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!

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