To learn more about Manual Cinema’s unique approach to creating theatre, we interviewed Sarah Fornace, Co-Artistic Director of the performance collective and performer in Frankenstein. She shares her thoughts on theatrical adaptation, the legacy of Mary Shelley’s work, and Manual Cinema’s “live cinema” aesthetic.
Manual Cinema brings together a diverse variety of artists and disciplines. How did the company take shape and evolve?
Manual Cinema is a collaboration between sound designers and composers Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, and visual theatre and puppetry artists Julia Miller, Drew Dir, and Sarah Fornace. We first came together to make a short show with only one projector called “The Ballad of Lula del Ray.”
The idea behind Manual Cinema is that we use the language of cinema to tell theatrical stories onstage. We often make shows without words, and we use sweeping musical scores, immersive sound design, and handmade adaptations of film techniques to convey character and plot. When we first started out, we performed the puppetry behind the screen. However, we eventually figured out that an important part of the show is watching it get created, piece by piece.
At a Manual Cinema show, we want to juxtapose the cleanness of the film screen and filmic image with the humanity and mess and athleticism of a small group of performers creating each image in real time, by hand. In today’s world, we are all surrounded by screens large and small. We want to take the ubiquitous experience of watching a story onscreen and make it strange and human and wondrous.
Manual Cinema’s work is highly theatrical, and yet it’s very different than most plays you’ll see around Chicago. How would you describe this piece to someone who’s never experienced one of your shows before?
I would describe it as a piece of live cinema. There is a live band creating the soundtrack in real time onstage. Hundreds of sound cues create movie theatre-style, immersive sound design that envelopes the audience in the sonic world of the show. They will see puppeteers play dozens of characters and manipulate over 500 paper puppets to create what looks like a silent animated film in real time right in front of their eyes.
Shadow puppetry, live actors, live musicians—Frankenstein is definitely multidisciplinary in its storytelling. How would you encourage audiences to engage with these various elements?
It is important to us that the audience has agency in experiencing the show. The audience has the choice to just watch the large screen above like a movie. Or they can watch the four musicians as they move around the space playing a variety of instruments and found objects. Or they could watch the puppeteers manipulating the Creature puppet and the camera. Or they can look over and see the actors play Mary Shelley and Fanny Imlay in shadow and then quick change into Victor Frankenstein and the Creature in front of the camera. There is no wrong way to watch the show, and each person constructs their own unique experience by choosing what to watch at any moment. We want to make space for the audience to put together (dare we say “frankenstein?”) their own live cinematic experience during this show.
Manual Cinema is dramatizing more than just the Monster’s creation in your adaptation; you’re also staging parts of Mary Shelley’s life. What are you hoping to accomplish in juxtaposing these stories?
We were fascinated by the story of Mary Shelley, an extraordinary woman who invented a literary genre (science fiction!) in a time of huge societal change. But we became equally fascinated by the lesser known story of her half-sister Fanny Imlay, who was the other daughter of the famous radical author/philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Fanny stayed home taking care of William Godwin when Mary left home with Percy Shelley. Fanny eventually committed suicide and was buried in an anonymous grave when Mary was halfway through writing the novel. Our production explores abandonment and obsession and technical sweetness—the allure of creating the thing or solving the puzzle that can at times obscure the ethical issues and broader implications of one’s work. In Mary and Fanny’s stories, we see reflections of Victor and The Creature. The book is Mary’s “hideous progeny,” and she experiences great loss in its wake. We also explore the role that motherhood plays in the story. Wollstonecraft died due to complications with Mary’s childbirth. Mary herself lost two children while writing the novel. Frankenstein is a novel that is told in a series of frames. Mary and Fanny’s story is the outer frame of our show, but it also intersects and parallels Frankenstein as if the storylines are each the subconscious of each other.
2018 is the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s work. Why do you think this story still resonates with audiences today?
Mary Shelley wrote this novel at a time when the industrial revolution was changing society and advancements in biology and chemistry were reshaping the way that people thought about the world around them. We are also in a time of rapid technical advances and societal change. Mary Shelley raises the same questions that we need to ask today about who is creating our technologies and what effects that has on their creation. If much of our new technologies are being invented and programmed by a narrow slice of the population (specifically white men), what kinds of biases and stereotypes are embedded in the devices and algorithms that we perceive as “neutral?” Shelley’s novel also asks about our responsibility not only for but also to what we create. This applies to technical inventions, but also the relationships and families that we create. ■
Frankenstein is on stage November 1-December 2, 2018.
Want to be the first to see it? Dare to join us on October 31, where we’ll have a frightfully fun Halloween party followed by our final dress rehearsal.