Remember how you used to make shadow rabbits on a wall? Picture a stage filled with vintage overhead projectors creating shadows from paper and acetate figures, interacting with live actors and cameras, feeding live to multiple screens, with live music and multi-channel sound, and using cinematic techniques to create an immersive visual story on stage and screen. That’s what to expect from Manual Cinema, the Chicago-based multi-media performance collective performing at The Broad Stage this weekend, with their production called “Mementos Mori.”
Talk about breaking down the fourth wall between audience and performers, “We’re showing you how we’re making the show at the same time that you’re seeing the show,” says Julia Miller, one the company’s five co-artistic directors.
SWIPE TO KILL
The paper and acetate puppet figures are made by hand and the shadows are created using the overhead projectors. “People ask whether we’re influenced by ancient forms of shadow puppetry, like the Balinese tradition,” Julia says. “But we grew up watching puppets on TV so we’re more post-Jim Henson, trying to create something man-made in a world that’s very digital, showing you what’s behind the machine.”
Manual Cinema was founded in 2010 in Chicago, and to date they’ve created ten feature-length, live cinematic puppet shows. The company’s co-artistic directors bring unique and diverse performance practices to the creation of each project, which are influenced by different films and filmmakers. “Mementos Mori” is about death, inspired by such films as Magnolia, Seventh Seal and Wings of Desire.
Julia says, “Mortality sneaks into all our shows in some way, but this is the most literal version we’ve made. It’s an interwoven narrative with several characters; an older film projectionist chasing death; a young girl meeting death for the first time; and an older woman trying to cheat death to stay alive. And Death itself is a physical character.”
The character of Death, says Julia, “Goes on an emotional journey about what her relationship to death is. She loses her sight, replacing it with a cellphone and using an app that lets her swipe to kill people, giving her physical distance from her activity as the reaper. But it leaves her vulnerable to learning about humanity in some very interesting ways. There’s a lot of things we’re exploring in there.”
FROM STORYBOARD TO STAGE
Creating shows is an ever-evolving process. Julia says instead of a paper script with a story, “Each show starts with a format that changes depending on what the story is, but usually starts with an outline and some bullet points, sometimes an actual script.
“Text gets turned into a storyboard, shot by shot, frame by frame, showing what puppets and visuals we need to tell the story. We use that to build the puppets and to stage a demo, which we’ll film and send to the music and sound design team. Because it’s a visual medium we really have to get it off the page to see if it’s actually accomplishing everything we think it should, and then we’ll stage it with the cast. So each step of the way, the show changes, and gets tighter as we learn what’s working and not, what we need more and less of.”
FROM SIMPLE TO COMPLEX
Julia met fellow co-artistic director Sarah Fornace at the now defunct Redmoon Theatre, that specialized in spectacle. After doing a production of Swan Lake with them that involved the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, two puppeteers and two overhead projectors, they wanted to see what they could do on their own.
“A friend was doing a storefront theatre puppet festival and asked me to make something for it. That’s when we all got together to create what became ‘Lula Del Ray,’ [their first show] with just one overhead projector, two puppeteers and one person doing sound. From there we kept playing with the medium, expanding the technique and trying new things with each project. We kept adding projectors or live actors with the puppets. It’s a very specific type of medium that has a lot of rules, but within that container, we kept finding new and exciting things to do.
“And now ‘Mementos Mori’ has seven overhead projectors, two live feed screens, quadrophonic sound designed like a movie theatre, and a live band onstage.”
A FOR-PROFIT COMPANY
With all that equipment, five full-time artistic directors and three full-time staff, Manual Cinema sounds like an expensive company to run. But Julia says, “We’re a for-profit company with two elements, touring our shows and for-hire design work. We have multiple shows out at a time.
“And we’re also a for-hire design company doing video projects. We’re working on something for The Poetry Foundation in Chicago, but we’ve also done projects for NPR and The New York Times. And we also do for-hire work in theatres; currently we’re designing puppets for The Court Theatre in Chicago. We work non-stop with multiple projects that we’re working on simultaneously.”
How they make it work is a testament to the collective nature of their team. “All of us have different personal practices, which is why the company is so interesting,” Julia says. “It’s a brain trust of five different people who think about things in different ways, making work together.”
Visit https://www.thebroadstage.org for tickets; performances 4/12—4/14 only.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.