Stories in the shadows: theatre company embodies storytelling

A St. John’s theatre company sets out to make dance a more inclusive and emotive art form — even when it happens behind a screen.

Madison Ryan
Kicker

Actor Andrya Duff stands behind a large and translucent white screen with a purple light shining behind her. Her shadow is seen more clearly, with one hand on her hip, and the other raised in the air. There is an angled white screen on either side of her.
Actor Andrya Duff poses as her character, Anne, during a rehearsal of Eli and the Death Curse. In this scene, Anne travels the world, which means Duff has to travel between the three screens as if she’s scaling mountains while remaining in shadow. Duff expresses her character’s wise nature through distinct hand gestures. Madison Ryan/Kicker

Three shadowy figures pose in front of soft purple lights as a whimsical piano tune plays in the background. These silent silhouettes are setting up a lively circus scene.

These shadow performers are part of Untellable, a movement-based theatre company in St. John’s — that aims to empower its actors and audiences through movement.

“The whole idea about Untellable is just really ‘Dance everywhere, with everyone, all the time,’” said Lynn Panting, the company’s artistic director and producer.

The company’s next show, an adaptation of Philip Goodridge’s Eli and the Death Curse, is a fairytale that begins with the story of a young boy’s unfortunate ability to cause death wherever he goes. The play will be staged Jan. 27-29 at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s.

Kevin Woolridge, actor and chair of Untellable, said the play is his first experience with shadow work. The performance has been months in the making, and he said it was a challenging experience despite his prior training in movement. 

Panting said choreographing the play was a collaborative effort that required some innovation and lots of time for the movements to seep into the actors’ bones. Shadow dance gave her a way to bring more magic to the process. 

“Dance is for all because movement is for all.”

– Lynn Panting

Panting said she draws inspiration from shadow puppetry and the way it can interpret a story; the actors take emotion from their characters and interpret where they feel that emotion in their bodies.

In a way, they embody the stories they tell. According to Untellable’s website, “embodied storytelling” is a part of their concentration in theatre and dance. 

Panting said the shadow dancers in the upcoming play represent the emotional lives of each character. When they move on stage, she said, the audience sees the real essence and truth of what’s going on. 

A more positive outlook

Woolridge said relying on movement to tell a story with depth has helped him become more comfortable with his body.

“The main character that I play in the show is the shadow version of Eli, who is a little kid, and I’m 45 years old,” said Woolridge, before sharing a laugh with his colleague Phil Goodridge. “I’ve got a little bit of a ‘dad-bod’ happening.” 

Kevin Woolridge may be a few decades older than his character Eli in Eli and the Death Curse, but shadow work can create illusions that hide that fact. The closer an actor stands to the screen, the smaller the shadow will be. Madison Ryan/Kicker

According to Panting, one of Untellable’s purposes is to make its art form inclusive. She said people have the tendency to think of dance as something other people do on stage and never for themselves, so she wanted a different word. 

She said using the word “movement” in reference to her work with the theatre company removes the barriers “dance” might have; it embraces its innate and natural aspects. 

“Dance is for all because movement is for all.” 

It’s a sentiment that rings true to people like Woolridge.

“At first, I was a little nervous about it but afterwards I said, ‘You know what? People come in all shapes and sizes no matter what.’ And I hope that when people see me in silhouette up there, they’re not gonna see a ‘dad-bod.’”

“They’re just gonna see somebody who looks the way I look.” 


Madison Ryan is an award-winning fiction writer and a student journalist at College of the North Atlantic. She has been reading (admittedly, mainly fantasy) and writing as long as she can remember. She believes there is great power in words.