36 Paper Donkeys: Creating Shadow Puppetry While Home During COVID-19

The pandemic has slowed us all down. In quarantine, especially here in Vermont where I am now, we have a chance to simulate bygone eras. I spend days with my family, we sit down to long meals, we plant the garden. Many of us are experiencing a closeness to our loved ones that hasn’t been part of daily life in the United States for one hundred years. 

Before we were all working alongside each other, there was much I didn’t know about my family’s daily work lives. Now I overhear their virtual meetings with colleagues, I’ve memorized their weekly schedules, and have started to recognize the names of my parents’ students and coworkers. I hear my dad, an ELL teacher, reading through chapters with his students in the room next to me. I know the words they are learning this week:  “struggle”, “anticipate.”

Last week, I took advantage of this family closeness in the best way possible: recruiting everyone in our household to help me perform a shadow puppet show inspired by Syrian puppeteer Shadi Al-Hallaq. My partner Adam helped me create the theater and operate puppets, my dad narrated the story, and my mom filmed. Even our work lives had a chance to converge during this moment: my dad brought his ELL students in on Zoom to watch the performance while he narrated the story and held up his laptop for his students to see. Later, his students read the story of Juha and his Donkey and went over the new words introduced: “criticized”, “support.”

CLICK HERE TO WATCH JUHA AND HIS DONKEY

To create the puppet show, I returned to skills and tools I haven’t called upon since childhood. I hand-drew silhouettes on printer-paper and cut them out with kitchen scissors. I tried to remember: when was the last time this house saw a puppet show performance? Probably twenty-five years ago, on some rainy day when my sister and I were cooped up in the house, in this same living room and probably also with support from my parents. 

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I hand-drew silhouettes on paper and cut them out with scissors, and later glued wooden sticks to them. I found out too late that it would have been better to use card stock instead of printer paper because the rigidity of the paper would have kept the silhouettes from drooping mid-puppet show. Oh well!

I used centuries-old tools and characters when I created “Juha and his Donkey”, borrowing from a famous Arab folktale and from Syrian shadow puppetry techniques that can be traced back to the year 900.

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Before gluing wooden sticks to the silhouettes, we operated the puppets by hand. We found it was a little too distracting to see hands coming in and out of the theater, so we added the sticks before the final performance.

I found an old white sheet in the attic, and Adam, who is better at the engineering side of projects like these than I am, helped me convert our open-backed bookshelf into a theater. I experimented with different lighting, realizing that fewer lights create more dramatic shadows. The last time I played with shadow and light with such interest and focus was during a third-grade experiment with a sundial.

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A sheet taped over an open-backed bookshelf made for a pretty good puppet theater.

And now, in the last phase of this project, I get to experience another bygone pleasure: sending letters in the mail. I’m now cutting out 36 paper donkey silhouettes, 36 sheets of wax paper for the theater screen, and printing 36 lesson plans and preparing to mail them to my students at Moffet and Juniata.

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In each of the Make-Your-Own Shadow Puppet Show Packets that I’m mailing to our Moffet and Juniata students, I’m including a donkey silhouette. I’m hoping this will help students get started making their own puppets. Once again, I’m relying on my family to help me cut out these 36 donkeys–divided between the four of us, we each only have to cut out 9.

If we are lucky, if we are healthy and safe in our homes, the pandemic is affording us something: opportunities for ingenuity, closeness, chances to work together and to understand more about our families’ work, skills, and lives. If we are lucky and healthy, we are especially primed to appreciate the small pleasures right now. Something slow and ancient like shadow puppetry, I’ve found, can feel magical and alive.

By Programs Coordinator
Madeline Conley **

**Shortly after Pennsylvania announced a stay-at-home order, I took the opportunity to work remotely and spend time with my family in Vermont. We’re lucky, of course, to have the opportunity to do this. Here, in one of the least-populated states in the country, we can walk in the woods without seeing anyone for miles. We can order groceries over the phone, which are then brought out to our car without having to enter the store at all––a luxury afforded to smaller stores with fewer customers. I haven’t lost sight of how unusual this is and how lucky we are. 

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