Miguel Romero
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Drums and Shadows

Rand Theater UMASS Fine Arts Center, May 2003

Shadowcasters:: Glenn Sturgis, Marta Macrostie, Davyn Turchiano, Lucas Maloney, Kai Ravelson, Erica Billings.

Sound Design/Composer: Eduardo Leandro


Drums and Shadows by Timothy Matos

reprinted with permission of The Puppetry Journal

Over the last six years, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Theater Department has become a laboratory for the puppetry of scenic designer Miguel Romero. As an undergraduate student of Romero's in 1996, the year he instituted this puppetry workshop series, I know first hand how lucky students were to receive this early introduction to the otherwise rarified world of puppetry. In the fall of 2002, Romero contacted me about collaborating on a puppet adaptation of a Shakespeare play. With dramaturg Dominica Borg, we began discussing the possibility of turning Shakespeare's Macbeth into a puppet show utilizing the mask aesthetics of Larry Reed. The result was Drums and Shadows, a fiendishly macabre display of shadow puppet technique, which premiered in May of 2003 in the University's Rand Theater.
The artistic team, which also included Costume Designer June Gaeke and Sound Designer/Musician Eduardo Leandro, recognized that Drums and Shadows would have to interact, deliberately and consciously, with audience expectations. Since Macbeth is a play that most people in a collegiate environment have at least a passing acquaintance with, we decided that it was necessary to exploit those moments in the play that could be considered definitive. Now, anyone who has ever adapted a text for the puppet stage (be it a play, short story or folk tale) understands that a one to one correlation between the original and the adaptation is impossible. However, we were also keenly aware of the danger of getting so far off track that the final product became something wholly other. We were determined to produce a successful adaptation.
Obviously, adapting a play and turning it into a shadow show requires taking an essentially verbal medium and translating it to a spectacular medium. We decided, wisely I think, to cut out as much of the text as possible. The little bit of text we kept served two purposes: either to inform the audience of something that could not be done by visual means or to insert a piece of definitive dialogue that the audience expected to hear. We decided to prerecord and distort all the voices and pipe them through the house system. This allowed the voices to sound as if they were disembodied, as if they were a part of the universe of the piece rather than dialogue coming from the individual characters. For example, the show opened in darkness with the words, distorted and repeating, "Fair is foul and foul is fair." This Shakespearean commonplace, it is my belief, relieved audience anxiety about the nature of the adaptation. In essence, they were more willing to accept our variations because we had "promised" them that they would still get to see the play as they remembered it.
There were two moments when we decided to keep relatively large chunks of text intact. Quite possibly the most successful element of the show, and this is no surprise, was the madness of Lady Macbeth. Since the show was largely black and white, we added here a red gel to one of our projectors to further accentuate the drama of this moment. Lady Macbeth, bathed in red, sat on the floor as a fan blew her hair, which had been in a tight bun the entire show, wildly about. She wrung her hands--a simple and easily recognizable gesture-- while the well-known speech played. We handled Macbeth's "Out, out, brief candle" speech in a similar manner.
The rest of the show was purposefully devoid of dialogue to keep the pace moving. However, to provide further contact between the characters, Eduardo Leandro supplied ambient noise with the help of a team of student Foley artists. Using a wide assortment of found object and homemade percussion instruments, they were able to provide both the "music" and the missing dialogue. For example, in the sequence where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discuss killing Duncan, the two student musicians played upon two differently sized pots with an inch or so of water in them. By adjusting the depth of the water and banging either on the shallower or deeper end, they were able to bend the notes so that various intonations were possible. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had a remarkably complex discussion without ever speaking a word of Elizabethan verse. That Macbeth and his wife are plotting Duncan's death is disturbingly clear, although the only dialogue provided throughout the sequence merely states that the king is coming to the castle that night.
Romero's design combined double faced shadow masks mounted on helmets (ala Larry Reed), worn by puppeteers who were lit by one of many hand-held or stationary light units, and puppets and backgrounds projected from one of two overhead projectors. The handheld light sources were equipped with dimmers and could be used to alter the angle of the light. The puppeteers could morph sizes depending on their relationship to the light source and the screen. We took full advantage of this ability to manipulate body shape and size every chance we got. In the sequence when Banquo is killed--a scene we decided to stage--the assassin starts out larger than life, dwarfing the human sized Banquo, before he moves in for the kill. On a twenty-five foot screen, this can be rather poignant and powerful.
The majority of our time in rehearsal was spent in either timing the four light sources or reworking the text. Double images can be a harrowing problem in a show with so many light sources. The puppeteers needed to be flexible because this process demanded that they (literally) wear many hats. The student puppeteers had to learn how to work with the masks on the screen, how to work the projectors and how to control the different light sources. It was very delicate and time-consuming work.
As for the text, we decided to cut Macduff's subplot and focus primarily on the Macbeths and Fleance. Romero's most interesting design choice is easily the puppet of Fleance as king. He designed a puppet made up of four Fleance cutouts attached to a railing in which one of the light sources could be slid along. As the light source is slid along the railing, it appears on screen as if the heads are fading into one another. It was a powerful visceral image designed to dramatize the line of kings that would descend from Fleance. In fact, it was the final moment of the puppet show. We also decided to take a cue from Akira Kurasawa's Throne of Blood and transform the three witches into a singular entity. The demonic baby-head that was chosen for our forest spirit was quite possibly the most terrifying projection in the entire show. More than one small child hid in his seat whenever it was on screen.
Romero clearly excels at exploiting the picturesque qualities of shadow puppetry. For example, when Macbeth is fantasizing about being king, a ghostly crown appears to him, and it disappears as he reaches for it. The situation repeats with a ghostly knife as he contemplates murdering Duncan. Also, near the end of the show, Macbeth literally appears inside a blue-green cutout of his own head-- another instance where we decided to use color to emphasize divergence from the "normal" reality of the piece. While in his own head, he relives the stabbing of Duncan--a moment we did not see when it actually happened earlier in the narrative sequence. Then he encounters the ghost of Banquo for the second time--a repetition of a previous encounter. However, we quickly realized that the danger of such a show was that it easily reduced itself to a collection of sharp images rather than an entirely cohesive whole.
We realized that only working collaboratively in rehearsal with the student puppeteers would allow us to solve the problem. Romero worked behind the screen while I watched from the audience--some nights I also videotaped rehearsals. We decided to focus on the opening battle sequence, only referenced at the beginning of Shakespeare's play. The battle sequence, as we staged it, opens with the image of King Duncan putting horseman on a medieval map. This even-handed, chess-like beginning ends with a blast from a conch shell (yes, an actual conch shell) which segues into a vigorous hand to hand combat sequence. We then added a second layer of duelists to add depth and dimension. Finally, we projected ranks of horseman making their way across the battlefield. We spent time every rehearsal reworking that sequence. The scene certainly achieved movement, and added some much-needed variety to the show, but I'm not sure we were ever quite satisfied with it.
What we learned most from working on this show is that the screen is our only master. If it doesn't look right or move well on the screen, then it must be sacrificed. Shadow puppetry pares performance down to its basics: light, movement, sound. The precision with which these elements are manipulated ultimately determines the success of the show.


Copyright © 2002 Miguel Romero. All rights reserved.