Manual Cinema is a performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company founded in 2010 by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter. Manual Cinema combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music to create immersive stories for stage and screen. Using vintage overhead projectors, multiple screens, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, multichannel sound design, and a live-music ensemble, Manual Cinema transforms the experience of attending the cinema and imbues it with liveness, ingenuity, and theatricality.
Manual Cinema’s work has been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), Kennedy Center (Washington, DC), Tehran International Puppet Festival (Iran), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Noorderzon Festival (Netherlands), La Monnaie / De Munt (Belgium), O, Miami Poetry Festival, Handmade Worlds Puppet Festival (Minneapolis), Screenwriters’ Colony (Nantucket, Massachusetts), Detroit Institute of Art, Future of Storytelling Conference (New York City), New York City Fringe Festival, Poetry Foundation (Chicago), Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, Puppeteers of America: Puppet Festival (R)evolution, and elsewhere around the world. (See Manual Cinema’s website at http://manualcinema.com/.)
We describe our work as devised theatre because that term quickly captures for people the fact that we work outside a traditional production process, where theatre doesn’t have to be between one playwright and one director. However, the term devised doesn’t quite fit us either because the truth is that a lot of our process is very writerly. There is a lot of sitting at a table alone or in a group grappling with a story or on a scene, very much like a playwright does or even like a team of television writers. It is just that, in our process, the story is not in words, but in a series of storyboard drawings, and major elements of story and character get changed by many hands at different points in the process—by the designers, the composers, the puppeteers, the musicians—all the way up to opening night. We do have a kind of script, but it is about as sacred as a screenplay is to a film production, which means that we take it as a starting point then plan for it to be thrown out of the window.
A more relevant challenge for us is whether we should even call ourselves “theatre” or not. We tell stories live though on a screen, not a stage; there is no dialogue; our storytelling fundamentals are cinematic, not theatrical; and we have been programmed equally by film festivals and theatre festivals. We call our work “cinematic shadow puppetry” because this is as close as we can get to describing it. (See figure 1 and the New York Times’s profile of Manual Cinema at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/theater/manual-cinema-presents-the-semi-gothic-ada-ava.html.)
The primary impulse is always the medium itself, because we are still learning how complex we can make the stories we tell in cinematic shadow puppetry. Without spoken text at our disposal, it is like we are still teaching ourselves the Aristotelian fundamentals—plot, character, thought, [End Page E-15] spectacle—and testing how far we can push a certain idea before the audience either loses track or loses interest. To achieve that, we often have to reverse-engineer the story from the technical limits of the medium. One of our shows, Ada/Ava (2013), began with the idea of identical twins because we figured out that you could mask two actors in shadow and create these uncannily identical twin characters. So we began from a place of technical discovery and into that vessel we placed a story—what if one of them dies?—and then we contributed our ideas and memories about death and mourning and grief and renewal. But the vessel that carried all that was the technical discovery, the special effect. It can sound very limiting, but in fact it is that limitation that makes it such a fascinating and rewarding way to work. We let the overhead projectors and the puppets and the shadows tell us what is interesting and in turn imbue them with...