How Manual Cinema Creates Live Shadow Puppet Shows
Manual Cinema returns to Stanford Live with a multimedia production celebrating the life and poetry of Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The first black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize, Brooks published more than 20 volumes of poetry and was an active member and educator in her Chicago community.
The performance from Manual Cinema combines theater, live music, shadow puppetry, cinema, biography, and poetry, bringing together a range of artists, many of whom are Chicago treasures like Brooks herself. Go behind the scenes to learn about the artistic collaboration that makes all the moving parts of the live cinema experience possible.
No Blue Memories is the first show Manual Cinema has worked with outside writers. The Poetry Foundation reached out to Manual Cinema to create a piece that combines biography and poetry for Gwendolyn Brooks’ centennial celebration of her life and poetry.
The Manual Cinema team then partnered with Chicago native poets Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall, asking them to write a script for a movie about Brooks. Their script opens up the poetry of Brooks while contextualizing her poems with events happening both in her personal life and society.
After finalizing the script, the Manual Cinema team started storyboarding to assemble over 600 handmade paper cut-outs and puppets. Performers, who are visible to the audience beneath a large 6 by 9 foot screen, then use four overhead projectors to manipulate the cut-outs and puppets as though they’re making a film with cuts and edits. In addition to puppets, visuals feature the poetry of Brooks and her friend and poet Haki R. Mad-hubuti as well as original work by Ewing and Marshall.
"We're invested in giving the audience choice so that they can watch the big screen like a movie, or look down at any moment and watch the band jamming, or watch the human freneticism of the actors in real time making all of the images and emotional moments."
Manual Cinema Artistic Director
As the puppets were being drawn, Manual Cinema sent the script and concept drawings to composers Ayanna and Jamila Woods, who are sisters and Chicago natives, to score the piece. Their score embraces poetry elements in Brooks’ work and borrows improvisational techniques from jazz. On stage, Ayanna is the band-leader, directing the band live in rhythm and in relationship to the puppetry and visuals from the performers.
Performers also change in and out of dozens of costumes and wigs to work in shadow to play the characters and animate the movie live. Like the performers at the projectors, live actors and the back stage are all visible, giving the audience the joy of theater and live art while the cinema experience on the screen is moving in time and space through Brooks’ life.
Quadraphonic sound design creates an immersive experience—like in a movie theater, there are speakers surrounding the audience. While most of Manual Cinema’s productions function like silent films, No Blue Memories is the first one to include dialogue spoken between characters. The audience will also hear city sounds—doors opening, door bells ringing. Other effects are expressionist, like the moments when Brooks’ students start writing and a sort of poetry magic appears and magic sounds sweep over the audience. It’s these sound effects that bring the puppets alive and create the reality of the world.
Manual Cinema, No Blue Memories - The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks
Fri & Sat, Jan 17 & 18
Bing Concert Hall