The screen is where the puppet moves, and from where the audience is told a story. There are numerous shadow screen types, with each juggling several key factors.
They must transmit maximum light but also be sufficiently opaque to hide those pulling the strings. It should also be tight enough so that the puppets can be lightly pushed against it without it sagging, while being thin enough to provide the shadows with sharp edges. Durability is also important as it needs to withstand touring. The screen is flat, which can be a challenge for any director. The puppets can move only in one direction. One puppet passing another involves a difficult hand exchange backstage. Scene blocking involves much thought in order to prevent the puppet from having to walk backwards. One solution is to use what’s known as ‘the fade out’. As a puppet is moved away from making contact with the screen, it grows fuzzy before fading out.
The light is responsible for bringing the puppets to life on the screen. Asian puppeteers traditionally sit coconut oil lamps on bamboo frames between the screen and the face of the puppeteer. It’s atmospheric and romantic, although somewhat of a fire hazard. American puppeteers were forced to find a different solution. When choosing your light, there are a number of factors to consider: angle, colours, spread, and intensity. Intensity refers to the light’s power, typically measured in watts. It isn’t easy to suggest how much is sufficient. More light needs to come from a controlled source behind the screen than in front of it. The best solution is to play around with it in the space in which you’ll perform.
In terms of spread, shadow puppeteers usually like an even intensity over the entire screen. A highly focused light or spotlight can leave the edges with dark areas. Widely spread lights look good on screen but can often result in too much light spilling out from around the stage. The solution is stage lights in combination with barndoors (movable panels restricting the light). The problem is that they’re expensive. Fortunately, there is a cheaper alternative. Making barndoors from aluminium sheets is easier than it sounds. Aluminium foil can also be used. Just don’t use anything that will burn; it gets hot close to the light. There are different colours of lights that create various effects on the shadow screen:
the traditional incandescent (yellowish glow), halogen (pure white), and white fluorescent tubes (diffused light with a bluish tint). Any can make effective shadow lights. It depends on the effect that suits your show. If you plan to use coloured puppets, halogen is a good idea. Another aspect of shadow puppetry is the light’s angle. Light that comes from above, below, or the side each offers different effects. Light coming from a bad angle can reveal the puppeteer’s heads, as well as your control rods. It’s important to experiment to fit the light to both the show and the stage.