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In the shadow of giants

Close up on two marionette puppets.

Extending your students reach through puppetry

By Daniel McGuire

I come from a family of actors, but never felt destined myself for a life in the theatre. I had stage fright. Thin skin. I wasn’t the eager-to-please type. I feared unemployment. Most of all, I hated the idea, both as an artist and as a person, of always being at the mercy of things beyond my control.

Then in 1984, while on a youthful walkabout in Java, I stumbled on a shadow puppet performance. I didn’t understand the language then or have a clue as to what was going on—but was captivated. Over nine hours, I surrendered to the flickering shadows, the otherworldly sounds of the gamelan orchestra, the exquisite simplicity of the whole experience; and like many other Westerners since Antonin Artaud, I found myself in a kind of fugue state. I found particular fascination in the icon of the dalang, the puppeteer, who plays all the roles, manipulates the puppets, conducts the musicians, and even serves as a spiritual figure and moral guide to the Javanese. I later would learn that many dalang also dance and take roles on traditional stages, as well as in cultural oddities like Ludruk, a kind of drag-show burlesque. The dalang struck me as a complete performing artist, displaying a versatility that left the American notion of the “triple threat”—actor-singer-dancer—in the dust.

A few years after that trip I finagled a scholarship to the School for Puppeteers in Surakarta, Central Java. More studies followed, and today, while I wouldn’t dare call myself a dalang, I do have the ability to share this art form with Westerners. I’ve written widely on the wayang kulit, as it’s called in Java and Bali, though shadow puppetry takes many forms as a popular storytelling phenomenon around the world. (Wayang is an Indonesian word for shadow, and kulit means leather or parchment, traditional materials for puppet-making.) I’ve performed in rural villages in Java and Bali, and in hipster venues such as PS122, in New York’s East Village. I’ve learned that shadow puppetry rarely bombs, whatever the setting, however “sophisticated” the audience, however crude the puppetry itself.

And as a workshop leader in schools and universities across the United States, I’ve seen the shyest, most skeptical students transform themselves into fearless theatre artists. Puppetry can do this for your students, too.

Why puppetry works

Most theatre teachers know the frustration of trying to introduce kids to the magic of performance, only to get hung up on the psychological and logistical hurdles that often come with it. Puppetry, shadow puppetry in particular, is different. Issues like common stage fright, adolescent self-consciousness, certain students’ inability or unwillingness to focus on the work at hand—these are all rendered moot by the unique qualities of the form.

Two women operating shadow puppets behind a screen set up to look like a theatre.In a shadow puppet performance, the players are hidden behind a screen. They don’t need to look out on a vast audience if they don’t want to; nor do they sense the audience’s eyes on them. Their character creations are not themselves, so they don’t feel like they’re being judged. They don’t even need to make eye contact with their fellow actors. If memorization is a problem for some, they can read from scripts on music stands. Most physical limitations, likewise, are easily dealt with.

And while those students already inclined to perform might fly faster at first, there’s no advantage to being beautiful or cool or “talented” in the way we Broadway-centric Americans tend to define it. “I was always typecast in traditional theatre,” writes Larry Reed, founder of Shadowlight Theatre in San Francisco, who had his own puppetry epiphany years ago in Bali. “The wayang allowed me to play roles that were never otherwise possible.”

If an illiterate Javanese dalang from a small village can conjure up mythic kings and demons using only a cotton screen, some sticks, and carved parchment puppets, imagine the possibilities for your own students.

Living large, on a budget

There’s something, too, about the small scale of a shadow puppet show that keeps kids riveted. I’ve found it surprisingly easy to manage a classroom of elementary-school students—even those labeled as A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. Kids who have a hard time concentrating on typical classroom activities will hunker down when they see their little world being blown up on a big screen, in real time, for the world to see. Forget about students wandering off during rehearsal; my big problem is making room for all the kids demanding screen time.

Students quickly latch on to shadow puppetry as a “virtual” performance medium—a quality they recognize from their favorite role-playing video games, action movies, and science fiction. (There are plenty of real-life parallels to talk about, too, as when scientists use sophisticated remote-control technologies to probe and perform tasks deep in the ocean, earth, or outer space.) The puppet figures and enlarging light extend students’ reach in ways that are both exciting and safe. A small gesture of the hand becomes a huge movement on the screen, so it takes extreme care and concentration to create meaningful action.

Another selling point for shadow puppetry as a teaching tool: it’s cheap.

Stephen Kaplin of Chinese Theatre Works, in New York City, has a particularly economical system. He uses overhead projectors for his performances and workshops, which means that materials—acetate, paper, tape, etc.—can come in at under $50 and fit in a suitcase. Overhead-projector puppetry also scales up: the show can be rehearsed in a classroom, and then projected for the entire school in an auditorium or gymnasium. And when shadowplay time is over, all the students’ creations can be saved and stored in a small space.

But for me, the most compelling reason to put those sticks in your students’ hands is this: puppetry develops a healthy objectivity in the actor. Reed, the San Francisco puppeteer, has called himself a “conduit” for characters that form in the mind, extend up through the arm, and are conjured in the form of shadows on a screen. He describes a “membrane” that separates the puppeteer from his character, a kind of protective force-field made tangible by whatever surface the shadow is projected upon. That can be an especially liberating concept for teen-aged performers, who often feel awkward and exposed on stage. Earlier I mentioned my own thin skin, which I always considered a temperamental defect for an aspiring actor. With puppetry, though, I can take on a new skin. A new body. I can reach distant audiences, and find new sources of income, thanks to an ever-expanding galaxy of digital gadgets and media.

Today’s students can expect, if they’re lucky, to find lucrative work in formats that were unknown just a few years ago. We owe it to them to provide some grounding in virtual-acting technique. For all the reasons I’ve talked about, shadow puppetry is an ideal starting point.

The first lesson: Blow minds, have fun

I sometimes introduce wayang kulit as part of a more general workshop on puppetry arts. Here’s how things might go:

Let’s say I’ve been invited to a tenth-grade humanities class where the students are learning about early explorers. I’m there because in this state (Illinois, where I was a teaching artist for several years), as elsewhere, a unit on public speaking is part of the required curriculum. I’ve got one week, about an hour each day, to help these kids come up with short, snappy, small-group presentations on their assigned subjects: Leif Ericson, Marco Polo, Vasco Da Gama, etc. On the last day, they’ll deliver these historical infomercials to a minor assembly in the school auditorium.

Close up on a small mouse hand puppet.Public speaking is an ordeal for most adolescents, and they feign disinterest to mask their fear. As I’m setting up my puppet screen, I might hear a few snide remarks from the kids who think they’re too cool for all this. I often make these potential troublemakers my first “volunteers.”

I start by beating them up. Well, not the students themselves (tempting as that might be), but their shadow puppets and characters. I give each student a puppet and a place on the screen/stage. Then my puppet figure—an uncouth character named Petruk—introduces students to the techniques of puppet manipulation with a rude game of “Simon Says,” in which I berate them like a drill instructor. My character teaches their characters to stand up properly, speak clearly, maintain eye contact with the other puppets, make deliberate and meaningful movements, and to support the other players when it’s someone else’s turn at center stage. If I get challenged in any way, I make their puppets do jumping jacks and push-ups. If they really sass me, I open up a can of puppet whoop-ass.

When the laughter dies down, I introduce what I call the first law of puppetry: Respect the Puppet. I teach that puppetry is an ancient and noble vocation that is the ancestor of all media. I get them to see that puppets aren’t just for kids—that puppets are, in many ways, an ideal means of exploring adult themes. And I demand they take the class and their classmates seriously.

In the beginning of a typical workshop with me, the kids wave the puppets in the air and bang into each other. That period lasts ten minutes or so, until the kids realize how much more effective they can be with deliberate movements, dramatic pauses, decisive stillness. They begin to apply their fine motor skills, so well honed on those game consoles and computers, to this new challenge. They create a vocabulary of simple, clear gestures, using them in conjunction with text and music. They begin to interact and share the stage.

We then move on to the second law of puppetry: What Happens in Puppetland Stays in Puppetland. Puppet theatre allows the students freedom of expression like nothing else. Here they can be whoever or whatever they want to be. Violence—when when it serves a point—is permissible in Puppetland, as are many other antisocial behaviors. Of course, in exchange for allowing them this latitude on stage, I demand that they act like professionals off stage. Most do, to a surprising degree. The students look forward to their time in character, when they can talk back to me, to the world, and say what they really think.

Bringing ideas to life

We spend time the first day discussing what makes puppetry uniquely challenging and fun, and we practice some basic skills. As our attention shifts to the business of the students’ early-explorer projects, I make the point that life itself is a series of presentations. In whatever careers students might choose, they’re apt to find that people with sharp, creative presentation skills have influence, and that people with influence find it easier to acquire power, wealth, and security. I quote terrorism expert Richard Clarke, who made this observation of his years spent advising the Clinton and Bush administrations on possible threats: “The only time I was really effective in getting senior officers to pay attention was when I had tabletop war games. That did more than any briefing paper I might write.”

I mention Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and point to examples from students’ own experience showing how the best presentations connect with audiences on more than one level.

For their own early-explorer presentations, I ask that the students take aim at least three intelligences—auditory, kinesthetic, and visual—and offer them five basic communication/puppetry models to choose from in staging their material:

  1. Tabletop/sand table. Professionals in the military, law enforcement and emergency-response fields often explore scenarios using a flat tray filled with sand and small figures representing people and objects. The puppeteer has a godlike perspective, and in these presentations, terrain and its effect on the human drama must be the major theme.
  2. Cantastoria/wayang beber. In cantastoria, a large picture with multiple scene vignettes is displayed, narrated, and occasionally set to music by the group. (One cantastoria still seen these days in Italy is the Passion of the Christ, in which a poster depicting the Stations of the Cross is described in narration and song.) Wayang beber is similar, except that a scroll of images is unrolled, showing a dozen or so sequential scenes to be voiced by the group.
  3. Doll/object/miniature theatre. Using dolls and a dollhouse, household objects or a small proscenium stage, students narrate and enact historic scenes.
  4. Overhead/wayang kulit. Students use an overhead projector with hand-cut figures and scenery, or develop a story using my traditional shadow puppets and screen.
  5. Muppet, sock and rod puppets. These are the kinds of puppets most of us grew up with. Students might choose to stage a Muppet-style show, though building traditional hand puppets can be time-consuming. If the puppets end up being very crude, I suggest to the students that a more sophisticated, literary script might provide an effective contrast.

Now each small group gets to work deciding what story to tell about their early explorer, and how to tell it. I leave the students free to brainstorm, experiment and argue, poking my head in now and then to offer my own ideas.

Over the next few days I help the students develop and edit their scripts, work out blocking and flesh out characters. We practice improv techniques, with and without the students’ puppet avatars. And we find out what special skills some might have—rap, impressions, drawing, playing an instrument—that might be put in service of the story.

Finally, it’s show time. The groups’ performances rarely run longer than ten minutes (Petruk tells them to “keep it too short to suck”), and the audience, coming in with low expectations for anything called a “puppet show,” is appreciative. Most have never seen anything like it. They crack up when four macho football players in “puppet drag” put on a Barbie-doll re-enactment of one historical tale; they’re moved when a disabled student portrays a physically daring hero.

When one especially voluble kid throws herself into a role, concealed behind the puppet screen, the teacher elbows me and whispers, “This is the only time she’s ever spoken in my class.”

The bigger picture

Keats wrote about the concept of “negative capability.” He said that a great artist, like Shakespeare, had the ability to get into the heads of characters without passing judgment on them from the outside. Keats felt it was impossible to write a character like Iago without completely identifying with him—being not so much in sympathy with Iago, which implies a kind of agreement, but in accord with Iago. You accept Iago for what he does and allow him to follow his destiny. Iago needs to go where Iago will go, independent of a writer’s moral concerns.

Shadow puppetry ups the ante further and requires the performer to play two different roles, usually with one puppet in the right hand and another in the left. In Java, a puppeteer will voice intricate Socratic dialogues with himself, or perform comic banter where he’s playing the equivalent of Abbott and Costello in the “Who’s on First?” routine. This practice develops skills rarely exercised in traditional Western theatre study, but which are invaluable for storytelling and voice-over work. (Those voice geniuses on The Simpsons make good livings.) But to me it embodies an idea primary to any liberal education. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Plato, writing in The Republic, imagined a group of prisoners shackled from infancy, who knew the world only through shadow figures projected on the walls of their cave. Unable to turn around and look to the light, the prisoners confused the shadows with the source and were in the thrall of their jailers, just as Neo, Keanu Reaves’ character in The Matrix, was in the thrall of a sentient computer. Plato describes the plight of a prisoner who breaks free, discovers (painfully, at first) real reality by the light of day, and tries to free his comrades from their “virtual” existence. Neo’s journey is the same.

I could point to more benevolent examples—Gepetto was a good guy, at least according to Walt Disney—but puppetry, especially the sinister puppeteer, has become a well-worn metaphor for power, manipulation, and control. As a shadow artist myself, of course, I take a more nuanced view.

The humble puppet releases the actor from the tyranny of his own image. It teaches us that our influence is bounded only by our readiness to work, to refine our technique, and to develop empathy and understanding of the human condition. Dalang live by this philosophy, which might be why, despite the invasion of movies, television, and computer games even to their remote corner of the world, they still enjoy excellent job security.

We all contain multitudes. Each of us has an infinite capacity to reach others in a positive way, but we keep our imaginations stuck in that cave. And I’m not just talking about our obsessively plugged-in students. For a time in my own life, I chose to see only my limitations. Maybe you’ve been there.

Shadow puppetry reminds us—simply, beautifully—to turn toward the light.

Puppetry tips

The simplest way to create shadow puppetry is to use something available in almost every classroom: the humble overhead projector. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Order a piece of Plexiglas approximately 24 inches square from your local glass or hardware store (the cost won’t be more than $15). By placing this on top of the overhead glass, you give your students a much bigger work area. While the actual lit area hasn’t expanded, you now have “wings” where you can stage props and characters, or “fly” (slide) scenery in from the sides, top and bottom. You will probably need to cut a notch in the Plexiglas (use a fine jigsaw blade) to accommodate the projector’s vertical arm. You might also want to dull the Plexiglas’s sharp corners, or cover them with tape.
  • Some overheads have scrolls of transparency material attached. These can be used to create scenery. You can draw scenery on the acetate using magic markers, or stick on shapes cut from contact paper. You can also create scenery from photographs or scanned images that you have photocopied or printed on to acetate. You can then tape them to the roll in the sequence of your story, and crank from one scene to the next.
  • In transitions from scene to scene, it helps to have two projectors. If you want to get fancy, you can create a simple switch or dimmer that allows you to turn off one projector as the other goes on, or fade from one to another.


The second way to do shadow puppetry with your students is through the classic wayang form. Some ideas for this approach:

  • Wayang puppets are often available on eBay, or you and your students can make your own simple wayang by cutting figures from card stock and attaching them to sticks using tape or hot glue. The best sticks I’ve found are dowels, bamboo tomato plant stakes or, for smaller puppets, bamboo shish-kabob skewers that you can buy at a supermarket.
  • The stage consists of a white cotton screen (an old bed sheet works well) stapled onto a wood frame. Running along the bottom is the “stage,” made from brightly colored swimming-pool “noodles.” The puppet sticks can be stuck into the noodles, allowing one puppeteer to perform with several puppets simultaneously.
  • Light sources might be desk lamps or video projectors; you can also combine wayang-style puppetry with one or more overheads. One way of creating scenery is to bring a series of landscape images into PowerPoint, and project them on the screen.


Among Daniel McGuire’s many writings on Indonesian theatre is a translation of a wayang golek performance called The Traitor Jobin. He’s also a fan of more familiar styles of puppetry, having worked on the first season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and with artists from the Jim Henson Company, among others. McGuire lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The author recommends these three books as a starting point for an investigation of puppetry:

On Thrones of Gold: Three Javanese Shadow Plays (out-of-print, but available on by James R. Brandon.

Shadow Puppets & Shadow Play (Crowood Press, 2007) by David Currell.

Puppet Mania! (Hands in Art, 2004) by John Kennedy.


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