How to Stage a Shadow Puppet Show Your Kids Will Love
Are they fascinated by the interaction of light and shadow?
Introduce them to the ancient Chinese art of shadow-puppet theater and put on your own family show. It’s easier than you think!
In this article, I’ll show you how to make simple shadow puppets to fit any story your kids can dream of and create your very own Chinese shadow theater to bring the silhouettes to life.
Your family will enjoy poetic evening shows and make lasting memories together.
Why Play With Shadows?
Shadows are mysterious, intriguing and fun. My kids love to play nighttime flashlight games. They enjoy casting shadows on the walls with their bed lamps, creating different shapes and creatures. And they’ve always been puzzled by their stretched shadows in the low light of a summer evening. I bet your kids like shadows, too.
Shadows have a fleeting, poetic quality, and playing with shadows will let your kids’ imaginations soar.
A shadow-puppet play provides everything you need to have a great family experience—it’s artistic, scientific, interactive, fun and easy to put together.
And it draws from a rich cultural tradition from ancient China.
The art of shadow play originated in China and dates back thousands of years.
Live performances include spectacular effects based on light and shadows, intricate puppets and props with moving parts and unique instrumental and vocal music that has been passed down for generations.
This 10-minute documentary shows examples of the art and music of traditional Chinese shadow theater.
The number of traditional shadow show troupes is dwindling and efforts are being made to record and preserve the plays, puppets and music before the tradition is lost.
Teach your kids about this Chinese cultural tradition and then create a simplified version yourselves. I’ll show you how.
In addition to being artistic, you can use shadow play as an interactive science experiment! To perform a puppet show, your family will need to experiment with light and learn how it works to produce the best shadows.
Light travels very fast (186,000 miles per second [300,000 km per second], in case you forgot) and in straight lines. When something blocks the path of the light—like a cutout paper figure—it creates a shadow.
This video will help kids understand the properties of light and shadow.
Move an object around in the light and watch what happens to the shadow. Does it get bigger, smaller or do something else?
Try different types of objects. Which ones are opaque, translucent or transparent?
When you understand how the light and shadows work, you’ll be able to create more effects in your puppet show.
Let’s get started.
#1: Screenwriting: Create Your Story
Explain to your kids that you are going to create a play together using shadows to act out the story.
In traditional Chinese shadow theater, there are hundreds of different plays or stories that have been passed down through generations of performers by oral tradition.
Your family can choose an existing story or make up your own tale to tell.
In this shadow theater production, a group of 7- to 9-year-olds retold a classic story with shadow puppets.
If your kids want to make up their own story, help them put their creative caps on with these prompts:
- Does your story involve animals?
- Who are the good guys and the bad guys?
- Is the story happening long ago or nowadays?
- Where does it take place: forest, savanna, city or mountain?
Keep the story fairly simple so that the kids can tell it without a script.
Kids won’t need much help to create a story; their imaginations will be fired up by the opportunity to perform for an audience and playing in the dark…
Remember to come up with a title for your story and names for the characters.
#2: Casting Call: Find Images for Characters and Props
Your story will be told with shadows, so you need to make a silhouette for every character, prop and set in your play.
First, identify the shapes you’ll need. For a strong story with varied scenes and enough twists, you need to choose at least three characters (for example, one hero and two villains, which can be humans or animals) and three different background items (tree, house, castle, etc.).
Search on the web for images of the animals/characters in your story. Type “animal shapes” into Google images (or whatever describes your characters) and you’ll find hundreds of great, easy-to-cut animal shapes.
Choose images with simple silhouettes. Shapes with lots of small legs or pieces to cut out of the middle are hard to make and produce less-distinct shadows.
Resize the various images before you print them. Make sure each element is the right relative size to other elements (the elephant should be larger than the lion, for example).
You can also search through books or magazines to choose images for your puppets. This is a good way to make puppets of your kids’ favorite recognizable characters. Use tracing paper to reproduce the shapes on black cardstock (the pencil may be difficult to see on black paper).
#3: Costumes, Hair and Makeup: Make Your Puppets
Print the images on a sheet of paper, lay it over your thick black paper and cut out the shapes using sharp scissors. Use a craft knife for delicate areas.
Kids may need help with more detailed shapes.
Once your shape is cut out, place a wooden or bamboo skewer (pointed end removed), on the back of your cut-out figure.
Hide the stick as much as you can (such as under a leg) and attach it with a piece of tape. It’s best to use electrical tape, since it’s black and quite strong, but masking tape is fine, too. Make sure the tape doesn’t hang over the edge of the figure.
Your first puppet is ready! Repeat this process to make all of the characters, props and sets for your show.
#4: Set the Stage: Make a Shadow Screen
A shadow puppet show requires a special kind of theater. It’s easy to make one, but consider these points when choosing a site for your show:
- Is there somewhere to hang a shadow screen?
- Is there a good source of light or the space and electrical outlet to bring in a light?
- Is there room behind the screen for the kids to move around and spread their puppets and musical instruments on the floor?
- Is there room in front of the screen for your audience to sit?
Two settings work very well for a screen:
- Use a doorframe. It’s the perfect width and all you have to do to make the screen is pin a large sheet of paper (from a drawing paper roll) on the frame or hang a piece of cloth (such as a sheet) from a spring tension rod. It’s important to make the screen flat. Your shadows will look much better.
- Use a portable coat rack. This is ideal. It only takes about two minutes to create a screen and it can be used anywhere. Just wrap a white bed sheet tightly around the coat rack and fix it to the frame with hair clips or clothespins.
Since everything between the light source and the back of the white screen will be seen by the audience, you need to create a “dark” place for the puppet masters to work.
Prop a large piece of cardboard against the bottom part of your screen to block the shadows in that area and create a “stage.” This will hide the kids as they sit on the floor behind the screen and move the puppets. You could also use a large bulletin board or white board.
#5: Rehearsal: Experiment With Light and Music
Once your screen is ready, test and adjust the light source. A reading LED clamp spotlight works perfectly since it’s bright and you can easily direct the light where you want it.
Play with light. Experiment with it until you discover its effects on the shadows your puppets make. Your kids will quickly discover that the shadows grow larger when the puppets are close to the light source, and smaller when they’re further away.
Use these effects in the story. In our puppet show, the fairy touched the small dragon, which made him grow larger…and larger. We just had to move the puppet closer to the light to make it appear to grow.
Try making shadows with everyday objects, too. You may be surprised how creative your kids are. Who could imagine a steel colander could create the effect of a starry night! What other effects can you produce?
Add music and sound effects to make your show truly magical. This is a good way to involve several kids in your show. One or two move the puppets, and other(s) who are also hidden behind the screen play music or make noises to enhance the story. Be creative and think rain sticks, drums, shaking bottles of water…
Take turns manipulating the puppets during your rehearsal so everyone can see what shadows look like to the audience.
#6: Let the Show Begin!
Kids love being in charge. Let them create leaflets or signs to promote your shadow puppet show to friends and family. Take some pictures during your rehearsal and post an invitation on Facebook or send emails to special guests.
When it’s time for the show, have the kids arrange seats for the audience.
Turn the lights off… and let the show begin!
#7: Encore Performance: Another Kind of Shadow Play
In this article I’ve shown you how to create shadow puppets with paper. Those are fairly easy for young kids to master. If you have older kids, they may want to try hand shadow puppetry.
Watch a great example of cute animal hand shadows here.
There are many characters and animals you can make with your hands to produce a show from nothing but a light and a screen.
Check out this amazing shadow dance.
The sky is the limit in terms of using light and shadows, so if you have teens you could challenge them to create a shadow dance.
Some Final Thoughts…
Our kids performed Chinese shadow theater for our relatives during the Christmas holidays and all were impressed by how creative their story was. Everybody fell quiet as soon as the room got dark, and this unusual silence helped the kids focus.
Our shadow-puppet show proved a great experience for my shy daughter, because she could be the star of the show without actually being seen!
I’m sure your family will enjoy doing your own shadow puppet show. It’s an adventure in art, culture, science and performance that you can take together.
What do you think? Have you ever played with shadows with your kids? Did they surprise you with their stories? Which shadows worked best?