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.