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Sleight of Screen

Puppeteering powerhouse Manual Cinema celebrates its 10th anniversary with a livestreamed variety show.

Above:2018’s Frankenstein at the Court Theatre Photo: Michael Brosilow

A group of puppeteers huddles around an array of vintage overhead projectors. A meticulous cutout of a London skyline moves up across the light box, the projected image suggesting a camera panning down. Cut to another projector, where the silhouette of a quill touches the silhouette of an inkwell; elsewhere on stage, a foley artist creates the tapping sound of the quill on the jar. On the other side of the stage, an actor’s shadow casts against another screen. Off to the side, a four-piece ensemble of musicians plays a moody score. And above the action, on a larger screen, all of these elements come together to form what you might think of as a live animated movie.

These are the opening moments of Manual Cinema’s most recent production, Frankenstein, which premiered at Court Theatre in 2018. And they’re emblematic of the difficult-to-describe but unquestionably cool alchemy that is the Chicago company’s invented art form, a hybrid of film and theater where “showing your work” is part of the magical package.

Beginning July 27, Manual Cinema celebrates its 10th anniversary by making archival videos of four favorite shows available to stream (donations are encouraged) for one week each on its website. The retrospective culminates in a livestreamed event on August 22 at 8 p.m.: Manual Cinema’s Live Tele-fun-draiser World Premiere Special, a retro-style variety show that surveys the company’s accomplishments.

“We call it ‘cinematic shadow puppetry’ for short,” says Julia Miller, one of Manual Cinema’s five founders and artistic directors, on a Zoom call with fellow artistic directors Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter. “We’re playing with cinematic vocabulary, but trying to figure out how to do it live onstage.” (The other two artistic directors, Drew Dir and Sarah Fornace, had a good excuse for missing the meeting: They’d just welcomed their first child a few days earlier.)

Rapper and poet Rasaan Khalil during a post-performance show for 2017’s 'No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks'
Rapper and poet Rasaan Khalil during a post-performance show for 2017’s No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks   Photo: Lindsay Warren

Manual Cinema isn’t tied down to a venue, which has been advantageous. The company focuses on touring — its work has been seen on four continents — and pursues collaborations with local organizations it admires, like Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago Children’s Theatre, and the Poetry Foundation. The group has made an animated video for new-music sextet Eighth Blackbird (Vegter was their business manager) and a documentary short for the New York Times, which won an Emmy in 2017, and its shadow puppetry features heavily in the Jordan Peele–produced Candyman sequel due out in September.

For its anniversary, the quintet initially intended to mount four favorites from its repertory at Noble Square’s Chopin Theatre as live, in-person performances. As the ongoing pandemic made it clear that wouldn’t be prudent, Manual Cinema’s touring model left it well positioned to take the celebration online.

“Our archival videos have always been super important to us,” Vegter says. “They’re what presenters use to decide if they want to book us or not.” The company has captured each of its repertory pieces at multiple dates and from many camera angles, allowing Vegter to piece together an approximation of the show’s live feel.

The livestream on August 22 will also feature the debut of a new, made-for-streaming 15-minute work performed by the five founders. The live piece will incorporate shadow puppetry, Victorian-style toy theater, and original music.

“That’s really, for us, a trial of the format,” says Kauffman. “But we’re going to keep as much of the peering-behind-the-curtain aspect of our work in it as possible.”

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