Elemental Tales


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It is a mild winter afternoon, kids and adults trickle in one by one. The windows have been shaded for the first shadow puppet playshop of the winter. A candle flickering brightly in the center of the room draws everyone into a circle.

Behind a rice-paper screen Erna and Jasamine are readying their puppets. Simple paper cut-outs are all that are needed to convey a day in the life of a lone fisherman with a crooked back, plying a windy winter lake in his skiff. Shadows appear on the screen and the small audience goes silent. A magical fish is transformed, the fisherman dances a dream-dance, a visitor from afar arrives… this is a story about the harshness of winter, old age and luck. After the short performance lights go on and the brief spell cast by the shadows dissipates. “Boorring,” one boy giddily declares. Another girl mischievously lifts the screen to reveal the hidden performers.

Ancient Media
For many scholars the emergence of human culture can be traced to mastery of fire by our ancestors more than 400,000 years ago. By extending wakefulness into the night fire provided a context for attentive listening and closer attunement of individuals. Storytelling, in particular, fostered cooperation and coordination among early humans, giving them an extra edge over competitors and prey, aiding in the development of social learning traits manifested in evolving tool technology and the arts, and ultimately accelerating the formation of complex societies. (See studies of anthropologist Polly Weissner and of literary scholar Brian Boyd for two interesting perspectives on the story of storytelling.)

It is reasonable to guess that for the same reasons storytelling was transformative, shadow play was not a trivial technology for early humankind. We have no evidence of prehistoric shadow play, of course, but anthropologists believe that the flickering shadows of oil lamps, for one, were integral to the effect intended by early cave painters. By enhancing the affective power of narrative, shadow play may have supercharged group cohesion for tribes that had it.

Electronic media has a somewhat analogous effect today, connecting individuals across the globe and galvanizing the emotional and moral basis for vast regimes of coordination. The things that bind global society together—religious values, political values, markets, corporations, money— are all made effective through stories elaborated through our media technologies.

Imagination run amok?
The imaginary quality of stories gives them their connective power, making them meaningful across place and time. This same quality also raises a potential hazard however, for fictions and institutions associated with them can perpetuate despite shifts in the underlying circumstances which produced them. This potential for disconnect lies at the root of conflicts and crises throughout history. What stories are perpetuated today, so rooted in our minds we may barely notice them, that may be ripe for revision?

The body is the site of primary knowledge, and philosophers of every era and stripe have asserted that the antidote to imagination run amok is a more conscientious attending to sensory experience. In this respect shadow puppetry and the electronic media that keeps us in trance today are very distinct. Like fire itself, firelight shadows have presence. They dance as the flame responds to currents and particles in the air. Existing strictly in the present, they cause us to open our minds to the present and expand our senses.

The living arts may not reveal where our imaginations have taken us astray, but by giving us the experience of beauty in our midst they can help to train our minds to attend to our sense perception with fresh curiosity and renewed aesthetic sensitivity. Shadow play, in particular, recalls a time early in our childhood as well as early in human history when our imaginative powers were just beginning to stir, sensory experience of our immediate surroundings still the dominant focus of our minds.

A feast for the senses
Six weeks after our first shadow puppet playshop, on a crisp day in mid-March, another performance is underway. This time the original audience is behind the screen. They are young and their stories are endearingly guileless, catapulting ahead through logical leaps, spiraling digression, inaudibility. The audience is nonetheless captivated. Many are parents who (given the importance of storytelling to our success) have a natural interest in the performers’ developing skills. But there are also touching triumphs and comical surprises. At one point an ocean horizon tilts uncharacteristically to the left. The puppeteers’ illusion is not completely broken, but the attempt to create an illusion is of equal interest. The light itself bends and brightens against the screen, a blue shadow cast through a filter drawing our interest, holding us momentarily in a soft spell and causing us to wonder.

For more about shadow puppet playshops please visit the archive.