Shadow Words

When I saw we were going into the small room I thought, oh no, now we’re for it. I’m not at all into drama. But I really had fun. It was great (Teacher).

The activity as described below was first used by artist Mary French with a group of teachers and artists as part of an introductory Professional Learning Day for a new Festival for Healthy Living (FHL) project, which commenced in Yarram in 2010. Mary wanted a non-threatening, confidence-building exercise to illustrate the way a simple performance can be quickly developed and presented to an audience. She also wanted to create a “wow” factor and ensure people had fun. The activity was adapted by Mary from the Group Tableaux game in the Artist’s Resources section of the FHL’s Guidelines for Professional Learning

Here Mary offers her description of Shadow Words for use by other artists and teachers…


The magic of light and shadow always evokes a positive response. It’s very affirming to have the audience appreciate your efforts as a performer. The activity also presents a strong, uncluttered image of two opposing emotional states or situations and demonstrates how mental health topics can be explored using visual images and simple performance.


  • A dark space
  • A torch
  • A simple screen

Mary used a piece of cane, made into a 120cm. circle over which is stretched a piece of white fabric (ripstop, old sheet, calico, tyvek etc). Or, a couple of people can simply hold up a piece of fabric. Cards can be made with the two opposing words printed on them or the words can be whispered to each group.


  1. Assist participants to form groups of three.
  2. Place screen and turn on torch.
  3. Ask for volunteers to show what happens when figures move closer to the screen or further away (play time).
  4. Give a simple example of using a figure or figures to create scenes to illustrate two opposing words; for example, “joyful” and “sad”.
  5. Hand out word cards with two opposite words to each group, such as timid/confident, tired/energetic, hopeful/hopeless, angry/relaxed, hungry/full, included/excluded. The words may have a theme to create specific outcomes and discussion.
  6. Give each group about two minutes to create images depicting their words. Specify if the image is to be static or moving or a choice of either.
  7. Each group performs their word tableaux to the rest of the participants. The audience is invited to “guess the words.” If the word is difficult to guess, some prompting may be required from the facilitator. It’s surprising how rarely this is needed.
  8. Group discussion: What did we discover? What did people notice? Discussions could include: shadow tricks, body language, feelings and emotions.

Facilitator Notes

When performing in a dark space, people tend to become more focused on the task at hand. The audience concentrates fully on the images on the screen. Less confident people love the idea of performing behind a screen instead of being fully exposed. The simple use of black and white and shape emphasises body language. Shadow Words is a great warm-up activity but can also be a starting point for the development of a performance piece.

Some Benefits and Effects of Using this Game

  • When teachers see shadow games in action, they are often inspired to use this medium to explore ideas in class. Once introduced to shadow play, students quickly invent new ways to use shadow and are highly creative with their ideas.
  • Children and young people can experience creative and constructive ways of expressing themselves and/or interacting with others.
  • Having to work closely with other people within a limited time frame assists in the development of co-operative teamwork. Playing with shadow gives people the opportunity to be more adventurous and uninhibited than they normally might be. The audience is always impressed by the creativity of the performers.
  • The game creates a space to laugh, be silly and have fun – within clear boundaries – or to be quiet and reflective, increasing self-awareness and respect.
  • Shadow Words can elicit a wide variety of responses from the performers and audience. There is usually a wide range of moods created, from humorous to intensely moving.
  • It helps children and young people to explore a range of approaches and attitudes that can promote mental health/wellbeing.
  • Depending on the words chosen, topics such as body language, emotions and relationships can be explored. The use of two opposite words is important to emphasise differences. The performers are able to physically and emotionally feel the change between each pose.
  • The game can also be used to warm up to creative workshops relating to literacy, as well as mental health/wellbeing themes. It might also be linked to other curriculum areas including numeracy.
  • Shadow Words has an obvious link to literacy. Mary French has used similar games to expand vocabulary. Having been introduced to the game, students can invent their own sets of words. A link to numeracy would be easy to make: it would be interesting to work with a Maths teacher to develop a “numbers” version of the game.


This activity was first provided by Mary French for the GamePlan! Blog. GamePlan! was developed by the Festival for Healthy Living Artists Training Program during 2010 for artists and others who are interested in creative ways of promoting the wellbeing of children and young people. The aim of the site is to collectively build a “library” of ideas for games and activities that have been developed and tested through artists’ practice within the FHL and/or within other arts/education/wellbeing initiatives in schools and communities.