Shadows are a strange phenomenon in our world. They are a projection of us but they are not us. They mimic our actions yet they exist in a world all their own. I remember learning how to play shadow hands as taught by my older brothers and sisters when I was young. It was exciting to be able to create an image on the wall with nothing but some light and your hands. It was magical to create shadows to form a dog’s head and make it bark or to place our hands together and produce a bird in flight.
We played shadow hand puppets when we went camping in the wilderness. Inside our white prospector tent, the entire canvas structure became the stage. We supplied the creativity to make that tent dance by bringing to life birds, rabbits and dogs as part of the shadow world. Out there in the wilderness where we had no electronic entertainment such as television or radio our shadow world kept us entertained.
Recently, I was able to relive and rediscover my interest in the shadow world when I was invited to the Temiskaming Native Women’s Support Group Day Care Centre. While I was there I watched pre-school children take part in a workshop on story telling and shadow puppetry.
The Aanmitaagzi Story Makers, a multi-disciplinary professional artist-run company based in Nipissing First Nation, animated the event. The group is headed by Co-Directors Penny Couchie, an Aboriginal theatre artist of Ojibway/Mohawk descent and her husband Sid Bobb, a West Coast Salish actor and artist, who is famous in Canadian television as the host of Kids Canada on CBC and as an actor in other television, radio, film and theatre productions. They were joined by lead artists Lindsay Sarazin, Binaeshee-Quae Couchie-Nabigon andAnimikiikwe Couchie, and by co-founder Carol Guppy.
It was fun to watch Penny and Sid working with these young children and stirring their imaginations. They spent the morning teaching traditional Aboriginal stories that presented the cultural ideas that animals and trees have life and we share our lives with them. The lead actors worked with the children to cut out characters on paper. They attached sticks to the paper and then played with them as Sid and Penny explained the story.
A highlight of their workshop was when the group hung large white sheets from the ceiling of the gymnasium to form a stage for the shadows. The gym lights were turned off and spotlights magically illuminated the sheets from behind. At first I watched from the audience and then I peaked around back of the sheets to see all of these little First Nation children turning their hand made puppets into shadows. Sid Bobb told the stories of the animals with great enthusiasm and on cue the children danced their characters in shadow forms.
I was amazed that such a simple activity with only little paper puppets in the hands of many small children and shadows produced by bright lights that lit up a few hanging sheets could create an entirely new and magical world. I was surprised that the children were not frightened in the darkened room. I then realized that they were more interested and distracted by the shadows of their friends and the characters of the play.
When I later read up about shadow puppetry, I discovered that this activity has been around for thousands of years. In many Asian countries, there is a rich culture of story telling with shadow puppets and it is also an ancient art in a host of eastern European countries.
I was grateful to Penny, Sid and their troupe for allowing me a glimpse of their shadow world. I believe that the arts are an important part of Aboriginal culture. The arts and in particular theatre serves to preserve and protect our traditional stories and history. A good storyteller can entertain, heal and encourage Aboriginal youth who sometimes have to deal with stress, tragedy, sadness and dysfunction.
Sid and his troupe introduce hope through creativity and that opens up many windows. They can be contacted by email email@example.com. I encourage First Nation organizations, schools and communities to utilize Aboriginal artistic groups like Aanmitaagzi Story Makers to spark creativity in the hearts and minds of their young people. Sometimes a good story is all we need to start the healing process and light up the stage with hope.