Shadows in the dark

UK-based shadow performer transports children and audience into a magical world

Published - July 20, 2019 01:41 pm IST

Drew Colby

Drew Colby

When Drew Colby enters the stage, he brings his friends along; A rabbit, elephant, gorilla , peacock and sometimes a piece of string and a newspaper. If you want to meet a monkey, he can create it in a jiffy with the sleight of his hand. In town to present ‘My Shadow and Me’, at Saptaparni as part of the AHA International Theatre Festival, the UK-based hand shadow performer used minimal language, a kazoo (musical instrument) and blend of electronic music and non-verbal voice effects, to create fascinating hand shadows that transport viewers — children and adults alike — to a magical world.

Drew is a one-man team travelling across the world with a suitcase packed with a lycra screen, his clothes, hat, a tripod, a few torches and lights, mirror and disco lights. “I like to travel light,” he smiles.

Puppets and shadows

He first interacted with puppets (as opposed to shadows) at five. He took to the craft when he saw his parents making puppets out of interest. “I studied acting and singing but puppetry never left me,” he recalls. While working in London, he explored this traditional art form of hand shadows.

When Drew’s cat Oliver died, he created a cat shadow and his art developed from there. “I wondered if I could create other animals and people too.” Drew was into drawing and with his visualisation, he charted his own path. “Having a sense of movement is crucial and one can also improve by introducing a bit of style. If there is a galloping horse, one has to make the tempo slower and the effect is created with rhythm and music.”

Drew Colby

Drew Colby

Unlike puppeteers who go behind a screen to create shadows on screen, Drew is at the front while his creatures emerge, engage and transform. The audience feels as if they are watching two shows! “They watch me, my hand creating new shapes and then they see the shadows. It is like a magical show. A lot of magicians use this act like a routine before they go on with other tricks.”

Is there a difference in performing shadow puppetry from behind the stage and the front? There are many, he says, explaining, “If there is a big group performing, it is better to be behind a screen as there is a plenty of space to move and the projector light is fixed a little higher behind the screen.” In his shows where he is in the front, the light is fixed to a side, creating a bit of distortion in the images. “It is fun to play as your arm can look long and the light makes it seem elongated. It is a bit of pitfall too because the audience doesn’t see what you see and it is a technique to know that something needs to be closer to you to be turned a little bit.”

His shows evoke different reactions. While the comedy and routine makes children laugh, teenagers turn curious and adults appreciate the skills and enjoy the sense of being children again. Among his people shadows, personalities like Donald Trump and British prime ministers have been featured on his shows.

During one of his shows in Chile in South America, as he sat among the audience when an Argentinian storyteller performed. “I heard a man snoring,” he says mimicking that sound. “When it was my turn to perform, I heard the sound again. I was surprised to see a little dog come up to me on stage and still I heard this snoring sound again, I went into the audience with my torch and discovered that it was actually from a big dog that had breathing issues. There were lots of animals on stage and off in that show.”

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