Imagination at your fingertips
Drew Colby’s work with puppets in South Africa and the UK has evolved over 30 years. He began with glove puppets and marionettes at the age of 12, gradually becoming interested in what the everyday object could say.
Finger and Thumb Theatre began life in 2002 as Objects Dart, a puppet company founded by Drew to explore the use of object theatre in conjunction with traditional puppet forms. From 2002 Drew created fourteen different shows, evolving a style of object puppetry that was described by audience members as “instant puppetry”. In 2010 Drew began to focus on hand shadow puppetry, Finger and Thumb Theatre which creates visual shows for family and adult audiences using different combinations of hand shadows, video technology, live and recorded music, storytelling and songs.
This winter, Dulwich Picture Gallery is hosting Drew’s latest show “Carnival of the Animals”, where Drew conjures up enchanting images and stories with his hands. Accompanying Drew’s hand puppetry is a pianist; the music bringing a change of mood and pace to the performance.
As the lights begin to dim, it is the younger children who seem unsure, perhaps because of the darkness creeping in or uncertainty; the fear of the unknown.
The older children sense the comedy of the initial interaction between the puppeteer and the pianist, cackling out loud and pointing as if to share with their parents their discoveries.
When a mummy kangaroo kisses her baby kangaroo on the head, there is a collaborative “awww” from the audience; the children show their capacity to empathise, to feel the emotion of the moment; appreciating the significance of the relationship.
Small spots of ethereal light begin moving up the wall and across the ceiling, projected by Drew and using a torch shone on a piece of agate. Children marvel at the sight, “it’s snow….bubbles…stars“; their imagination running at full pelt.
A single circular shape then appears on the screen and a child explains “there’s the moon“. The child’s intonation suggests a degree of familiarity, a state or knowing; as if they are referring to an old friend.
When the puppeteer begins moving around the room searching for a cuckoo in the woods, the younger children imitate Drew, calling out “cuckoo…cuckoo”, helping him in his hunt, sensing the importance of finding a new friend and recognising Drew’s loss.
As Drew begins the aviary section of the performance showing the flight of a bird across the screen, older children at the front of the group begin to imitate the puppeteers hand formations, holding up their hands towards the screen, opening and closing their fingers in a flapping motion.
Towards the end of performance one child begins to make marks on paper with a pen telling their mummy “I am drawing around my hand.” Is the child inspired by the shadows and attempting to replicate the concept, the outline of her hand representing its shadow? Making a connection to the relationship between the shadow and its subject?
Nature brought alive by shadowplay
GURGAON: Puppetry is among the oldest of performing arts, going back many centuries. But that doesn't make it any less relevant today. And as a way of telling stories, there are very few art forms more enchanting to the eye.
At the Ishara International Puppet Festival - which got under way on February 3, and goes on until February 11 - Drew Colby mesmerized all with a performance of effortless skill and beautiful simplicity. The Englishman's 'Small Fables' was directed and produced by the Finger and Thumb Theatre (UK).
Colby's love of puppetry began when he was a boy of five, and he brought a child's sensibility to 'Small Fables', that ability - so rare in adults - to empathise with children. Colby is a practitioner of the 'finger and thumb' style of puppetry, one who plays with shadows. To be more precise, he's a 'shadowgrapher'.
'Small Fables' was suffused with natural imagery, a pleasing counterpoint to the anti-ecology of the 21st century. But these 45 minutes of sheer joy, of man embracing nature, never felt moralizing. In fact, by gently poking fun at humanity's quirks, Colby quietly but effectively brought out the futility of antagonizing Mother Nature.
It may look simple but there's plenty of technique involved here, and it relies a lot (as Colby admitted) on "muscle memory". But this affable shadowgrapher brought it off with brio and a sense of fun that the audience - both adults and kids - easily picked up on. Remember how as girls and boys we'd 'shadow' animals on walls? It was probably one of the few occasions when darkness held no fears for us.
He 'shadowed' cats and dogs, rabbits and birds (perched and in flight) - and even a bear, elephant and monkey. There was a rather psychedelic passage in there, when Colby's hand gestures revealed to us the drama and strange splendour of the ocean, a gorgeous stretch accompanied by spacey lights and music.
It was utterly convincing stuff. And if the best art is a profound questioning of life, an immersive encounter with the world around us, then 'Small Fables' qualifies as art. In one word, it was a delight.
Sharad Kohli, The Times of India, 7th February 2015
Hunting the duck – a hand shadow workshop
This winter, a workshop with Drew Colby introduced us to the complex yet familiar world of hand shadows. While most people have had a go at hand shadows already, achieving a wide variety of animate forms with simply a light source, a pair of hands and a surface is a secret art into which initiation is necessary.
In preparation, Drew led us through a series of twenty hand warm-up exercises – some familiar and others new, some easy and others tricky coordination conundrums. He gave a short performance with a minimal set-up consisting of a torch and a photographer's round diffuser screen mounted on a light stand. Bears, birds, seas, rabbits, people and many other figures peopled the screen in a dreamlike sequence.
Then we got to try our hand at it, so to speak, with Drew's guidance. We made spiders, crabs, camels and pigs as well as the more obvious birds and rabbits, and the bum-wiggling bear. Some came more easily than others and not being directly between the light source and the wall made it even harder, as the shadow warped obliquely out of shape. We discovered that some people had crazily supple wrists and fingers and that each individual’s hands and rhythms gave a huge variety, even when we were all trying to produce the same thing. Our creatures had personality!
Some figures appeared easily and spontaneously, only to escape and return reluctantly only after a frustrating chase. The shadows are very sensitive, and it is only with daily practice, as Drew pointed out, that they come easily and reliably. Hands, arms and backs became tired and time passed quickly as everyone was absorbed in the hunt for the duck, the mouse and the old man that were hiding in their hands. It was addictive work, and difficult to remember to stop and rest.
In the afternoon we learnt about light sources – LED torches of 200 lumens and above were the preferred, affordable and versatile choice. Candlelight is also an interesting possibility. Screens can be a wall, cloth or something like the photographer's portable diffuser, which Drew was using. Hands can be behind or in front of the screen, as long as they are between it and the light source, and the performer visible or hidden. This is low-tech stuff and requires messing around to find your own way, suited to your project. The workshop revealed hand shadows to be a true art form requiring hours of committed practice to master, just like a musical instrument.
Kristin Fredricksson, Animations Online, 20th March 2013