“Shadow Theater” in Athens

The “Shadow Theater” or “Karagyoz”, as it is called in the last two countries –Greece and Turkey- where it still survives is an ancient art form and a pretty unique experience for the whole family.

Imagine a cross between street theater and an improvised “poor man’s cinema”. The eastern equivalent of the Harlequin’s figure from the Italian Comedia Dell Arte; but, performed with only shadows and sounds. The simplicity that centuries of evolution have afforded it and the magic of traditional narratives, create an art form that will probably “shock” and charm any kid born in the digital era, as much as its parents. An excellent opportunity for the whole family’s night out and, maybe later on, an incentive for both kids and their parents to learn in a workshop how to make their own figures and give their own shows back home.

The stage is a screen made of a well-stretched white piece of cloth and the “heroes” are cut-out figures made of a flat piece of carton or leather. The “performer” and his assistants hold them with sticks, and move them back and forth up against the white screen, while the strategically placed lights around it project the puppets’ shadows on the cloth. The public on the other side of the screen never sees the performers, who have to give their voice to the heroes that they move at any given moment and in absolute timing with the other figures, as well as, the music playback when this is used. Oh, they also bang things to produce their own “analog” sound effects.

The world of Karagyoz is defined by the two buildings at the screen’s borders; the “Sarai” - the Ottoman ruler’s palace – and the “Paranga”, the most run-down of shotgun shacks, home to the main character.

“Karagyozis” (meaning Black-Eyed man in Greek) is an age-old hero like no other. Dressed in rags, barefoot, with a big nose and an even bigger hump, armed with nothing more than his cunning mind and a stoic - as much as biting - sense of humor, he is pretty much the average Joe of the eastern Mediterranean. He constantly has to find ways to avoid whatever fate and the authorities across the road (screen) throw at him, while at the same time struggling to feed his three kids and nagging wife. At the same time he has to handle a dozen of stereotypical characters, who come with their own problems, merits, style and their own unique soundtrack!

The first historical reference of a “Karagyozis” show in Greece, places Lord Byron in its audience in 1809 at Ioannina city. But, its history is much older. According to some historians, its technique originated in 9th century B.C. China. From there it passed to India, turning into a kind of religious shadow theater. Later on, gypsy caravans traveling west brought it to Turkey -around the middle ages- and then to Greece where it became a very popular folk adult theater and then comic theater for kids.

Today it is recognized by UNESCO as a piece of intangible cultural heritance, with a great influence in theater, music etc., still played in a handful of places, albeit fewer every year. Still, every year some new kids will carve their own figures and put on their show with a bed sheet and a lamp… about a guy that fought poverty and authority, centuries before the term “economic crisis” was ever heard.

Traditional Karagyozis show by one of its Masters named Eugenios Spatharis

Karagyozis influence in theater

Karagiozis in English

Karagyozis influence in music

Lyrics of Dionysis Savopoulos’ s song « San ton Karagiozi» (meaning “Like Karagiozis”)

«This thing that makes me have an itch, this thing that saves me

is that I am dreaming exactly like Karagiozis does

(I wish I could) lift on my awful back friends and enemies, like they were passengers


My white sheet, my crazy lamp

which of our loves is blowing?

Put in your shadow this child

that tonight has no place to go, to go


I am counting gibbous' words as if they were beans

behind the white sheet, inside the grave

But no matter how much I count, there is something more than what it should be here

our love has holes and it doesn't protect us


My white sheet, my crazy lamp

red egg or carnaval?

Inside the ballot box, the statistic

Death is looking at us and he seems very hungry


Words and pictures slip like shadows

winters leave like garbage's cars

And if you are not ashamed to sit in the back seat

come to the performance for me to BOO you


My white sheet, my crazy lamp

which of our loves is blowing?

Put in your shadow this child

that tonight has no place to go, to go»

Related posts