International Shadow Theater Festival Unimagined Spaces

The State Puppet Theater of Varna, Bulgaria with Plato’s Likeness of the Cave
The State Puppet Theater of Varna, Bulgaria with Plato’s Likeness of the Cave | Photo (detail): International Shadow Theater Festival

The International Shadow Theater Festival, which took place from October 12 to 18, has a unique tradition and every three years turns Schwäbisch Gmünd into the international meeting place of contemporary shadow theater. This time there were guest performances from Brazil, Bulgaria, England, Italy, Poland, Russia and Spain.

The art of playing with light and shadows is old; its roots lie in historical obscurity. It may have begun as the art of silence, the play of shadows, shadow theater. Early cave drawings show shadows of the human body, above all hands, signs of the hunting charms and magic rituals of our ancestors: shadows used to banish the fear of shadows. The fascination of shadows always found expression in the mythologies of the continents. The shadow motif has been the object of literature, the visual arts, music, psychoanalysis. Out of the silent play of hands before the fire, before the light of a torch, of an oil lamp, of a candle, appeared dogs, rabbits, birds, witches and gnomes. Out of the fear of the great shadow of death came the theater of spirits and demons, of gods and mythical creatures.

Asia’s shadow in Europe, ex oriente lux

Asia’s traditional shadow theater probably reached the Bosporus via Persia and Egypt, arrived at the court of the Sultan Suleiman and then moved on to Greece. In the seventeenth century, “Chinese shadows” were performed in Italy, France, at European courts, markets and inns. The Romantic and Biedermeier periods cultivated the art of silhouettes. Shadow figures played a role in the marionette theater of Count Pocci, and Lotte Reiniger created her still enchanting silhouette films. But then this European shadow theater art fell silent. In the world of the resurgent and artistically ambitious puppet theater, the theater of shadows went missing for a long time.

Rebirth of the shadows, founding years of new forms

The International Shadow Theater Festival in Schwäbisch Gmünd goes back to a very early initiative of Rainer Reusch, who originally worked with traditional three-dimensional marionettes. When he was commissioned to produce angels and devils for an actor’s Tolstoy project, he capitulated and experimented with shadow figures. These attempts exercised such a fascination on him that, together with his sons, he launched a shadow theater stage in 1982. When he noticed that just this genre was lacking at the various festivals, he founded his own festival, which is now unique in the world. He adjourned his stage work for many years, but founded the International Shadow Theater Center, which documents the work of more than 300 contemporary shadow theaters throughout the world and which he plans to make into a permanent museum. The center now has only a temporary domicile, but the city of Schwäbisch Gmünd has promised its support. In 2009 Reusch handed on the directorship of the festival to Sybille Hirzel, but continues to be responsible for documentation, and can now dedicate himself once again to his own theater productions.

From hand shadows to sand shadows

The Festival in Schwäbisch Gmünd shows contemporary shadow theater, centers of which have flourished in recent decades in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. Many stages have radically renounced the rectangular shadow screen along which the figures, often illuminated by a light bulb or a projector, are tightly guided so as to generate sharp contours. The introduction of the halogen lamp, a point light source, allows entirely new modes of performance, spatial effects and a freely moving performance screen. This makes possible changes of perspective, dramatic mutations in image size, deformations of the body shadow and stereoscopic effects. Shadow theater has shaken off the constraint of two-dimensionality, of projection on a surface. And so since the pioneer work of the Swiss physicist Rudolf Stössel, the French puppeteer Luc Amoros and the Italian puppeteer Fabrizio Montecchi, followed by Hansueli Trüb from Switzerland and Norbert Götz from Bamberg, dancers and figures float through unimagined spaces. This year again there were well-attended workshops for practicing shadow players and an advanced education course for teachers on the pedagogical use of shadow theater.

KCarnival of the Animals, Plato’s Likeness of the Cave, abstract images and trash

The diversity of the program was overwhelming. The Carnival of the Animals received several interpretations, on two evening accompanied by the excellent city philharmonic orchestra. The State Puppet Theater of Varna, Bulgaria, took its inspiration from Plato’s Likeness of the Cave and abstract painting. The Theater Handgemenge (i.e., Scuffle Theater) from Berlin performed Königs Weltreise (i.e., King’s World Trip) and, in cooperation with the Erfurt Theater, a stimulating and very entertaining version of the Shakespearean classic Hamlet. The electrifying conclusion of the festival was delivered by the Canadian Mr. Bunk: trash performed with passion and pace on a big stage. And Rainer Reusch slipped into the role of a clown to present his Carnival of the Animals, using sand painting: on an illuminated surface, the performer’s hands move sand to form images, and then by means of a video camera and beamer the moving and transient images are projected onto a second screen – sand shadows.