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Shadow Puppetry Like You’ve Never Seen It: Manual Cinema

Megan E. Doherty

Many historians date the art of shadow puppetry to the Han Dynasty in ancient China, all thanks to a mourning emperor who needed a pick-me-up (so the story goes).  So devastated by the loss of his beloved concubine, emperor Wu began to neglect his duties – until, that is, someone got the bright idea to cut an outline of the mistress from dried donkey-hide, and create a shadow performance theater behind an illuminated silk screen, bringing the concubine “back to life.”

And so began an ancient art form that would develop independently around the world, from India, to Bali, to Turkey and Japan (among others).

Today, you can witness a contemporary update of this tradition thanks to Manual Cinema – formed about a year ago by Sarah Fornace, Julia Miller and Drew Dir.  Fornace and Miller both worked with Redmoon Theater, Chicago’s 11 year old performance theater (think pageantry, acrobatics and visual spectacle), where they did some shadow puppet performances using overhead projectors.

They got the idea to start doing their own pieces, the first of which was called The Ballad of Lula del Ray.  A smaller, shorter production – using only one overhead projector – designed for Rough House Theater’s experimental puppetry festival last year, Lula was intended to be a one-off.  As it turns out, the production was so well received that they decided to keep going.

The result was ADA/AVA, a two-projector stunner performed the last weekend of July at the Charnel House in Logan Square.  A former funeral home—turned—multi-arts center, the 50 minute, cinematic production invoking New England gothic couldn’t have been experienced at a more appropriate venue.

The puppetry was acted live in front of a packed audience, along with music written by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, depicting the surreal horror of death, loss, and the lengths you might go to get closer to those who have gone before you.

Twin sisters Ada and Ava live an isolated life as stewards of a lighthouse, playing chess to pass the hours.  When Ada returns to their game after taking care of some regular maintenance, she finds her beloved Ava dead.

The emptiness that stretches before us when faced with such tragic loss came out beautifully in the wordless, silhouette images of Ada trying to navigate a solitary existence in a life formerly built for two.  The musical score, alternatively invoking both quiet pain and outright terror, reached its climax when Ada enters the twisted world of a fun house of mirrors, finding that she can be reunited with her “sister” after all – but not without cost.
Manual Cinema, which cited films Vertigo and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as direct influences on their creation of this piece, may be the only exclusive shadow puppet company in Chicago.  Fornace pointed to Larry Reed in San Francisco, who has been doing Balinese-style shadow puppetry since 1972, as one of the few other companies in the country that keeps this ancient art form alive.

With ADA/AVA gone but not forgotten, Manual Cinema look forward to their next project, an adaptation of the work of poet Zachary Schomburg.  They’re slated to premiere the show –as yet untitled— at a poetry convention in Chicago in February, followed by a 15 city tour in March.

Not bad for paper, acetate, and old-school overheads.

A Chicago-based independent writer, Megan E. Doherty wrote a dissertation on some crazy stuff, and is happy to have re-joined society – complete with a bunny, a banjo, and a lotta books.  You can catch a few laughs at her off-beat humor blog, www.irreverentguidetolife.com, and you can stay abreast of whatever it is she’s working on, on that tumblr thing:  meganedoherty.tumblr.com.

ADA/ AVA Trailer from Manual Cinema on Vimeo.