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Shadow Puppets & Shadow Play

Shadow Puppets & Shadow Play by David Currell
Review by Ray DaSilva (Nov07)

It is tricky to be objective about a new book which has a photo on the front cover and a few others sprinkled throughout the book from one of my own productions. If I say: – this new work is by far the best book on shadow puppetry published in the English-speaking world since Olive Blackham’s classic work of 1960, I might well be suspected of bias. But, discounting those images, I believe that to be correct. Shadow play is a wonderful subject and it is surprising that other comprehensive books have not been produced in this country. This is therefore the first to include information about recent developments which are due largely to new attitudes to puppetry generally and also to new technologies, particularly with lighting and plastic materials. The chapter, Contemporary Explorations, for example, includes the work of Jonathan Hayter (Figure of Speech) whose work reflects a personal response to the changes that are currently affecting our planet. Work of other UK performers featured throughout the book are Steve Clark, Paul Doran, Christopher Leith, Jane Phillips and Jessica Souhami, plus a sprinkling of overseas artists, notably Richard Bradshaw.

There are 420 photographs within the book’s 208 pages, mostly in colour despite the author’s statement: “There are other forms of image that are not strictly shadows . . . . the colourful translucent traditional Chinese shadow puppets fall into this category.” I therefore cannot help wondering what sort of image Chinese shadow puppets and other coloured figures cast, other than coloured shadows – and the book is full of them.

After a brief introductory chapter on the nature of shadows and another on the various traditions there is good detail in the following practical chapters: Design, Construction, Decoration and Transformation, Control, Staging, and Lighting and Sound. Like most forms of puppetry, shadow theatre can be as simple or as complicated as you make it, but reducing things to simplicity can often be a complicated process. This book provides a wide range of ideas and techniques that people have used to overcome specific problems and readily suggests that aspiring shadow artists should continue to experiment and develop their own ideas. This work then is inspirational and by no means ‘The Complete Book of Shadow Puppetry’ – thank goodness. It is an enjoyable straightforward easy read suitable for beginners, teachers and a useful reference for the experienced. There are however to my nit-picking mind, just a few important omissions. In the lighting chapter, for example, which includes the use of various types of projectors, accessories, lighting control etc, there are three pages devoted to the use of an overhead projector. They contain much useful information, but to save someone wasting money, could have pointed out that these projectors are designed for front projection in a classroom and are therefore normally fitted with a narrow angle lens (for a long throw). Wide angle versions are harder to find but are certainly desirable for backstage work where depth is usually limited – and that goes for all types of projectors used backstage. Also, the overhead projector spills considerable light upwards, so it is usually important to provide some sort of hood or masking above it to prevent distracting shadows. I once saw a marionette show where the shadows of the operators on the venue ceiling were more interesting than the show itself. Shadows demand attention and are often more interesting than the objects that cast them. Albrecht Roser’s cabaret includes a marionette spider which is lit from below. It therefore casts a large menacing shadow on the backcloth which provokes more response than the marionette itself.
A brief section on shadow play produced by the hands alone which is now enjoying a new popularity in advertising would have also been useful. There is section of useful addresses and contacts but no mention of the now famous triennial shadow puppet festival at Schwabisch Gmünd. A bibliography would have been a helpful addition for people to travel further because a lot of good useful works have been produced in other countries some with English translations notably the trilogy edited by Rainer Reusch.

This new book is published by Crowood Press, who are fast becoming a leading publisher for puppet theatre. It is superbly produced and matches in format the company’s previous works by David Currell: ‘Puppets and Puppet Theatre’ and ‘Making and Manipulating Marionettes’. It serves as a superb introduction to shadow play, with lots of advice on materials and methods as well as operating techniques and concludes with a chapter on making silhouette films. Thank you David for recording and sharing all that information and don’t mind my nit-pickings, it really is a good useful book.
Copies of this book can be obtained from the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre Price £19.99. See weblink in RH column -->

Scenery from St Francis of Assisi created by Paul Doran

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