Shadow puppetry is a form of puppetry, in which you move puppets, cut out of paper (or another thin material), between a light source and a screen. The audience at the other side of the screen only sees the shadows. It is a lot of fun to do just by yourself, with friends, or as a family activity. You can make it as ambitious as you like with moving body parts and different props and scenes. Below you will find instructions for performances that you can do from a desk or table, a door opening, or even (in case you are sick) from your bed.
The shadow puppeteer’s tool and supply kit
- Cardboard box, box lid (about 13″x16″ or bigger), or 2’x3′ cardboard/foam display board for presentations (bought at craft and office supply store)
- Parchment (wax) paper, tracing paper, architectural vellum (from office supply store), or thin white plastic disposable table cloth found in party stores
- Masking tape (duck tape too when using parchment paper
- Black poster board (or, if not available: card stock or cardboard from cereal box)
- Hole punchers: standard size for eyes, 1/16″ for the connecting holes (optional)
- Brass paper fasteners (smallest size: 0.5″ to 1″)
- Bendable straws
- Wooden barbeque skewer
- Velcro sticky back fasteners (optional)
- White or light colored pencil for sketching on poster board
- Bright desk lamp (preferably 75Watt, more for bigger screens)
- Photo copy transparencies and permanent markers for sceneries (optional)
Pick your story
If you think of shadow puppetry like a cartoon, you can act out anything: a story that you come up yourself, or a familiar story such as fairy tale, an ancient myth, or a story from a favorite picture book. You can even make caricatures of yourself, your family members, and friends! )
Making the screen
A desk top theatre is made of an upright cardboard frame, supported by two sides, with a screen taped on the inside. Ready made display boards from a craft or office supply store are easiest to use, as you only need to cut out a rectangle at the top half. If you use a large cardboard box, you need to make the supporting sides yourself, which can be square or triangular as the frame shown below at light behind the screen. If you use a box lid you can keep it upright by taping it to the table with masking tape or by using small heavy objects to keep it in place.
To cut out the screen you need a box cutter or knife and the help of an adult. Make sure that the rectangle that you cut is out is not bigger than the screen material that you have available. You can choose parchment or tracing paper, vellum for architectural drawings (available in large office supply stores), or a piece of thin white disposable plastic table cloth (available in a party store). Cut it to a size at least 1/2 inch larger than the rectangle in your frame and tape it on the inside with masking tape.
For performances for larger audiences, for instance at a birthday party or a summer camp, you need a bigger screen. Ask a parent or other grownup if you can use a white bed sheet or buy a piece of thin white cloth, which you hang in a doorway or attach between two chairs.
A cheap and easy alternative is white plastic disposable table cloth from a party store which you can tape in a doorway using masking tape. You can draw on this plastic with colored permanent markers (left).
When you use a bigger screen you will need a stronger light source behind you (see below: light behind the screen).
Design your puppets and props first on white paper before you trace them on the poster board (or card stock, or cereal box). If you find it difficult to get it right, don’t be afraid to look at books or websites for inspiration (Jack, for instance, the puppet on the right, was inspired by Quentin Blake’s illustrations of the story of Jack and the beanstalk, retold by Roald Dalh). (Click on the image to download a PDF.)
Size and proportions
Make sure the puppets are not too small, between 8 and 11 inch tall. To get an idea about size and proportions I have examples and cutouts online that you can print out. To the right: Jack in letter size format (less than half the size of the puppet photographed on this site).
Shadow puppets work best if you watch their face from the side, so that you can make the nose stick out and have the mouth a little open. Eyes should be cut out with very small pointed scissors (you may need some help). You can also use a hole puncher for that. To make an eye ball like Jack’s, tape a small oval piece over the eye hole.
Moveable body parts
To let a body part move (such as an arm or a leg), you have to cut it out separately, because it overlaps with the body. Make a little hole where the body and the arm or leg connect (Use the 1/16″ hole puncher or the pointed end of your scissors). You attach the parts with a paper fastener. It is usually enough to have only one part that can move.
Rods to hold and move the puppets
For rods to hold and move the puppet you can use sticks or bendable straws, or a combination of both. To make a sharp shadow you need to keep your puppet as close to the screen as as possible. For desk top size puppets this means that the rods should be attached at the backs of the puppets at right angles, using bendable straws. Tape the smaller end to the back of each puppet and bend the straw in an angle. You do the same for the moveable body parts (cut the flexible part shorter if necessary). You can straighten the rods again if you want to store the puppets.
For larger puppets and screens you will have a light behind you, so you need to stay below the screen and hold the puppets up. Use a straight straw or (if you can handle the pointed edge) barbeque skewer for parts that do not move. This is the ‘holding’ rod (in the example here attached to the puppet’s back). For parts that move you use a bended straw, attaching the short end to the body part (in the example the arm). If you prefer a thinner rod, use the ‘Wisniewski invention’ (left): Cut off the bendable part of the straw, leaving 1″ on each side of the bending part. Put this part over the pointed edge of a barbeque skewer and wrap with a piece of masking tape where they connect.
If you want to use other objects than puppets (the so called ‘props’) be careful in deciding what you need. If you don’t have a big screen, you should not have too many props: there is little space and you only have two hands to hold or move the puppets. Use a piece of rolled up scotch or masking stick a prop to the screen, so that it won’t be visible on the other side of the screen. If you use plastic disposable table cloth in your doorway, you can draw on it with permanent marker instead of using props.
Light behind the screen
Choose a light source that is convenient and bright enough for the screen that you use. For desk top size screens a desk lamp is best but if you use parchment paper or vellum a flash light or even day light from your window will do.
For bigger screens, for instance in your door opening, ask a parent for the brightest light source in the house. The darker you can make the room, the better. If you do shadow puppetry in the classroom it would be best for your teacher to use an overhead projector. This provides the best light and can also be used for very cool background scenery on transparencies (see my site about teaching with shadow puppetry).
If you have any questions, email me or leave a comment in the box below. Have fun!