Drew Colby (born in Great Britain) has worked with puppets in Southern Africa and the UK for over 30 years. He began with glove puppets and marionettes at the age of 12, whilst at school in Namibia. His first professional work was from 1995 – 1998 at the Playhouse Puppet Company in Durban, South Africa. Work spanned traditional double-bridge, long-string marionette shows, open stage bunraku-style puppetry, and performances with mixed styles of puppetry, acting, mask work and dance. From this experience Drew developed work over the next three years using open-stage short-string marionettes and rod puppets. The culmination of this period was a performance of “Madiepetsana and the Milk bird” at the 1999 International Festival of Marionette Art in Prague, Czech Republic.
Drew returned to the UK in 2000 and worked at the Little Angel Theatre, notably with Steve Tiplady on “Jonah and the Whale”, in 2002-2003. Drew’s fascination with everyday objects grew out of this experience – during this time he created “Little Red Riding Hood”, seen at the Battersea Arts Centre, Norwich Puppet Theatre and a summer season at The Little Angel Theatre in 2003, in addition to other prominent London and UK venues and festivals. This performance contained his first work with hand shadows. The show had only one pre-made puppet, and this led Drew to explore “instant puppetry”, where there are no pre-made puppets, only everyday objects being brought to life to tell a story. This process led to hand shadow work, which is theatre created simply out of absences of light, the puppeteer’s ability and the audience’s imagination. It is the ultimate instant puppetry.
How would you define shadowgraphy and is its history important to you as a creator?
I would define Shadowgraphy as the art of making images with one’s shadow; more specifically the art of making moving pictures with one’s shadow. In general the tools used to make the images are the hands, wrists, arms and on some occasions other parts of the body, sometimes supplemented with props.
Shadowgraphy is a branch of shadow puppetry but is distinctive from it in that the performer does not use pre made puppets, rather their own shadow. The history of shadowgraphy is vital to me as a performer – certainly in terms of learning about historical practise, trends, performers and techniques. There is something ephemeral and primitive about shadowgraphy (or hand shadows) which is appealing and mysterious.
What inspired you to work with puppets, and how did that interest evolve into shadowgraphy?
I have been performing with puppets from a very young age – around five. Looking back it appears to me that as a child I felt I had no control over my life – it frequently felt that the boundaries set by my parents shifted from day to day and it was difficult sometimes to understand how to behave. Puppetry gave me a chance to create a little world in which I could be sure of what I had to do.
Added to this I had a vivid imagination and an ability to draw (and perhaps no desire to be in the limelight) and puppetry was a natural fit. Perhaps, paradoxically, I also wanted people to notice me. The interest in puppetry evolved quite naturally into shadowgraphy – I had been working with object theatre and shows where there were no premade puppets and shadowgraphy was the next step on that journey; a blank wall can suddenly come to live with small dramas created by two hands and light.
Shadowgraphy was a feature of nineteenth century theatre: does it fit easily into cabaret or storytelling traditions, and how effective can it be for telling longer stories, or existing within theatrical productions?
I don’t believe it is accurate to say Shadowgraphy was a feature of nineteenth century theatre. Certainly the evidence of scripts, set designs and the practicality of lighting would suggest that shadows didn’t play a large part in mainstream theatre. Shadowgraphy would have a been a novelty, performed in the main by magicians and not puppeteers in theatrical variety shows.
Consider the restrictions lighting alone placed on making shadows – a shadowgrapher would have to stand a good distance from a nineteenth century limelight (or spotlight) to make a sharp shadow, so none of the work we can do now standing close to the light was possible. Hand shadows fit very well into cabaret and can be used to tell stories, but my personal feeling is it is best to allow the shadows to speak for themselves – puppetry is most akin to dance, being a visual, movement base artform, and the real beauty of shadows is allowing them to be – because of the primitive nature of the shadows it is more challenging for audiences to identify each shadow character as being a specific character – so a rabbit shadow is generically all rabbits (introduce a second rabbit and you have small scene unfolding, but who can really tell which rabbit is which?).
Shadow storytelling really came into its own with the advent of cinema. I can think of a number of examples from silent films where shadows were used to suggest a supernatural element of menace (Nosferatu) to show something perhaps too horrific for the audience to view (the stage hand hanging in the Phantom of the Opera – the character on camera can see the hung man, but all w see are the dangling shadow legs) and as part of the texture of the film (Murnau’s Faust has a fair scene in which a hand shadow performer is seen making two little monkeys kissing and a swan or duck on the water).
In James Whales’s The Old, Dark House, Gloria Stuart, left alone in the main hall begins to make a hand shadow bird in the firelight. Suddenly (and cleverly) the shadow of the sinister old lady of the house emerges from Gloria’s shadow and terrifies her. The whole visual language of cinema has given shadowgraphers much scope for visual action and storytelling – for example, a character’s face being only seen on the edge of the screen, a character running in the centre of the camera while the landscape whizzes by, montage and cutting from one character to another to create visual interest and meaning.
What are your intentions in your own work? Do you have a particular dramaturgy or approach, and are there any artists – either within or without puppetry – that influence your work?
There is an element in my work of primitive communication, and of connecting with (in this era of digital gadgets, CGI and figurative storytelling in film and television) a primitive understating we develop as human beings of shape, silhouette and shadow. We live in brightly lit houses where there is very little darkness; very often theatre (especially for children) bombards its audience with colour, noise and bombast. My intention is always to create something with a minimal aesthetic, that awakens the imagination as each new shape emerges, that engages with the audience through humour, subtlety and skill.
Audiences have to do a bit of work when watching a shadow show and this makes it a less passive, more active experience. I have always enjoyed the experience of something being created before the eyes of the audience.
My dramaturgy / approach to making work is a little unusual. It is a little like choreography. I have worked with long story arcs in the past but prefer to allow the shadows to show me what is interesting, funny and beautiful – and what creates suspense. From this I develop a performance (usually without a verbal element) that may include live or recorded music (or even purely vocal sounds and the shadows as in Mr. Shadow).
There is space in my performances for audiences to project their own ideas, identities and imaginings – this stems back to my childhood in which I became engrossed in orchestral music and tone poems that, by the melody, rhythm, harmony and orchestration depict a scene or story in sound for the imagination to picture.
My biggest influences (in terms of Shadowgraphy) are hand shadow performers such as Prasanna Rao (whose videos I watched early on – his style still charms and influences me) and also Edward Victor. In terms of people I have worked with the biggest influence would be Steve Tiplady (puppeteer / director / master of the obects) with whom I collaborated on Jonah and the Whale. Latterly I work online once a week (or so) with a magician in Madrid called Gonzalo Albinaña – he makes hand shadows too, and we bounce ideas off each other and have come up with some ground-breaking new ideas.
There seems to be a DIY element and a virtuosic element to your productions – you talk about audiences ‘being able to take the puppets home’ – which situates shadowgraphy somewhere between punk rock and Pagannini (I am working on an aesthetic metaphor for that…). What kind of affect does this produce for the audiences?
I make what I do look very easy, but this is only possible because I have years of practise behind me; yet it is possible to make some simple, but impressive, shadows very quickly, so I am always encouraging audiences (and workshop participants) to have a go. Often in schools the children will learn the hand positions in the workshop and then at break be out in the playground all practising in the sun, which is wonderful to see.
We all have a shadow, and so we all have an investment in this artform; at a festival in Norway recently the artists had a meal with the organisers. A Belgian couple who were performing there had brought their three year old daughter to see my show; to occupy her in the restaurant where we were eating they gave her some paper and pens and some small plastic animals. Suddenly she was delighted to notice the shadow of the antlers of a moose toy she had. That awareness of the shadow was there because she had watched my show that morning; her mother drew around the edge of the shadow antlers.
Perhaps hand shadows make us see the world a little differently – like looking for shapes of creatures in the clouds.
In 2011 Drew was awarded the Puppet Centre Trust professional development bursary to travel to Azerbaijan and work with Georgian hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. He won the inaugural West End Phoenix Artists Club Cabaret Award in 2018 and the Moving Parts Festival Audience Choice Award in 2019. Drew has performed in venues and at festivals in Britain, South Africa, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya, Egypt, Turkey, Czech Republic, France, Finland, Canada, Chile, Portugal, Albania, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Romania, Slovenia, Israel, Malaysia, Russia, Norway and India and he has created shadow sequences for B&Q, Nintendo, Lodotra, Suso, Sainsburys, the RSPB, Danny Boyle, Channel 4, the BBC, ITV, the V&A museum and the Royal Opera House.