This blog post is written by Patrick Weigand, one of The Children's Museum's Interpretation Operations Coordinators—who also happens to be our resident puppetry enthusiast!
It's safe to say that I love shadow puppets. My passion for the art form started in part when I attended the 2011 National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. While I was there, I was work shopping and learning about shadow puppets for a production I was doing with a local theater company. I was drawn to shadow puppets because of their versatility—visually, the possibilities are endless. You can experiment with different types of materials and different light sources to create a wide range of images. I’ve even seen shadow plays that I wouldve thought were movies had I not known better!
I was thrilled to be asked to help develop a Chinese Shadow Puppet program a couple years ago, in anticipation of Take Me There:® China. Chinese shadow puppetry is shadow puppetry in its oldest and purist form. In fact, many believe that shadow puppetry originated in China over 2000 years ago! It was important to me that we help spread the art form to a wider audience.
Traditionally, Chinese shadow puppets are made from animal hide that is treated and scraped to be very thin and translucent. Once the leather is ready, each part of the puppet is cut out by hand, often with intricate designs, using a variety of knives and punches. Every piece is then carefully painted with vibrant colors before the joints are assembled. The engineering and assembling of the joints is also very precise, as it is important to find the right balance and movement for the performance.
As our team continued to develop the script for the program, I was sent back to the National Puppetry Conference this past summer to meet with experts on Chinese puppetry and continue developing the techniques we would use. Now we have the program you can see today—we invite families to help an unprepared apprentice (our actor) finish his assignment to perform a traditional story.
The puppets we use in the program are a little different than those used traditionally. Though they are from China, the puppets we use are mass produced, cut out by machines rather than by hand. We chose to use these mainly for practical reasons—we needed to have a lot of the puppets available to put in the hands of children and families. We also changed the way the puppets are controlled. Typically, Chinese shadow puppets are manipulated with three rods and take many years to master. We only use two rods, so it can be a little easier to work with them.
If you want to learn even more about Chinese shadow puppets, visit chineseshadowpuppetry.com. You can also learn more about the Shadow Puppets program in Take Me There: China in this blog post. You can check the museum calendar for all of the available times to stop by and Play a Part with Chinese Shadow Puppets!