We Shall Be Monsters
Behind-the-scenes with Manual Cinema’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
By Ray Price
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has a long cinematic history, but a new production from Manual Cinema at the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre, premiering in November, draws just as much inspiration from the novel itself.
“The more time we spent with the story and learned about Mary Shelley and the circumstances behind the writing, the more the project opened up,” says Drew Dir, one of the artisans of Manual Cinema, the eight-year-old performance collective, design studio, and film-video production company specializing in multimedia spectacles in the form of “movies” handcrafted in front of audiences.
Manual Cinema’s earlier multimedia spectacles were augmented by smaller pieces at venues and museums around the world, and the group was ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago in the Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) program in the fall of 2012, where they also taught as adjunct faculty.
This fall, they return to the UChicago campus to present the world premiere of their new work Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the Court.
Dir and fellow founder Sarah Fornace teem with ideas while speaking about the re-animation behind Frankenstein, Manual Cinema’s creative process, and the group’s roots at UChicago. The company was co-founded in 2010 by Dir, Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter, and it has classic “let’s put on a show” beginnings.
“One of our other artistic directors, Julia Miller, got everyone together the first time to do a short shadow-puppet piece,” Dir recalls. “All of us had little to no experience. The first couple of years of working in the medium were about discovery. Few people had done this kind of work before, so we spent a lot of time just learning what kind of stories you could tell.”
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 says. “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. This story-in-a-story structure, Fornace says, affords a unique way to get varying perspectives. “We started by asking ourselves, how do we represent that onstage? The solution was to explore unique and forgotten styles of early movies as well “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 explains. 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, or “additional frame,” that expands to illuminate Shelley’s life. In Manual Cinema’s production, shadow silhouettes are used to tell the story of Shelley’s relationship with her sister, Fanny Imlay, and their mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died following complications from Mary’s birth.
Overhead projectors and shadow silhouettes are used to create a piece right in front of the audience that looks like a movie. “It’s all playing out live,” Fornace says. “All of our shows are like that and there’s a big, cinematic screen above where it’s being fed to and it’s all being created on stage.”
She explains that, at any moment, an audience member can glance down and see how the piece is being made, or you can just watch the big screen the whole time. It is through this—the ability to see the process of creation—that two forms of spectacle unfold, animation and re-animation alike.
“Every Manual Cinema film is about the process of making it and the act of watching the film itself,” Dir says. He points to the fact that there are several images in the production of people looking through windows or frames or peepholes, specifically the Creature looking through a hole in the wall at a family. This act of voyeurism is afforded Manual Cinema’s audiences, as well. “We give the audience that agency, because a lot of theater and film guides your eye, telling you exactly where to look. We give the audience the choice to curate their experience as they watch.”
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 presented 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 explains. “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.”
Dir, who is responsible for this production’s concept, certainly drew inspiration from cinematic history. He is a fan of the 1920s Universal monster movies, which had a significant and lasting impact on visual storytelling in cinema.
“We were looking for extant stories that would thrive in our medium,” Dir says. “The medium relies on visual imagery, music, and sound, prioritized over language and text. That dictates a certain kind of story.”
Early on, Dir says he gravitated toward Frankenstein because it felt like the narrative could be communicated with very little language. He also liked the connection between how they perform—bringing stories to life with puppets—and Frankenstein’s central plot about the animation of lifeless matter.
“The idea of being able to work with the cinematic heritage of Frankenstein in our own theatrical medium sounded like, ‘Oh, yeah, I would like to spend a couple of years living in that!’” Dir exclaims.
The extra layers of biography from Shelley’s life add another rich level to the narrative. In the performance, Manual Cinema connects Mary Shelley’s story to Victor Frankenstein, suggesting one as the dream of the other. Images that appear in one story reappear in sometimes surprising ways, reminiscent of dream logic rather than rational logic. “These images ideally will resonate across the two stories,” Dir adds. “For us, these stories are very much like campfire stories, especially the experience of shadow puppet stories. By drawing that and the modern movie theater closer together, we make the experience of cinema as intimate and personable as a campfire story.”
Is this ambitious production a summation of the mission of Manual Cinema in a grand, but not necessarily grandiose way? “This is definitely one of the most ambitious and largest shows we’ve created,” Fornace says, “and it will be the longest, with an intermission. Usually our shows are sixty-five to seventy-five minutes with no intermission. And it features the widest variety of visual styles and techniques.”
“It’s also really ambitious musically,” Dir adds, noting that all of their productions use original music performed live by an ensemble. “The musicians will emerge as a choral figure in the story of Frankenstein.”
The composers are imagining a score that’s mostly percussive, which means that there will be a mix of traditional and non-traditional instruments scattered all over the stage.
But the sisters matter most. “I like the idea that this big, grand Frankenstein story is actually a smaller story about the relationship between two people,” Dir says of the Shelley sisters. “What is compelling about these two sisters, Mary, whom everyone knows about, and her sister Fanny, whom no one knows about, is that it feels like a really intimate relationship that drifted apart as their lives went in separate directions.” (For Mary, it was becoming a provocative artist famous for her work; for Fanny, it was self-isolation and, ultimately, suicide.) “The question of what both sisters went through, to bring their relationship to that point, was, just from the standpoint of human compassion, so interesting.”
At the end of the performance, Dir hopes audiences can feel like they didn’t just watch Frankenstein, but that they watched “the story of these two people, a small, intimate family story.”
Of the title, it was important to Fornace and Dir to include the author’s name. “Mary Shelley doesn’t always get credit for how experimental she was,” Fornace says of the young author. “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.” Because of her father William Godwin, Fornace points out, Shelley was at the center of the intelligentsia and the literati. She was privy to the cutting edge of the day, a time of great technological change. “I think it’s important that it’s ‘Manual Cinema’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,’” says Fornace .
The fall premiere will be more than just a homecoming for Fornace and Dir: they’ll also be receiving the UChicago Alumni Association’s Early Career Achievement Award. “We both went to the University of Chicago, and that’s where we started making crazy theater pieces together,” Fornace says. “When we were at University Theater, it was great, everyone came from different parts of the University. You might be making an original, devised theater piece with a major in physics, someone studying neuroscience, anthropology, all coming together to make artworks. Ways of thinking through problems in everyday life are also informed by my studies. It really shaped us as people, not just as artists. We’re so honored to be recognized by the Alumni Association. I’m smiling just thinking about it.”
The parallels between Manual Cinema’s live-performance tinkering and what Mary Shelley’s title character experiences 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 says. “In that way, too, Victor Frankenstein’s is a journey of discovery and obsession and experimentation. It feels very similar to our own.”Fornace laughs. “Hopefully, it’ll turn out better for us than him!”
Manual Cinema’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein premiered at the Court Theatre Nov 1-Dec 2, 2018.