After a 4 year hiatus from Afrikaburn, I was excited to participate in the 2019 festival with a group of very special people. The theme this year was 'Ephermeroplis' and we decided to register an artwork to put on the Playa. The idea germinated on a trip to Manguzi last year, and over a few months one artwork morphed into two: Friends of ours had already built a beautiful geodesic dome known in Tankwa as 'The Living Room', which we planned to borrow and assemble. And then, since we were talking about ephemerality... the play of light and dark... a shadow puppet theatre appeared in my mind. Out on the playa, sitting in the round, cozy Living Room, the theatre was quickly nicknamed 'The Living Room TV'.
My earliest memories of theatre, growing up in Namibia, involved shadow puppets. Over the years I've tried simple shadow theatre techniques in school play productions as well as in my classroom. Shadow theatre has a long and broad history with extraordinary examples from across the globe, but its real brilliance is its simplicity. Flat shapes are lit behind a screen, their silhouettes radiate a peculiar glow. Shapes made of cardboard (or anything flat that can be cut out!) are transformed into ethereal storytelling vehicles.
To construct the theatre, we found a scrapyard specializing in big old door and window frames and found a window frame that was not too shabby. We strengthened the wooden frame with metal brackets and attached two plywood 'stage wings' to either side of the frame, on hinges. Then we stretched and stapled white sheeting across the whole frame. The stage wings were painted with chalkboard paint, so that we could write instructions and announcements about the theatre once it was out on the playa.
I also set about drawing and cutting out a host of shadow puppets using scrap cardboard. I used iconic imagery such as animals, people, trees and landscapes - images that would lend themselves to small stories and interactions on the stage. The simplest puppets were just cut out and attached to a dowel stick, but I also made various puppets with moving parts, using separate cardboard pieces joined with butterfly pins. Even at this construction stage, it was exciting to see the nuance of how the puppets moved, and to imagine the effect that the shadow screen would have.
Afrikaburn is a festival of spectacle but it is also a festival of participation. Our recipe was to make a mix of both - to incite wonder that leads to play and invite play that leads to wonder. We did most of our preparations in Cape Town, shipped it all to Tankwa town and set the whole operation up in the desert as a kind of provocation. There were no 'shows', no predetermined stories or performances.
We placed the Living Room dome and "Living Room TV" about 50 meters apart, so that people resting in the dome had a clear view of the screen, but people approaching from elsewhere could see it too. We used natural light at sunset to light the screen in the evenings and at night we used a powerful spotlight. People could choose to watch or to play. Most chose both, contributing plot twists from the audience or rummaging in the box of puppets to find the next character. We heard people squealing with delight at what they saw and what they made, they laughed and did nonsense, or they marvelled quietly and sat watching the absurd and ridiculous (but always strangely beautiful) sequences playing out.
People spoke to us kindly, offered encouragement and helpful ideas. It was amazing to witness people's interactions and especially their enjoyment, which was almost always playful and curious. We talked and played and learnt a lot.
We also held a couple of puppet-making workshops, so people could make their own shadow puppets to try out. Crazy winds made these workshops tricky to schedule and we did not host as many as we'd have liked - but just the enthusiasm of one child who attended repeatedly, and made numerous puppets with enormous excitement made all these efforts worthwhile.
My main takeaway is that this work encapsulates how I really want to work, as an artist and a teacher. Making art that is enlivened by collaboration, improvisation and play, and teaching in a way that is enchanted by aesthetics, wonder and beauty. The project offered up loads of challenges, particularly in the desert itself where strong winds damaged the screen and prevented us from operating the theatre on a few evenings. But on the whole it was entirely worthwhile, and I will without a doubt bring the Living Room TV back to Afrikaburn again.
Photo credits to Lieke Leenders and @animeshan. Read more educational encounters
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the fabric of her brain.