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Shadow Puppetry Festival Finds Beauty In The Dark

San Diego’s Twisted Heart Puppetworks presents the first annual “Shadows Across the Globe” virtual, worldwide shadow puppet festival July 9-11, 2021, with free performances streaming online.

A still from

Credit: Courtesy of Shadows Across the Globe Festival

Above: A still from "Marcach Dearg (Red Rider)" by Emma Fisher-Owen of Beyond the Bark Theatre, which will screen in the Shadows Across the Globe festival, July 9-11, 2021.

In "Desire to Fly," a short shadow puppet show, the main character has wheels for legs. The story unfolds as he is surrounded by butterflies, longing for a chance to fly for himself.

Tania Yager remembers when she first saw that show — created and performed by local puppeteers Animal Cracker Conspiracy.

"It's almost a little steampunk," Yager said of the show. "So he sets off on this journey to try to make himself some wings."

It's a story that changed her life.

Years before she founded Twisted Heart Puppetworks, Yager was once a dancer. Her career was brought to a sudden halt when she was hit by a car as a pedestrian and could no longer reliably dance. She felt at a loss without being able to perform.

Like the protagonist in "Desire to Fly," it was her creativity and drive to perform that needed to find a way to fly.

From that point on, she dedicated her life to learning and sharing the art of shadow puppetry. She begged for an apprenticeship with Animal Cracker Conspiracy, then after a year of training, launched Twisted Heart.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Shadows Across the Globe Festival

A still from the shadow puppetry production "Desire to Fly" by Animal Cracker Conspiracy, which will be screened in the Shadows Across the Globe festival, July 9-11, 2021.

Shadow puppetry is a form of puppetry that uses light and cut-outs or other shapes and props, so that the action is seen by the audience primarily in the form of cast shadows.

It's a striking art form — often with bold contrasts, enchanting movement and characters that maintain a bit of mystery in the shadows, something that can feel both anonymous and universal at once.

"It is relatively inexpensive to do," Yager said. "Really anything can be a puppet, but certainly if you have some paper, and you have some light and you have a screen, then you can tell a story."

How to attend

Shadows Across the Globe shadow puppetry festival takes place Friday-Sunday, July 9-11, 2021.

Register for the workshops and artist talks here.

Watch puppetry showcases (no registration required) on Facebook or YouTube.

This weekend marks the first annual Shadows Across the Globe virtual shadow puppetry festival, hosted by Twisted Heart Puppetworks.

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Before the pandemic, Yager would travel to puppetry slams and festivals or workshops across the globe. This is now a chance to bring connectivity to the puppetry community as well as try to reach new audiences who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to check out the works.

"I feel like it just needs to grow," Yager said. "Maybe that's the thing that is special about it, because it is so niche, but especially here in the West, first of all, there is not the serious relationship with puppetry in America that is present in the rest of the world."

The festival will feature several screening blocks of performances submitted from around the world, and these will be broadcast live for anyone to watch on YouTube and on the festival Facebook page — no registration required.

With event registration, there'll also be two workshops: Yager will teach a course on storytelling for all levels, and Iain Gunn from Animal Cracker Conspiracy will teach an intermediate workshop to hone performance skills.

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Throughout the weekend, other experts in the field will host artist talks between the workshops and the performances. Richard Bradshaw, Linda Wingerter, Larry Reed, Geoffrey Cormier and ClaudiaSix will discuss their craft.

The heart of the festival, though, is the performances. Thirty-two artists will present their works of shadow puppetry, streamed in four blocks throughout the weekend.

Kicking things off on Friday is an 18+ opening event, "Puppets and Wine," which will livestream on the Shadows Across the Globe Facebook page.

Saturday morning, the first all-ages segment will present a series of short filmed shows. In the evening, an 18+ showcase will feature stories intended for adults.

"I really love the idea of pushing puppetry into the masses for adults — as a way to discuss sometimes difficult topics," Yager said. "It can be super, super theatrical and handle difficult topics, and then on the playful side, it's so fun when it's raunchy and kind of base."

Photo credit: Tania Yager/Twisted Heart Puppetworks

A still from the shadow puppetry work "Horn and Heart," by Twisted Heart Puppetworks, which will screen during the Shadows Across the Globe festival July 9-11, 2021.

Sunday morning's segment is all ages, and features some of the longer works. Yager's own production, a Norse-inspired story called "The Horn and the Heart" is the longest, clocking in at 16 minutes. It's an original myth about twins who must retrieve the stolen beating heart of the sea.

Other productions include a bilingual piece from Ireland called "Marcach Dearg (Red Rider)," performed in both English and Irish. It's a futuristic take on the Little Red Riding Hood story.

The festival will also present a work by Linda Wingerter called "A Quilt of Stars." The work uses almost entirely colorful shadows. While the art form is often done in black and white, traditional shadow puppetry, Yager said, originated by casting light through animal hides, and these were often dyed and cut to project colors.

There's also comedy ("toilet humor," Yager said), twists on Shakespeare, some tiny pieces running just a minute and a half and plenty more.

And like a good story, Yager's comes full circle.

Animal Cracker Conspiracy restaged and filmed "Desire to Fly" for the festival. It's the show that got Yager into shadow puppetry in the first place as she mourned the loss of dancing, and showed her that creativity is something she can always find — in the shadows.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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