I’m always interested in finding new ways to tell curious stories from the past. Recently I’ve been experimenting with shadow puppetry. I’ve run a couple of events where I’ve worked with students to tell some stories about the supernatural through this medium, following each with a brief lecture about historical import. I think they’ve gone well overall: shadow puppetry is always pretty, and it illustrates a lecture in – I think – a more engaging way than a Powerpoint presentation. It’s hard to advertise the shows effectively though. Despite my best efforts to make it clear that these are history lectures, and contain adult themes, people have shown up each time with small kids, and I do worry that my audiences expect something more like ‘professional shadow puppet extravaganza’ rather than ‘historian endeavours to liven up lecture with some bits of card on wires and colourful cellophane’. It doesn’t help that marketing teams keep rewriting my event blurbs to be sexier and free from encumbrances like dates, or even centuries…
Anyway. When I was trying to put together the show I struggled to find a guide to shadow puppetry pitched at the total beginner doing something pretty casual (no theatrical lights or complicated woodwork, etc…), so I thought I’d jot down some points about process, in case they’re useful to anyone out there. Obviously I’m very far from expert in this, and there are plenty of guides online for more sophisticated productions!
Scene from the story of Thomas Perks: Bearing a book and lantern, Perks summons armed demons in the forms of lions, bears and serpents at a crossroads.
I looked into various options here. I originally meant to use a white surface, suspended by some means. Cotton sheets work, or very large pieces of paper, but my plan was to go for a white vinyl shower curtain, about 6ft x 4ft (the one I bought was actually 6 feet square). Ideally one would craft some kind of wooden frame to suspend the white surface, with slots to insert backgrounds, but I’d hoped just to recruit some students to hold it up. I ended up deciding against this plan after realising how difficult it would be to include scenery (it would have to be pretty large, or pretty far away, which has a blurring effect), and establishing that it was hard to keep the puppets close to the screen (better for crispness) without moving it too much. Instead I picked up an old overhead projector, of the kind that were ubiquitous in primary schools when I was young. Puppets and scenery can be moved around on the glass and projected on to a white wall, or projector screen. It’s easy to include backgrounds this way, and the puppets can be quite small. There’s also no need to worry about getting the right kind of backlighting. Of course, your venue will need a power outlet.
One thing to note when using a projector is that your puppet-masters will be in front of the action, rather than behind a screen. I didn’t mind the audience being able to see the show’s inner workings, but if you wanted to keep a sense of mystery you might want some kind of screen to put in front of the projector and puppeteers.
Experiments with the same pair of puppets. The first three images show the puppets behind a shower curtain, at various distances. The last image shows the puppets on the platen of an OHP, projected on to a white wall.
I used black card and designs penned by my talented mother! You can do moving parts with split pins, but I didn’t bother. We used different puppets every time a character left and re-entered the ‘stage’, so that characters could have different stances. I sellotaped the puppets to 1.25mm galvanised garden wire, which was sufficiently sturdy without being too rigid.
The supernatural characters also got embellishment with coloured cellophane. One annoying discovery was that the light beaming on to the glass panel of my projector was very hot, and it didn’t take long for the glass to start steaming up and the puppets to start curling. This meant that any small details were lost. I’d thought about having tiny cut out details such as coloured eyes etc, but there was no point. We used glass cleaner in between each story, but maybe a better quality projector would have yielded better results here. I also found that the puppets with a lot of cellophane needed plenty of wire support, which meant that they lost some clarity.
A woman holding a fairy baby is confronted by a group of fairies spinning, drinking potions and shapeshifting. The wire supporting the fairies is obscuring details, and the puppet is curling at the left-hand edge.
Making the puppets was more time-consuming than I predicted. I told 4 stories. No puppets were reused, which meant we needed a total of 29. There was a lot of fiddly cutting out, and some even more fiddly cutting and gluing for the cellophane. I haven’t done a lot with scissors and glue since reaching adulthood, and I can’t say it was the happiest trip down memory lane (though peeling the glue off my fingers was as satisfying as ever).
For backgrounds I used the same black card, with coloured embellishment for the supernatural scenes. Each story had 2 settings, so there was a total of 8 backgrounds to make. The backgrounds just sat on the glass projector panel, so could be easily swapped over. We had next to no props, but one story needed a shower of stones, so we dropped little balls of Playdoh on to the projector’s glass panel.
Scenery and puppets.
If I’d had more time, I’d have loved to make this a more collaborative project, and worked with students on writing the scripts and making the puppets. But I recruited student assistants from my module, which began only a few weeks before the first performance, so I tried not to ask too much of them! I numbered each puppet and highlighted in the script when it would come on or off; the students just had to move the puppets and swap over the scenery while I read out the stories. I hired two students per performance, and a 1.5-hour rehearsal in advance was perfectly sufficient. The students were paid for their time, and tell me they had fun. Even if they couldn’t be as involved as I’d have liked in putting the show together, it was good to give them some experience of presenting history to a general audience. Many thanks to Carla Hills, Harprit Kaur and Anna Sharp.
Each of the 4 stories lasted a few minutes, and was followed by 5-10 minutes of commentary. Add in introduction, conclusion and questions, and the event lasted about an hour. I chose stories that had differing themes, but could be brought together to say something about the early modern or eighteenth-century supernatural.
The first was the story of Thomas Perks, a blacksmith from near Bristol. A keen mathematician, and subsequently magician, Perks grew over-curious about the secrets of the universe and inadvertently summoned a hideous host of demons in the 1690s. This story has been explored in detail in an enlightening book by Jonathan Barry, Raising Spirits. Then there was a story recorded by the Scottish minister Robert Kirk, also in the 1690s, about a Highland woman who was stolen away by the fairies and made to suckle a fairy baby. There’s a version of this story, with puppet illustration, in the ‘Being Human’ video here.
Woman (in bed) is visited by a group of fairies who’ve come to abduct her. The supporting wire is again obscuring the fairy on the left-hand side.
The third story was set down by Edmund Jones, a Welsh nonconformist minister who recorded local folklore and stories of apparitions between about the 1730s and the 1780s. It told of a woman from Blaenau Gwent who was rumoured to be a witch. After some local coopers played a trick on her son, they found themselves attacked by a shower of stones, while a mysterious hare darted past. The story had a violent culmination, and demonstrates how community tensions surrounding witchcraft persisted long after the end of formal trials.
The final story took us back to the Scottish Highlands. It supposedly dated from the reign of James IV (1473-1513), but was recorded by folklorists in the early nineteenth century. It described a warrior who was betrayed by his shrewish wife, and returned as a ghost to gallop over hills, terrorise locals and escort dying descendants to the afterlife.
I did two different events using these stories. One was about the supernatural during the Enlightenment, so I talked about the patterns of credulity and scepticism that emerge from the stories, and the contexts in which supernatural beliefs remained relevant and defensible. The other event was more closely related to my current research project; it looked at ideas about how supernatural forces could invade bodies and minds, so I used the stories to talk about the intimate connections that could be forged between humans and apparitions.
Right now I’m still haunted by all those little strips of fragile cellophane and the endless task of cutting out tiny squares to make tartan patterns, but I’m sure I’ll look back on this particular adventure fondly in a year or two! And my toddler loved the shadow puppets, at least…
Moving the coloured puppets towards and away from the projector light makes some interesting visual effects.