Low Tech, High Concept

Manual Cinema blends artistry, puppetry, and live music to celebrate the life and poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks

November 25, 2019

By Mary Murdock

In 2010, a group of artists in Chicago came together to create something that no one had ever quite seen before: a live performance with shadow puppets, silhouetted actors, live music, and little-to-no dialogue, in which something like a film was being made in real time. They thought that this first creation, a 20-minute piece titled Lula del Ray, would be a fun, one-off creative experience. But soon enough, people started asking what their next project would be. Dubbing their company and their craft “Manual Cinema,” they took this unexpected collaboration and laid the foundation for a decade of innovative storytelling. Now, years later, Manual Cinema has created and performed 18 of what coartistic director Sarah Fornace calls “movie[s] made live” for audiences around the world.

“The first time I saw a production by Manual Cinema, time disappeared,” recalls Joi Brown, Strathmore’s artistic director. “I was completely immersed in the magical world created by this innovative company.” 

And innovate they do, using low-tech materials like simple paper puppets and retro overhead projectors to create enthralling live motion pictures. 


No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, commissioned by the Poetry Foundation in 2017 for the celebrated Chicago poet’s centenary, unfolds Brooks’ remarkable life and work before the audience’s eyes. 

What’s more, the performance is “very much a union between music and visual art,” says Fornace, director of No Blue Memories. She sees music as “the omniscient narrator” in Manual Cinema’s stories, as most of their pieces have no dialogue at all. The live musical accompaniment, which in No Blue Memories was composed by Chicago-based sisters Jamila and Ayanna Woods, adds to the immersive atmosphere, expanding the energy and emotional depth of the experience. 

One of the most radical things that Manual Cinema does in its productions is expose the mechanics behind the artistry to the audience.  

“Audiences see two views simultaneously—one of the artists and their craft, and one of the finished work,” says Brown. A typical film or theatrical production goes to great lengths to avoid disrupting the illusion of effortlessness, concealing the labor that went into producing the art. However, at a Manual Cinema performance, an audience member can, at any given moment, focus on either the motion picture taking place on the screen or the puppeteers, musicians, and actors working below it. 

“It’s all about giving the audience agency,” explains Fornace. “You’ll always catch something that the person beside you hasn’t.” In this way, each audience member gets to create their own unique experience as they watch, putting the pieces of the story together in a way that is colored by their own perspective.



The way that Manual Cinema blurs the lines between the art, the artist, and the audience suits the story of Gwendolyn Brooks perfectly. Brooks’ legacy is palpable in Chicago, her home city, where she balanced her national status as the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize with her fierce dedication to local students. “Everyone [in Chicago] has a story about Gwendolyn Brooks,” notes Fornace, whether it was an encounter with the woman herself, who frequented local schools and libraries, or an emotional connection with her poetry. Fornace and the rest of the Manual Cinema team made a point of collaborating with Chicago natives Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall, who worked together to write the screenplay for No Blue Memories. “They aren’t only experts and professors [of poetry], but poets themselves,” says Fornace. The Woods sisters, who compose and direct the music for the piece, are also poets and musicians native to Chicago, and their score, along with the other narrative elements, artfully infuses the words of Brooks’ poetry into the story of her life. “I was a little nervous, not having done dialogue before,” admits Fornace, but “the words are so incredibly powerful to see performed live.” 

It would be nearly impossible to get a full grasp of Brooks’ life story without hearing the words of her poetry. Her work is a hallmark of the Black Arts Movement, celebrating and demonstrating the deep artistic capacity of the black community while also exposing the structural injustices that continue to hold people back. Her artistic work and political activism became more and more intertwined throughout her career, and No Blue Memories follows that progression. “She became quite radical,” says Fornace, writing “very eloquently and powerfully about Emmet Till and the race riots in Chicago,” along with a number of other prominent issues of her time. “She was really an artist for her community.” 



Brooks’ life and work is heavily entrenched in the artistic culture of Chicago, and according to Fornace, performing the piece in its home city was a “singular, heart wrenching experience.” However, she takes pride in the universality of the piece, noting that everywhere it has been performed so far, “everybody had a very visceral reaction to the work.” Indeed, anyone who has ever experienced prejudice, been diminished by others, or faced obstacles in their career can relate to Brooks’ story. For it to be performed through Manual Cinema’s groundbreaking art form is a distinct opportunity for audiences to experience her story on a personal level. “As we encounter close-mindedness,” says Fornace, “looking to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks is the best thing we can do.”