Puppet, Light, Action!

Wayang Kulit is arguably one of the most well-known and expressive of the traditional performing arts in Indonesia. This ancient form of shadow storytelling, found in Java, Bali, and Lombok, weaves together art, gamelan music, and dalang (puppeteer) performance. Traditionally these epic narratives tell the story of the Ramayana or Mahabarata, though contemporary Wayang Kulit can adapt the story to make it more relevant to the current events and global issues.

The fifth grade shadow puppet collaboration sprang from student questions as they wondered about the first cycle thematic, sense of place. In particular, they were eager to learn more about the religion and history of Bali, as well as how the island was created and accompanying origin stories. This inter-disciplinary thematic stretched from the classroom into art and drama class, and students experienced the process of play production from all aspects.

In literacy class, students read Balinese myths (Gecko’s Complaint) and Javanese folktales (The Magic Headscarf) and discussed the difference between the two – myths often depicting animals in stories that teach lessons and highlighting characteristics of the animals, and folktales often being true stories that have been exaggerated over time. In Budaya Bali (Balinese Tradition)they also watched some videos of Balinese myths, such as the creation of Bali.

Before beginning their plays, students worked through several writing exercises to understand story structure (problem-climax-resolution), script writing, and the role of narrator. Finally, students choose groups for their shadow plays, and brainstormed their own myth/folktale topics about Bali. In this project, students were deeply immersed in the art of story-telling, and experienced the in-depth process of writing a play: editing, peer reviews and feedback, table-reads, etc!

Once the scripts were ready, students moved onto Drama class where they learned the art of dalang. They gave life to their puppet show by adding movement to their puppets and manipulating their voices. Light is a huge part of shadow puppet plays and students got an opportunity to explore this as well. During the rehearsal process, a production team organically formed for each group as they understand that it takes a team to create a performance. It was wonderful to see how each member of the team took their role responsibly.

In art class, students continued working with teams to design distinctive and expressive shadow puppets. Working with the concept of silhouette and negative space, students were challenged to refine and simplify their designs to find the most essential negative shapes to cut from the interior of their puppet. These shapes convey details like folds in clothing, facial expressions, and other important features that make their character come to life.

Of course, the culmination of any production is the actual performance, and 5th graders enjoyed the opportunity to share their work with the larger community. Primary students celebrated and admired the 5th grade work as they attended the shows, deeply mesmerized by the intricate puppets, clever stories, and exceptional performance.


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