2023 Festival Archive: Manual Cinema

Manual Cinema: Frankenstein

January 27-29, 2023

Studebaker Theater

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: ArtsTour


Scholarship and Resources

Re-framing Frankenstein: Mary Shelley as Mother and Maker in Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein

An Essay by Skye Strauss

The thematic focus on bringing something to life, coupled with the inherent promise of shadow puppetry as a medium for a ghost story, makes Frankenstein excellent subject matter for Manual Cinema. Any new adaptation gives the audience a gift—rather than hanging on the plot, we are invited to attend to the differences between versions. Reenvisioning Frankenstein, the company engages in a complex doubling: The show is about both the images and the way they are made, Frankenstein’s story of and the biography of its creator. This piece of proto–science fiction about “making life” becomes a feminist meditation on what it means to be a mother and an artist, makers of different sorts. 

The meaning behind the company name becomes apparent in the dual spectacle of Manual Cinema’s performances. The audience sees two shows happening at the same time. Overhead, on a large projection screen, there are the composite images that tell the story. Every frame layers live actors in costume, detailed overheads, inky shadows, and three-dimensional puppets to form a single image. At stage level, a team of artists execute the complicated choreography that compiles each cinematic image. The team of five performers and four musicians, armed with their various accoutrement, easily filled the proscenium stage at the Studebaker Theater. On the right, a musician was ensconced behind a large xylophone topped with a cage of instruments and objects that generated both music and foley sound. On the left, a trio of musicians with classical instruments played the score. Mid-stage, a flurry of activity allowed puppets and live actors to coexist. A multi-use screen divided two upstage playing areas—capturing the shadows from overhead projectors on one side, while serving as a filming background for the actors constantly changing costume on the other side. A downstage platform provided a smaller-scale environment for a rod-puppet version of the creature. It is tempting, but probably impossible, to fully take in the magic and the magicians creating Frankenstein simultaneously, and it would be ample entertainment to watch either.

We are introduced to Mary Shelley in two different contexts that change how we receive the familiar story. One framing device presents us with the legendary contest between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley that prompted the creation of Frankenstein. While vacationing in Geneva, they agreed to write each other ghost stories. Manual Cinema makes sure that any implicit sense of competition between the authors becomes explicit in an exquisite bit of shadow play. In this section, we see detailed shadows thrown by live actors in costume rather than shadow puppets, and the way they act out the scene intensifies its gender politics. The challenge is initially set between Lord Byron (Sara Sawicki) and Percy Shelley (Leah Casey)—played with ample self-congratulatory wit and back-slapping bravado. The tone shifts when Mary Shelley (Sarah Fornace) inserts herself into the situation with a level gaze and a firm handshake, demanding to be included and taken seriously. The delicious reality is, of course, that it is Mary’s story that we all will read in high school, dissect in college, and constantly restage, while Lord Byron and Percy’s entries into this “friendly” competition are, as far as I know, lost to time.

The other section of the framing device shows us a pregnant Mary Shelley. Sarah Fornace playing Dr. Frankenstein within the central story becomes more than a gender-blind casting choice—Mary Shelley, like Dr. Frankenstein, is engaged in the dicey business of making life. The painful twist is that there is no guarantee that the “natural” method is less horrible. In a scene played out in two-dimensional shadows, as if holding trauma at an added distance¹, we see Mary’s ambivalence about the baby on its way juxtaposed with the struggle to give birth—a looming doctor, archaic medical tools, and her silent screams and beaded brow make her fear and pain present, even in shadow. Afterward, we see her pacing from crib to writing desk, passing Percy productively scribbling with his quill pen. When she finally reaches her own writing desk, there is nothing to do but fall asleep exhausted on its level surface. If Dr. Frankenstein’s primary sin is hubris, an enchantment with God-like power that manifests itself as monomania, how sad to see his creator as a divided soul—split between the life on and off the page, unable to be fully herself as an artist, while living up to social expectations of motherhood as her husband happily distances himself from fatherhood. 

Then there is silence, of a dreaded sort. The child dies in its crib, and Mary Shelley shrinks into herself. When she steps up to the ghost-story contest, we know that one “creation” is inadequately taking the place of another. The jump from sepia shadows to high-contrast, black-and-white film, with the actors in stark film-noir makeup, signals the transition into the plot of Frankenstein, interspersed with bursts of images that fly by like presentation slides or samples under a microscope. The story becomes an expressionist film. In her depressive state, Mary’s psyche is more real than the physical world. Throughout the performance, my awareness of how each scene was manufactured kept me thinking about how every artful collision of forms contributed to the production’s meaning. When I walked out of the theater, two moments that bookended the performance stood in meaningful contrast. At the beginning, a complex shadow of Mary Shelley holds a simple shadow of her baby—a changeling, not yet fully human nor meant to stay on this Earth. At the end, the complex shadow of Mary Shelley holds the creature puppet—three-dimensional and detailed. Its milky eyes are the eyes that hold her own. The monstrous child is the one who lives and is, in a different way, loved.

1 See “Candyman: The Impact of Black Horror” on the Manual Cinema Vimeo for a discussion about the utility of using shadows to stage traumatic events in order to tell the story while avoiding retraumatizing audience members: https://vimeo.com/591050273

World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts Entry

Play Video

View Sarah’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Sarah Fornace at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 21, 2023, Sarah Fornace was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Grand Narratives and Petits Récits.” 

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held at the Studebaker Theater as well as streamed through Howlround.

Transcript of Sarah's Presentation

Thank you so much for that intro, Paulette. Hi, everyone, my name is Sarah Fornace. I'm one of the five co-artistic directors of Manual Cinema, and we'll be presenting our production of "Frankenstein." This is a new version that hasn't been in Chicago before. We've been touring at all over North and South America, and it will land here in this theater next Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So I put together these slides to just give you a little introduction to who we are and what we do.

Manual Cinema, like I said, is a collaboration between five people. We founded the company together. And three of us are on what we call the Visual Team. So that is, we’re puppet builders, we’re illustrators, we’re directors, we’re choreographers, we come out of like theater and a visual arts backgrounds. And then the other two members are who we call the sound and music team. So they are classical musicians, composers, sound designers trained on, you know, stereo sound installations. So storytellers through, you know, the auditory senses. And in the collaboration between us, that is Manual Cinema. I thought I would start with just a brief, like a very short, like maybe two minute long trailer to give you a sense of what we do before taking it apart. But in essence what we do, if I were to summarize it, is we make movies live on stage in front of people. So we use the art of puppetry, primarily shadow puppetry and paper puppets, to create what looks like a live movie in front of your eyes. Often we try not to use words, even when telling grand narratives. And if that’s the visual side, the other half, which does an equal share of the storytelling is the sonic side. So there’s always live bands on stage in a Manual Cinema show and surround sounds, like you would see at a theater. So even though our puppets are primarily two-dimensional, the sound is immersive, you know, it’s one of the only mediums that travels through your cells, right, through the vibration of your body to happen. So that is very 3D to match the 2D visuals. So let’s watch a bit of a trailer so you can see what that is and then we’ll talk a little bit about it.

Okay, is that incorporated into the slides?

Oh yeah, so if you just click on that and it should take it.


It should go full screen.

It’s coming. Here we are, all right.

SARAH: Oh, are we hooked up the sound?

Yeah, we, we were. “Dismiss.” We have to watch commercial first. That’s why.

PAULETTE: Is that it?

That’s it.


So it’s just a brief trailer for one of our older shows that shows you the images in motion. So Manual Cinema, we’ve been around and telling stories for 12 and a half years. I guess we’re in our like middle school years now, and we’ve always been interested in how can we tell stories, and emotionally connected stories, stories about empathy, without using spoken dialogue, or without using very much language. We’ve started to use language more in recent years, but the goal at the beginning was not to use any spoken language at all. And can we use the language of western cinema, the language of “Mise-en-scène,” of far shots, mediums, closeups. The language of montage and camera movement in conjunction with musical storytelling to tell our stories, and that’s kind of what we set out to do. At the very beginning, we… Julia Miller, who was working with myself at Red Moon, had an idea for a story, and speaking of grand narratives, I think she had the idea after reading Joseph Campbell and about the Hero’s Journey, which is about as grand narrative as you can get, and she was like, “I’ve had this idea about this young woman “who lives in a satellite array and goes on a spirit quest “after hearing this music, this song, “that like captures her soul, “you know, only to find perhaps an emptiness “at the heart of what she’s seeking.” And she described what sounded like a short film. And I was like, “Wow, that sounds incredible. “It sounds like an incredible film.” And then she would’ve said, “I found this overhead projector in my landlord’s garage, “I don’t even think he knows he has it. “What if we take it, or borrow it, “and make a show?” And I was like, “Well, actually, very conveniently “my boyfriend is an illustrator and a dramaturge and writer. “Like, he should come on board.” And she was like, “Great, I was just at this house party “and I heard this incredible band, “and I feel like they are the sound of the spirit quest.” And I was like, “Perfect.” And then that was how Manual Cinema was born. So we made this short 20 minute show called “The Ballad of Lula del Ray” that was about that, that kernel that Julia came up with. And it was one, we used one overhead projector and we had a screen, her boyfriend at the time was a violin maker and made us this like amazing and heavy screen out of violin, out of the wood, and the guys had their guitars and a box to cue sounds. And we essentially performed this 20 minute shadow puppet piece anywhere people would let us in. So we did a lot of bars, because we were touring with people who knew how to tour like a band. And bars usually have electricity to plug your overhead projector in. So we did bars, we did empty storefronts, we did windows of park districts, we did a lot of house parties. And people started asking us, “What are you going to do next?” And we thought, oh that’s, what a great question. We hadn’t thought of that. So we started working on our next show, which the final version of is what you saw in that trailer, “Ada/Ava.” And in this show we kind of of started something that Manual Cinema does a lot now, which is looking at specific filmmakers together. When we get an idea for a story, we’ll just go and watch a lot of movies, and like watch movies that feel like they’re related to either a sense of place or an emotion or a character. So “Ada/Ava” was Drew’s kernel, who’s another artistic director. He was working on “The Comedy of Errors” at Court Theater, and he thought to himself, “You know, this is a comical farce, “but if you actually change the time signature, “there’s like true horror at the heart “of being mistaken for someone else and not knowing it, “not realizing what’s happening and having other people “accuse you of things you haven’t done.” Like the horror kind of at the heart of this twin-based comedy. At the same time he was watching, his grandmother had just died, and his grandmother and grandfather, you know, had been married since they were teens, and he was watching his grandfather move through a life that they built as a two person partnership alone for the first time. And you kind of put those ideas together and came up with this psychological horror puppet show about a twin losing her sister in her 80s, and then undergoing kind of like a “Vertigo-style” psychic break. So we premiered this show in our front window on Halloween. We used to live at an apartment that was right off of Damon Avenue, where all the bars are. So we were like, this is great, everyone’s gonna be coming to party, maybe we can make them watch our puppet show. So we like sunk some speakers in the bushes out front and we started the show with this like giant clap of like lightning and thunder, which actually now we start a lot of our shows like that, ’cause we find us like very effective to get people to like look at the screen. So it made people stop and like wander over on their way to the bar and watch. Again, we started this out as like a 15, 20 minute piece. We then performed it in a funeral hall, a former funeral parlor in Logan Square. And this is a pretty good example of what our shows looked like at the beginning, kind of like a traditional shadow puppet show. So we had overhead projectors that are kind of hidden behind the screen. The band is also hidden behind the screen with us. And when people watched the shows, they were like, “Okay, that was interesting, but why was that movie so slow? “And like, why were there those times somewhere “there was just blackouts “and what is that flashing lights we see?” So, and we thought we were very clever and we were like, “Aha, we shall do something that we’ve seen “Blair and Red Moon do, which is puppet time, “after we do the show for everyone, “then we’ll invite them backstage and show them our secrets. “We’ll hand them the puppets and say “this was all done live.” And so we did that for like a year or so, but I truly don’t think that if that was still how we tell our stories, that Manual Cinema would be around anymore. But we kind of came to this really fortuitous accident of, we were booked to play like a really big space, Theater on the Lake, before it was renovated, and it was a thrust stage and we couldn’t perform behind the screen. If we did that, half the audience would miss the show. So we were like, “Okay, we have to solve this problem. “Why don’t we put our,” and our screen is, our screens for our shows can’t get too big, they’re about six feet by nine feet so that their relationship to the human body is a medium shot. So like my relationship to the screen, I’m in kind of knees up medium shot. So we thought let’s put a camera on the screen so we can project it really big above and then people will be able to see it. So if you go to the next slide. And then once we did that we were like, “Oh actually, this is what we’re doing.” So we projected our image really large above, like a movie theater, not inventing anything new.

And then, below, we actually turned around our screen, ’cause we came into this happy accident of realizing this is what we’ve been trying to do all along, which was to make a movie that people can watch but to create like a live human experience. So at any moment you can look down from the big screen and see six people and 500 pieces of paper and three people with like nine instruments like sweating and dropping things and sprinting around and this is kind of mess, in real time and the one hour we have in the theater together to like make this story unfold in front of your eyes. And so I think happening onto this is kind of why Manual Cinema’s still around and it got us really excited on like, okay, this is what we do, is human, in the room with other people theater, that live movie… in the theater. So, we started exploding out from there. We made shows like “Momentos Mori” that, once we had one camera, we were like why not add two? And so that allowed us to quick cut but because the technology wasn’t tied to something at the heart of the storytelling, it didn’t feel, like it totally gelled for us. And then we worked on a show called “The End of TV,” and for that one we asked, okay, what are some other ways we can stage cinema, in this case, TV, live? And we realized that TV wants like a fleetness and a disposableness. So we set up a live green screen. So we use paper puppets and a live green screen to essentially create this TV world. And it’s tied into the story ’cause one of the main characters has dementia and the interiority of her dementia is pieced together of TV commercials, she’s addicted to QVC. So her interiority is actually all created in this increasingly surrealistic TV world. And then, last but not least, we kind of exploded the most, what we think Manual Cinema means, in our newest, one of our newest shows, “Frankenstein,” the one that will be here today. So in this show, just like in our very first shows, we have a bed of overhead projectors. They’re focused on a screen, but now we use the space in front of the shadow screen and just put a light on the actors to create another playing space. We found “Frankenstein” was a really good narrative for us to approach because the book is a series of frames. So, in the book it starts with a sea captain who’s been out, stuck in the ice for far too long. He’s going a little crazy and encounters a man stumbling across the ice. And as soon as he encounters this man, he starts saying like, “Finally a gentleman, “finally someone for me to talk to. “I’ve been stranded for so long.” So you get the sense that maybe you shouldn’t trust the sea captain’s account of this man. And that man turns out to be Victor Frankenstein. So then you get Victor Frankenstein’s story in his own words, his account of what he’s done, and then at the very heart of the story you get the creature in their own words, speaking about their experience. And so that kind of, that inspired us to say, okay, how do we approach each layer of this story through a different visual idiom? How do we make a different Manual Cinema for each layer? So we started our, ours doesn’t start with a sea captain, but instead with Mary Shelley, which is the next slide. So the framing story is actually based on Mary Shelley’s own words, her introduction. She published the novel in 1818 anonymously, and then in 1832 she needed money. She republished it and she republished it under her own name with a forward, and in her forward she said, “Byron didn’t write this, “my husband, Percy, didn’t write this, “Godwin, my father, didn’t write this, “this is my hideous progeny. “I’m responsible for this. “Furthermore, it was inspired by a nightmare I had “after I lost my first baby.” And she lost multiple children in multiple pregnancies. And she said, “I had a dream that I brought my baby “back to life by rubbing its limbs “and using the electricity of life to bring it back. “And that’s what inspired this story for me.” And for Manual Cinema, that’s what inspired our entry point into it. So we start in shadow, which feels like the most emotionally true medium to us, to tell the story of Mary Shelly’s loss of her first daughter. Then, from Mary Shelley’s story, we go into Victor Frankenstein, which is the next slide, and for that we use silent movies because there’s like an artifice to silent cinema. There’s like a chewing of the furniture and over-the-topness that we felt got at some of that untrustworthiness of Victor. Some of the stuff that Mary Shelley was doing in the book to make you question his narrative, we tried to do that through the way that we do those shots. So, again, everything is still made of paper, everything is still live, but it feels like silent film. And you can see in the next shot a little bit of how we do that, which is just with like bits of puppets moving around in front of the screen. And then the last, and kind of most important part, the heart of the show, is the story of Victor Frankenstein’s creature and their story in the show show, if you can see the next one, starts with a small tabletop puppet. And we really wanted to get at a sense of intimacy and also a sense of what the trauma is of being born into the world and that being born into the world and then immediately having people react with violence against you, immediately have having people look at you and reject you and not have anyone there to nurture you, not have anyone there to explain what’s going on after you’ve been kind of thrust and forced into life. So we made the puppet about the size of Mary Shelley’s lost baby because the creature, in that moment, is a baby, is new into the world, and we use a lot of POV shots and really intimate camera angles. And for that to work, Myra and I use a moving camera for the first time before we thought Manual Cinema meant the camera always had to stay still and the puppets moved, but instead we like picked up the camera ’cause we realized we needed to get in close to the creature and the camera needed to follow the creature’s movement and not vice versa. So I think I’m at 15, well, I’ll really quickly, so that that is what we do live and that’s how we started and what we love. And then another big part of what we do, especially today, is now we make cinema, cinema. Now we make puppetry for film. And just kind of like Jim Henson said, it’s a totally different, it’s a totally different medium. Like, we go by the Jim Henson principle, which is that you can make the puppets infinitely complex. They only need to be right once, ’cause then you have it in the can. So the way we build puppets, the way we think about storytelling and storyboarding is entirely different. So our, one of our first videos that we made, and we’ve done a lot of work in documentary, was “The Forger,” actually based on a gentleman who just died, but about his work in World War II forging documents, especially for children, to escape Nazi occupied France. We had the extreme privilege to work with Nia DaCosta on “Candyman,” and for that, specifically at her request, we put in a lot of wires. Not this one, just the one before it, one before it. Yeah, that one. We use a lot of wires and we use a lot of visible hands because Nia was very interested in foregrounding that these aren’t animation but these are puppets and that there is, they’re outside forces controlling and pulling on them, as you see the characters, various historical characters and characters in the mythology of the movie undergoing intense circumstances. We also started working that in shadow, which was fun. All of a sudden we’re like, faces, what? Like who knew? Like, I mean everyone, everyone knew that faces were expressive but we figured it out a couple of years ago. And so we started drawing puppets and making sets for them and it’s, it kind of gave us a new like avenue to follow, and again, we are trying to use the language of cinema and when, so the Poetry Foundation approached us for, about World War I poems. So we made essentially a World War I puppet movie with these puppets about that big. If you can click to the next one, you can see him in shot. So that’s him in like one of the stills. And this and “The Forger” are all free online. If you go to our website, you can see any of these films. We made, we also got to work with Jamila and Ayanna Woods and Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall on a short inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” and that’s the next one. And that we started playing with like layered paper for that. So this is, this is a flashback shot in black and white, so we just made the puppets black and white, but all of those buildings behind are individual and gives you this kind of sense of place. Once we got into collage, it kind of opened up a whole world. We also adapted some Whitman poems, and Walt Whitman was one of the most photographed mans of his day, he was really like an icon, and there’s an incredible, there’s incredible archives of that. So we made hundreds of puppets all based on Walt Whitman’s photographs. We like printed them out, we cut them out, we jointed them. So there are all these like moving, new movable Walt Whitman’s. So, yeah, and it has been kind of joyous to get to work with historical characters, ’cause there is this, and people, ’cause there there’s all this material around the way they looked and the way they moved. The next is Gwendolyn Brooks, which we did in a kind of a more brightly colored cartoon aesthetic with Eve and Nate. And then the next is just to give a sense of how the this puppetry works. So how the film puppetry works is that kind of for each second, kind of like LAIKA does with stop motion, where they’ll make like dozens of faces, we’ll just make dozens and dozens of puppets for each face and each gesture and like rapidly cut and switch them out. So this is just a pile of puppets. So that’s pretty much our process. And that’s my like behind the scenes and who Manual Cinema is and what we think about. Thank you so much.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 27-29, 2023
Studebaker Theater
410 S. Michigan Ave.

Love, loss, and creation merge in unexpected ways when Manual Cinema presents its thrilling version of the classic Gothic tale, “Frankenstein.” This Chicago-based performance collective imaginatively combines shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, sound effects, and live music in haunting shows like nothing else you’ve ever seen. With Frankenstein, Manual Cinema stitches together the original gothic novel with the biography of its author, Mary Shelley, creating an unexpected story magically created right before your eyes.

With special support from: ArtsTour, Illinois Arts Council Agency.

Past Performances and Further Reading

Past Reviews/Articles