No one who saw the world premiere of Manual Cinema's “Frankenstein” at Court Theatre in late 2018 will forget the unique blend of shadow puppetry, 3D puppetry, actors, old-fashioned cinematic techniques, sound design, and live music that brought both Mary Shelley's novel and parts of her biography to life as a handmade movie that unfolded in real time on and around a main screen, allowing viewers to see what went into the process as well as the finished product.
Commissioned by Court, the show was the most elaborate to date—including a plethora of musical instruments (especially percussion)--for the collective founded by co-artistic directors Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman (all three University of Chicago alumni), Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter. It also
was clearly intended to be presented live in front of an audience.
So it was a surprise to learn that Manual Cinema, which has grown into a design studio and film/video production company as well as a touring performance collective, is marking its first decade with a month-long virtual celebration called “Manual Cinema’s 10th Anniversary Retrospectacular!”
The series features four of the company's nine full-length shows, starting with “Lula Del Ray,” which was conceived by Miller and made its debut as a site-specific work for the2012 opening of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, where Manual Cinema was ensemble-in-residence in the Theater and Performance Studies Program that summer and fall. It uses overhead projectors, shadow puppets, actors in silhouette, and live music to tell the coming-of-age story of a lonely adolescent girl who lives with her mother near a vast satellite array in the middle of the desert, becomes obsessed with a soulful country music duo, and runs away to the city to see them.
Next up is “The End of TV,” which depicts the promise and decline of the American rust belt through the relationship between an elderly white women succumbing to dementia and a young Black woman laid off from her job at an auto plant, intercut with tv commercials and programs. It premiered in 2017 as a commission by The International Festival of Arts and Ideas, New Haven, CT, followed by a sold-out, self-produced run at Chicago’s Chopin Theatre in summer 2018.
The third show, “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” combines intricate paper
puppetry, live actors working in shadow, and an original score to tell the true story of Chicago's renowned poet laureate, who also was an educator and mentor to the countless writers and children.
Commissioned in 2017 for the Brooks centennial by the Poetry Foundation, it weaves together poetry, storytelling, sound design, and the music to explore how she navigated identity, craft, politics, and the city.
“Frankenstein,” conceived by Dir (who had been Court's dramaturg), rounds out the main productions, which were recorded in multi-camera, high-definition video. Each week’s will be posted on Monday at noon and remain available for free on-demand viewing until the following Monday at noon, when it will be replaced with the next week’s show. In addition, each includes an introduction by one of the five co-artistic directors placing it in the context of the company's history and a live online talk-back with the production's creators, collaborators, and fans.
But “Lula Del Ray” and “Frankenstein” won't be the versions you may remember. Manual Cinema makes archival recordings of its shows, and while “The End of TV” and “No Blue Memories” were recorded at The Chopin Theatre and The Harold Washington Library respectively, “Lula Del Ray” was filmed in 2016 at Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch, New Jersey, and “Frankenstein” was filmed in 2019 at McEwan Hall at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
“Every show changes and goes through several iterations until it becomes part of our touring repertory,” explained Miller, whose request for help from friends of friends for an early version of Lula Del Ray for a puppet festival is what brought the five co-artistic directors together a decade ago. “When we're creating a show we're so involved with the tech stuff that we don't see all the elements until the production is fully formed, and then we can see how well the story is working.”
In the case of “Frankenstein,” Miller said, cuts were made during and after previews, especially when they realized the Court version wouldn't work for touring. Among other changes, the video eliminates the frame of the arctic ship captain and Victor Frankenstein's back story.
While everything Manual Cinema does is highly collaborative—with Kauffman and Vetger focusing on the sound design and music and the other three on the visuals, as well as sometimes performing—each archival video was edited by one of the co-artistic directors. Dir edited “Lula Del Ray” and “No Blue Memories”; Vegter was responsible for “The End of TV” and “Frankenstein.”
This process has become increasingly complicated. “We're always pushing the envelope with what we can do,” Miller said. “and we've learned a lot about technique, mastering our tools, and telling a more complex story over the last ten years. When we started with Lula, we were experimenting with video projections and originally had just one projector and two puppeteers. By 'Frankenstein,' we had a multi-camera shoot with separate recordings of the puppeteers, the musicians, the full stage, and the final video projection, all of which had to be edited and put together to try to capture the experience of the show being made.”
Miller admitted, however, that the “Retrospectacular!” was initially planned last December and January as a live series at the Chopin Theatre and never would have been put online were it not for COVID-19. “What makes our work special is that it's created live,” she said, “but we can't do that safely (with social distancing), and streaming is an attempt to still share with our audiences. As an added benefit, it broadens the opportunities for national and international touring.”
New possibilities also have excited Miller. Though its live shows have been put on hold, Manual Cinema created several sequences for the “Candyman” film coming out this fall, and the LIVE Tele-FUN-draiser Special she's hosting Aug. 22 holds lots of promise for going “live” online. It includes
cameos by characters from past productions, guest artists, and a world premiere of a 15-minute work performed by the co-artistic directors using shadow puppetry, toy theater, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music. “We have all the tools and just have to figure out how to rearrange them for the new reality,” Miller said.