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Clinical Meeting: Shadows of shadows

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about the theatrical aspects of art therapy. Those of us who work with children often play with our clients and witness stories as they are created on paper and in the sand tray. We are “killed”, eaten and turned into monsters, as our clients learn to make sense of their internal and external worlds. Puppets seem like the natural extension of unconscious, embodied expression, yet it remains something many of us haven’t quite integrated into our art therapy practice. All too often we find boxes of glove puppets in therapy spaces which are never played with, as though both therapist and client are afraid to approach them, animate them and see what they might say. So there was much excitement whenIntegrative Arts Psychotherapist and artist/puppeteer Amanda Lebus agreed to facilitate a workshop on puppet-making for June’s clinical meeting, followed by group discussion about the uses of puppets in therapy.

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The focus of the session was shadow puppetry and we were asked to bring “household objects which allow light through them or have an interesting profile, such as coat-hangers, tea strainer, ladle, scissors, feathers, sieve, or colander.” The session started with a brief demonstration of shadow puppets from different cultures and the ways light, movement and distance can be used to create interesting shadows and effects. After using different materials to make puppets, we took turns to illuminate and animate them behind a sheet as the rest of the team watched the stories unfold (some of the results can be seen on this page).

The atmosphere soon turned playful and excitable, with the hidden/seen nature of shadow puppetry allowing members to engage in free exploration without feeling “exposed”. Themes emerged organically and were reminiscent of childhood fairy tales, from the surreal to the grotesque: objects were devoured and “surgically removed”; a lady with a colander face and straw hat put her make-up on; a fish and its negative image swam across a sea of shadows;
a headless figure and a man with no arms were visited by a giant octopus…

Amanda demonstrated the way shoeboxes can be turned into individual shadow puppetry theatres – thereby offering a contained creative space where only the characters the child has chosen can come to life, where the monsters are only scary when the client wants them to be, and where fears and concerns can be acted out without being overwhelming.

As a caveat, Amanda explained that play with two puppets should be avoided with clients who are fragmented, or at least handled carefully, as it tends to encourage “arguments” between two sides of the self and could contribute to further fragmentation of the ego. Theoretical orientations such as Object Relations, as well as the Voice Dialogue work of Hal and Sidra Stone offer further understanding of the complex and symbolic nature of the various roles, parts and inner voices.

Below is a section from a poem which was read out at the start of the session, linking the Jungian idea of the shadow with the shadows we animated:

 The Shadow-Puppet’s Complaint
by Brian Patten

Not quite drunk yet, I lean across the table
And gossip with my shadow.
We have intimate conversations
About the day’s non-events,
About where they are leading and
The brightness they have fled from.
It smiles at my attempts to give substance
To that skeleton, Memory.

My shadow munches on the shadow of an apple,
And does not fill me.

Posted by Nili Sigal, art therapist &
clinical meetings coordinator

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