Chicago's Manual Cinema marks 10 years of theatrical storytelling with online 'Retrospectacular!'

If asked to define their ensemble's mission and aesthetic, the five co-founders/co-artistic directors of Manual Cinema would not come up with an identical response.

“You'll get a slightly different answer from all of us,” confirmed Kyle Vegter, who founded the multimedia, multidisciplinary ensemble 10 years ago with Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman and Julia Miller. Their mission, says Vegter, has always been to “make the work we would want to see in the world.”

Their highly theatrical storytelling - rooted in cinematic techniques, music and shadow puppetry and created using overhead projectors - will be showcased during its 10th Anniversary Retrospectacular!, a month-long showcase of signature works beginning Monday, July 27, at

The company's live-action animation hybrid emerged from Miller's discovery of an overhead projector in her landlord's garage. That relic prompted the adoption of shadow puppetry, an art form favored by director/designer Miller (who performed with Blair Thomas and Co. and the now defunct Redmoon Theatre) and writer/director/designers Dir and Fornace.

They started out as five friends making art together, recalled composer/sound designer/producer Vegter. Audiences liked what they saw and requested more. The quintet, which also includes composer/artist/director Kauffman, obliged.

“We kept making work, kept performing it and kept getting asked to perform it,” said Vegter, 33.

“We spent a long time trying to figure out what to call ourselves,” said Miller, of the lengthy list of names the members generated. “It was fortuitous that was the name we landed on.”

Chicago's Manual Cinema celebrates its 10th anniversary with an online retrospective of signature works including 2012's "Lula Del Ray." Courtesy of Jerry Shulman

For two years, they experimented, she said. Then in 2012, the company was asked to perform “Lula Del Ray,” a now signature work, for Theater on the Lake. A coming-of-age story conceived by Miller and underscored by the music of Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, “Lula Del Ray” is about an adolescent girl who becomes obsessed with a country music duo. Accustomed to performing in intimate venues, the ensemble members had to figure out how to fill Theater on the Lake's larger space. That led to the incorporation of the large screen they currently use, thus solidifying the “manual cinema” concept, said Miller.

“We were all interested in film but we had theatrical backgrounds and were experimenting with this format,” Miller said. “We didn't know what we had in our hands.”

“It was such an exciting combination of film, visual storytelling and physical theater, illustration and graphic design,” she said. “We kept trying to push it and do new things.”

Extensive touring led to an Off, Off-Broadway run and an effusive New York Times review that ultimately allowed the founders to make Manual Cinema “our full-time gig,” Vegter said.

“We wanted to be artists, to work in a creative field,” he said.

They accomplished their goals. Over the last decade, Manual Cinema produced 38 works including “The Forger,” an Emmy Award-winning documentary short produced in association with The New York Times.

“We're all workaholics,” said Vegter. “Put five workaholics together you get a lot of work made.”

In addition to “Lula Del Ray,” the online retrospective includes 2017's “The End of TV,” juxtaposing the promise and failure of the American dream; 2017's “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks” and 2018's “Frankenstein.”

“Sharing these archival videos is a big deal for us,” said Vegter. “We spend a lot of time creating them and never get a chance to share them … I hope that's exciting for audiences. It's definitely exciting for us.”

They're in the process of adapting “A Christmas Carol” for a physically distanced performance at the group's studio that would run Nov. 28 to Dec. 20, Vegter said.

“Our version will take place during quarantine as a call between family members with the aunt telling the story,” he said.

The show reflects the resiliency that has long characterized the ensemble.

The coronavirus pandemic has been “a true test of that resiliency. How to make the work and make the company viable,” Miller said. “The times will push us to innovate and experiment in new ways.”

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