Out of the Shadows: A Look into Manual Cinema’s Puppets, Poetry, and Performance

Arlene Banuelos / The Triton

Chicago-based performance group Manuel Cinema shared their latest work, No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, in Mandeville Auditorium last Friday, February 22. The show, put on by ArtPower, centered around telling the story of African-American poet extraordinaire Gwendolyn Brooks and her journey to success.

Manual Cinema combines a live band, cast of actors, overhead projectors, and hundreds of paper cutouts to create quirky multimedia puppet shows with a magical, ephemeral vibe.

During the hour-and-a-half long performance, the show felt slow at times. However, the emotive music, ethereal visuals, and inclusion of the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American individual to win the Pulitzer Prize, often struck a chord with me and others in attendance. The show was further complemented by the lyricism and harmonies of vocalist/sound effects artist Kamaria Woods and vocalist/puppeteer Charlee Cotton.

From the popularity of Polaroid cameras to the surge of flea-market obsessed vinyl geeks, the analog world is thriving and as on trend as ever. As much as most of us appreciate the marvels of cutting-edge concert visuals and immersive VR systems, with the pervasiveness of high-tech media, the digital world can feel numb and over-saturated. There is often a sort of humanness and richness of experience that only analog mediums provide.

Manual Cinema’s shadow puppetry exemplifies this appeal of analog.

Prior to the event, I had walked around their small performance space on stage and was surprised by how it all looked like the set-up for an elementary school puppet show. The materials were all surprisingly cheap and unsubstantial: the brightly-colored construction paper was piled up in messy stacks, the costumes looked thrown together, and the highest-tech equipment on stage was four chunky projectors. My behind-the-scenes experience of Manual Cinema reinforced what one would expect from a concert of puppets.

However, as soon as the performance began and the cut paper hit the illuminated slides of the projectors, all feelings of doubt melted away.

I was blown away by the blurry, vintage quality of the visuals. Everything looked like it had been shot on film and was incredibly cinematic. This fantastical look, which characterizes all of Manual Cinema’s shows, is a consequence of using old overhead projectors, the kind that many ‘90s kids immediately associate with their childhood. Throughout the show, the auditorium was filled with feelings of nostalgia; for me, Manual Cinema’s performance brought back memories of magical summer nights in middle school making hand shadow puppets in my best friend’s backyard.

And although the images projected overhead were beautiful, that wasn’t what was most impressive about the performance. I was more captivated by the extent to which fairly unassuming materials transformed and seemed to become animate before my eyes.

Mystical stars sparkled, delicate clouds settled over a sherbet-colored Chicago sky, and an intricate miniature typewriter clanked away. I almost forgot it was all just construction paper, light, and shadow.

The day prior, I had attended a workshop led by Manual Cinema Co-Director Sarah Fornance. There, I was able to get some insight into how she and others in the Manual Cinema crew are able to do this for a living. While working at a traditional theatrical company, they were messing around with the projector equipment and realized they wanted to create a show consisting entirely of shadow puppets. But even after they conceptualized their first show, every member of Manual Cinema had multiple jobs—on top of working on the project—for several years. Bringing Manual Cinema’s productions to live audiences wasn’t an easy task but, despite this, Sarah and the rest of the team stayed committed to making it happen.

Having won an Emmy and collaborated with the New York Times on a short film, Manual Cinema has reached a commendable level of success. They are currently touring cross country, producing a full-length animated short film, and teaching workshops at Stanford University, Yale University, and UCSD.

The group’s dazzling performances are a marvel of design. With their incredible ability to come up with innovative ways to tell a story, their unique work deserves to be out of the shadows and in the spotlight.

Kristina Stahl is a Staff Writer for the Arts & Culture section of The Triton.