Review: Manual Cinema Workshop

On Tuesday night, we went to see a workshop of Manual Cinema at the Museum of Contemporary Art. They have been working on their new piece Mementos Mori that looks at our relationship to death and dying in this new digital world. I have seen Manual Cinema twice before; the first time as part of the Studs Terkel Festival in May, and the second time with their full length piece Lula del Ray later in May. We got to see about thirty minutes of their new work that they are prepping for a Chicago Puppet Festival in January.

For those of you unfamiliar with Manual Cinema, they are a shadow puppet trope. But it’s more than shadow puppets. Think of film but with puppets. They seamlessly move from one scene to another creating entire worlds with paper and projectors. Some characters are live actors in silhouette. It’s truly the bees knees.

This piece was just a taste of the full show. I won’t go into too many details since the show is in process of being created. One major thing that was different about this show was that they were using three screens. There were two screens that they used as backdrops and then a third screen, front and center, where the main action happened. They would switch between the two screens to project onto the third. The other shows had only one screen. This three screen set up allowed for quicker transitions. It was also interesting to see how they would prep one screen for the next scene. It was wonderful to watch the physical aspect of the show as the performers ran from projector to projector or screen to screen, etc.

The thing that I love about Manual Cinema is how they mimic how we see the world. They effectively replicate the ambiguity and fuzziness of the world around us. It’s brilliant. They strive to get down the visual cues from our day to day experiences. For instance, a character rode her bike on busy streets. To give you the sense of riding on a Chicago street, the puppeteers waved car puppets really fast past her. You could barely see the shape of the car, but you knew what it was. Or in another scene, you see birds above, circling. They swirl around and eventually you aren’t even certain they are birds save for the fact that you had just seen them. Their attention to detail is magnificent, whether it’s moving the little girl’s feet while she’s bored or moving her eyelashes.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked why they were interested in the digital world when their medium choice was so analog. The directors commented that they got together in a room. Surprisingly, they found that 20 somethings were interested in death and the digital world. That was how they decided on the topic for the show. It’s timely now that we live in a digital world and are still figuring out how to deal with death in the cyberworld. The past few weeks have shown public mourning on Twitter and Facebook for celebrities and other people. It’s a very important area that needs to be explored. I think that it will be really great to look at the digital world and death through puppets; it will help pare down the extraneous noise and focus on the essential aspects to our interactions with each other and death.

Also, they talked about how they experimented with representing the digital world, between puppets of iPhones with puppet fingers to showing screens. I think they are still thinking about how to do that so it’ll be exciting to see what they come up with. In the Q&A, the directors talked about how they also used some film in the story where they projected running film onto a puppet backdrop. Fascinating!

I’m looking forward to seeing the finalized piece in January with the rest of the festival.

That’s all for now!

City Alive with Dreams Part 3

This past weekend, I attended (and participated in) another performance of Carron Little’s City Alive with Dreams at the Chicago Cultural Center as the artist in residence. I’ve been following the performances of this series for the past couple of months at the Green Mill and the Hyde Park Art Center. I was very excited to see how the series developed. It was wonderful!

This next step in the series was a mental and physical journey. It started inside the north lobby of the building where a performer, dressed in bright pink, blue and silver, asked me if I wished to get a head massage in the Temple of Dreams. When I agreed, I was led up the stairs to the GAR Rotunda, or the Grand Army of the Republic Rotunda, which has an incredible stained glass roof. There were four mats and pillows laid out like a plus sign on the floor beneath it. Two were bright blue and two were bright pink. I was told to stand by a mat and wait.


I waited a few moments when a door opened from nowhere, and people dressed like priests and priestesses processed out. Some of them were wearing long robes that were both pink and blue while some wore black. They all wore amazing shaped masks in pink, blue and silver. They circled around us once and then stopped in place.

Two performers or priests stepped forward and began singing a haunting song. Their voices echoed perfectly to the room. I felt like I was transported to Ancient Greece to a temple ceremony. It felt that this room was built for this sole purpose.


When the last notes drifted away, a tribute to the dream Gods, I was asked by a performer to lie down on the mat for my head massage. I did so and had a really relaxing head massage. When it was over, I was given a crystal that was to be given to the Queen of Luxuria. When my turn came, I gave my crystal to her and we discussed my thoughts in the temple. I couldn’t help but think of how the body was an external frame to the known world. There is me, defined by the body, and then everything else. But dreams are how the body pushes beyond its limits. Queen of Luxuria wrote down a sentence of my thoughts and instructed me to go on the next stage of this journey.

I was shown outside to the South entrance of the Cultural Center. There I found a masked performer dressed in all black with white angel wings. I gave my sentence to the musician who spent several minutes improvising it into a song. It was rather splendid to hear my thoughts turned into music.

I really liked this piece. I loved how it was a journey of the mind and the body. The journey of the mind came from the haunting music and the head massage. They allowed me to relax and drift. There were three women who participated with me. One of them told me how fantastic the experience was. She told me that she works with the elderly and it could be stressful and emotional. This experience gave her the rare opportunity to relax.

In her artist statement, Carron Little talked about how “It was believed in Ancient Greece that dream interpretation was the highest form of healing.” I can see that spirit resound throughout the piece. People had the opportunity to relax, to think and Queen of Luxuria would listen and guide the participant. It was liberating.

But there was also the physical journey throughout the building. There were four stages of the piece from the north lobby to the GAR Rotunda, another room, and the south entrance of the Cultural Center. It felt like a pilgrimage that ended in enlightened and personal song. And at the end, I felt like I was part of a larger piece to the dream gods. Together, the performers and all the other participants collectively wrote a song and/or poem together, a line at a time. One aspect of the work is the interest and consideration of the cities as bodies, people as part of the larger whole. I feel that this collective song creation was a metaphor for the city at large, lots of pieces working together to make a whole.

There will be another performance in the series on Friday, August 22nd at Buttercup Park at 7pm. Check it out!

That’s all for now!

10th Anniversary of WITASWAN

Saturday was the 10th anniversary of WITASWAN! I’ve mentioned this in previous posts that WITASWAN stands for Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now. It’s an initiative that was started ten years ago with Jan Lisa Huttner and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Illinois Chapter. The initiative is a movement to support female artists in all fields, but with a focus on film.

WITASWAN came out of research about the “Celluloid Ceiling” that female directors and writers’ lack of recognition, funding, and more in the movie world. For instance, in the history of the Academy Awards, only one woman has won best director. I believe only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director. That’s a problem. There is a lot of talk about how we need more female directors but that’s not the issue. There are many films made by women but they don’t get the press, nor the wide release. There are great films out there that you’ve never heard of. So the idea of WITASWAN is motivate consumers to see films by women, whether at the theater or on Netflix, etc. If we want to see diverse voices that reflect many experiences, we have to do this.

Part of this initiative is SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now) at the end of March. It was conceived with Martha Richards at WomenArts, Jan Huttner, and AAUW. The idea of SWAN Day is celebrate women in the arts with an event. It could be a movie screening, a play, a lecture or maybe a gallery crawl. There have been celebrations all over the world. For instance, Sophie Dowllar has been instrumental in organizing event in Kenya. She organized the first SWAN day event despite restrictions on public activity. One of her events had over 600 people attend! Here is a 2010 interview with Sophie Dowllar about SWAN day and arts in Kenya.  In the interview, she talks about how artists and WITASWAN activists in Kenya have to deal with challenges that Americans don’t normally have to face. There are difficulties with internet, meeting spaces, travel and much more. Her commitment to the cause is incredible. Rock on Sophie Dowllar! Let’s emulate her example!

So to celebrate the 10 years, AAUW had a special screening of Judy Chaikin’s “The Girls in the Band.” The event was open to the public and held in Evanston. Judy Chaikin flew in, presented the film, and had a Q&A with us. I’ve previously talked about this film in February.

It is an incredible and important film. This film speaks to the important contributions that women made in jazz, which have been left out of the historical narratives. Judy Chaikin shared with us how she got interested. A friend of hers called her up to say that she had met this woman who claimed to have been a drummer in a big band in the 1930s. Her friend thought this was preposterous but did her homework and found out that there were such a thing as all women big bands. So the director got interested, did some more research and found out that there was a story about women in jazz. Then she looked into seeing if the women were any good or were these novelty bands. But the music was great. So there was an important story here.

So go and see this film if you can. It may be released soon on Netflix so you can check it out there. But go out and support women artists everywhere now! Let’s make SWAN day everyday!

That’s all!

Fiddler on the Roof

This weekend, I went to see the Light Opera Works’ production of Fiddler on the Roof in Evanston. I had particularly been keen on seeing a live production of the musical since my friend Jan Lisa Huttner has been studying and lecturing on the play for years. She has given six lectures on the musical, looking at various aspects from it, such as the identity of the fiddler on the roof, the influence of Marc Chagall, the influence of Solomon Aleichem’s life on the work, and more. Here’s her blog about the lectures and her work:

I enjoyed the production. Seeing the live musical is a nice reminder that most movies just don’t do musicals and plays justice. Alex Honzen, who played Tevye, has an incredible baritone voice. My favorite parts of the production were when he had his conversations with G-d. He also sang and danced “To Life” and “If I were a Rich Man” so well. He and Golda even gave me goose bumps for “Sunrise, Sunset.” It is not a song that I particularly adore but in this production, I felt the weight of their emotions as they consider the passing of time and the marriage of their daughter.

One great thing about the musical is how it values the women’s voices. In a play that starts off talking about the importance of “Papa” in making choices, three of his daughters and his wife are very vocal. These four women are active players in their lives. Three of them even have their own solos or duets. In particular, Katelin Spencer, who played Hodel, had a powerful voice. You really felt the weight of her choice when she sang “Far from the Home I Love.” It’s a nice change from some musicals where it really just centers on the male character and his choices.

And of course there was a fiddler on the roof who would actually played violin! Huzzah! He appeared throughout the play especially during scenes where old ideas clashed with new ideas. Jan Huttner sees him as the representation of tradition. This play supported that interpretation.

It’s interesting to see the staged production after seeing the movie and reading the short stories. The movie cut a lot of important things out, as Jan Lisa Huttner, pointed out, such as completing changing the role of Yenta, the only independent woman in the village, to a lesser character. Other important differences exist so it was nice to see a different interpretation from the movie that most people are familiar with.

It’s also curious to see how the original scriptwriters adapted the short stories. There are eight of them, though none of them are actually named Fiddler on the Roof. The stories are written over the course of 20 years so one critic commented that it was a novel written in real time. What a wonderful concept. Half of the stories are more light and cheery than the second half, which reflect the darkening political atmosphere of Europe when they were written. You see that darkness reflected in the musical, which I think is essential. The musical may be a wonderful celebration of life but life is sad too.

The staging was quite wonderful. All the scenes were located in the middle of the town. The set would unravel itself to locate the house or the bar, etc. And the dance scenes were magnificent. I was particularly taken by the wedding dance by the men who balanced bottles on their heads. And at one point, they were on their knees kicking and sliding across the floor. Pretty swell.

The only thing that was a bit off for me was that the first song “Tradition” had the men and women come on stage with their arms linked for a line dance. This is strange since there is a huge scene later in the musical about men and women dancing together. That first scene jarred me. Another thing that was a bit odd to me was this dream sequence song/dance. It did involve a two-high ghost with amazing green backlighting. I don’t recall what there was in the movie and I haven’t seen other productions but this was a bit odd. It was hilarious but it seemed out of the tone with the rest of the musical.

If you have a chance to check it out, it’s playing until the 24th. Here is the link to the show:

That’s all!

Michelle L’amour’s Variety Show

On Saturday, we went to see Michelle L’amour’s Variety Show. I’ve been keen on seeing one of her shows for awhile now since a friend of mine was a student of hers but never got around to it. But Gruff and Tumble, our favorite acro-duo, was performing in the variety show. Naturally, we had to go and see them.

And the show did not disappoint. It was a wonderful combination of burlesque, magic, comedians, and circus. I haven’t seen a lot of burlesque but I do enjoy it immensely. It’s a wonderful combination of empowerment and creativity. I feel that burlesque celebrates all bodies: skinny, tall, small, and large. It’s really affirming to watch women enjoy themselves on stage. In return, it makes me feel joyful. And the creativity is pretty sweet. A friend told me of a burlesque act that involved googly eye pasties. This is my white whale. Note: I have not been able to track down a list of performers so if someone has that info, I’d love to tag performers I mention by name.

One of my favorite acts is best described as magic burlesque. I have a really big soft spot in my heart for magic. I love reading about it. It was act with a magician and his genie-costumed assistant. He put her into a genie bottle, closed the lid, and proceeded to push swords throughout the bottle. He even stepped into the bottle to show that she was not in there. Impressive. Then he pulled the knives out with pieces of her costume attached. She pops out, unscathed, in pasties and confetti. Pretty freaking sweet.

There was also this lovely comedian whose act was a throwback to vaudeville. He told those wonderfully bad jokes. They weren’t quite “I flew in from New York. Boy, my arms are tired” but they were close. I loved it. Bad jokes and puns are awesome. He also did some pretty sweet magic tricks. He had a woman choose a card from a deck, show it to people, and then she put it back in the deck. He then threw all the cards in the air and his tie, yes his tie, stabbed the right card. It was amazing.

Gruff and Tumble were wonderful as always. They are friends of mine and I try to see them perform if I am able. They have an amazing duo acrobatic act. Their act harkens back to old timey acrobatics with their stripped tank tops and shorts. When I watch them, I feel that I have been transported to a boardwalk on a perfect summer day. It’s a fun act; you should check them out when they perform again.

The burlesque was rather awesome. One of my favorite acts was a woman performing to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She was spot on in her outfit and dance. It was pure delight watching her. There was also a wonderful burlesque act where the woman wore a rather leafy ensemble. She pulled off her stockings (artfully I may add) and then placed light up green balls in them. She swung these around rather skillfully as she continued to dance and undress. It was a bit like the bolo dance I saw before in Argentine…except for a few major details. :)

And Michelle L’amour was amazing. We got to see her debut a new act. It’s swell. She had this incredible bejeweled outfit with a giant tail of red and white feathers. I rather envied her tail. Her act was all about the glamour. I can see why she was the youngest person to get voted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. She is pure joy to watch perform. I can’t wait to see her perform again.

What a wonderful evening!

That’s all!

Review: King of the Rodeo

This past Saturday was once again the Music Box’s Silent Second Saturday. Every second Saturday, there is a showing of a different silent film at noon with live organ accompaniment. This month, the movie was King of the Rodeo (1929) with Hoot Gibson.

The story is about a young man who loves the rodeo despite the objections of his father. He goes off to Chicago for the big rodeo in Soldier Field, where he may find fame and happiness. The plot isn’t terribly complicated; it’s boy finds success and love in the big city. It’s a bit of a silly film. A major plot point is centered on the main character’s obsession with his clean shirts.

The best parts are the scenes of the rodeo and old Chicago. The rodeo scenes were incredible. There were scenes of bucking broncos, calf wrestling, and more. And the scenes did not look like they were staged, it looked like they just filmed a rodeo. It was intense, watching men try to stay on their horses. Many of them were flipped off; one imagines that several broken bones resulted. The cowboys also rode steers, which was even more terrifying than the bucking broncos! And there was trick riding, which was basically acrobatics on a horse. It was really freaking cool. I’ve never been to a rodeo. Part of me wants to go now but part of me is terrified I’m going to watch someone break their neck.

The scenes of Old Chicago were magnificent too. At one point, there was a skyline shot that’s so different from today. Everything is so much shorter! Of course, many tall buildings on the skyline weren’t built until 40-50+ years later. It also was neat to see Soldier Field before it became the flying spaceship that we know it as today. Apparently, Soldier Field held this event annually! There is even a wonderful car chase through the Loop. You can see the El peeking out at various points. And there was a point when they go over tracks in the middle of the road. I forgot we had a trolley system! I think they were racing down Randolph Street.

One interesting aspect to the plot was the helpers of the hero. They were Slim and Shorty; Slim was really tall and lanky while Shorty was well…very short. The presenter said they were a bit like a precursor to Laurel and Hardy. They were the comedic bit but it was awkward. Slim was a bit of a bully and would pull and push Shorty out of the way. However, there is a great series of bits where the hero has charged them to take his stolen shirt off the man who stole it. Well, they start stealing shirts off of any man in button up white shirt. It’s kinda amazing.

Anyway, that’s all for now!