“We kind of modeled the company after a band,” says Julia Miller, one of five founding artistic directors of Chicago’s cinematic shadow puppetry collective Manual Cinema, “where we would try to come up with a thing and then perform it. The structure of the company was about us creating work together.” Composer and co-founder Ben Kauffman thinks Manual Cinema’s creative process is more akin to film and television production. “There’s music and sound, puppetry, film teams, all with the same goal,” he says. “A lot of the shows have something of a writers’ room like you might see in TV [production]. Part of our growth as a company is finding different ways of working, which can be a reason in and of itself to start something. A new process can be as exciting as a new story idea.”
Whatever you liken the Manual Cinema creative process to—which is always going to be a tough analogy as the company is, safe to say, making a kind of theater that has never been done before—their virtuous cycle of form and function yields dazzling, imaginative results. Puppeteers working on a quartet of mid-twentieth-century overhead projectors create multilayered scenes with cut paper and live actors in silhouette, while musicians and Foley artists provide original score and soundscape. And despite all company members and their activities being visible to the audience (pre-virus, of course), the big-screen projection above unfolds as part silent movie, part magic show. One can scrutinize the artists busy at work, deftly manipulating hundreds of cutouts with surgical precision and orchestral coordination, but figuring out how they create complex scenes and depth of field on such crude technology is like trying to figure out how the lady levitates: it’s pretty much impossible and totally beside the point.
Most Manual Cinema films contain no spoken text, with storytelling accomplished through image and music, the universal themes requiring no translation. After the company received an invitation in 2014 to perform at the Tehran International Puppet Theatre Festival, they toured internationally. Kauffman said the absence of spoken language is one of his favorite aspects of the medium, not only because it can be understood by any viewer, but because of the space it allows for music to tell a story. “Most anything you see on TV or in a movie theater is driven by words, and with Manual Cinema, it allows a beautiful balance between visuals and music,” he says. “As a composer, I feel I have a lot of freedom and space to do as much storytelling with the music as I possibly can. It’s not as dense of information being parsed out.”
Miller noted how the visual spaciousness of shadow puppetry allows audiences to see themselves in the story. “The level of engagement you can have with a puppet just blows my mind,” she says. “With shadow puppetry. there’s something about how we’re working in motif and metaphor and the imagery combined with the music. When there isn’t text, there’s the capacity for you as an audience member to put your own experience in the story because it doesn’t have the same detail of seeing an actor’s face in front of the camera or hearing dialogue that’s very specific. We work in larger strokes that invite the audience in a little more.”
The cinematic aspect of Manual Cinema’s performances led the company to delve into video and film scoring, atop performing and touring live shows, and their versatility and imaginative approach led to high-profile video and film collaborations. A documentary short produced with the New York Times about Adolfo Kaminsky, a forger who helped thousands of Jews escape to safety in World War II, won an Emmy and was nominated for a Peabody. And Manual Cinema animations are featured in Nia DaCosta’s 2021 “Candyman” (produced by Jordan Peele), a sequel to the 1992 horror film set in the area around the Cabrini-Green Homes.
Manual Cinema’s video production arm positioned the company to continue making work through the pandemic—not that writing and producing a feature-length show in 2020 was without challenges. Miller says safety protocols set up another set of formidable limitations, but the company created a new, live shadow-puppet cinema work in time for a physically distanced holiday season: an adaptation of Dickens’ December staple “A Christmas Carol.”
“We’d always wanted to do ‘A Christmas Carol,’ with people growing up watching ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol,’ and we also wanted to make it of the time,” Miller explains. “The premise is that Aunt Trudy is on a family Zoom call because they have to be apart because of the pandemic. She recently lost her partner Uncle Joe, and he was the one to get out the puppets and recite the story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the family. We delve into Trudy trying to make the story her own, and then we delve into a retelling of Dickens’ classic story, but also under the guise of Aunt Trudy trying to fill this hole in the family and also deal with her grief.”
“Trudy is a stand-in for Manual Cinema,” Kauffman says. “We want to tell this story that everyone knows really well, but also contextualize it in the current moment and do something new with it.”
Each performance will be livestreamed, with puppeteers and musicians creating the sound and images in real time. And while we won’t see the hands of the artists on their instruments, the show promises to add a touch of much-needed magic to the end of a difficult year.
“Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol” livestreams December 3–31 at marquee.tv. Tickets at manualcinema.com. $15.