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A Crash Course on Shadow Puppets

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Like many of us, at the beginning of the pandemic, I retreated to my childhood home to take a hiatus from society in hopes of comfort and home-cooked meals. In my time back there, I kept getting flashbacks from being stuck at home as a child during snow blizzards, where reruns and news would get old, and we would end up trying to come up with creative ways to pass the time. Deep down my memory bank, I conjured up images of my childhood living room fort, made of soft mismatched blankets, playing with the shadows to create a dreamlike world of animals and images. A wondrous memory of imagination and storytelling. I was more than eager to add back shadow puppets to my repertoire.

Now, don’t assume that I can recall how I used to make a dog bark with merely my own two hands. I had to look to the experts to help guide me on my quest to become a shadow puppeteer.  I will do my best to take you on this journey with me, but please keep in mind that there are plenty of visual tutorials out there that may be more helpful, as, at this point, I am only a beginner.

There are two different types of shadow puppets. The first is where my interest lies, which is creating shadow puppets using your hands, which then are displayed on the wall. The second form, more advanced, is creating a theater using translucent paper and creating puppets made out of thick paper that casts its shadow through the translucent paper. So, with that being said, this will be a crash course in shadow puppetry of the hands.

To start, you need to set up your stage. Shadow puppets are best at night, so wait until the sun goes down to get started. A blank wall would be best, but if you have every inch covered in photos of your dog (as some sane people do), hang a flat sheet or table cloth to create a blank surface. For lighting, set up a desk lamp or flashlight facing the wall (at least a couple of feet away). Turn the lights off and let the magic begin.

All illustrations are by Eyal Eliezer.

The shadow puppet we will first create is the rabbit. Put your two hands in front of you, stretching out your arms, palms facing towards each other. Touch your wrists together, and twist your right palm down and around, facing the right, and twist your left palm up, facing the ceiling. Now with your right hand, bend your pointer finger and middle finger down to your thumb. On your left hand, point your pinky and ring finger (keeping them together) back towards you, and point your middle finger up towards the ceiling. Create a hook with your pointer finger, while keeping your thumb close to your hand! Viola, you have a rabbit. Play around with the shadow making the rabbit hop, dance, and wiggle their ears.

Now, let’s create a dog. Stretch out your arms forward, this time with palms facing each other. Make a thumbs up with your left hand, and move it a tad down and closer towards you, so that your curled up pinky and ring finger are just below your right palm. With your right hand, move your pinky down, creating a space between it and your ring finger. Keep your ring finger and middle finger touching. Fold your pointer finger back towards you and keep your thumb up. Check out that shadow pup! You can make it bark, howl, and even play with his ears.

Want to create a beach scene? Let’s make a crab! With your arms stretched forward and elbows bent, place your hands on top of each other, with both palms facing you, right hand on top of left. At the wrists, twist hands down in, towards the opposite side (left hand, fingers point right and vice versa). Wiggle your fingers while moving your arms and you got yourself a crawling crab.

Let’s try a simple goose. Put your right hand forward as though you are giving a handshake. Bend the tip of your thumb down to your palm. Overlap your pointer finger behind your middle finger, and then overlap your middle finger behind your ring finger. Move your thumb up and down and see your goose honk.

Our final shadow puppet will be the classic baby birds. Start with your hands forward, elbows bent, palms facing towards each other. On both hands, curl your pointer and middle finger (like you are making air quotes), and rest the tip of your middle finger on the top middle of your ring finger. This may take some practice, but believe me, it is possible. Put your thumbs down to your palm, and keep your ring fingers forward. Now move your pinkies up and down to make the little birds chirp!