This winter, a workshop with Drew Colby introduced us to the complex yet familiar world of hand shadows. While most people have had a go at hand shadows already, achieving a wide variety of animate forms with simply a light source, a pair of hands and a surface is a secret art into which initiation is necessary.
In preparation, Drew led us through a series of twenty hand warm-up exercises – some familiar and others new, some easy and others tricky coordination conundrums. He gave a short performance with a minimal set-up consisting of a torch and a photographer's round diffuser screen mounted on a light stand. Bears, birds, seas, rabbits, people and many other figures peopled the screen in a dreamlike sequence.
Then we got to try our hand at it, so to speak, with Drew's guidance. We made spiders, crabs, camels and pigs as well as the more obvious birds and rabbits, and the bum-wiggling bear. Some came more easily than others and not being directly between the light source and the wall made it even harder, as the shadow warped obliquely out of shape. We discovered that some people had crazily supple wrists and fingers and that each individual’s hands and rhythms gave a huge variety, even when we were all trying to produce the same thing. Our creatures had personality!
Some figures appeared easily and spontaneously, only to escape and return reluctantly only after a frustrating chase. The shadows are very sensitive, and it is only with daily practice, as Drew pointed out, that they come easily and reliably. Hands, arms and backs became tired and time passed quickly as everyone was absorbed in the hunt for the duck, the mouse and the old man that were hiding in their hands. It was addictive work, and difficult to remember to stop and rest.
In the afternoon we learnt about light sources – LED torches of 200 lumens and above were the preferred, affordable and versatile choice. Candlelight is also an interesting possibility. Screens can be a wall, cloth or something like the photographer's portable diffuser, which Drew was using. Hands can be behind or in front of the screen, as long as they are between it and the light source, and the performer visible or hidden. This is low-tech stuff and requires messing around to find your own way, suited to your project. The workshop revealed hand shadows to be a true art form requiring hours of committed practice to master, just like a musical instrument.
Hand Shadows Workshop with Drew Colby, organised by the Puppet Centre Trust, took place at the Battersea Arts Centre on 31 January 2013