Working in the Theatre: Manual Cinema

[music] Ada Ava was one of the very first shows we started to make and we began with the question of what kind of a story would work best in this medium of shadow puppetry. We landed on the idea of identical twin sisters who live in a lighthouse and run
the lighthouse. We thought that if you see identical twins in silhouette
there’s already sort of a story being told. One of the sisters passes away and
for the rest of the story we watch Ada cope with her loss and readjust her daily routine
around the absence of her sister. I had recently lost my grandmother and
witnessing my grandfather just his daily routine around her absence provided the
emotional fuel Ada Ava. One night carnival comes to town and
sets up shop right outside the lighthouse. Ada is drawn into the carnival
and finds herself in a mirror maze where she discovers who she thinks is her lost twin sister. By the end of the story she’s discovered that she’s gotten more than she bargained for. [footsteps] What we do is cinematic shadow puppetry. We have live music, live Foley and all the imagery is created live as well. And we started out a lot smaller where
we didn’t reveal the process of how we were creating the imagery. Then as we started
developing the medium, we started to flip the shows around to kind of reveal the
chaos how the images are created and share that with the final image of the
show. Ada Ava’s pretty influenced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo and also we got excited about the styles the German expressionist films like the
Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis. We added some more, this kinda horror elements. [music] During a Manual Cinema show all of us are
manning these old-school overhead projectors combining a mix paper shadow
puppets with live actors performing in silhouette. Some of us came from theater, from music, and
visual art and we never expected to do more than one little show with one
single overhead projector. We just liked working together so much and we liked
working with the medium of shadow puppetry and music so much. Before we
knew it we sort of had this company. Manual Cinema is a pretty collaborative group. We have 5 artistic directors and we all have a lot of different skill sets that we bring. We came together kind of a visual team and a sound team. Julia Miller
discovered an overhead projector in her garage and decided she wanted to play
with this this medium of Shadow Puppets. We started performing in Chicago and a kind of blossoms from there. Our process begins with the outline of the story that we work pretty collaboratively on. The outline is story boarded like an animated film so we’ll do kind of a rough and
dirty puppetry sequence where we’ll just film everything and edit it together and then
we try to figure out how to do that in real time. A lot of rehearsal process is
just us trying to like do it fast enough. We’re really inspired by the constraints
that our medium provides us. Stories are told nonverbally and that constraint has led to a lot of creativity and new ideas. We started to see the possibilities of
using this medium with cinematic language. Things like scene changes and cuts and
fades to tell stories. Our first show the audience really loved it and we decided
to kind of continue. We began just doing pans and zooms and when we figured out how to do rack focus that was really exciting because the mediums pretty two-dimensional so
we’re always trying to figure through the puppetry how to add more depth.
That’s where a lot of the exciting innovations that we come up with happen. Trying to figure out how to
articulate that type of camera technique onto the projector. Some of the tricks in the show really
impressive are actually the simplest. We had tried really hard to figure out
how to make mirror puppets. Creating all these super articulate tiny mirror
puppets that had to be operated exactly at the same time and they just weren’t
working and then we realized that if you have two lights in different places
shining at the same place you automatically double your shadow because they’re not
coming from the same spot. So that was kind of an “aha” moment of oh, we can have
two projectors up at the same time but we just interchanged where they were
showing light. Wish I had a puppet show you. Resetting is really important because
this is what the show looks like at the end so resetting you kind of go
backwards and place them all in chronological order because we move so
fast if you don’t have a puppet where it should be, it can be no good. So this is one part of a two-part mirror maze, so this will go on one projector and then another slide that has black
where the light is and cutouts where the black is goes in front of it. So the
ideas that it’s a whole basically hallway of rectangles. [music] And then when you cross, it kind of transforms your silhouette. [music] With our work we really ask the audience to engage with the imagery and how it’s being made, because we’re revealing the mechanism. Originally when we were behind the screen, I feel like there was a more casual energy because we weren’t performing the show in front of the
audience. They couldn’t see us. Then when we flipped it around I felt
strangely exposed. We could feel the audience a lot more and we weren’t hidden behind the screen so we are a lot more present in the room with them
which was really nice to kind of interact with them in that way. So we
give audiences different kind of agency where they’re allowed to focus on either
the mechanism of the show and how it’s being created or the final product and
just watch you know the movie version of the show and I think that engagement is
sometimes missing from live theater and film. Bringing them together asks the audience to be present and
participate. [music] I studied theater in college and it was
a pretty physical approach. Like doing masks work and clown and I moved to
Chicago to work on shows but I kind of stumbled onto a couple puppet companies.
It was just really explain to me to see you these inanimate objects you know come
alive. So I started to work on a couple puppet projects and then suddenly it was
just the only thing I was doing. Making puppets come alive is a combination I
feel like trying to figure out the breadth of the puppet and what
technically the motion is. It’s a medium that’s based in action and gesture so
ideally a puppet it’s pretty easy to use if it’s designed well. It makes a proposal
to you as what action it wants to do because that’s what it’s designed to do
and then you have to just kind of fill the action. There are about 300 shadow puppets
and slides that go into the making of Ada Ava. With the puppets you have a very
limited palette of what you can express but sort of taken together you can build
a very complex emotional scene. There’s a puppet who can lift her head up and
down or puppet who can reach her hand out and taken individually these puppets
are very limited but strung together cinematically in a kind of montage, they can
add up to quite a bit of storytelling. It’s a good example of the minute work that
we have to do in this medium. This is probably one of the smallest puppets
that we use over the course of the show. It’s about less than an inch tall and in this
scene the only action I have to do is walk the character Ada up the slope of the
hill to her front door. She’s just gotten rid of her sisters personal belongings
and all she has to do is turn around and look back in doubt about what she’s done
and then make the final decision that yes she does actually want to throw away
her sister’s possessions and continue walking. Then the scene is over. A
very short scene with a very simple rudimentary puppet. All the puppet can do
is walk forward and backward and turn around but with those simple gesture is
you have to sort of convey a lot of emotional information. When we started integrating live actors that was
really exciting because humans can move so much quicker and do so many more
things than the puppets. Puppets can only do one or two things max but when you
have a live actor they can accomplish a lot more. So suddenly we had far shots
and close-ups with the puppets but then medium shots we could use live actors. [music] Our storytelling is all visual and
gesture. That is a great opportunity to create music that reflects the
interstate of our characters. The music becomes a narrator. For the most part contemporary film music is very much in the background. It’s very subtle. It’s kind of felt more than it’s heard. Our
shows are, you know the music is a much more active participant in storytelling. We’re trying to create soundscape and score. Our sound design is in four
channels. Sounds really occupy all four speakers and we really emphasized and
exaggerate our sound designed to make it more three-dimensional. [music] What we’re creating among the puppeteers
and musicians and all the technology and puppets we’re using is a dance. [music] We have to sort of feel each other all
working together on telling the same story. [music] It takes a lot of concentration and a
lot of rehearsal. Getting everyone kind of breathing together, breathing as one. [music] When we are doing a good performance you can feel that everyone is sort of on the same page and moving as a single organism and when we get that feeling
it’s the most rewarding satisfying part doing this work. We all have different skill sets that we bring.
I feel like when I see the work, all the details are there. Like there’s so
much thought put into every level from the sound design to the puppet design to
the puppetry and the acting. That I just feel like it allows us to have a
more full-bodied piece of work because there are so many brains. One advantage of our work is that it’s non-verbal. There’s no language barrier. We were invited to take Ada Ava to the Tehran International Theater Puppet Festival. Iran has a tradition of shadow puppetry and theater and music that goes back
thousands of years and it’s such a beautiful tradition. It was really
amazing to to take our work there and and have it resonate with people. Initially when we came to New York we’re
supposed to be doing a three-week run of the show and then we got this really
wonderful New York Times review. So we thought if we’re already here, the
show’s here, you know. Let’s do it again and again and again. We ended up extending one week
and then extending two more so we actually doubled the length of doing the show. So yesterday with our 50th show of Ada Ava in New York. People like to describe the medium as low-fi high-fi.You know our tools are really simple. It’s paper, plastic. We’re not
especially nostalgic for old technology or old films exclusively but we’re also
using these overhead projectors which are you know twenty years or thirty years
old and aren’t really a big part of people’s lives anymore. But for us it’s really about finding the things that excite us and finding the things that serve the storytelling. [music]


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