Support Local News.

Please support our work by subscribing today.

For families during isolation: shadow puppet shows in Jane Martineau’s NL home window

Get the weekly rundown
Sign up to receive THE FUN never stops!, our weekly A&E newsletter

The sky, which had been bright through the day, was settling into dusk, and the air softly echoed with the sound of birds making their last chirps before dark. On Sherman Street in New London, the big bay window of Jane Martineau’s house lit up around 7:30 p.m.

The overture of “The Wizard of Oz” began to swell from a wireless speaker on the front porch, featuring orchestral versions of familiar compositions like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the Wicked Witch of the West’s iconic theme.

The title “The Wizard of Oz” appeared in the window, followed by gloriously detailed shadow images that wordlessly told the tale of Dorothy and her journey to Oz. The cyclone whirled Dorothy to Oz, she met her trio of friends there, they traveled the yellow brick road, and it was all perfectly timed to the music.

The show lasted almost six minutes, and it drew neighbors out of their houses, standing the prescribed six feet apart for social distancing. A family in a car parked across the street from Martineau’s house watched the production unfold.

Martineau has been presenting these shows several nights a week during the COVID-19 shutdown.

She wanted to do something to help during the coronavirus crisis and first planned to sew masks, but when she got out her sewing machine, it didn’t work. Martineau, who teaches theater and has been active with performance groups over the years, considered what else she could do and decided to focus on kids. With all the social distancing and quarantining people are having to do, her mind turned to families confined together at home all day. She thought her shows would provide parents with a five-minute break from their daily isolation with the children. They could put the youngsters in the car, take a ride to Martineau’s house, watch the brief show and then go home and put the kids to bed.

And the shadow puppet shows are something a little out of the ordinary for kids to see.

The art form, Martineau says, “is such a magical way to tell a story without dialogue.”

Out of the shadows

“I keep saying in my next life that I’m going to be a puppeteer. … I really love it,” Martineau says.

In discussing the art of shadow puppetry, she says, “The music’s really key and the synchronicity to the music is really key, too, and I love that challenge. I find that the problem-solving of it is in my wheelhouse.”

Martineau has been director of theater at The Williams School in New London for 39 years, and two of her acting classes are creating their own shadow shows from home. “I thought, ‘What if I go ahead and do a show so that we can all problem-solve together?’” she says.

She was inspired, too, by a friend living in California who is a puppeteer. That woman has huge windows all over her house, and she created a single shadow image for each, with the story depicting the COVID virus as a monster battling mankind, represented by a mouse.

“A lot of my puppet tribes, they’re all doing marvelous things, especially on the internet and stuff. It’s really magic,” Martineau says.

Martineau started acting with Flock Theatre “way back when” and, through that New London-based theater group, worked with the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

She became more interested in shadow puppet shows and mentions Manual Cinema out of Chicago, which combines handmade shadow puppetry using overhead projectors, cinematic techniques, sound and music to create immersive stories for stage and screen.

“They are so talented and so willing to share how they did things. One of my goals when I retire is to call them and say, ‘Hi, I’m 66 years old and I’m in good health and I’ll be your flunky for a week. You don’t have to pay me, just let me come,’” she says with a laugh.

Behind the scenes, with overhead projectors

Here’s how the magic works behind the scenes: Martineau creates the images by cutting them out of oak tag, cardstock or construction paper and tapes them onto projector film. She then places them on the 10¼-inch-by-10¼-inch glass top of the overhead projector.

She uses two overhead projectors, and each has a piece of cardstock or construction paper taped to its top neck. That enables Martineau to fade one projector out so she can set a new slide. Each projector fades in and out as the story unfolds.

“An overhead projector is a puppeteers’ best friend,” Martineau says. “... They are old technology, and I’m glad nobody wants them anymore. I have quite a crop of them.”

She uses small scissors so she can cut in closely on the silhouettes, and she has a razor cutter and a very fine razor blade on a handle that she employs as well.

Getting the images to adhere to the slide, Martineau says, is “probably the trickiest because if you have anything that’s delicate, you have to roll the tape, Scotch tape, really, really tiny because (otherwise) it reads horribly on the screen.”

(She says glue doesn’t work; “Glue won’t dry fast enough, and if you try to move it, it slides, and then you have smears of glue on the slide.”)

For “The Wizard of Oz,” she incorporated some slides she used for a Williams School middle school production a few years back. Those slides consisted just of the scenery. She reworked those and added characters.

“I wanted to use some different characters than classic Judy Garland from the film, so I Googled vintage ‘Wizard of Oz’ silhouettes, and I found some nice ones. Then I just used a lion for the lion because I liked the way it looked,” she says.

Martineau went back to the original book, too, and discovered that, at the end of that version, Dorothy clicks the heels of her silver shoes together, gets picked up by a cyclone, and is tossed back on the prairie before running home. She worked into her show Dorothy’s coming back to Kansas in a cyclone because she thought it was an interesting image.

Audiences arrive

Adults as well as kids have come out to see Martineau’s shadow puppet shows. Two little girls who live next door have watched the works, and a friend of Martineau’s, with two children in tow, drove over from Groton.

Some folks sit in their car, while others gather in Martineau’s relatively small front yard, standing six feet apart.

Bernadette Macca and wife Missy brought their three children from their home in Waterford to see Martineau’s “Wizard of Oz” on April 10, and Bernadette says, “We thought it was amazing.” The kids — Jennie, 11; Maddie, 8; and Luke, 3 — “were totally entertained, sitting in the front yard, and honestly, it was nice to get out of the house and do something, and even better that it was (Martineau).”

She got to know Martineau at The Williams School, where Macca was the athletic director. She says these shadow puppet shows that Martineau is doing now “just shows how gracious she is, to do it on her own time and for the benefit of other people. I think it just says who she is.”

On April 8, Sherman Street neighbor Lisa Demaio was among the people who came out to watch Martineau’s “Oz.” She said afterward that she had caught the tail end of a couple of earlier performances but was glad to finally see it in its entirety.

“It’s amazing. It’s a light in kind of a heavy time,” she says.

Martineau’s plan is to present the shows Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at dusk. She may switch back to “Cinderella,” which she had previously presented, and then return to “The Wizard of Oz.

The schedule is posted on her Facebook page and the New London Local Interest Facebook page. She has also put “Cinderella” on YouTube.

Martineau is toying with the idea of developing another show — maybe “Ferdinand the Bull” — and, when the coronavirus crisis is over and people can visit hospitals again, she would like to bring the shows to a children’s hospital.

What: Jane Martineau's shadow puppet shows

When: She is aiming to present the shows at dusk (about 7:30 p.m. now) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays

Where: 17 Sherman St., New London

Length of shows: "Cinderella" is about four minutes long, and she ran it four or five times in succession each night, and "The Wizard of Oz" is almost six minutes, which she ran four or five times, with time for each reset

Cost: Free

For more information: Martineau's Facebook page or the New London Local Interest Facebook page


Loading comments...
Hide Comments
Stay up to date with The Day's breaking coronavirus coverage
Sign up to receive our daily coronavirus newsletter