Chicago's Manual Cinema blends puppetry, music, performance art in free lakefront performances

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago-based performance company Manual Cinema has invented a new style of performance art. The company spends most summers traveling the world with their unique multimedia blend. But for the next few days, the Park District is sponsoring free shows along the lakefront at Theater on the Lake.

"We describe Manual Cinema as cinematic puppetry with a live score," said Julia Miller, a co-artistic director. "So it looks like you're watching an animated movie in silhouette because of the shadow puppetry, but all of the images and sound design and music are happening in real time on stage."

According to Ben Kauffman, another co-artistic director, audiences can "choose their own adventure" at Manual Cinema shows.

If they prefer watching the final product of animation, viewers will find a massive projector screen hanging above the stage. To see the live-action production, they can simply look below the screen at a chamber music ensemble, shadow puppetry on overhead projectors, silhouetted acting, and more.

"We're giving them a lot of choices as to what to look at and what to focus on," Kauffman said. "And it's kind of up to each audience member to construct the show as they want to."

Maren Celest has worked with the company since its inception in 2010. For The End of TV, Celest sings and runs the switcher for soundscape and video cues.

"I like to tell people it's like I'm playing a video game but with real people. Because I'm trying to hit the button at exactly the right time so that the sound feels very real and it lines up perfectly with the puppeteers," Celest said.

Actress Aneisa Hicks had never worked in puppetry or "shadow acting" prior to her 2016 audition for Manual Cinema.

"I remember seeing the set-up, the overhead projectors, and thinking, 'Wow, I'm in math class.' And then they started handing me puppets, and I was like, 'What are these?' And then they were like, 'Can you shadow act?' And I was like, 'Uh, sure!'" Hicks said.

Now that she's been with Manual Cinema for several years, Hicks describes it as one of the best performance companies she's ever worked for.

Celest agreed that it's a special organization. For her, that all starts with a distinct and beautiful visual style.

"I think shadow puppetry is really effective because it's abstract enough to let people see their own stories and let people see themselves as the puppet characters. They're blank enough. But they're also specific enough to convey emotion and storytelling so well," Celest said. "There's no way to describe it... You gotta see it. You got to see it live."

The End of TV is showing for free at Theater on the Lake, where Fullerton Avenue meets Lake Shore Drive, from July 16-19. Visit to find the schedule and reserve a seat.
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