ones of soft leather made from treated animal hides. Military troupes adopted the art form, bringing stories and performances on the march with them, leading to a more global introduction to the art form.
Today, many contemporary artists, musicians, and performance groups, as well as dance teams, use the high contrast, over simplified silhouette to communicate powerful stories without color, detail, or even spoken word. Music becomes the dialogue, forcing the viewer to pay extra close attention to exaggerated body language, spacial relationships, and sound, when deciphering the morals being expressed. The shadow is often an ambiguous figure. Ageless, gender-less, race-free silhouettes allow the viewer to insert themselves into the mind of the character. When physical aspects of a character are unspecified, you better believe that the moral of the story is intended for all!
I would love to see the members of your family work together, like these awesome Maury sisters did, to create a shadow puppet performance all your own. The theme of your puppet show is entirely up to you, but it would be extra great if humor could be used to brighten our day, just as the puppeteers tried to do for the Emperor.
Here are a few basic tips when creating shadow puppets:
-Color is not important when creating a puppet because the shadow will always appear black. Do not exert effort on creating colorful clothing or details when they won’t actually be seen. The shape of your silhouette is what’s most important. The method you use to attach the puppet to your stick is also unimportant. It’s OK for the tape to be visible. Messy tape won’t show up in shadow form. Yay!
-Exaggerate your puppet’s body language, key accessories, or body parts to communicate non-verbally with your audience (think SHOWING vs. TELLING). If your character is bossy, try creating them with hands on hips. If they are old, have them hunched over or with a cane in hand. A dancer may have a bun in their hair. A giant may only appear as two large legs to give the illusion that the rest of their body is stretching beyond the theater.
-Use negative space to make your characters more dynamic. Cut out holes for eyes and mouths instead of drawing them on.
– Don’t get hung up on realism. Create fictional characters to tell your stories. A fun way to create a made-up character is to trace a random shadow your hand creates on a piece of paper and cut it out (see examples above). Feel free to attach legs or arms or hair to the organic shape you traced to take it a step further.
-Fool around with moving to and from the light source to show distance. If you’re really fancy, this is also a fun way to fade in and fade out of a scene. What happens if a character is close to the light source? How do you make your puppet appear larger or smaller? The larger your character appears, the more emphasis you are placing on them, denoting value or worth. The opposite is also true.
-Less is more. Fancy settings, a large cast of characters, and too much dialogue will weaken your performance. Focus on strong acting, enjoyable plot lines and memorable silhouettes.
Building the “Theater“
An empty wall is a great way to capture shadow play.
If you really want to go nuts, hang a sheet and project the light between you and your sheet like some art teachers did together at one of our professional development days.
Probably the easiest and most fun way to create a stage is to invent your own! Build a theater using old cardboard or boxes, thin paper (wax paper, tissue paper, butcher paper, or velum if you have some), and hang your light from inside the box. This method is nice for giving your performance an intentional stage. The audience won’t mind that they can see you working the puppets if they can focus on the story unfolding inside your theater.
Must have Materials:
-Light source: flashlights or cellphone flashlights work great
-Puppets: I make mine out of cardboard so they are stiffer. Cereal boxes work well because they are easier to cut. Regular paper is a bit flimsy but would work in a pinch. Card stock is a great in between. Make at least two characters so your puppet has something to interact with. The characters do not have to be human, they can be animals, monsters, aliens or other fictional characters from your imagination or favorite story.
-A stick from outside, pencil, kitchen utensil, dowel rod, ruler or Popsicle stick are useful for attaching to your puppet and serving as a handle to distance yourself from your puppet.
-Scissors, tape, glue, hole-punch (nice but not necessary)
I can’t wait to be entertained by the magic of your shadow performance. Remember that humor is a helpful tool and sharing a teachable lesson or moral could be fun for your audience. Use current events to teach something in a fun way. Can you imagine how much more enjoyable a lesson on proper hand washing or social distancing would be if it were given by shadow puppets?
Please send your creations my way!
Help us use darkness for good! Brighten our days!
Hand shadow tutorial here.
And one here that is just extremely entertaining.
Kara Walker, one of my favorite living, breathing artists, does amazing work with silhouettes, however, the subject of her artwork may be geared towards a more mature audience without proper context building. I 100% believe students should be exposed to her work, but think building cultural context for her pieces is important and should be done well. I’ll let parents be the judge of that.