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Manual Cinema celebrates a decade of innovative work

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” writes Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory, where he describes the past as a series of illuminated pictures, through which one’s character “becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.” Potent backlit images magnified to eyelash-fine detail before being whisked away, with a sly billow of the curtain that brings the mechanism of the art abruptly into view also describes the magic of Manual Cinema, the homegrown puppet theater company celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Using overhead projectors and cut paper visibly moved by hands, wires, and transparencies, Manual Cinema combines the low-tech nostalgia of silhouettes in the dark with dazzling projections, cerebral design, and live music in quadraphonic surround sound. Mostly wordless, sometimes embodied, their productions tell stories in images and episodes that flicker by as the artists rendering them work ceaselessly in the drama of plain sight. 

Artistic directors Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter first teamed up for the Rough House Experimental Puppetry Festival in 2010. The Ballad of Lula Del Ray, their 20-minute piece on a single overhead projector about a desert-dwelling teen’s quest for country music, proved so popular that they found themselves performing all over town. “We did Lula at the Whistler, at Cole’s, at a bunch of bars in Logan Square, at friends’ events,” recalls Miller, who first became intrigued with shadow puppetry—and acquainted with Fornace—while working with Redmoon Theater the year before. “We were like, Oh! People are into this! Maybe we could make another thing! Maybe we should come up with a name!” They dubbed themselves “Manual Cinema,” and, project by project, they developed the cinematic shadow puppetry they’re now known for worldwide.

“Definitely none of us were experts in this medium,” says Dir. With a diverse array of backgrounds in theater, visual art, and music, the company has developed a method and medium they compare to making films. 

“The process for each production takes at least a year under ideal circumstances,” says Kauffman. “We do some written treatment but quickly move to more cinematic tools to develop an idea: storyboards, animatics, demo videos. Our shows don’t have a lot of dialogue or text, so we rely on visual language, sonic language, and cinematic language of editing, compressing, and expanding time.”

“It is an iterative process and very designed at every level,” says Dir. “Each time we bring in another layer of artists, it changes—the show might begin with a storyboard, but then the puppets are built and start to change the story. The composers start to change the story, and the puppeteers. The show is remade over and over again. In that way it’s a lot like film, written as a screenplay, remade again in production, remade in postproduction. We’re constantly cutting it.”

“It is a living organism,” adds Kauffman. “There’s enough unknowns and curveballs that you don’t know what a show is until it’s fully up on its feet on a stage”—he and Miller speak rapidly, their words dovetailing into a single sentence—with “costumes, lighting” (Miller), “performers” (Kauffman), “the timing of what they’re doing—until it opens” (Miller). “We made four or five versions of Lula as we were learning how much more story we could tell” (Miller).

This collaborative, experimental approach has defined how the company developed its particular art over the years. “A huge part of the ethos of Manual Cinema is showing the mechanism and the technique of how we’re making the show and sharing the stage with the final image, but we didn’t start that way,” says Miller. After two years of working more traditionally behind a screen, a 2012 collaboration with video artist Rasean Davonte Johnson while in residence at the Logan Center for the Arts resulted in an installation version of Lula del Ray, with the company performing live inside the black box theater as video of the work was projected onto a screen in the lobby, where speakers created a surround sound environment, with audiences encouraged to wander between the two. 

An engagement at Theater on the Lake the next year further solidified their methodology: “It’s a big theater, and we had a tiny footprint!” says Miller. “That’s when we hung a big video projection screen and had us underneath it.” Each production thereafter has added more variables and possibilities to the product: projections, live actors, experimentation with depth of field, and so on.

Their touring schedule brought to a halt by COVID-19, like others, Manual Cinema began streaming archival video in April—to enthusiastic response. “You see one show, but we might not come back to your theater for two years—or ever,” notes Miller. As it became clear that their tenth anniversary performance series at the Chopin Theatre would be canceled, they added the four intended productions to the queue to be streamed starting July 27, billed as a “retrospectacular.” Yet still hungry for “the live element,” the company has continued to work remotely to create a live performance streaming August 22 as a “Tele-FUN-draiser,” with 10 percent of the proceeds going to the artists who were in the archival videos and previously booked for the run.

They anticipate cautiously working in person again this fall to develop an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, a project long on their to-do list. “There’s so much to mine right now: social distancing, isolation, holidays with family members, what’s safe, what’s not. Can you visit your grandparents?” says Miller. “We’re in the process of coming up with protocols: what PPE is required, how does everyone have a station so no one is touching the same stuff. We experimented with that on a video shoot in May for [the forthcoming feature film] Candyman, but it’s a weird position to be in when you have no federal oversight and you have to figure out what’s safe for you and your employees.” 

Reflecting on the last ten years, Kauffman says,Our tenth anniversary roughly coincides with the decades of our lives. We started Manual Cinema in our early 20s; now we’re in our 30s. So it feels like the end of a chapter, and the pandemic is making us think about the future in a new way and forcing us to reimagine what we do and who we are.” 

Miller remembers Manual Cinema’s first international performance in 2014, the first time Americans were invited to perform in the Tehran Mobarak International Puppet Festival. “We went to Iran during the U.S. nuclear conversation. We did two shows to a packed audience, and it was the first time they flew the American flag in Tehran since the revolution. They didn’t have gaffer’s tape in the theater because they had been under the trade embargoes. It was so emotional to be invited, and I feel fortunate to be able to share our work.”

“I don’t think any of us expected to be in this line of work or saw ourselves making this kind of art when we started out,” says Dir. “All of us fell into it, and we’re grateful that we found it and each other—or the work found us. For the first couple years it was just experimentation of the medium, trying to figure out what this is, Manual Cinema. What makes it really creatively alive is that we’re still trying to answer that question, and the work is continuing to give us new and exciting answers to that question. The answers keep changing, so that’s what makes it a worthwhile project to continue.”  v

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