Manual Cinema’s Julia Miller Discusses The Company’s Strange, Meticulous Theatre of Creating Films in Real Time

For much of the 20th century, theater watched its popularity as the leading form of visual narrative entertainment plummet with the swelling competition of cinema; theater’s own limitations were thereby questioned, with projections becoming more and more frequently integrated into live productions. Now, in 2017, even going to the movies has become more of a niche experience compared to couch-bound streaming binges; in some ways, the odd, incidental playing field that existed between film and theater has been leveled, the tiring acrimony and/or desperation theater artists may have once felt allayed. If a play wants to reference or incorporate film now, it’s not necessarily a vie for relevance or contemporaneity, but an honest admission that the two can do some lovely things together.

Enter Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based company that has become known for multilayered productions — where the performance component is the choreographically mind-blowing act of animating a film in real-time, and the narrative is the “film” itself. With a live band, a sound/light person who’s also one of the band’s singers, a group of puppeteers who meticulously run slides of softly scintillating backgrounds across a small army of overhead projectors, and a couple of performers — sporting appended, exaggerated silhouettes — who make shadow puppets of their own bodies, Manual Cinema makes theatre that’s as much about the collaborative mechanics of creating an image, and an emotion, as it is about any of its own show’s plots.

Right now, Manual Cinema is performing its production, Lula Del Ray (no relation to Lana, though both the play and Lana harken back to the same era, and to the music of Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison), at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. (The festival is an annual event that culls small, innovative performances from around the globe for a couple of weeks of affordable, vastly varied theatrical experiences.)

Lula Del Ray has, in some capacity, existed since 2010, but has evolved over the years into the feature-length production that’s on view at the Public. Coupling the excitement of early space exploration with that of adolescent female desire, it follows a girl who lives in isolation with her mother by a desert satellite array some time in the late ’50s/early ’60s, and who is drawn away from that life by the call of the boy band she idolizes. Flavorwire spoke with Manual Cinema’s co-artistic director Julia Miller — who conceived and co-directed the piece — about the process of creating an immersive world of sounds and images.

Flavorwire: You’re kind of turning the act of making film into theater. Instead of demystifying film, I think it remystifies it in a lovely way. Where did this interest come from? How did such a big group of artistic directors settle on it as an overarching theme for the company?

Julia Miller: We didn’t start out with that concept. The Artistic Directors got together working on a very simple shadow puppet show I was making called The Ballad of Lula del Ray in 2010. We had one overhead projector, two puppeteers, and one musician cuing the music and sound design. We were experimenting with cinematic vocabulary a bit with pans, close-up and far shots, shifting POVs, but it was all pretty simple. A major shift in the company came when we flipped our set-up around to reveal the technique. Early on we performed totally hidden from the audience, behind the screen. We flipped the whole setup around and started using a live feed of the small screen projected onto a larger screen above us. We were not only working at the scale of cinema but we were also showing the process, how we created each image, giving the audience this whole new agency to not only watch what we were doing but to see how we were doing it. We realized it was really important for us to not take that for granted — the way we were making the imagery was a part of the spectacle.

After the show, you invite the audience up to look at your equipment/designs. In an era where people rely on machines whose makeup they know nothing about, does this gesture seem particularly relevant? 

We have always been interested in our relationship to screens. We stare at them all day and don’t often think of where the content is coming from or who made it. We like showing the mechanism of our shows and giving the audience agency to either follow along watching the ‘final image’ or check in with the puppeteers or musicians to see how they are crafting the show in real time. To us it’s a much more engaging experience. The audience has to be a less passive viewer.

I’d love a rundown of how this panoply of moving parts becomes one whole. 

We start with a rough outline of the story that is then adapted into a storyboard. The storyboard is used as a blueprint to tell us what puppets we need to build and what backgrounds to design. We then film a demo of the storyboard, sometimes pretty rough, to get a sense of how the story is working in the medium. That demo is also delivered to [the sound team] so they can start working on the music and sound design. In each part of the process, the show changes and the story is tweaked and becomes clearer.

'Lula Del Ray;' Img. credit: Jerry Shulman
‘Lula Del Ray;’ Img. credit: Jerry Shulman

How do you develop characters, and express them emotionally without actual expression? I noticed, for example, how important the appended facial profiles were for the two main characters. Is working with the actors who use their bodies as shadow puppets a totally separate process from working with the actual shadow puppets?

Acting in live action is a lot like puppeting yourself. The puppets are usually designed to do one or two specific actions, like look up, or blink an eyelash — that’s it. You have to do that with yourself when acting in silhouette in that it is important to separate your actions and do one thing at a time. If you try and do too much at once it gets muddled and the meaning is lost. Breath is also really important. It’s a subtle thing but reads really clearly in the medium. For example, Lula sighs a lot because she is young and gets frustrated at her mom all the time. When [co-artistic director] Sarah Fornace was developing the character of Lula she sighed in the scenes with her mother, and we picked up on it and then the puppets were sighing, too. That became a strong trait of the character. Breath helps put the storytelling into the body of the performer. When you’re wearing a mask you no longer have your face to express feeling or emotion, so you have to put it in your body. We use gesture in a way that is not like pantomime — it’s more about an emotion and intention distilled into single gestures, like the tilt of a head, or the position of your shoulders, that indicate what you are trying to express without using words.

How long does it take to get the language of “manual filmmaking” like this into your brain? From my experience with overhead projectors, I know that even remembering what’ll make things bigger versus smaller, go upside down or right-side up, was such an oddly acquired skill. Is there a particular training workshop new performers go through?

Overhead projector puppetry definitely uses certain brain muscles you have to develop. For example, everything you are looking at on the screen as you puppet is upside down and backwards. When we hold auditions they are really workshops where we are teaching you the medium to see how you pick it up and to see if you like it. It can be pretty unforgiving, as a performer. One tiny bump of a puppet on the overhead is blown up really big and feels very obvious on the screen. You have to get really good about letting go of mistakes and moving on. Otherwise you will never get through the show; it moves so fast you have to stay really focused the whole time and there is no time to stop and think about what you just did. It’s a team sport. Everyone is working together to create each scene and transition from one image to the next. When the show is really going it feels like a well-oiled machine as each person has a specific job and task to accomplish in relationship to someone else.

'Lula Del Ray'; Img. credit: Jerry Shulman
‘Lula Del Ray’; Img. credit: Jerry Shulman

I love the decision to make the music almost lyric-less, itself rendered as a faded memory, with voices never quite forming real phrases. At what point did your musical vision match up with that of the piece? How did you collectively come to a decision about whether the music would be more insinuating than lyrical?

The music holds a lot of the emotional weigh of the storytelling in Lula Del Ray. The cello is often externalizing what is happening with a character internally and portrays a lot of Lula’s unspoken feelings. It also helps the audience know the emotional tone of the scenes. Since we don’t use dialogue in the show we wanted to be very specific about what words the audience does hear.

The story you chose is very simple, and you allow the complexity to come from visuals and music. Have you ever toyed with more convoluted narratives, or do you think the only way to make this type of storytelling work is narrative simplicity?

Lula Del Ray is one of the first features we ever made. Its tone is much more meditative than some of our other shows. One of our newest feature length works, Mementos Mori, tells an interwoven narrative featuring four protagonists whose stories all intersect. That show features seven overhead projectors and two small screens we live feed to the large cinema size “main screen.” So that show is pretty complicated. Each show we make is a different genre of cinema and has different pacing requirements. That being said, as a medium, shadow puppetry is really good at being floaty and dreamy. And slow. It took us several years to finally feel like we had control of the pacing and could make it do what we wanted. Most of the time. There are still a lot of limitations. The medium is constricting but we find it makes us get to the essence of storytelling in that we are working with a language of metaphor and gesture. We have to really think about each shot and transition because we are literally building it by hand from the puppet to the background to the hands that manipulate it.

The Under the Radar festival runs at the Public Theater through January 15.