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Manual Cinema brings the ‘End of TV’ home to Chicago

Kara Davidson plays Flo, an elderly woman succumbing to dementia, the memories of her life tangled with TV commercials and the “call now” demands of the QVC home shopping network, in Manual Cinema’s "The End of TV. " | Judy Sirota Rosenthal

Manual Cinema, the performance collective that creates live cinema using shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques and innovative music and sound design, has five artistic directors — three are the visual, puppetry team (Julia Miller, Sarah Fornace, Drew Dir) and two are musicians/composers (Ben Kauffman, Kyle Vegter) who write the music and create the sound design.

For its newest production, “The End of TV,” Kauffman and Vegter stepped to the foreground to provide a twist in the way Manual Cinema usually conceives of and creates a work. This time around it all started with the music.

‘The End of TV’

When: To Aug. 5

Where: Manual Cinema at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Tickets: $30

Info: manualcinema.com

“We usually begin with a narrative and then create visuals followed by the score,” Miller says. “This time the music is really a driving character in the show. It’s featured more prominently than in our previous shows where the music is basically a score.”

“The End of TV” (which premiered last year at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut) is set in the early ‘90s and revolves around two women, residents of an unnamed Midwestern town who develop an unlikely friendship. Flo, an elderly white woman, was once a supervisor at an auto plant. Now as dementia muddles her mind, her memories are tangled with television commercials and the “call now” nature of the home shopping network QVC. Louise, a young black women recently laid off from the same plant, meets Flo when she delivers Meals on Wheels to her.

Ideas, ranging from the workings of the mind to consumerism and the pursuit of the American dream, influenced Kauffman and Vegter as they began shaping the story and songs. They began by reading the work of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks whose ideas about “how the brain gets it wrong” were “interesting and compelling,” says Vegter.

“My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s and my grandmother currently has it. Plus my other grandmother has dementia,” Vegter says. “So all this was an interesting jumping-off point.”

Another inspiration was the television commercials of the early ‘90s. Vegter feels commercials exist in “the subconscious of America.”

“We watched a ton of ‘90s commercials as research,” Vegter says laughing. “Which was terrifying and beautiful and weird.”

Adds Kauffman: “A lot of the lyrics in the songs are actually little snippets of text from commercials. So television becomes this texture all throughout the show both visually and in the songs.”

Vanessa Valliere is a QVC home shopping host in Manual Cinema’s “The End of TV.” Below the screen are Valliere and fellow cast member/puppeteer Jeffrey Paschal. | Judy Sirota Rosenthal
Vanessa Valliere is a QVC home shopping host in Manual Cinema’s “The End of TV.” Below the screen are Valliere and fellow cast member/puppeteer Jeffrey Paschal. | Judy Sirota Rosenthal

And in keeping with the show’s setting, the music is partly influenced by R&B and soul performers of the Midwest.

“We listened to a lot of Motown and Prince and there’s some Detroit house and techno in there too,” Vegter says. “Plus I come from the contemporary art music world and that’s baked in there as well.”

Traditionally, Manual Cinema eschews dialogue and uses shadow puppetry via overhead projectors enhanced with cinematic techniques to tell its intricate narratives. But in the past few years, the company has been experimenting with what that means. They like making the rules and breaking them. The no-dialogue rule was broken this time around.

“It wasn’t intentional,” Miller says with a laugh. “This story required that television be represented in a different way than what shadow puppetry could represent.”

A GoPro camera was used to capture the colorful puppetry and live actors who reenact classic commercials and portray the QVC host who has become a video companion for the isolated, lonely Flo.

As in all Manual Cinema shows, audience members can see the cast/puppeteers creating the show as it unfolds. For the shadow puppetry, they have become masters in the use of vintage overhead projectors (think upside down and backwards). Figure in the added camera work and live action plus a seven-piece band, and the execution becomes even more complex.

“It’s sort of like learning to dance with a bunch of other people,” Miller says. “Everyone has their move at any given moment; they are doing the same exact thing every show. It’s a very team-oriented sport and a multi-tasker’s dream.”

In the fall, Manual Cinema will debut its adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” at Court Theatre. It’s another big step for the eight-year-old ensemble with a growing reputation for creating unique shows that engage people in unexpected ways. And since much of the time they are on the road with their shows, this is a rare year with two local productions.

Miller, Kauffman and Vegter all recall the excitement of the early days, of realizing that maybe they really did have something here.

“We were really excited about experimenting with all of sorts of ideas and pushing the medium in new directions,” Miller says.

“Today we’re still not bored with it and continue to learn and discover with each show. And we’re inspired by the audiences who respond to our work and continue to want to take the journey with us.”