Oregon Shadow Theatre
Shadow puppets by Deb Chase

What is Shadow Puppetry?

Shadow puppetry is considered the oldest form of puppetry in the world. It began 1,000's of years ago in China and India. In China the shadow plays are often folk-tales and legends of the past, many based on Chinese opera themes. In Indonesia shadow plays are an integral part of traditional culture. The plays are taken from two religious epics where there is often a struggle between good and evil. Turkey and Greece also have a history of shadow puppetry, where plays are based on everyday life and contain much physical comedy. In Western Europe shadow puppetry enjoyed popularity during the 1800's when the art of cutting silhouettes out of paper was fashionable. In 1926 German shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger made the first full length animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmet. She hand-cut beautiful opaque silhouette figures that were moved on an animation table.

Traditional shadow puppets are flat and made of leather. Areas within the puppet are punched out with sharp knives. These areas suggest facial features and help define clothing. The puppets are made from separate pieces and joined together with wire or string. They are controlled by long rods and moved behind a white translucent screen made from paper or cloth. A lamp on the puppeteer's side of the stage provides the light: the audience on the other side sees the moving shadows. Cut-out areas within the figures allow light to shine through.

Contemporary shadow puppets may be made combining a variety of materials including paper, plastic, wood, colored theatrical lighting filters, cloth, feathers, dried plants or found objects ranging from silk scarves to kitchen utensils. Shadow puppets have been made with three-dimensional wire heads and cloth bodies.

Contemporary shadow puppeteers might employ a host of specialized lighting effects, including various theatrical lighting instruments, overhead projectors, reflected light, projected films, head lamps and hand-held lights.

Road hog, from 'Green Bird' - Shadow puppets by Deb Chase

Puppetry Links:

Puppeteers of America: www.puppeteers.org

UNIMA-USA: www.unima-usa.org

Northwest Puppet Center: nwpuppet.org

Road hog, from 'Green Bird' - Shadow puppets by Deb Chase
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