Manual Cinema’s ‘Christmas Carol’ finds alchemy in ordinary objects
Like all Manual Cinema work, “Christmas Carol” is grounded in moving images rendered cinematic via old-school, overhead projectors.
Paper. Wire. Tape. Scissors. A few ancient overhead projectors. That’s about all it takes for Chicago’s Emmy-winning Manual Cinema to create worlds within worlds.
Since 2010, the multi-hyphenate artists of the 12-year-old film and video production company/design studio/performance collective have taken their intricate, subtly spectacular blend of shadow puppetry, live theater and richly detailed, ultra-low-tech animation from the theaters of Chicago to the screens of blockbuster movies to the stages of Tehran.
This winter Manual Cinema reboots one of their more elaborate offerings. It’s actually more of world premiere than a reboot: “Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol” is no longer a streaming production created by isolated musicians, actors and puppeteers sequestered in pods far from any live audience. Their unique adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic will run live and in person from Nov. 29 through Dec. 24 at Glencoe’s Writers Theater.
‘Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol’
When: Nov. 29 - Dec. 24
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $55 - $75
The pandemic limited the execution of “Christmas Carol” in 2020, when company co-artistic directors Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter devised the virtual streaming version of “A Manual Cinema Christmas Carol,” looping in writer Nate Marshall to help with the script.
“We’d always talked about doing ‘Christmas Carol’ because we all love ghost stories and it’s one of the ultimate ghost stories,” said Dir, a writer/director/puppet designer. “When the pandemic cleared our calendar, we were like, well, let’s try to do it as a virtual show.
“It was fun and successful but throughout the process we were all thinking in the back of our minds that this would really slap if we could do it live. We had all these images we weren’t able to execute, simply because we couldn’t have enough people,” he said.
Like all Manual Cinema work, “Christmas Carol” is grounded in moving images rendered cinematic via old-school, overhead projectors. The 2020 rendition was a critical hit. This year, the troupe returns to their original, more elaborate plans for Ebenezer Scrooge and company, putting four puppeteers and three live musicians on stage before a live audience.
Virtually or live, Manual Cinema makes an impact. Their four-minute opening for director Nia DaCosta’s 2021 horror movie reboot “Candyman” was a chilling preamble. At roughly 70-minutes, “A Christmas Carol” gives the company room indulge alchemic ability to transform archaic technology into immersive entertainment.
“Everything is hand-made,” said Kauffman, a puppeteer, composer and musician who composed the “Christmas Carol” score and provides vocals and instrumentals in performance. “Everything you see is being performed live in front of you, but it feels like you’re at a movie or watching animation,” Kauffman said.
There are roughly 400 Scrooge puppets, Dir estimated, plus dozens of other characters in the group’s adaptation of the 1843 novella.
“We could do laser or some kind of mechanical cut, but you lose something that way. We go through hundreds of X-acto blades in any given production,” said Dir.
“The centerpiece of our show is when Scrooge is walking through London on Christmas night seeing all the different kinds of families gathered in the light of windows,” Dir said. “I’ve never seen that scene included in any adaptation. I wanted us to do it. Dickens uses light and shadow as a motif throughout [his tale].”
Dickens’ familiar characters follow the plot as it moves from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day: Stone-hearted Scrooge finds redemption and compassion through supernatural visits from his dead business partner Jacob Marley, the twinkling Ghost of Christmas Past, bountiful Ghost of Christmas Past and nightmarish Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
There are prominent new characters as well. The narrator is not a puppet but a real person, Aunt Trudy, (LaKecia Harris), newly widowed and dreading the holiday. She’s in no mood to carry on her late husband’s tradition of performing a one-person “Christmas Carol” for his family on Christmas Day.
“This is a show about hauntings,” Kauffman said. “Aunt Trudy is haunted like the ghosts are haunting Scrooge. I wanted the score to reflect that. So there definitely are some dark and moody moments, but there’s also a lot that’s grooving and light-hearted sound,” Kauffman said.
Maintaining their stable of a dozen or so overhead projectors isn’t easy. The devices were once ubiquitous in schools; the company itself was famously started with a cast off projector retrieved from the dustbin.
“We’ve got about two dozen in our stock,” Dir said. They’re all in various stages of disrepair. It’s difficult to find parts. If something breaks and you have to have a new one, you have to hunt. I’ve bought things from some strange characters in some really strange places.”