It was a bet that arguably created the first work of science fiction.
While summering in Geneva in 1816, Mary Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron held a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story. At the age of 18, Godwin, who would soon marry Shelley, won the competition with her tale of a scientist who creates life and is horrified at what he has done. The scientist’s name was Frankenstein.
On March 21, Chicago-based collective Manual Cinema will bring a creation of its own devising to Richmond. Using projections, silent film techniques, a live band and more than 500 puppets, Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” aims to breath new life into Mary Shelley’s classic tale with its live film-theater hybrid.
“When you come see a Manual Cinema show, it’s like watching a movie being created live in front of you,” explains Sarah Fornace, one of the collective’s five co-founders. “Almost all of our shows have a big screen above, and then, below onstage, there’s always a live band or live chamber orchestra and a group of puppeteer actors who are running around.”
Founded in 2010, Manual Cinema is a collaborative of performers, illustrators, choreographers, composers and sound designers who work in concert to craft exhilarating theater experiences. To date, the collective has created nine feature-length multimedia shows that tour the world.
To create its filmlike works, the company starts with hundreds of illustrated storyboard pages, then stitches them together in the way that Pixar might to create a rough cut.
“It’s kind of like we make an animated movie and figure out how to stage it live,” Fornace says. “We start with storyboards, and that’s a way for the whole team to look at a story.”
Following the rough cut, Manual Cinema begins building hundreds of puppets and composing music. The company usually rehearses a work for five or six weeks before staging it for an audience, then undergoes another rewrite based on the response. Altogether, the process of creating a feature-length show takes about a year.
Work on “Frankenstein” began after it was pitched to the collective by Fornace’s partner and Manual Cinema co-founder Drew Dir, a longtime fan of Universal monster movies. Though the Frankenstein story has seen numerous adaptations, this version stands out for its emphasis on women and childbirth.
Fornace, who plays both Victor Frankenstein and Mary Shelley in the show, notes that most film adaptations have come from male point of view, even though Shelley wrote the novel version of “Frankenstein” after recently losing a newborn. Out of at least five pregnancies, only one of Shelley’s offspring would make it to adulthood. Shelley’s own mother, founding feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, died of complications from giving birth to her. These circumstances likely fed into Shelley’s story of a creature brought into the world by science, without a mother.
“That really struck us, and struck us as something that’s been lost from a lot of cinematic adaptations of ‘Frankenstein,’” Fornace says.
In the show, Fornace and her fellow performers undertake an elaborate dance of performance and puppetry that’s a bit of a high-wire act.
“There’s no cueing us from the outside. Once the show starts, we all dash-slash-sprint to make it,” she explains. “I make at least three to four mistakes per show, but there’s this real strong Spidey sense across the ensemble. If I drop a puppet, or I’m trying to do a quick change and my wig gets caught and I’m a little late for a cue, the other puppeteers can stretch for me, and the musicians, too.”
After Richmond, the show will travel to Seattle, then take a break until August. As for the company, Manual Cinema plans to premiere a rewritten version of “Mementos Mori,” its show about death taking a holiday, this spring in Chicago. The company also continues to create videos for The New York Times, and recently completed work on “Candyman,” a sequel to the 1992 supernatural horror film of the same name directed by Nia DaCosta and produced by Jordan Peele.
Through all these projects, Manual Cinema continues to straddle the line between film and theater.
“We all love the experience of making live art and of being in a room with people,” Fornace says. “We also love movies, the way they can tell huge stories and travel through time and space. This is our way of doing both.”