For two days only in February one of the back rooms in the Theatre Delicatessen on the Moor (the old Woolworths) was set out as a mini-theatre for the show The Death Curiosities. It was performed with shadow puppets by Lois Conlan (artistic director of The Travelling Shadow Theatre) and three musicians: Toby Hay, Jim Ghedi (Sheffield band Black Gold of the Sun) and Josh Kelson.
A screen was set out at the front of the room, the musicians to the side. Conlan was behind the screen (which became The Cabinet) with her macabre collection of puppets: skulls, skeletal dogs, Egyptians, insects, a whale and a cowboy to name but a few. With her skillful choreography of lighting, silhouettes, shadows, music and suggestion Conlan playfully explored our fascinating relationship with death.
This ancient art form of shadow puppetry tells stories using flat articulated cut-out figures held between a source of light and a translucent screen or scrim. Different effects are achieved by moving the puppets or the light source. This tradition has a long history especially in South East Asia and it’s easy to see why this deceptively simple yet powerful form of storytelling continues to be passed down through the ages.
Conlan conceived the ideas for The Death Curiosities while travelling in Australia. Inspired by a beautiful puppet/curiosity shop in Melbourne called The Magic Lantern, and a book she was reading at the time about different cultures’ rituals and beliefs surrounding death, ideas for the show began to form. Conlan toured the show with Melbourne-based musician David Wells and it was performed in The Magic Lantern shop as part of Melbourne Fringe 2012.
Conlan makes the puppets herself out of coloured cellophane, cardboard and black vinyl which is stuck into plastic sheets and then cut out and assembled into a puppet. She was taught how to make professional shadow puppets by Jenny Ellis of Little Wing Puppets on her show The Owl’s Apprentice. (In turn Jenny Ellis learnt her trade from the master Richard Bradshaw of The Muppet Show fame).
Conlan performed the inaugural Travelling Shadow Theatre show Black Mournings Picture Show in Lynwood Gardens, Sheffield in 2011, accompanied by Black Gold of the Sun. The theatre continues to be an evolving collective of artists. We await the next wonderful shadowy oeuvre.
To find out more about the Travelling Shadow Theatre take a look on their site http://www.thetravellingshadowtheatre.com. Theatre Delicatessen is an incredibly supportive organization enabling local artists to showcase work. Check them out http://theatredelicatessen.co.uk or pop in to the café (17, The Moor, S1 4PF) and have a chat – they’re very friendly!