Monday, 6 June 2016

Manual Dramaturgy: Drew Dir @ Edfringe 2016

Ada/Ava by Manual Cinema
Underbelly Potterow (Topside), 22 Potterow, Edinburgh, EH8 9BL Wednesday 3rd – Monday 29th August 2016 (not 16th), 16:00

In their UK debut, presented with Underbelly Productions, Chicago-based Manual Cinema uses overhead projectors, actors, live music and hundreds of shadow puppets to tell a story of the fantastic and supernatural, exploring mourning, melancholy and self. Ada/Ava was recently nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.
Bereaved of her twin sister Ava, septuagenarian Ada solitarily marks time in the patterns of a life built for two. A traveling carnival and a trip to a mirror maze plunge her into a journey across the thresholds of life and death.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Ada/Ava was inspired in part by our desire to test the limits of shadow puppetry and to see not only how much we could make the show feel like a film, but also how much we could get the audience to care about a character who's represented only in silhouette and
who doesn't speak a line of dialogue. We decided to tell a story about identical twin sisters because, when you see these characters in shadow, there is already so much rich backstory suggested by their visual relationship to each other. Most obviously, the story and production design of Ada/Ava is largely influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially Vertigo. Like that film, Ada/Ava is a kind of psychological ghost story. 

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

Manual Cinema began as a company of five artists who largely had no experience with shadow puppetry; we created our first show as a fun side project, but then people began asking when our next show would be, so we decided that we'd better make another one. Our second show turned out to be Ada/Ava. It had its premiere as a simple little ten-minute short piece that we performed in my first floor window on Halloween. Since then, it's obviously grown a lot more ambitious.

How did you become interested in making performance?

None of us set out to become shadow puppeteers, but the one thing we all had in common is that we were interested in new and unusual ways of telling stories, particularly with found objects. The work that we do as Manual Cinema suits that sensibility; it also shares so much in common with film, which all of us love and understand on an instinctual level. So this has become a way where we can make feature films but with the simpler resources and intimacy of live theater. Our name is Manual Cinema, after all, and that's how we think of our work: cinema by hand.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a

Our process is a little like making an animated film crossed with staging a play. We work from storyboards, not scripts, and we first create a "demo" version of the performance that exists only as a digitally edited movie on a computer. But then the theater process kicks in, and we have to find a way to stage it, and so once you bring all the performers in the room, the whole thing changes, in the same way that actors put their own fingerprints on a script.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

When you see our show, you're given the opportunity to watch the shadow projections as well as to watch how we're making them -- everything is in full view. Most of our audiences spend the first 10 minutes of the show watching us because they're trying to understand how we're creating the imagery, but eventually we hope to capture their attention with the story, the characters. 

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience? 

A major element of the production is the music and sound design. The production is designed in multichannel surround sound -- so more like the sound quality you'll get in a movie theater than a playhouse -- which you might not be consciously aware of, but what we're doing is that we're really trying to immerse you in a sonic world. The sound and music is the essential piece that brings these flat, two-dimensional characters to life.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

Many audience members ask us if we're inspired by traditional forms of shadow puppetry from Indonesia or China. We certainly admire that work, but it's a practice that's rooted in a very different culture (and, often, ritual) than ours. As Americans, we feel that our main influence is the cinema, and so even though we're technically working in theater and puppetry, our wellspring of inspiration really comes from a tradition of film. 

Director Drew Dir comments, This is a psychological thriller along the lines of Hitchcock's Vertigo, but it was inspired by the personal experience of witnessing my grandfather's mourning process after my grandmother's death, and seeing how his grief was expressed in small acts of daily routine. We've toured this show from New York to Tehran and we're excited to finally bring it to the UK and the Edinburgh Fringe!

Nearly three hundred handmade shadow puppets are manipulated on old school overhead projectors to create a live animated film. The projections in Ada/Ava are supported by an original musical score that's performed by a live ensemble of musicians. In making a story about identical twins, no dialogue was necessary as so much of the communication happens through shadow. Part ghost story, part suspense thriller, Ada/Ava is a very personal portrait of two characters.

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