Fabrizio Montecchi*

Ermanno Olmi, the great film director (recently deceased), said that an artist “cannot live without a past” and to go forwards “one must look back.”

I was about to turn 30 when, for the first time, I felt a strong impulse to look back. I was searching for the answer to a simple question. What is shadow theatre?

Ten years of practice had filled me with many doubts.

Was shadow theatre a kind of sons et lumières show, a home crafted type of live cinema or a theatrical art form in its own right?

I was fully aware that the present, with its exasperating attention paid to images, was confusing me. The past, on the other hand… what was it? Did I have a past to refer to?

What were my origins? Where do I come from?

What was my history as a European shadow theatre player?

So I decided to trace the shadow theatre route to find a past I could question.

I soon found myself following tracks that took me much further back than XIXth Century European shadow theatre, which until then was considered to be its forefather both from a temporal and cultural point of view.

I found myself following tracks that led me directly to the Asian continent: to the starting point of shadow theatre. Tracks that told me of one long history of travels and migrations: of peoples, ideas and techniques.

Indeed, while other theatre forms were born and developing, albeit with a thousand differences, in all continents and contaminating and influencing each other reciprocally over the centuries, shadow theatre was born only in the Far East and did not exist at all in the rest of the world.

From there it has spread with long migratory processes up to us.

We are all children of Asian shadow theatre.

So I developed a keen interest in the Orient, in those deeply rooted traditions which I had ignored until then. For me it was like entering a fluid geographical space, without clear demarcations, where time expands and history digresses from legend or myth.

Given the lack of evidence, it is unlikely that we will ever know, with certainty, the genesis of shadow theatre.

Probably it begins in the caves in different parts of the world but certainly continues thanks to the nomadic peoples who lived in the steppes of Asia.

It is believed that the condition of a “nomadic” way of life favoured the birth of shadow theatre as we know it today. The flame, burning within the tents, created shadows which, thanks to the translucency of the skin they were made of, were cast without revealing the object that produced them.

Allow me to digress a moment. In both these archaic forms which were practised in the caves and the tents, the screen was always an element which served as shelter and protection. It was a dwelling. Only subsequently did the screen become a material screen, no longer part of a dwelling, but having the sole function of revealing the shadows.

The word “screen”, which I have always found incoherent in the way it is used in shadow theatre, does seem to be in keeping with its original function. A screen is, in fact, a synonym of shelter, defence, protection, cover, shield. Is this merely a strange coincidence?

Returning to my topic: this rudimentary shadow play known to prehistoric peoples in central Asia spread from there into China, India and Southeast Asia.

The most popular belief is that shadow theatre was born in China (Yingxi) and then spread throughout the South-East.

Others, however, think that the Chinese inherited it from the Indian (Chayanataka), as did the Javanese.

But this theory is not widely accepted as many claim that shadow theatre existed in Java (Wayang Kulit) long before the Indian tradition in the XIth Century.

We are discussing phenomena which were recorded in the IIIrd and IInd Century before Christ and which altered over the following millennium into their present form, while expressing many contradictions during the XIth and XVIIth Century.

I began to recognise the origins of my art in those traditions; a past I could refer to.

In those first explorations I immediately elected the Javanese shadow theatre as an adoptive father. It is difficult to explain why, but nothing has influenced my work as much as the Javanese Wayang Kulit.

Apparently there is no trace of this in my work: I have never practised traditional forms. But with Wayang Kulit I began to understand what the secret heart of shadow theatre was.

The role of the shadow, of the shadow puppet and of the interpreter, the relationship with the audience in front and behind the screen, the importance of the text and the music… I understood that I was not destroying or inventing anything but only evolving, in a contemporary and European way, what already was shadow theatre.

I was starting to get the answers I was looking for.

When the Javanese populations migrated to areas outside their territories, they carried the Wayang Kulit with them: in the XIVth Century to Bali (Wayang Kulit) and the XVth century to Malaysia (Wayang Jawa), Cambodia (Nag Sbek Tough) and Thailand (Nang Talung). In the same period the Indian populations – in this case probably the Hindu gypsies – are supposed to have been moving to the East in the same region.

Following those migrations I met another form of shadow theatre that has strongly influenced my work: the Thai Nang Yaï, a similar kind of shadow theatre that we find in Cambodia (Nang Sbek Thom).

Nang Yaï has nothing to do with the Wayang Kulit and the Indian shadow theatre form.

Where does it come from? Is the Nang Yaï an indigenous product?

I consider the Nang Yaï an extremely modern form of theatre (nowadays we would describe it as interdisciplinary) due to the fusion of many means of expression.

Also, in this case, I have not only learned new ways “to do” but “why to do”. I understood about the connection between the body and the manipulation through dance and choreography, the action all around the screen and the relationship with the audience.

Above all, I understood that everything which happens on and around the screen was important because it all forms parts of shadow theatre.

In Europe, shadow theatre was limited to a two dimensional image on a screen.

In the Orient, the importance of light, shadow puppets and, particularly, the player, were evident.

The fact that we, as Teatro Gioco Vita, felt the need to escape the constraints of the screen was confirmation enough: shadow theatre was much more than just a spectacle of images.

But let us resume our journey along the shadow theatre trail.

I appreciated Indian and Chinese shadow theatre but they never really touched or illuminated me. This is why, after the South-East, I followed the route from the Far East and headed West.

There I immediately came across the Turkish Karagöz. I had taken a huge leap both in time and space owing to the extreme difficulty to reconstruct events between the XIth and XVth Century in that area, which represented a meeting and passing place between East and West.

We know that the Hindu gypsies from India moved West, towards central Asia.

We know of the Mongol dynasty of the Yuan (XIII – XIV) and their expansion to the Southwest to transmit the shadow theatre to the countries of Islamic culture.

We know that the techniques of Chinese shadow theatre are found throughout the Middle East and that, through Turkey, they arrive in Europe.

We know that shadow theatre followed the Silk Route and later the Spice Route (XV-XVI).

We know of a slow and progressive movement which had an important and meaningful interlude in Persia.

People do refer to Persian shadow theatre. There are texts written between the XIth and the XIIIth Century which document this (Sheb-Bâz: Player of the night). But it is difficult to consider that the practice in this area took on one unique form.

Shadow theatre was mainly practised by nomadic tribes which no doubt shared and exchanged their varying experiences, techniques and forms.

This area has always fascinated me.

I imagine a crossroads of varying types of shadow theatre, each expressing a culture and a religion: Hindu spirituality, Mongol shamanism, Chinese Buddhism… and, for the first time, a meeting with a monotheistic religion, Islam.

Has this meeting with Islam influenced the history and evolution of shadow theatre?

I believe it has.

If on the one hand, Sufism probably regarded shadow theatre as an appropriate way of representing its doctrine: the mysticism of the screen, light as God and man as shadow. “Every person’s life, even the universe is a moment of light, an illusion which flies by … A shadow theatre!” Halide Edip Adivar wrote in The Clown and his Daughter.

On the other hand, we develop an idea of shadow theatre which is removed from religion. A prime example is the birth of Kétschel, the main character in Persian shadow theatre, probably a transformation of the clown of the Chinese (or Indian) tradition.

There is no time here to delve into the complex migratory processes that led from Persian Kétschel (who later becomes Karagyooz in Egypt, Karakush in Northern Africa, Caragheuse in Algeria) to the Ottoman, extremely popular Turkish Karagöz.

What we can say is that from “the mystical meaning of the screen,” of the dervish, shadow theatre moved on to a popular and satirical form.

Is this a means of survival or a new secular form of shadow theatre?

Something very important happened here which relates to us and to the modern idea shadow theatre.

The importation of the technique does not necessarily mean the importation of its repertoire.

In fact, shadow theatre which develops in Turkey will have nothing to do with what is practised in South East Asia or the dervish in Anatolia.

Persian shadow theatre inexplicably no longer exists while in Egypt, in the XVth Century, by the order of the Sultan, its practice was interrupted and all puppets were burned (it survived until the XVIIth Century, nevertheless).

Shadow theatre reached the North of Africa with the tzigani and the dervish via Anatolia and, following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, headed towards Bursa, the area in Turkey closest to Europe.

There are, however, other theories that believe Turkish shadow theatre was born from the fusion of Egyptian Karagyooz with Haiyal Oyonu, which originated in Anatolia and was imported by the Mongols.

Nor must we forget the possible influences of the Wayang Kulit, transported from Islamic Indonesia by XVth Century merchants.

One example is the Javanese kayon, the tree of life, which became the göstermelik in Turkey, which is a composition of fruit, flowers or animals placed on the screen at the beginning and the end of a performance.

I have developed an admiration for the Karagöz through studying it, although it bears little technical or formal affinity with my work.

I particularly appreciate its passionate and popular nature, its political and anti-establishment connotations and the extraordinary performances of the player-animator.

It seems to be made of flesh and blood and perhaps bears a closer resemblance to puppet theatre than to shadow theatre.

Void of any trace of Oriental spirituality or rituality, Karagöz is pure theatre.

From Turkey, shadow theatre journeyed through the Balkans where minor forms of Karagöz developed but left little trace.

It is only in Greece that shadow theatre flourished from the beginning of the XIXth Century, with the extremely popular Karaghiozis.

From there it began to spread again and arrived, via varying routes, finally in Europe, in the middle of the XVIIth Century.

One of these routes is undoubtedly Italy.

Following modest popularity in the South, shadow theatre made its way to the North thanks to street entertainers, wanderers, magicians and charmers.

In Central Europe shadow theatre is greeted with enthusiasm and attracts a certain amount of attention in France, Germany and England. I will not repeat here my ideas on shadow theatre in Europe in the XIXth Century and “the apotheosis of the screen but Europe was, almost, the end of line…

It took almost a hundred years for shadow theatre to raise its head again.

Then, in the last forty years, with a new contemporary form, from Europe it has spread all over the world with renovated energy.

There are many new companies springing up. From South America to North America, from Africa to Australia. Quebec and Brazil are prime examples of countries where shadow theatre never existed but now arouses interest and is practised knowledgeably. Indonesia, on the other hand, is the best example of a country with thousands of years of traditions which is now experiencing the rise of contemporary shadow theatre.

In contrast to the great traditions, which have a clearly defined identity but only a regional sphere of influence, contemporary shadow theatre now transcends national borders.

Even if the links between the modern theatrical companies and ensembles and their places of origin are comparatively weak, the bonds which unite them with other theatrical companies scattered over different parts of this planet are decidedly stronger.

Independent of their cultural affiliations and the aesthetic decisions which they make, they all speak a language which is recognized and shared all over the world.

This applies equally to their relationship with their audiences. Shadow theatre has no “élite“ audience but it has found a language which allows it to speak to a geographically and culturally widespread public in an understandable and entertaining way. I am totally convinced of the international appeal of contemporary shadow theatre and of its ability to speak to everyone.

Even if it is fragile and not well established in those cultural contexts in which it is present, shadow theatre exists today all over the world and arouses new awakened curiosity and interest.

This journey on the trail of shadow theatre which I embarked on many years ago has indeed given me a past. I now feel a connection with its origins and a greater understanding of its primordial nature.

Since then I have worked with more awareness and determination with a unique aim: to bring shadow theatre back to the theatre while at the same time holding on to the thread which links us to our past.

Even today when I need a clearer understanding of the present, or imagine the future, I look back…

Having to prepare this talk in itself was yet another opportunity to look back and feel a greater understanding.

It has led me to think that perhaps shadow theatre is like a shadow: it is never stationary but always moving. It belongs to no country, crosses frontiers and breaks new ground.

Maybe we should just accept its nature and not try to analyse its make up, but just hope it continues its journey.

Perhaps shadow theatre is a nomadic art form.

After all, it has always been thus. This is its vocation… 


*Fabrizio Montecchi is director and set-designer. In 1977 he started his so far uninterrupted professional career with Teatro Gioco Vita and with this company he has worked on the development of Contemporary Shadow Theatre. Since 1985 he has directed more than 50 shows. Since 1993 he has also been involved in teaching with the aim of sharing and spreading knowledge about Contemporary Shadow Theatre. Always to this end, he has written books and articles about Shadow Theatre.

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Tracing Shadows
On the Shadow Theatre Trail