Silence hangs in the air as curtains rise and lights slowly fade to illuminate a screen at the back.
An eager audience leans forward as a series of shadows appear, gliding gracefully to the flowing music in the background that seems to breathe life into the silhouettes.
Welcome to Nakuru Players Theatre’s latest sensation — shadow plays, where shadows tell stories.
Although not an entirely new concept, shadow plays were first performed in Asia 2000 years ago, it has taken the Nakuru theatre scene by storm.
One week to the end of school holidays, scores of youths are flocking to the theatre to be part of the crew making the shadows appear real.
In shadow play, actors are only visible as shadows projected on the screen.
“We have been practicing this for over a year and it is coming out very well. Theatre lovers are already appreciating it. The dancers and script writers are also keeping us on our toes,” says Joseph Gichinga.
The concept is simple- actors and dancers do their stuff between a light source and the screen.
The result is that instead of watching real characters on stage, you end up watching their shadows.
These can be manipulated to create or change scenes or introduce inanimate characters including animals.
It all boils down to creativity, both of the actors and the script writers.
While shadow plays have been around for some time, they are just picking up in Kenyan theatres.
After seeing the concept on TV and the social media, actors, acrobats, dancers and script writers were determined to put it on stage.
“We got the idea from America Got Talent TV show and have been following up on some of the best shadow theatre performers and trying to emulate the art,” says Gichinga.
Slowly, shadows are breathing some life back into one of the country’s oldest theatre.
“Although it is a unique type of art, given that it cannot be performed outdoors, it has attracted a number of fans to the theatre,” says Oscar Mwalo, a choreographer.
So what is the difference between watching a story told by a real actor and watching it told by a shadow?
The actors say shadows tell the story better.
“They engage the audiences’ imagination. This way the audience becomes more immersed in the performance. It becomes part of the performance,” says Gichinga.
Although, puppets were previously used as primary objects to stage shadow plays, the new crop of artistes is taking the genre a notch higher by incorporating more objects.
“We are currently working with animation artists to help us create more unique characters and stories,” says Mike Matata.
For a modern shadow theatre, latest lighting technologies are used to enable larger stage areas to be exploited for full-body shadow plays.
“We have everything that is required for a shadow play including the projectors, the screen and very active casts,” says Gichinga.
Currently, the group is working towards completing the first full shadow play story on the life of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino.
Sudan has seen actors working with different animation artists to put wildlife conservation on the stage.