Introduction: Cardboard Box Shadow Theater

About: Drew Charter School believes that making is an essential part of education.

Shadow theater is an ancient form of story-telling using lights, screens, and puppets to animate scenes and make stories come alive. While traditionally shadow theater would have been on a larger scale for audiences, its easy to make a small shadow theater at home using household objects, and requires no special equipment. This small theater can be used for at home learning while we're all staying home, and requires no trips to the store.

This art form has a long history and was used in many cultures for story-telling before the advent of cinema. Lighting effects that use techniques similar to those found in shadow theater are still used in plays and film production today, and this project is a great introduction for young learners to this art form, as well as a way for them to learn about light while using their creative skills.

This project can also be used in the classroom for students to use their creative and scientific skills to experiment and learn about the nature of light. The theater is lit from a single point light source, and screens, puppets, and objects can be used to explain the concepts of opacity, transparency, and translucency. Lenses and mirrors to use to carry out investigations about the refraction of light and the paths it can travel.


For this project you'll need:

  • Cardboard Box- Any cardboard box will work for this project. The kind from ubiquitous online retailer works very well with letter sized paper.
  • Paper- I'm using a standard sheet of letter sized paper, but you can use something smaller or larger depending on what you have available.
  • Glue or Tape- I'm using clear tape, but white glue, tacky glue, or glue stick will also work to attach the paper to the box. Use what you have on hand! You may need a stronger glue like super glue for your puppets depending on the materials you use.
  • Scissors or craft knife- To cut your box you will need scissors or a craft knife. If you are using a craft knife, please be cautious and ask an adult for help.
  • Light- You'll need a light source to illuminate your theater. Look at what materials you have on hand and the size of your theater to determine what will work best for you. For a theater using a letter sized piece of paper, a flashlight or the light from a phone works well.
  • Pencil or pen
  • Props- The props you use will depend on your story. Think of the story you will tell and look at what you have on hand to determine what props to use. Playing around with opacity, translucency, and transparency in your props will add more depth to your visual storytelling.
  • Ruler

Optional Supplies:

  • Markers or paint- Markers and paint can help you create great effects with opaque and translucent images when used on clear plastic.
  • Clear plastic sheet- Clear plastic sheet is a great material to use to create transparent puppets that can be drawn on. Repurposed plastic from food packaging is a great material to use for this.
  • Popsicle stick- Any kind of stick will work to add movement to your props and puppets.

Step 1: Build Your Theater

To build your theater, we will use the cardboard box, paper, tape, and scissors.

Working from the inside of the box will be easiest and safest. Open your box, place your paper inside the box and trace the outline of it. You'll need space around the edges, so add a 1/4" to 1/2" margin inside the outline of the paper. Using your scissors or craft knife, cut out the hole for the theater screen.

Before we attach the screen, we need to consider how to access the "stage" for our performance, and cut a hole to place our puppets through. Now is the time to think like a designer! Consider where you will stand while you put on your performance. What is the easiest place to manipulate your puppets? Where can you can you place your puppets to show up on the screen, but not completely obscure your light? For my theater, accessing the "stage" through the top of the box will be easiest. I am cutting an access hole in the top of my box. I traced around the outline of the top of the box and cut this out.

Once you have your holes cut, you will add the paper to create your screen. Use your glue or tape to adhere the paper inside the box. Taping the flaps of the box together will help to stabilize your theater if it is unstable.

If you want to embellish your theater, you can use scrap material from constructing your theater.

Step 2: Illuminate Your Theater

Set your light source up behind the screen of your theater and behind where you will move your puppets. Test out different placements or multiple sources of light to create different effects.

To illuminate my theater I'm using my phone propped up on some books. You can use a flashlight, phone light, light bulb, or a natural light source like a window to illuminate your theater.

When you're ready to begin your performance, turn on your lights!

Step 3: Write Your Story and Plan Your Production

Before going further, we'll want to plan out what kind of play we will perform! You can create your own story or perform an old favorite. This step is entirely up to you.

Planning our story will help us decide what kind of puppets and props we need. Use your drawing skills to create story boards and plan what your play will require.

You may want to think about what kind of mood you want to set as well. Will you change the colors and types of lights for your performance?

Step 4: Build Your Puppets and Props

The great thing about this project is that you can use items that you already have or repurposed materials to create your props and puppets.

Small toys and action figures make great puppets and props to use to set your scenery. The size of your pieces in relation to each other doesn't matter as you can move them further and closer to the light source to manipulate the size. Puppets can easily be made from thick paper or

To make puppets you can experiment with transparent and opaque materials. Transparent materials, like clear plastic, can be drawn on with markers or paint to draw your characters. Markers and paints will create different effects when backlit- experiment with what you have available to create different effects!

Drawing on opaque material like paper will not show up on your screen in a shadow theater, but they can be cut up to represent characters and items. Use your craft knife or scissors to cut into the desired shape. You may need an adult to help you with this step.

Once you have assembled your puppets, use your glue or tape to attach a stick to the puppets to easily manipulate them during your performance.

Step 5: Lights, Camera, Action!

You've built your theater, written your story, built your props, and assembled your cast. Now it's time for the premiere of your performance! Gather up an audience and put on your show!

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