• October 6, 1999
  • admin
  • 0

By Jeff Gere (www.jeffgere.com)
printed in  STORYTELLING MAGAZINE  Oct. 1999

A puppet is an inanimate object that is manipulated in such a way that it takes on the qualities of life- specifically, movement and voice. For years, I’ve included shadow puppets in my storytelling programs- paper cutouts placed and wiggled on an overhead projector to make shadow shows on the wall behind me. Why?

I came to storytelling from the visual arts. I’ve been a painter, a mime, a performance artist, and an experimental theater artist. After touring Germany and Italy with seven people, a U-haul trailer packed with sound equipment, stage sets, costumes, thirty-five masks and a dozen puppets, I fell in love with the simple, self-reliant, nude economy of storytelling. So why do shadow puppets?

For three decades I’ve been the Drama Specialist for Oahu’s Parks Department. As the one paid performer facing a Summer Fun Program of 17,000 children, I’ve done three shows a day, four days a week for  6 weeks and some evening teen and camp shows. Most are in huge gyms with bad or no sound systems, sweaty oceans of upto three hundred kids (K through 8th grade) and minimal supervision. You have to know who you are, command the space, grab their attention, trust your stories, know what will play and play it. I run all day. To keep myself interested, to vary the programs, and give the kids something new, I started playing with cut-outs on a discarded overhead projector. Magic!


The resulting images can be thrown and seen on anything-gym bleachers, any wall with a fairly even value, or a sheet pinned up or draped over existing furniture. The images get HUGE! (think Billboard.) Kids of all ages are enchanted and attentive for long periods.

Overhead Shadow Puppetry includes many wonderful storytelling elements. You see and speak directly to your audience, and they to you. You wise-crack with them, laugh with them, and can have characters speak to them while the cartoon illustrates the story behind you. Your face is lit too.

Shadow puppets avoid the problems I have with other forms of puppetry.

It’s FAST! There’s no black box to set-up, take-down, and hide behind so the audience must pretending you’re not there. There’s no screen to set-up and backlite. Gravity doesn’t make the puppets fall. Shadow puppets are: smallish (easy to store,) last a long time (decades of shows) reuse and cheap to make.

Shadow puppets are successful! Kids pay attention. Adults do too, for both one minute and twenty minute pieces, both with storytelling and as shadow shows.


Look at your story for characters, close-ups, settings and needed props. Materials are cheap and easy to find. I cut out shapes from discarded manila folders, cutting out the characters using X-acto knives with a sharp blade. Cutting patterns and lines within the figures, their clothes and hair, allows light to pass through, creating a more interesting visual image. Gels or colored tissue paper add color (scavenger your trash for colored plastic.)

You can photo-copy black-and-white line drawings (or photos) onto plastic transparencies (buy a box of 100 at a stationary store) and use them as your characters. I sometimes make collages to illustrate stories. I color-xerox them onto the transparencies and stand up inside the image and tell the story. Wax paper, colored gels or discarded bits of packaging can create interesting effects and patterns. Tearing edges is visually exciting.

You can can scratch on the transparency to get lines too. The images keep keep for years. Kids are curious and want to see the cut-outs. I recommend you don’t let them handle puppets, but show them yourself to the kids.


A totally satisfying shadow show can be done just by wiggle the cut-outs and give them a voice. However, soon ambition (curiosity?) will push you to experiment with rods to move jaws and arms, an exciting engineering adventure. I like to use transparent straws cut in half for rods, and dental floss for the knots.  Go ahead, make mistakes and try it! Trial and error learning is a great way to grow, in life and with puppets.

The Art of Puppetry is focusing your attention on these inanimate puppet constantly so that it moves in life-like ways. When a character speaks, it gestures appropriately. It takes practice. Since the glass on the overhead projector is small, the puppets are light, and the shadow thrown is big- every slight move shows up. Develop a light touch. There are tricky effects that can really add to the funky home-made beauty of this technique. Lay a puppet down on the projector’s glass. The image is clean and crisp. If you lift it up off the glass, the image becomes bigger and fuzzier. Dreams, fade-outs, and ghosts can be beautifully enacted this way.


Most storytellers have some skill changing voices with different characters. Of course, you can change a script to include more dialogue, may add more sound effects, and may want to sing! This story-illustration art form is wide OPEN, and FUN! Who can’t cut out a picture and wiggle it while speaking? Work on it then! Which storytellers wants to try a new craft to add to your art? Jump in and discover a wonderful extension of the work you’re already doing.


Arabian Nights: Envier & Envied Man (Shadows, Forgiveness Fest. ’05,

(9:47)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_t-5aOp8j4