Leonardo & Sam promo

Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol

2021/2022 Tour Dates

Mon - Fri,
Oct 18 - Nov 5, 2021
Seattle Theatre Group
Leonardo & Sam
Nov 12
Red Cloud Motus Imago
Wed, Fri, & Sat,
Dec 8,10, & 11
Purdue University
Christmas Carol
West Lafayette, IN
Tue - Tue,
Jan 18 - Feb 1, 2022
Cal Poly Arts
Leonardo & Sam
San Luis Obispo, CA
Tue - Sat,
Jan 25 - March 5
Chicago Children’s Theatre
Chicago, IL
Feb 11
BYU Arts Pardoe Theatre
Provo, UT
Feb 15
University of Florida Phillips Center
Gainesville, FL

Please check back soon for newly announced tour dates!

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“A Decade of Puppets in Organized Chaos”

– Nancy Coleman, The New York Times

full article (PDF)

Lula del Ray, a Spectral Parade of Fantastical Images”

Ben Brantley, New York Times

full article (PDF)

“an unclassifiable story of spectral beauty”

Ben Brantley, New York Times

full article (PDF)

“The virtuosic group makes elegant live-scored “silent films” that evoke sweetness, poignancy and fright.”

– Helen Shaw, Time Out New York

full article (PDF)

More Press Quotes

“I feel like I’m not doing justice to explaining how magical this all was . . . unimaginably intricate”

Loren Novek, NY
full article (PDF)

“. . .the boundaries between cinema and live theater, puppetry and reality”

– Meagan Doherty, The University of Chicago Magazine
full article

“Calling Manual Cinema ‘shadow puppetry’ doesn’t do it justice.”

Ashira Norris, PBS News Hour
full article

Full-article press links for “Ada/Ava” (PDF)

“It’s with these simple tools – paper, plastic and light – that Chicago-based Manual Cinema, a shadow puppet company, manages to create a world that makes the absence of light look alive.”

Wilson Sayre, WLRN
full article

“The troupe’s shadow puppetry ‘combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic motifs, and live sound manipulation to create immersive theatrical stories,’… in a style that would be familiar to devotees of early cinema.”

David Leveille, Public Radio International
full article

Assorted press quotes from Manual Cinema’s 2015 NYC run of ADA/AVA


Bereaved of her twin sister Ava, septuagenarian Ada solitarily marks time in the patterns of a life built for two. However, a traveling carnival and a trip to a mirror maze plunges her into a journey across the thresholds of life and death. Set in a landscape of the New England gothic, Ada/Ava uses a story of the fantastic and super natural to explore mourning and melancholy, self and other.

Manual Cinema’s Ada/Ava was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in the category of Unique Theatrical Experience: Visit the Drama Desk Awards website for video.

A note from Drew Dir, the Director of Ada/Ava:

“Ada/Ava 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. In creating the show, we discovered that by making the story about identical twins, we could communicate so much about their relationship through shadow without having to use a word of dialogue. The result is partly a ghost story and suspense thriller, but also a very personal portrait of these two characters, Ada and Ava.

“There are nearly three hundred handmade shadow puppets featured in Ada/Ava. They are manipulated on old-school overhead projectors to create what is essentially a live animated film. There’s no dialogue; instead, the projections are supported by an original musical score that is performed live by an ensemble of musicians. We’ve toured Ada/Ava from New York to Tehran, and are thrilled to be bringing it to the Edinburgh Fringe via the Underbelly in August, 2016”

Lula del Ray is performed with overhead projectors, shadow puppets, actors in silhouette, and live music. Told almost entirely sans dialogue, Lula del Ray is the story of a lonely adolescent girl who lives with her mother on the outskirts of a vast satellite array in the middle of the desert. After a chance encounter over the radio, Lula becomes obsessed with a soulful country music duo, the Baden Brothers. Inspired by their music, she runs away from home and into a world of danger, deception, and disappointment.

Set in the mid-century American Southwest and inspired by the music of Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and Patsy Cline, Lula del Ray is a mythic reinvention of the classic coming-of-age story. Lula del Ray was developed at the University of Chicago in the Theater and Performance Studies Program where Manual Cinema served as Ensemble-in-Residence in the Summer and Fall of 2012.

Manual Cinema’s Photo Booth is available as a participatory addition to your future event programming. Perfect for celebratory gatherings, Manual Cinema’s Photo Booth captures the moment in a beautifully designed and interactive way. Manual Cinema’s Photo Booth is an interactive photo booth and art installation. It captures the silhouettes and profiles of your guests in a ‘cameo’ style. Attendees are able to mix and match their own settings and backgrounds, then jump inside the image for their photo. The image is then captured digitally and given in an electronic format (via Dropbox or hard copy DVD) to the host after the event.


Loosely adapted from Edith Nesbit’s 1910 novel, Manual Cinema’s The Magic City tells the story of nine-year-old Philomena, who must learn to build a new life with some unexpected characters. Using overhead projectors, paper shadow puppets, live actors in silhouette, a live music ensemble, and miniature toy theatre, Manual Cinema’s adaptation of “Magic City” has updated the novel for a modern retelling, creating a miniature city on stage that the audience can explore themselves after every performance.

Set in a post-industrial Rust Belt city in the 1990s and told through a collection of original 70’s R&B-inspired art pop songs, The End of TV explores the quest to find meaning amongst the increasingly constant barrage of commercial images and advertising white-noise. Two sides of the American Dream — its technicolor promise as delivered through TV ads, and its failure, witnessed in the dark reality of industrial decline — are staged in cinematic shadow puppetry and lo-fi live video feeds with flat paper renderings of commercial products. The show is driven by a sweeping chamber art pop song cycle performed live by a seven-piece band.

The End of TV depicts the decline of an American rust belt city through the stories of Flo and Louise, both residents of a fictional Midwestern town. Flo is an elderly white woman who was once a supervisor at the thriving local auto plant; now succumbing to dementia, her memories of her life are tangled with television commercials and the “call now” demands of QVC. Louise, a young black woman laid off from her job when the same local auto plant closes, meets Flo when she takes a job as a Meals-on-Wheels driver. The two women begin an unlikely relationship as Flo approaches the end of her life and Louise prepares for the invention of a new one. Their story is intercut with commercials and TV programs that are the constant background of their environment. One hour in length, The End of TV is performed by 4 actor/puppeteers, 4 musicians, and 1 video/sound effects/singer, and tours will a total of 11 people.

Premiering June 19-22 at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT.

Celebrating the life and poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks features a screenplay by Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall of Crescendo Literary and with music by Jamila Woods and Ayanna Woods. The first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, Brooks was known for her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of the 1960’s. No Blue Memories is performed by Manual Cinema’s signature combination of shadow puppets, actors in silhouette, and live music. No Blue Memories was commissioned by the Poetry Foundation for the Brooks Centenary and premiered in Chicago in November, 2017.

No Blue Memories promo

Manual Cinema worked in collaboration with the New York Times to create shadow animations and original music/ sound design for The Forger, a short film about the life and work of Adolfo Kaminsky- the famed Paris Forger that worked during WWII.

“How do you become a forger? Out of necessity and by chance,” says Adolfo Kaminsky. As a teenager, Kaminsky saved thousands of lives by forging passports to help children flee the Nazis. He spent his life helping others escape atrocities around the world.

This is the story of the secret life of Adolfo Kaminsky, a man who spent decades making fake passports so that people could cross borders and flee persecution.

The Forger has been nominated for a Peabody Award.


By Samantha Stark, Alexandra Garcia, Pamela Druckerman and Manual Cinema Studios.

When the persona of “Death” unexpectedly finds herself in California, she trades her scythe for an iPhone and wanders Hollywood, “swiping right” on loss and introducing unexpected connections into the otherwise disparate lives of a ghost, a young girl, and an elderly projectionist. Originally premiered at the MCA Chicago in 2016, Mementos Mori is a lively, beguiling meditation on death and dying in a time of technology through the lens of Tinseltown.

Love, loss, and creation merge in unexpected ways in this thrilling classic gothic tale conceived by Manual Cinema. Stories of Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein, and his Monster expose how the forces of family, community, and education shape personhood—or destroy it by their absence.

In a special world premiere presentation, internationally-renowned multimedia company Manual Cinema stitches together the classic story of Frankenstein with Mary Shelley’s own biography to create an unexpected story about the beauty and horror of creation. Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music to create immersive visual stories for stage and screen.

Frankenstein will have it’s New York premiere at The Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival Jan. 3-13, 2019.

Court Theatre presented the World Premiere of Frankenstein
November 1 – December 2, 2018

Leonardo! A Wonderful Show about a Terrible Monster

Leonardo is a terrible monster. He tries so hard to be scary, but he just…isn’t. Then Leonardo finds Sam, the most scaredy-cat kid in the world. Will Leonardo finally get his chance to scare the tuna salad out of an unsuspecting human? Or will it be the start of an unlikely friendship? The plot thickens when this pair meets Kerry and Frankenthaler, an even scaredier-cat and her monster friend. Kerry and Sam will need to make a big decision: will they be friends or will they be controlled by their fears?

This live theatre production is adapted from the beloved children’s books by Mo Willems, and realized through live actors, 3D puppets, DIY cinema, and immersive sound by Manual Cinema. Leonardo & Sam tells the story of a monster who longs to be scary and the big decisions about identity and empathy that we all must make.

Leonardo & Sam was commissioned by The Kennedy Center and premiered as a film in March, 2021. It will received its stage world premiere at the Chicago Children’s Theatre, January 25 – March 6, 2022.

Leonardo & Sam Marketing Document

Leonardo & Sam press review links

Leonardo & Sam video links

The Kennedy Center Leonardo & Sam Study Guide

Manual Cinema and Third Coast Percussion are collaborating to create a new touring piece with working title “Middle Western.” Premiering in summer or fall 2021 and available for tour dates in the 2021/2022 season, the companies are actively seeking co-commissioning support, workshopping partners, and presenters.

In the popular imagination, the American Midwest has always been hard to pin down. Called “flyover country,” “the heart of America,” “the first stop,” “the last resort,” “the most ‘American’ part of America,” it has been home to various peoples for tens of thousands of years. From the outside, its boundaries, borders, and significance shift in the wind – but the Midwest has concrete and universal stories to tell. In light of the future of our planet  in the context of climate change, these stories take on new significance. The stories of the American Midwest offer new ways of thinking and reimagining. “Middle Western” aims to tell some of those stories, traversing time and space to trace the interconnectedness of people, natural systems, place, and history.

Click here for more information.

In this world-premiere online event created for audiences of all ages, Manual Cinema takes on Charles Dickens’s holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol,” with a visually inventive adaptation made specifically for the 2020 holiday season. An avowed holiday skeptic, Aunt Trudy has been recruited to channel her late husband Joe’s famous Christmas cheer. From the isolation of her studio apartment, she reconstructs his annual Christmas Carol puppet show – over a Zoom call while the family celebrates Christmas Eve under lockdown. But as Trudy becomes more absorbed in her own version of the story, the puppets take on a life of their own, and the family’s call transforms into a stunning cinematic adaptation of Dickens’s classic ghost story.

Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol will run one hour in length. It will be told with hundreds of paper puppets, miniatures, silhouettes, and a live original score in an imaginative re-invention of a cherished holiday tradition. The company will stream live 22 performances between December 3 – 20, 2020 from their studio in Chicago.


Manual Cinema is a performance collective, design studio, and film/ video production company founded in 2010 by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia VanArsdale Miller, and Kyle Vegter. Manual Cinema combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music to create immersive stories for stage and screen. Using vintage overhead projectors, multiple screens, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, multi-channel sound design, and a live music ensemble, Manual Cinema transforms the experience of attending the cinema and imbues it with liveness, ingenuity, and theatricality.

To date Manual Cinema has created three feature length live cinematic shadow puppet shows (Lula Del Ray, ADA/ AVA, Mementos Mori); site-specific installations (La Celestina, My Soul’s Shadow); music videos, cinematic trailers; short films; and live cinematic puppet adaptations of StoryCorps stories (Show & Tell). Their work has been commissioned by the Logan Square Arts Center, the University of Chicago, and eighth blackbird.

Manual Cinema’s work has been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) The Tehran International Puppet Festival (Iran), the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Noorderzon Festival (Netherlands), The O, Miami Poetry Festival, Handmade Worlds Puppet Festival (Minneapolis), The Screenwriters’ Colony in Nantucket, The Detroit Institute of Art, The Future of Storytelling Conference (NYC), the NYC Fringe Festival, The Poetry Foundation (Chicago), the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, the Puppeteers of America: Puppet Festival (R)evolution, and elsewhere around the world, including various bars and found spaces around the city.

The Tehran International Puppet Festival (Iran)

Drew Dir has worked as a puppeteer, playwright, dramaturg, and director in Chicago and London. Most recently, his short play The Lurker Radio Hour was voted Best Production at Collaboraction’s Sketchbook 8 at the Steppenwolf Garage; his Sketchbook plays have been called “daring” by the Chicago Tribune and “ballsy” by Time Out Chicago. He holds an MA in Text and Performance Studies from King’s College London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Currently, Drew is Resident Dramaturg at Court Theatre and a Lecturer in Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago.

Sarah Fornace is a choreographer, performer, and narrative theorist based in Chicago. Her interests include: narrative structure, theories of time, non-verbal storytelling, spectacle, and interactions with (in)animate objects. She has choreographed fights and stunts for Depaul University, Court Theatre, Red Orchid Theatre, Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep. series, The New Colony, Adventure Stage, and elsewhere. She has performed with Redmoon, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Collaboraction, and Babes with Blades.  Sarah has been a member of Blair Thomas and Company (puppetry) and Boum Twa (ladder acrobatics). She is also a member of Cirque du Soleil’s artist database. She currently teaches movement at Columbia College Chicago.

Ben Kauffman is a multi-disciplinary artist who creates installations, interactive media, video, and participatory environments. His most recent work has been exhibited at CUNY’s Baruch College and Freshkills Park on Staten Island, and he has given talks and workshops at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York University, Baruch College, and Parsons The New School of Design. He is also the co-creator of the interactive web-based zine, SMOG. He holds a Master’s degree from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and is based in Brooklyn, NY.

Julia VanArsdale Miller specializes in the tactile and movement arts. She is a director, puppeteer, and graphic designer. Manual Cinema provides her with an outlet for many artistic impulses, including but not limited to breathing life into the inanimate, making delicate small things, and telling stories without words. She holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University and has studied professionally under Teatro Punto, Familie Flöz, and Double Edge Theatre.

Kyle Vegter is a composer, producer, sound designer, and Managing Artistic Director of Manual Cinema. As a composer he’s been commissioned by such groups as TIGUE, the Chicago Composer’s Orchestra, and Homeroom Chicago. His production credits span genres, and include recent releases by Thin Hymns, Spektral Quartet, Tim Munro (of eighth blackbird), and Color Card. His past Composer/ Sound Designer credits with Manual Cinema include Lula Del Ray, Ada/ Ava, FJORDS, and various other performance and video projects. He has been an artist in residence at High Concept Laboratories, and co-founded Chicago’s only contemporary classical music cassette label Parlour Tapes+.

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