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Flux and the Intricate World of Shadow Puppetry

by Molly Freeman - Co-Artistic Director of Smoking Apples

The premiere of our brand new show, Flux, is imminent. Alongside the usual mixture of excitement and heart-thumping nerves, we’re also trying to work our way through the nitty gritty of the last part of our rehearsal period. This involves the expected theatrical components of narrative, character, detail, emotion, lighting, sound and set. But in our case it also involves puppets. Lots of them.

Flux tells the story of Kate, a pop-loving, record-collecting, nuclear physicist. Dreaming of joining the elite, Kate struggles in the male-dominated labs of the 1980s. As her professional and personal lives collide, her world is in a spin and she discovers how difficult it can be to truly be seen and heard. Kate herself is a 5 feet 8 inch bunraku-style puppet which, as you can imagine, poses a number of challenges. As with all brilliant characters, we want the audience to connect with Kate, to relate to her and her situation, so plotting detailed character progression and emotions is key.

Puppets have an incredible way of magnifying human action, throwing humanity itself into focus and allowing people to view it through a close-up lens. This element is hugely important to us and the work that we make. The majority of the time, we can convey these complexities through action and so Kate, like many of our other central characters in previous shows, does not speak. However, the complexity and intricacy that speech can provide is still important so in Flux, we are using shadow puppetry to explore the inner workings of Kate’s mind.

Shadow puppetry is a medium we have worked with since the company’s inception and is something that still fascinates us. It has a nostalgic quality that allows us to jump around in time and reality. It provides a different world that blends brilliantly with 3D puppetry. In Flux, we use shadow work to explore Kate’s subconscious dreams, desires, wants and needs. It provides us with a brilliant creative platform to enhance the audience’s connection to her. Ambition is a key driving force in Flux and we’ve really enjoyed being able to play with this through shadows.

Shadow puppetry itself is inherently fiddly and can at times be infuriating to work with - believe me when I say we’ve been drowning in shadows! We start out by conceptualising the shadow scenes, in the same way as we would do with any other scene, working out what we want it to show and thinking about how this might look as a picture. We then get the shadows drawn. For Flux, the very brilliant Lydia Markham has illustrated the shadows and drawn them in an 80s line drawing style, to reflect the time period. We then format them, bulking out some of the lines, adding connectors and holes so that they can fit together and then send them to be cut by a laser cutter. Next comes the ‘fun’ bit; imagine being surrounded by hundreds of tiny pieces of card and plastic and having to work out which one goes with which. It’s like the hardest jigsaw puzzle you can imagine.

It’s a labour intensive process but for us, the time, energy and effort that goes into creating these shadow puppets is more than worth it. They add beautiful detail and intricacy to the show and emphasise elements of a character that you might never have seen before. Fundamentally they allow us to show you inside Kate’s mind, one that is flawed and fractured, and that is just about as human as you can get.

Flux premieres at Shoreditch Town Hall on 1&2 November ahead of a UK tour. For further details visit smokingapplestheatre.com




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