Puppets and projectors give new life to Frankenstein at Court Theatre

Alumni-led company draws inspiration from cinema, novel in new production

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is taking on a new form this week at the University of Chicago, thanks to an alumni-led performance collective that turns shadow puppetry into a cinematic experience.

Manual Cinema’s production, which premieres Nov. 1 at Court Theatre, reinterprets the monster classic with projectors and silhouettes—allowing viewers to see the story on screen, but without hiding the puppeteers or musicians behind the action.

“A lot of theater and film guides your eye, telling you exactly where to look,” said Drew Dir, one of Manual Cinema’s co-artistic directors. “We give the audience the choice to curate their experience as they watch.”  

Manual Cinema was ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago in the Theater and Performance Studies program in the fall of 2012, where they also taught as adjunct faculty. The company was co-founded in 2010 by Dir and Sarah Fornace, both AB’07; Ben Kauffman, AB’09; Julia Miller; and Kyle Vegter.

“Julia Miller got everyone together the first time to do a short shadow-puppet piece,” Dir said. “All of us had little to no experience. The first couple of years of working in the medium were about discovery.”

Similar to the rest of its immersive work, Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein—working from a 250-page set of storyboards rather than a traditional script drawn from Shelley’s 1818 novel—blends shadow puppetry, antique cinematic styles, original music and live sound, vintage overhead projectors, multiple screens around a central “cinema” image, actors, live-feed cameras and a live music ensemble.

“For this piece we are drawing from Frankenstein, especially the 1931 Boris Karloff version,” Fornace said. “But more importantly, our adaptation goes back to Mary Shelley’s novel.”

The novel begins in the Arctic with a sea captain who is writing a letter to his sister, and then Victor Frankenstein appears to tell his story. To replicate that story-in-a-story structure on stage, Fornace said, the company explored unique and forgotten styles of early movies as well as “early, pre-cinema spectacle, which was very popular in Mary Shelley’s time.”

Frankenstein is a novel that’s told in nested frames using different narrators,” Dir said. So, Manual Cinema took the story’s structure a step further by adapting and rendering every frame of it in a different theatrical medium.

Technical innovations include working with a static camera but moving performers and puppets during the Frankenstein portion. Manual Cinema also supplies another narrative that expands to illuminate Shelley’s life. Shadow silhouettes tell the story of Shelley’s relationship with her sister, Fanny Imlay, and their mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died following complications from Shelley’s birth.

The silhouettes and overhead projectors create a movie-like experience, with a twist: Audience members can either glance down and see how the piece is being made, or keep their eyes on the big screen.

“Every Manual Cinema film is about the process of making it and the act of watching the film itself,” Dir said. Several images in the production, he noted, involve people looking through windows or frames or peepholes—such as the Creature looking through a hole in the wall at a family. This act of voyeurism is afforded to audiences as well.

Manual Cinema’s production harkens back to a time when the cinematic experience was also a musical one. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, silent films in large cities were often accompanied by a small orchestra. Manual Cinema’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will have what its creators describe as “a mad-scientist laboratory of musical instruments.”

“It’s like an orchestra pit,” Fornace said. “We lay out that freneticism, ‘liveness’ and theatricality of our human bodies running around trying to make this film. We want you to see it as a pristine, finished product (on the screen), but we also want you to see the hand-made, seat-of-your-pants quality to it.”

A fan of 1920s Universal monster movies, Dir gravitated toward Frankenstein because he felt the narrative could be communicated with very little language. He also liked the connection between Manual Cinema’s own performance—bringing stories to life with puppets—and Frankenstein’s central plot about the animation of lifeless matter.

Details from Shelley’s own life further enrich the narrative. Manual Cinema connects the author to her character, Victor Frankenstein, suggesting one as the dream of the other. Images that appear in one story will reappear and resonate in the other, Dir said, making “the experience of cinema as intimate and personable as a campfire story.”

But Frankenstein is also one of Manual Cinema’s largest and most ambitious productions, featuring a wide variety of visual styles and techniques along with musicians that serve as a choral figure. The composers imagined a score that is mostly percussive, which means a mix of traditional and non-traditional instruments will be scattered all over the stage.

Fornace and Dir felt it was important to include the author’s name in the title of their production.

“Mary Shelley doesn’t always get credit for how experimental she was,” Fornace said. “She had so much more life experience than I have now in my thirties—she essentially invented the genre of science fiction, and was a teenager when she created this, yet she had already lost two children. … I think it’s important that it’s ‘Manual Cinema’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.’”

The parallels between Frankenstein and Manual Cinema’s live-performance tinkering aren’t lost on Dir. “We’re still in the process of figuring out all the time, experimenting with what this medium can do,” he said. “In that way, too, Victor Frankenstein’s is a journey of discovery and obsession and experimentation. It feels very similar to our own.”

Fornace laughed: “Hopefully, it’ll turn out better for us than him!”

—This story was adapted from an article by Ray Pride that originally appeared in the UChicago Arts Magazine.