Manual Cinema - Lula del Ray
Manual Cinema have become, over the past decade, one of the most popular and distinctive visual theatre companies in the UK: regular successes at the Edinburgh Fringe established their distinctive hybridisation of puppetry, animation, live music and projection as simultaneously accessible and experimental, while their range of subject matter, from the influence of music on isolated individuals (2012’s Lula del Ray) to the 2021 collaboration with LA Opera on Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, is a bold statement about the potential of their idiosyncratic juxtaposition of forms.
Speaking of Lula del Ray in 2017, co-artistic director Julia Miller recognises that their aesthetic offers a particular kind of experience for the audience: ‘I think the format of our shows are a less passive experience, because there is so much technical stuff happening on stage.’ This includes the creation of images in real time, the performance of the musicians, the process of the cinematography and, of course the manipulation of shadow puppets. ‘You are watching the final image and also at the same time can see how it is made,’ Miller adds. ‘I hope the audience is brought in by the technique and not distanced by it.’
Miller’s explains that Lula has a special place in the company’s repertoire: ‘This was the first project we made before we called ourselves Manual Cinema. It’s the show that got the group together.’ The version that arrived for its UK premier in 2017 had undergone several evolutions. ‘Since then we have remade it quite a few times, adding a mother character, and rewriting the ending quite a few times,’ she notes. ‘Lula del Ray has been through many iterations. I think we might actually be at Lula del Ray 4.0.’
Nevertheless, Miller can see how the show represents the approach and aesthetic of Manual Cinema. ‘All of our shows use a similar combination of overhead projectors, puppets, live actors and live music,’ she says. ‘All Manual Cinema shows have a shared aesthetic in that we are working with silhouettes in shadow puppetry.’ Like many visual theatre companies, puppetry remains at the heart of the production: ‘but some of our shows also experiment with other live media on stage, like a GoPro camera that acts as another puppetry sight, or an actor that moves through different sets around the audience.’
‘Our process combines animation, film and theatre. We start with a written outline of the show that gets turned into a storyboard. We take the storyboards and use them as a blueprint to design the show, build the puppets, and stage the scenes. We shoot a rough demo of the storyboards and edit it together to see how it is working. Since it’s a visual medium we need to see it on its feet to know what works and what doesn’t.’
The use of a foundational text may speak to a traditional Western dramaturgy based in the primacy of the script, but the layering of different levels of performance evokes comic books and film in the story-boards, and affords scenography a more prominent role in the development of the production. The ongoing processes also evoke improvisational dramaturgies in the re-examination and reworking of the production from a visual perspective, towards the final iteration.
‘The video demo then goes to the sound team for scoring and sound design. The puppet team then takes the demo and we try to stage it in real time putting together the puppetry and live action scenes and how to transition from one shot to the next. During each stage the show changes and gets tighter.’
If Manual Cinema are not unique in their fusion of live and inanimate performance – the UK’s Paper Cinema have a similar aesthetic and Scotland’s Tortoise in a Nutshell followed the strategy with Feral – their continued successes at the Edinburgh Fringe have ensured that they have a strong following in Scotland and represent visual theatre in the world’s largest performance market-place. As their entry for manipulate in 2021, The End of TV, demonstrated, their productions are capable of competing in the new digital dissemination of theatrical events: by switching between the activities of the cast and the projections, a satisfying blend of the screen and the stage embodies both the company’s ethos and appeal.
Indeed, the layered approach goes beyond story-telling or even traditional notions of drama to evoke the ‘alienation effect’ encouraged by Brecht – in which the audience is invited to observe the artificiality of the production – and comment on the relationship between the narrative and its making process. Puppetry has always emphasised the tension between the inanimate and the human, the inorganic and the organic, and extending into contemporary technology, Miller and Manual Cinema ask questions about how far these instruments frame and define the nature of a production. The puppetry is rooted in the shadow puppets but expands into the media on display, in which the screen itself becomes present and performs to the audience. And the question of how far a shadow puppet can reveal or obscure truth goes back to Plato: are Manual Cinema offering an alternative reading of Plato’s parable of the Cave, and redeeming it to the service of exploring ideas in a theatrical context?