How do I Put on a Shadow Puppet Play?

Jessica Ellis

If you enjoy entertaining friends and family with theater, you may want to consider putting on your own shadow puppet play. Shadow puppetry is an ancient form of performance, with records of plays dating back to 930 C.E. It began in India and Indonesia, but now is performed all over the world and can be adapted to tell any kind of story.

Conventional children's puppets can be used to make a shadow puppet play.
Conventional children's puppets can be used to make a shadow puppet play.

In order to put on a shadow puppet play, there are three essential elements. First, you need a screen to act as the stage for your puppets. A thin bed sheet, or big piece of paper will work well, although traditional screens are made of cotton stretched across a wood frame. Make sure you use light colored material, so that the dark shadows will contrast better. Second, you need a light source behind the screen. An uncovered table lamp provides excellent light for shadow puppet plays; just make certain the rest of the room is completely dark.

Most importantly, you will need puppets. Traditional shadow puppets from Indonesia and Asia can be purchased online, but are sometimes very expensive, with the most intricate costing more than $100 U.S. Dollars (USD). Alternatively, you can find non-traditional puppets at toy stores, or substitute dolls. Using poster board, however, you can make your own puppets, exactly to fit the roles of the play. In Indonesian shadow puppetry, there are usually four main puppets in every play: A tree or mountain shaped puppet that can be used for scenery, a hero, a villain or demon, and a clown puppet that provides comic relief.

To make the puppets for your shadow puppet play, draw an outline of them on poster board. To make them detailed, cut out facial features or intricate clothing designs. Try gluing or taping a translucent material such as bright tissue paper or colored lighting gels over the cut-out holes, to make your shadows colorful.

You may also wish to make the puppets’ arms and legs jointed, by cutting them out separately and attaching them to the puppet body with metal brads. Using chopsticks or long wooden skewers, attach the bodies to a central wooden rod to use as a handle. Attach additional rods to any jointed body parts you wish to be able to move around. Traditionally, puppet masters use a banana log to hold puppets in place behind the screen, but you can easily do this with a piece of styrofoam or floral foam.

In choosing a story for your shadow puppet play, think of myths or legends you may enjoy. If you don’t want to write your own, creation myths from around the world provide many interesting stories about how life began. Greek myths or fairy tales would be excellent choices for children’s theater. You might want to read some of the traditional stories used in shadow puppet plays, such as those from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Traditional shadow puppet plays in Indonesia use music called gamelan to go with the performance. Build a soundtrack to shadow puppet play with your favorite songs, or invite a friend who plays an instrument to accompany you. If using a CD or tape player, you may want to practice with it to make sure the music lines up with the right part of the story.

Test out how well your shadows are cast before inviting an audience to watch. Have a friend hold up the puppets between the light source and the screen, while you check from the audience side to see how they look. Remember also that since you will be sitting behind a screen, you will need to speak quite loudly, to make sure your audience can hear you well.

Putting on a shadow puppet play is a great project for children, who can help write the story and make the puppets. Classes could use it as a means of studying a particular myth or story, and putting a shadow puppet play for schoolmates or parents could serve as a great final project. It is also excellent for theater companies as a new and different form of performance.

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Discussion Comments


I'm curious if shadow puppet theatre plays that are based on the Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are really long. Are they just certain parts of these epics, like chapters or scenes, or are they really truncated versions that just keep key events? I think a traditional Hindu shadow puppet show would be a very interesting local performance type of project.


@anon75423: Recording them is an awesome idea! I've been encouraging my two young children, who are fascinated by puppets, to try a shadow puppet play. Recording it would make a wonderful keepsake for them and for my husband and I, and we could even post it on YouTube if the kids wanted and see what other people think. I see a fun family hobby coming up!


Wow, I didn't know shadow puppets started in India and Indonesia. That's cool. Everybody has some odd talent or hobby, and mine is making shadow puppet performances with my hands; I've been doing it since I was a teenager, and my little sister always got a kick out of my shadow dogs and ducks and in particular the llamas. A shadow puppet play is a great way to tell a bedtime story improv. Since the hands are such a big part of it for me, I don't know if I would like doing plays with actual puppets, though; it must be a lot more involved than my "flashlight and hand" method, huh?


I've done shadow puppet plays with my class for a few years. This past year we recorded and posted them to our class site. It's a terrific project and we all had a blast!

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