Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Asian Shadow Puppetry

A few friends of mine tease me about my affinity for shadow puppetry. It probably stems from my short stint working at Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis, and the imagination of Michael Sommers and my other friends who performed there. But ever since I started my own career as a Drama teacher, I have found time in the year to incorporate teaching shadow puppetry. I have seen kindergarteners all the way to high school students design, develop and execute some very imaginative stories through the use of simple items like an old box, a flash light and cut out silhouettes.

At the end of the year, we as teachers scrounge for last minute lesson plans and projects that will fill up the remaining time of the school year sufficiently to keep students interested, but busy and calm! I got my 7th grade students started last week on the shadow puppetry project, but before I did, I showed them two examples of other cultures that have strong traditions of shadow puppetry in their storytelling.

Indian Shadow Puppetry
Chinese Shadow Puppetry

I then asked the students, "Why does this matter? What would be lost if no one preserved these stories and continued to performed shadow puppetry in other countries?" and of course, one student replied, 'it wouldn't matter.It's just for fun." And I let that sit for a few seconds until finally, and fortunately, one of my less snarky students replied, "because it is a big part of their culture!"  We then went on to have a short, but meaningful discussion about the craft and skill of performance that has been passed down through generations, how live performance strengthens us as sociable and courageous humans, and how the stories that were told before our smartphones need a way to be continued to be shared to help cultures survive and thrive. The outcome of making these connections, I believe, was a greater appreciation and understanding of why THEATER matters, and what the loss of performance would cost us as humanity.

I point out this lesson plan with 1 1/2 instructional days left of the year as evidence of theater being relevant in an international studies school. This argument has been a point of contention since I started my job this year, but an argument I have been hell-bent on proving is important! At a school that values language and the celebration and recognition of global perspectives, to leave out the arts would be to leave out an integral part of what those global cultures are made up of. Art is a universal language, therefore by providing it at this school for international studies, we are offering yet another language, which students may master and use to express themselves and communicate their ideas about the world they live in.

Luckily for me, throughout a series of stressful weeks and months with positions on the line and programs in contention, I made this argument this year at my school strong, and loud and clear. It has also helped led me to a greater mission of continuing to prove theater and drama's validity in not only all schools as an important piece of child development and learning, but specifically in a school with an international studies focus and mission.

So here's to a summer full of more investigation into teaching global theater, which will most definitely be inclusive of shadow puppetry, much to my friends' amusement.

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