A shadow of a former story

Feed on the power of shadows; the origins and wanderings of.

By: Amie Knights,   2 minutes


Shadows have long lived in the realms of the unknown, the strange, the mythic and the magical. From black figures cast by strangers lurking down alleyways to bunnies projected on bedroom walls – they possess huge potential to tell great and diverse tales. So, I got Feeding on the power of shadows; the origins and wanderings of. 

I’ve been writing a children’s book. Sounds easy enough yes, but you’re wrong. Usually when I write it’s the voice that comes first. And this voice carries me into the story, the tale hangs from the tone. But with this project I’ve been fumbling fickle fingertips over the keyboard as I’ve stumbled over the decision to tell my tale with rhyme or lengthy prose or a line per page with full bleed illustrations – so that I’m now in possession of over 15 versions of the same story. It’s like being on a roundabout with a million exits and your foot’s a rock on the accelerator. I just can’t stop.

So in the hope of shifting gear and getting moving I decided to drop the words altogether and look to other storytelling traditions. Enter the shadows.

Legend has it that the origin of shadow puppetry dates back over 2000 years, to China, where a magician resurrected the spirit of Emperor Han Wudi’s  favourite concubine, by sending her shadow flying across a screen, much to the Emperor’s delight.

Ever since its inception, shadow puppetry has been a much-loved storytelling artform in China and has sat at the heart of community gatherings, weddings, ceremonies, birthdays and any other event you can think of. Professional puppeteers would tour their tales from village to village, to royalty and even to armies at war.  Accompanied by music, song and story, these theatre shows captivated audiences.

In the hope of shifting gear and getting moving I decided to drop the words altogether and look to other storytelling traditions. Enter the shadows.

I’ve read that since the millennium, this tradition has been retreating in China. However, I also discovered some wonderful examples of modern day  shadow play.

First up is this beautiful music video from Little Dragon. How paper people on sticks and wingless birds bearing gifts can make my eyes well up is beyond me. But weep I did.

There’s also some fantastic work being done by theatre companies who’re hijacking the art and casting shadows on the modern stage and screen.

Manual Cinema from Chicago combines handcrafted shadow puppetry with cinematic motifs and live sound manipulation to create immersive theatrical experiences. Merging the technological mediums of projectors, multiple screens, live feed cameras and multichannel sound design, with the physicality and rawness of paper puppets, live actors, live music and other handmade visual effects, the troupe has transformed both the experience of traditional cinema and of shadow theatre.

Then I discovered The Paper Cinema. Founded in 2004 by Nicholas Rawling, with Imogen Charleston and Christopher Reed, they tour bespoke pieces around Britain and overseas. With live music, intricate pen work and ink illustrations all manipulated for audiences in real time, these performances are said to be a feast for the senses. I’ll certainly be aiming to pay this group a visit while they’re touring.

During this Feed I’ve feasted on the wonders of wordless stories told. Of simple tales woven through sound and light and image. But am I left denouncing the place of words in storytelling? No. And my children’s book will be written. One day.

But first I’ll be cutting and sticking and playing with shadows.

I’ll let you know how that goes.


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