Manual Cinema mixes puppets, projectors, and live music

Chicago-based Manual Cinema leaps into the light with its innovative mix of cardboard puppets, film conventions and live music

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A rehearsal session at Manual Cinema, a small puppet theater which uses cinematic language to help tell theatrical stories. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

Blinds were drawn.

Lights were killed.

A string section settled into its seats. This was Halloween night 2010. Playwright Drew Dir and performer Sarah Fornace were having a party. They lived in Ukrainian Village then, in a first-floor apartment. With a few artist friends, they had recently started an unclassifiable multimedia company named Manual Cinema. Its goal was admirable and large: Manual Cinema wanted to create a new medium. But it still wasn't much of a company and hadn't performed often. And so, once the party was humming along, the guests were asked to step outside, onto the sidewalk. Because Manual Cinema had a treat for them.

Everyone — party guests, neighborhood hipsters, trick-or-treaters passing by — gathered beneath the window. The company had written a Hitchcockian drama full of doppelgangers and lighthouses. Designer Julia Miller had built cardboard puppets. Musicians Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman wrote the score.

The music started.

And the show …

Projected on a window shade.

Silhouetted searchlights swept.

Silhouetted surf crashed.

Lightning snapped. A puppet of a haunted woman sought relief in a fun house. More remarkable: Scenes unfolded as if in a movie, with close-ups and dissolves and a variety of camera angles. It was like watching a dark animated film, but instead of years of filmmaking being shown months after production, Manual Cinema was making its new film here, right now, in real time. A gothic tale of loneliness and ghosts, entirely sculpted in shadows. With a live soundtrack. Dreamlike yet grounded, abstract yet accessible. On the sidewalk outside the window, superheroes, pirates and zombies applauded the magic.

Manual Cinema was less than a year old then, but that performance was exactly the kind of bewitching, intimate shadow puppet show the company has built its growing and unlikely reputation on — a reputation for marrying an ancient medium and contemporary pop sensibilities so thoughtfully that to describe Manual Cinema as just a shadow puppet show is to say Pixar makes cartoons.

"The first reaction to us is always the same," Fornace said. "They ask, 'How are you doing what you are doing?'"

It's an understandable question, though I suspect when audience members ask this, what they really mean is: How are you using shadow puppets to approximate the kind of recognizable cinematic conventions familiar to any movie audience? How are you creating fade-ins, pans and depth of field?

On overhead projectors?

In the years since that Halloween party, quietly, steadily and in an under-the-radar way, stories of the group's hard-to-define genius spread. So effectively that Manual Cinema finds itself at a turning point: As many artists and institutions want to know the answers to those questions as want to work with them. Indeed, even a partial list of its upcoming commissions and possibilities would be the envy of much larger arts groups: an installation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a music video for OK Go, online shorts for celebrated "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" author Karen Russell, upcoming performances at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art (and subsequent new show for the museum).

There's also the company's starring role at the University of Chicago's Studs Terkel festival, "Let's Get Working," on Saturday: Manual Cinema partnered with National Public Radio's StoryCorps to perform a series of live shorts adapted from StoryCorp's huge archive of everyday people telling stories about their lives. Indeed, in tribute, their show opens with a hobbling cardboard Studs puppet recounting a harrowing airport memory; it's a StoryCorps interview with Terkel, but Manual Cinema adapted it into a Kafka-esque psychodrama, with cardboard puppets mixing with live actors, planes gliding onto runways and Terkel delighting a giggling baby.

All in shadow.

"Initially you hear 'shadow puppets,' and you don't know what to expect," said Maya Millett, the StoryCorps producer who hired Manual Cinema. "But the minute you actually see their work, any hesitation completely dissolves in the face of what is basically this elegant understanding of cinema and a totally original creation."

So sought-after has Manual Cinema become that its founders are training a touring company, which has wasted no time in booking shows. (It makes its debut May 16 for Chicago Children's Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for Arts.)

Mention Manual Cinema to stage professionals around Chicago who have seen the work of this still-obscure company and you hear rhapsodic accolades: that its founders are naturals, that the group is a blockbuster in waiting, doing everything right, maintaining a low profile, worrying more about building a body of work than branding itself. You even hear that it's not so pie-in-the-sky for the group to be naming Pixar and Jim Henson — cultural institutions defined as much by storytelling as by technical innovation — as role models, that it's sound reasoning from an ambitious group going places.

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