Last year at this time, COCA was gearing up to present Winter Rep, featuring the COCA dance companies, and we were looking forward to some much needed time visiting relatives or our favorite holiday pop-ups. This year, we are trying to find new ways to visit with the ones we love, and we are staying at home instead of gathering in a theatre for a weekend of performances.
While this holiday season may look a bit different for all of us, COCA is here to help you celebrate the season VIRTUALLY from the comfort of your home. We’re bringing holiday pop-ups to your kitchen and a livestream performance of Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol straight to your living room.
We are thrilled to be a co-commissioner of Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol, a world premiere adaptation that acknowledges the struggle this holiday season and perhaps lends some joy and catharsis through Charles Dickens’s classic tale. The event will be livestreamed from Chicago on December 4-6, with an additional speaker series with Hana S. Sharif and Jennifer Wintzer on December 4.
Our Artistic Engagement Manager, Delaney Piggins, had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Manual Cinema’s Co-Artistic Director Julia Miller to ask her about how watching Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol is a way to connect with family near and far this season.
D: How does Manual Cinema transform the movie going experience from afar? what can audiences expect when they come to your virtual show?
Julia: Great Question. Well, we are layering techniques we’ve developed for live performances with animation work that we’ve done for video projects. It’s definitely a new hybrid of our live theatrical work adapted and spliced with some video.
There is our Aunt Trudy character who is the narrator of the show. She’s sort of the unwilling narrator in that her husband usually has the tradition of telling A Christmas Carol with this intricate puppet show that he’s been perfecting and performing for ages for his family every Christmas. But we’ve lost Uncle Joe earlier in the year so it falls on her to tell the story. We meet her and she’s a 3D person in front of the camera; she’s not a puppet. She goes on this journey to try to tell the story in his honor for the family via a Zoom call because of the pandemic.
Once she starts telling the story and starts dusting off the puppets, we go into cinematic puppet sequences. We’ve used shadow puppets to represent all of the memories. The ghosts in Christmas Carol refer to shadows of things that are passed so we thought that would be a fun way to illustrate when Scrooge is looking back or looking at something that the ghosts are asking him to revisit. We were also really excited by the ghost character design. They are such iconic characters that have been adapted in so many different ways from The Muppet Movie to all the different cinematic representations. When Scrooge is interacting with the ghosts, those are illustrated puppets, and we are layering those things throughout while Trudy is narrating in real time.
Then, there’s also a live band who’s scoring the show. All the video cueing and sound design is happening live through our stage manager, Shelby.
We had to create all of these performance pods to limit how many people could be interacting with each other. So we are layering backing tracks, because there can only be two musicians. The puppeteers are a pair compared to five or six which we would usually have in a live show. They layer live puppetry in front of projected shadow animations. All the visuals you see have been made by hand but some of them have been pre-recorded so that we can get that richness we’re used to while being limited to how many people we can have working together.
D: Wow, so it’s really a technical feat as much as it is an artistic feat! I understand why you might be making another cup of coffee.
Julia: Yes! It’s definitely going well. Every show we make, we are trying something new and then in a totally new context and format, and with limitations based on the pandemic and safety. We wanted to use the pandemic as an inspiration to the story, but it is also a staging challenge because we’ve decided to re-devise our work by limiting the cast and crew.
I’m also excited to be sharing it with audiences. It’s such a trippy thing to not see your audience. You know things are happening live, but it’s weird to perform in your warehouse socially distanced and knowing that they’re out there.
We will also offer puppet-time at the end of our shows. There’s going to be a chat feature on our website and people can ask us questions and see behind-the-scenes. We are hoping that will act as a level of engagement for audiences.
D: That’s wonderful, and also how you’re bringing into the story itself pieces of how we’re living right now, families being apart.
Julia: Yeah, that’s such an important feature! For everyone who isn’t traveling for the holidays, and Zooming with family for Thanksgiving is a thing now. We wanted to speak to that in our adaptation, something of the time in the time. You know, of the moment in the moment. We thought it would be important to acknowledge that. It’s also a really impactful framing device, because, for me at least, there’s a catharsis in seeing that there are other people having to deal with the thing that you’re dealing with. Being isolated from your family and having to social distance is part of our reality. We can normalize it, but it is a challenge, and I think speaking to that hopefully provides some comfort.
D: What do you hope audiences leave with when they see the show?
Julia: I hope there’s some catharsis in seeing Aunt Trudy going on her journey. I also think there’s a lot of joy to be had in the adaptation of the novel. The book itself is a really fun story and seeing it as a puppet show is very entertaining. I hope that people will be entertained, but also I hope we can offer them some catharsis too in seeing Aunt Trudy have to go through this story arc of discovering the importance of family and the value, and also the challenges of being separated from them.
D: Well, I just have one more question for you—you have some commissioners on this show…
Julia: We have 32 presenters and at least a dozen commissioners.
D: That’s a lot. What is so exciting for audiences to be able to see this work first. Why is it extra special for them to be able to see your work through someone who is commissioning or presenting it around the country?
Julia: Well, it puts us in the unique position in that we can have several shows happening across the country at the same time. We are streaming and performing it every night from Chicago, but on any given weekend it could be in California, or St. Louis, or Hawaii. Since we are unable to tour, it’s a great opportunity to share our work with audiences that we can’t travel to safely right now. We can keep those relationships and provide our audience across the country with some special holiday content.