In September, the Chicago-based theater troupe Manual Cinema traveled to Tehran for a puppet festival, armed with seven overhead projectors.
“They are surprisingly fragile,” says Julia Miller, one of the group’s founders. “We were so scared the lenses would break, we carried them in our arms on the plane,” she says.
Projectors are essential to Manual Cinema’s medium, a hybrid of live acting and puppetry that results in something like a vintage silent film performed by shadows.
Even after the projectors arrived intact, Miller was worried that their performance of “Ada/Ava,” the tale of a woman grieving for her twin sister, might not cross the cultural divide.
“I wasn’t sure how accessible or timeless or universal the story was, or how certain gestures or props might read,” she says.
She needn’t have worried: The audience gave Manual Cinema a standing ovation. Perhaps they’ll get another one at Artisphere, where they’ll present “Lula del Ray” on Friday and Saturday.
“Lula del Ray” tells the story of a girl who leaves her desert home to see her favorite country music band in the big city. There’s no dialogue, just four musicians performing the score and triggering sound effects. Four puppeteers man a trio of overhead projectors, manipulating 200-plus paper puppets to create cinematic sequences. Sometimes the puppeteers themselves cast the shadows, performing beneath the screen, their silhouettes projected above.
For example, a “shot” of Lula watching the band play through a ventilation grate comes into focus as one puppeteer slowly lays the puppets onto the projector. To create a “wipe” transition, another projector operator uncovers puppets with a piece of paper while the first projector is covered up. When Lula tumbles out of a duct, she seems to fall just where a third puppeteer is crouching. The puppeteer, now playing Lula, stands up and brushes herself off, and picks up the story from there.
Miller and her fellow puppeteers used to hide, but now they perform in plain view of the audience.
“With movies, people get lulled into a state of passive acceptance,” she says. “Live theater asks audiences to be more active. It’s just more exciting to have all the moving parts in front of you.”
The production’s non-moving parts still keep Miller up at night.
“The projectors are always breaking,” she says. “We constantly scour the Internet for spare parts, but I worry about the day when we can’t find these things anymore.”
Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m., $20.
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