Behind the Scenes at a Shadow Theater

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.

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.

The key to a successful show is a good story. In "Electric Shadows of Bali," mythology mixes with slapstick humor in a nonscripted presentation that demands a fair amount of improvisation on the performers' part.

Although there are ways to bring color to shadow theater, the shows are mostly black-and-white. That makes the shows more striking in today's color-saturated world, Reed says.

"The shadows themselves are so fresh-looking," he says, "they have a very gripping kind of power."

To experiment with the possibilities, Reed once spent a year in a rented studio "just fooling around," trying different ideas. That's where he came up with an idea for attaching two masks, angled away from each other, to an actor's headpiece. By turning his head, the actor can transform his profile. When acting out an ancient myth, for example, an actor with the two-mask headpiece can change from a demon to a god.

Trial and error is an important teacher, no matter what the skill of the puppeteer, Reed says. But remember to slow down. If you move the puppets too fast, the shadows will be blurry.

"Watch the shadows," Reed says, "and see what works and what doesn't work. You just learn from trying it."


No matter how simple it is, there's something magical about an illuminated screen, says Margaret Stalford. She's a reading specialist whose elementary-school students put on shadow-puppet shows at the Lynbrook School in Springfield, Va.

"With the light and shadows, it becomes more than an ordinary puppet show," she says. "It's a real performance."

Ms. Stalford's students experiment at home by hanging a sheet in a doorway and placing a light behind it.

Stalford and other teachers have drawn much of their inspiration from the Clarion Shadow Theatre productions of David and Donna Wisniewski, a talented husband-wife team in the Washington, D.C. area.

Mr. Wisniewski, a Caldecott Award-winning children's book illustrator, now concentrates on his paper-cutting. But he and his wife have compiled many puppetry tips in a how-to book entitled, "Worlds of Shadow: Teaching with Shadow Puppetry" (Teacher Ideas Press). In it, they discuss light choices, how to make puppets and scenery, and production pointers.

A flashlight or desk lamp will work as a light source. The Wisniewskis' first choice, however, is an overhead projector because of its brightness, clarity, and flexibility. Most schools have them.

Without an overhead projector, the only way to change an image's size is to vary the distance between the puppet and the light source. The closer the puppet is to the light, the bigger (and fuzzier) the shadow it casts.

The overhead projector also comes in handy in creating backdrops using inexpensive transparencies.

For the screen, you can use sheets, white-plastic grocery bags, white butcher paper, or shower-curtain liners. But a plastic product sold at theater-supply stores (or by mail-order) is strongly endorsed. RoscoScreen Twin-White, Wisniewski says, works very well because it is tough, wipes clean, and diffuses light evenly. Cost: about $15 a yard.

Make the puppets from construction paper, file folders, poster board, or anything flat, easily worked, and somewhat stiff. Attach sticks (skewers, soda straws) to manipulate the puppets. Use paper fasteners to make working joints, and add sticks to the jointed parts so you can move them.

"Colorize" your shadow shows with see-through colored-plastic file folders. (The pros use Form-X film, which comes in 17 colors.) Add taped music or sound effects!

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