Shadowcaster Christine Marie Will Create 40-Foot Shadows During 'The Fifty Year Sword' This Halloween

Christine Marie's performance art has a way of eliciting wonder from children and adults alike. Though many of her tools are simple—lights, fabric and everyday objects—she's able to create entire worlds by blending ancient traditions with new ideas. She's performed for thousands of people through shows such as Ground to Cloud, and her background includes ShadowLight Productions in San Francisco and studying Wayang Kulit in Bali.

This Halloween, she and her team will return to the REDCAT Theater for Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword. LAist caught up with Christine Marie last week to learn more.

LAist: How did you first get involved with shadowcasting? When you were a child, did you experiment with shadows in your room?

Christine Marie: I liked shadows a lot as a child. I loved those moments where I'd be sitting in the living room and a car would drive by—and with it, the shadows of the chairs and furniture would grow and spin throughout the room.

I'd never seen a shadow puppet. It wasn't until I was working as a video editor—way back in the days of Media 100, Avid and Premiere—that my thoughts drifted that way. I remember sitting there and thinking, "I love making cross-dissolves and compositing for frames. I wish there was some way to do this live…and with people."

So that's what prompted you to explore shadowcasting?

One pivotal moment started with this intense dream I had when I was 19. It was quite stark—with giant shadows moving on a big rock wall. I woke up from this profound and simple vision, then I called my friends and family and said, "I really want to do something with shadows!" And their reaction across the board was, "What are you talking about?" (laughs)

So how did you educate yourself?

I went to the library and started to research shadows, shadow theater and shadow puppetry. I found shadows from Greece, China, and all sorts of places. But it was when I found the shadows from Bali that I really got goose bumps. I started to have a real visceral reaction to shadows from that point forward.

That led me to a puppet group called the San Francisco Bay Area Puppet Guild. I went to a meeting but wasn't really into it. I just saw a lot of adults playing with dolls, and I didn't think that was cool at my young, hip age.

However, at the end of the meeting, they passed out some flyers for a show called In Xanadu, and it was a ShadowLight production about Kublai Khan and his wife. My trail of crumbs led me to see that production, and it blew my mind. It was at the end of that show that I said, "Take me! Teach me everything you know!" And so began a nearly 15-year journey.

Whose shadow work you most admire?

My mentor, Larry Reed. He directed In Xanadu, and it was just amazing. He had 20' x 30' shadows cross-dissolving in and out of each other, and there was even a live Tibetan singer.

The show featured a white background with black puppets, but there was one moment where it instantly became the inverse of itself with a black background and white puppets. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.

I went up to them after the show and said, "I want to do this!" and they told me, "Unfortunately, this is the last show of a two-year run." I couldn't believe it. Luckily, they took me on as a video editor, and through editing all of Larry's videos from previous shows, and assisting him in Wayang Kulit, I got quite an education.

I imagine that shadowcasting involves a lot of experimentation. Have you had many happy accidents where you were able to take items from around the house and create something magical on the screen?

One of my happy accidents involved taking shards from a broken mirror and hot gluing them to a piece of cardboard. When I moved and bent the cardboard, it became really pliable, and when it reflected back onto the screen, it looked really dimensional—like the stars were moving past one another and flying through the air. I'll use this in the Halloween show.


'From Ground to Cloud' highlights

Speaking of shadow dimension, you recently incorporated 3D shadows into a show, and the audience loved it. What inspired you to do that? Is it a new technique?

I had heard that it could be done, but I had never seen it or read anything about it. Then I heard that Ken Jacobs, a filmmaker in New York, had made some small stereoscopic shadows, so I just started experimenting by putting lights together…and burning lots of light bulbs!

A lot of friends aided me on that journey, and eventually I was able to make a 3D 40-foot shadow in perfect focus. When you view it with anaglyph viewers, the shadow pops right out at you. That was probably the coolest thing I've ever experienced. Currently, I am the only artist performing with live giant cinematic 3D shadows.

I loved that the audience really delighted in it. I like to create delight for adults—so we can feel like children without watching childish things.

You've also worked with children as a shadowcasting teacher. How have they impacted or inspired your work?

My students sometimes use materials in ways that are surprising to me. I also love their excitement and eagerness to experiment and have fun. They are the only other beings who become as noticeably excited about big shadows. We squeal and laugh everytime we make it rain peanut butter and jelly or watch a lion shadow eat a city. In shadows we can create "real time" special effects. One class just wrote me a bunch of letters saying, "When I want to grow up, I want to be a shadowcaster just like you." That was so sweet.

What's one cardinal rule of shadowcasting?

You have to watch the screen, and that's hard for actors—and for dancers—because they are so used to having the focus and attention on their body. In shadows, it's completely different. They have to animate their shadow. While in a scene together, they can never actually look at each other—they have to line up their eyes to each other in the shadow.

But it's an incredibly powerful thing when all the actors, puppeteers and light technicians meet on this thin membrane. The audience is looking at the exact same thing, and everyone's attention is right there. No one is looking at themselves; we're all projecting our suspension of disbelief and our emotions onto that screen. I think that's really powerful.

You've said that you create your own lights for your performances. How do you do that and why is it so important?

I learned how to make the lights at ShadowLight, and I used a little of what I learned there, plus and a lot of advice from an LA stereoscopic society, to invent the 3D lights. I like that my hand has touched every part of the process. The lights are very much a handmade object. They're a part of the ensemble—another instrument. I don't think they'd feel the same if we bought them at IKEA.

The Fifty Year Sword tells the tale of "a recently divorced seamstress who encounters a shadowy Story Teller who recounts for five orphans a story of revenge, a harrowing quest, and a terrible sword." Given that you're known for immersing yourself in the subject of your current project, like you did with electricity in Ground to Cloud, what part of The Fifty Year Sword did you most connect with?

The Story Teller's journey. That's where we really focus the shadows, and it's exciting to work with Mark's words, thanks to stuff like "the man with no harms," "the forest of falling notes" and "the shadow of a star"—that's my favorite one.

They're all things no one has ever seen before, so it gives us a lot of room for interpretation. Then of course, there's the fifty year sword itself. What does that look like?

Good question!

And working with Mark is great. He really loves shadows. He likes to come into "Persephone's realm" as he calls it, and learn how everything works. He wants to move the objects in the light and stand in for the shadow actors to get a feel for the medium. He's learned to listen to the shadows.

How did you create "the forest of falling notes" last year?

It's going to be different this year, but last year I was trying to figure out what to do while I was at my friend's house, just looking up at her walls. She had this strange decoration of hanging bamboo circles, so I took them off the wall, brought them to the theater and used them in the show.

You handle the end of the story so well. The shadows in that last scene—with Chintana and Belinda Kite—do a great job of reflecting the original text.

That part of the story breaks our Story Teller motif as we go back into reality. The Story Teller's magic is still there, yet we're back at the party. I wanted to find ways to represent Chintana and then bring in that mystery—the remnants from his tale, which are very present and have a huge effect.

Given Danielewski's affinity for cats, and last year's cat in the curtain call, will there be a shadowcat in The Fifty Year Sword this year?

Of course there will! We'll find some way to have a cat. Maybe he'll follow the Story Teller around on his journey…

Will there be other shadow surprises this year?

Oh yes. This time we'll have some masked characters. Mark saw masks that we used in Ground to Cloud, and requested them for The Fifty Year Sword. It'll be great to put some faces to the characters in the story. And have falling snow.

You've worked at REDCAT many times before. What's something you really appreciate about that venue?

Almost everything. I love every person who works there—such as their technical director, Bill Ballou, who often comes to me with odd objects he's found and says, "This might look cool in shadows." We did use a strange reflective cylinder he found during last year's performance of The Fifty Year Sword, so I love it when people start "thinking in shadow."

I feel like everyone at REDCAT really supports artists and care about the art. That always feels good. And I love the huge screen—in my work, the bigger the shadows, the better!

What else are you working on?

One thing I'm very excited about is that I'm a 2012 TED fellow, so I'll be attending their conference and speaking about shadows.

I'm working on two new shows, Multiplying Spectacles and Signaling Arcana.

And I also have a 3D shadow installation, Shadows in Stereo, that's going to be at the Great Park in Orange County this November. We're going to have a giant screen out in the courtyard with 40-foot cross-dissolving 3D shadows that we'll enliven, and at different points, the audience will be able to walk through and see their own giant shadows. So that'll be really fun.

What is Signaling Arcana about?

Signaling Arcana is immersive, so the shadows surround the entire audience. Some of it's in polarized 3D and some of it features regular shadows. It's about the effect of 19th century industrialization on the American wilderness. We witness a young couple whose carefree frolic is interrupted by the train and the need to work and toil.

It's expressionist and emotional without the use of dialogue. I am working with an amazing composer, Dan Cantrell. There are a lot of dream sequences that include a Dream Child video character. She's very small, and she interacts with the shadows of birds and animals that are four times her size, the giant shadows will pick her up and carry her video image throughout the set. I am also purchasing many moving model trains that I hope to mount the 3D lights to for live tracking shots.

Speaking of dream sequences, have you ever tried to recreate the dream you originally had when you decided to become a shadow artist?

It was so simple that I don't think anyone would be interested in it.

It could be a dream within a dream sequence...

It could be! We'll see...

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Christine Marie!

You can see Christine Marie in The Fifty Year Sword at REDCAT on Oct. 31, 2011 at 8:30 p.m. She will be joined by Danielewski as conductor, six actors, sound design by John Zalewski, and live music by Partch Ensemble percussionists Matthew Cook and T.J. Troy. On-site book sales will benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Los Angeles Chapter.