Too Much Light

Touring a puppet show is always challenging, but when the show in question involves shadow puppets, things become especially tricky.

Shadow puppetry depends on the interaction between light and objects (usually flat cutout puppets made of cardstock). This means that controlling light sources becomes even more vital than it would be for another kind of puppet show. In a theater, that is fairly easy. Most theaters are built without windows, so there’s no extra light spill to interfere with the shadows. But our show Saudade was intended from the beginning to be an outreach show; a piece that is shared in community spaces such as schools, churches, libraries and community centers. And almost all of these spaces have, well, windows.


The perfect shadow puppet space, with side light on the audience but not the enclosed stage.

When we get to a new performance space on tour that has windows, placing the stage becomes extra important. We’ve had lots of discussions as to how we can achieve the best lighting: do we worry more about light spilling onto the screen from the front and perhaps washing out the shadows? Or do we worry about light spill from behind, which could distort the shadows or reveal certain images before they are intended to be seen?


This was a good setup–no windows behind the stage & blinds that blocked most of the side light.


Sometimes we attempt to cut off the light with curtains, venetian blinds, or shutters and hope for the best. Often we are setting up the show a good hour before we start, which means that the sun can sink lower in the meantime, finding its way through cracks in the curtain or blind. We have fond memories of how various venues have gone the extra mile to try and block windows, including covering them with trash bags (at a transitional school in Winnipeg, Canada) or with large sheets of cardboard (at a church in Minneapolis). For the record, cardboard works the best.


This was the pitch black gym that made the kids scream in Winnipeg!

In the end, not all light spill is terrible. It can be helpful to have just a little bit of light as we go through scene changes and prepare puppets for upcoming moments. It can also help the audience feel more comfortable. We did one show in Winnipeg at an after-school program where we were performing in a gym with no windows and it was pitch black when the lights first went out. Not only did that make several of the children scream (whether with fright or anticipation I’m not quite sure) but it meant we had no help whatsoever when trying to find the next puppet if one screen light had gone out and the next one wasn’t on yet. As a result, there were a few fumbles when the wrong puppet was picked up and had to be fixed quickly.

Light is essential to shadow puppetry and controlling it is a must when considering where and how to take a shadow puppet play on tour. We hope this post can help other people with these challenges when taking shadow puppets on the road.


Sculpting a Story

One of the most common questions from audiences after seeing Cabinets of Kismet is “Where did you get the idea for the story?” While I’ve talked a little about Shaun Tan before on this blog, I’m going to try and outline the process of creating the story for this play, because it was a rather unusual journey.

Genna and Amie with Lightbulb Head. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Genna and Amie with Lightbulb Head.             Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The initial seed of the story came from conversations between Genna, Lisi, Nikki and myself about Tan’s work. We all read various books and stories by him and came to the conclusion that the themes we were most interested in exploring were those of alienation and outsider status, as well as the journey of accepting change and dealing with fear. We each created prototype puppets with various objects and paper and somewhere along the line, I think I came up with the initial idea of having a character who escaped from one world into a very different other one. We called him Kismet and based his look on a magnifying glass photo holder with alligator clips that Lisi had.

Most of the puppets were created before the specific moments of the story, which is the reverse of how we usually work. Once we had a cast of puppeteers, we ended up doing a few sessions of improvisation with the object characters, to figure out what each could do best, and how they could express various emotions and states of being. Then our director Carmen Wong put those various segments in order or arranged them on the set and we worked out the timing so that everyone had a sequence. We ended up each taking 2-3 principal characters, although we also switch off a lot to make things easier. With object puppets like this, it doesn’t work as well to say “Be sad” because the features of the puppets don’t change. They have to move or perform an action to express that sadness, and that of course is different for each object. Breaking down all the emotions and reactions of each character into tiny specific actions for the puppets was a long and very time-consuming process.

Kismet escaping across the drawers. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kismet escaping across the drawers.                  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In the end, I think we probably could have benefited from having more audience input. Because of scheduling and various cast changes, we didn’t have a chance to ask people to come and give feedback during rehearsals and I think that would have been very helpful. Object world was much intentionally much busier than Paper world, and therefore a little harder to follow (especially if you came in late). Just for fun, here is an excerpt of a ‘script’ written by puppeteer Amie Root, detailing her movements just before the destruction of Object world. I think it gives a good sense of our approach to our movements and characters.

When Genna perches over Cecilia, enter with Demon Bird to terrorize Mophead. Fly off SL around the garage unit and hover by the theater unit until Amy is set for handoff of bird. IMMEDIATELY pull swirl dancer from her drawer behind theater unit. Quietly as possible, unwrap the jingle chain, set her and the telephone cord on top. QUICKLY strike the jingle chain. IMMEDIATELY go to nurse at garage unit and enter when Kismet calls. Freak out over zoom. Hand off to Genna.