SALT LAKE CITY — Sarah Fornace had a sense that Manual Cinema, the new performance collective she and some friends had started, was going to work right from the start. She was sitting in the audience of their first official performance and she could sense something happening to the people around her.
"We only had one projector. We would set up, open it and animate it and then close it, and then set the next one and open it. It kind of felt like it was being telegraphed from the moon," she told the Deseret News. "And even then, at the slower paces, you could really feel the audience leaning in."
Fornace is the co-artistic director of the Chicago-based group Manual Cinema, which is making a stop at Kingsbury Hall on March 29. What exactly the group does is best described by its name: manually creating live cinema through puppetry, shadows, projectors, sound effects, live music and actors. Fornace said it's an experience that engages people in unexpected ways.
"I think (people connect with it) because the medium asks (the audience) to do work since there’s no faces and no words," she said. "But it also leaves space for audiences to project themselves and what they themselves need in the story. So even though (Manual Cinema) asks for work, it also gives a lot of room for people. I think that’s why audiences can have such an emotional relationship (to it.)"
In 2010, Fornace and fellow founder and co-artistic director Julia Miller were living in Chicago and working with various theater groups around the city, including Blair Thomas and Company, a well-known touring puppet theater troupe. Miller had an idea for a show of their own, using a projector she found in her garage. After teaming up with a local indie band — that fortuitously had a background in music composition and experimental sound design — they started performing a 20-minute narrative production titled "Lula Del Rey" with live musicians, puppets and actors. More ideas, inventions and experimental shows followed, including a non-advertised performance they staged in Fornace's home bay window on Halloween, and Manual Cinema started to grow.
Now, after years of touring, dozens of new productions and countless live shows, Fornace said their shows are just as "manual" as when they started eight years ago.
"Everything is created during the performance," she said. "All of the music, all of the visuals, all of the acting, so it’s like seeing a movie created live in front of you. And as an audience member, you can choose to watch just the screen above — just watch the linear, silent film that’s being created — or you can look down at the puppeteers and see how it’s being made or look at the band."
The screen above the stage reflects a projection — literally — of the work happening below it. Each Manual Cinema show begins with large stacks of paper on stage that the actors cut into shadow sets, characters and anything else they may need to tell the story. Fornace said they create as many as 400 or 500 pieces as a show progresses, combining the newly created puppets with actors, musicians and sound cues for a truly live experience.
"We make all of the visual for the show, there’s no premade video," Fornace said. "… You’ll see the performers creating digital edits, cuts and dissolves, with just using their hands and pieces of paper. Actors jump in and out of shadow silhouettes to play the character and then switch off in the next shot with a puppet who then takes over the character."
Live musicians accompany this process in a format somewhat similar to early silent films, with sound effects and music helping draw each story along. Fornace said that the history of cinema, from the silents to contemporary films, influences each of their new productions.
"We often look to specific film traditions and film directors," she said. "As we were creating (the production) "Ada/Ava," we were watching a lot of Hitchcock, film noir. … Once we have a story, we ask ourselves, 'What movie is this like and what shots can we do as homage and what conversations can we have with those films?'"
Those in Manual Cinema will perform their Hitchcockian "Ada/Ava" when they come to Utah, a noir production about an elderly woman who has lost her twin sister and is struggling to reimagine life without her other half, according to Manual Cinema's website.
As the Utah audience watches the show unfold, Fornace revealed there is one tell-tale way to know how the action is moving along: the progress of those sheets of paper on stage.
"As we use them we throw them under the table so it’s a physical record of the show. As the puppet stacks get smaller and smaller, we’re getting closer to the end of the story."
But not the end of Manual Cinema, which has stacks of stories ready in the wings for years to come.
If you go …
What: Manual Cinema: "Ada/Ava"
When: Thursday, March 29, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Kingsbury Hall, 1395 Presidents Circle
How much: $5 for U. students, $10 for ages 18 and under and non-U. students, $20 for general admission