Me and My Shadows

Richard Bradshaw is an Australian puppeteer who created a constant stream of funny, deceptively simple shadow puppets that appeal to both kids and adults. His sight gags are short, continuously surprising, wonderfully silly and strangely fertile. Most of his puppets have only two moving parts (a stick for each hand), but despite that limitation, his characters are alive. That’s a rare feat with shadow puppetry.

He works alone, behind a small screen, pulling cardboard puppets from a pile in quick succession and it’s fascinating to watch his relaxed precision. He sings and sometimes tells a story, but mostly the shows are wordless and the gags are rarely more than a minute long. There’s a universality to his images and jokes that crosses cultures and generations. Rarely does he touch the big questions, like death; but when he does, his work is profound.

In 1985, Jim Henson did a series of brilliant one hour programs on six great puppeteers, including Bradshaw, under the title, The World of Puppetry. Frustratingly, those Henson videos are hard to find (they’re not in any library near me, although I’m told that they were released in Canada). However, snippets of some of them turn up on YouTube—such as this seven minute excerpt. Not only do we see a couple of Bradshaw’s visual jokes, but we also see him working behind the  screen. And he shows Henson a couple of his techniques for making puppets.

For a longer (27 minute) profile of Bradshaw, here’s Me And My Shadows, introduced by Kermit the Frog. This is a full feature, with Bradshaw talking about his art and career. We meet his wife as well, and some Australian puppeteers who pay tribute to his originality, his comic gift, and his mastery of the art. He became a puppeteer almost by accident, playing around as an amateur for years; and it’s clear that he stays with the game for the joy of it, particularly the happiness of connecting with an audience. He’s a shy man (as his wife notes, it’s no accident that he works behind a screen), and he likes working alone, although he was for years artistic director of Australia’s Marionnette Theatre, where they experimented with all kinds of puppets with multiple players.