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Behind the Scenes at a Shadow Theater

By Ross Atkin / October 27, 1998

Larry Reed loves performing behind a screen. It's not that he's bashful or has stage fright. He's just fascinated with putting on shadow-puppet shows. And in this ancient art form, the performers either don't appear at all or are seen only as silhouettes.

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Mr. Reed has just completed a two-month tour around the United States. His troupe performed an unusually named production: "The Wayang Listrik Electric Shadows of Bali."

The word wayang comes from Bali, a small island in the country of Indonesia, in South Asia. Wayang means "shadow puppets."

Puppets like these, made from leather and wood, have been entertaining people for more than a thousand years.

Reed has taken the traditional shadow theater and mixed it with modern movie techniques to invent what he calls a whole new kind of theater.

It's two-dimensional, like a movie, but it's performed live and with real actors. "Shadows of Bali" has a 14-member cast. Half are Balinese, half are American. They perform behind a large backlit screen. Sometimes, huge images are projected on the screen. Live music is provided during each show by a handful of folk musicians.

This is a far cry from the centuries-old tradition. Then, a single shadow master would work alone, using an open flame as a light source.

Speaking of the large scale on which he works, Reed says, "I'm sort of doing the IMAX of shadows." He's exaggerating, but you get his point if you've ever seen one of the giant-screen motion-picture systems found across the country.

Using a special 15-by-30-foot screen, the projected shadow of a two-foot puppet can appear 10 or 15 feet tall.

Reed is a pioneer in this big-screen, cinematic approach. But what originally attracted him to shadow puppetry was its classical simplicity.

"I thought it was a neat art form, the ultimate no-budget movie," says the Yale University graduate. He first saw Balinese shadow puppets nearly three decades ago, after a stint in the Peace Corps.

Today he encourages everyone to put on inexpensive shadow shows.

"You begin with very simple materials and a lot of imagination," he says. "That's the appeal of the whole thing."

In the workshops he conducts to teach shadow puppetry, Reed often fashions a screen from sheets of butcher paper joined with clear packing tape.

"I can make the screen any size I want," he says. "It's really simple. It's really neat." To suspend the screen, he creates a sleeve along its top edge and pulls string through.

Shadows of puppets and people cast on the back of the screen show through to the other side.

"The principle behind it all is a single-point light source," Reed explains. Have you ever noticed the shadows cast by a welder using a welding torch? (Avoid looking directly at a welding flame; you need special glasses to do that.) The shadows are very sharp and clear because the flame is so bright and so small.

To approximate that effect at home, use a clear (unfrosted) light bulb with as small a filament as possible. (A filament is the wire inside the bulb that makes the light.) A night light will do. "That's enough for your bedroom, for sure," Reed says, "but it may not be enough to do a show for a bunch of people." [For more tips, see the story on Page 9.]

REED'S ShadowLight productions are intended for large audiences. Their latest tour was performed at college and civic auditoriums from Boston to Los Angeles. (The company is based in San Francisco.)

Shadow-puppet shows, which have their roots in religious ceremony and can last three or four hours, were meant to entertain entire villages. As a result, Reed says shadow productions usually appeal to all ages. (Very young children may be frightened by the large shadows.) His shows are much shorter, about 90 nonstop minutes.