The history of movies is a history of two parallel impulses: to record reality as faithfully as possible with a minimum of artifice, and to conjure illusions that look for something true beneath the real.
These are the traditions of the Lumière brothers and of Georges Méliès: of scientists documenting the movement of workers leaving a factory, and of a magician and acrobats shooting rockets into the face of a winking moon.
The End of TV, a new multimedia performance from the Chicago-based collaborative Manual Cinema, finds harmony between these two competing impulses in a show that embraces both artistry and its mechanics. It’s playing this week at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Through a combination of actors, overhead projectors, live musical accompaniment, green screens, and carefully designed and manipulated cut-outs, Manual Cinema merges elements of theater, cinema, and shadow puppetry in such a way that the stage is witness to two stories at once: that of the artwork itself, and that of the artwork’s creation.
The narrative of The End of TV examines the tumult of deindustrialization and the rapid rise of consumer technology in late 20th-century Detroit through the stories of two women: an elderly, housebound woman whose grief and dementia find a paralyzing outlet in the mindless consumerism of late-night infomercials (think Ellen Burstyn’s drug-addled matriarch in Requiem for a Dream), and a younger woman who loses her job at a shuttered automobile factory and can only find work again as a driver for Meals on Wheels.
The two women’s lives intersect briefly as the latter delivers food to and temporarily cares for the former, whose physical and mental health are rapidly deteriorating beneath the weight of eviction notices and predatory telemarketing. Although the companionship between these two women is fleeting, the connection made takes root, and each tries to emerge from this brief relationship with the peace of mind and inspiration necessary to shape their lives anew.
Neither woman’s story, past, present, or future, is communicated to the audience via dialogue. Rather, Manual Cinema performs a carefully choreographed ballet of light, sound, and movement that brings to life an alternative reality where movies are created live, on stage, right before the audience’s near-disbelieving eyes.
The screen where the visual elements of the story play out hangs securely above the stage, presenting the audience with an animated film of silhouettes, hand-drawn backgrounds, and the occasional interruption of a live actor’s visage amidst the artifice. The movie employs the full spectrum of cinematic language, from close-ups to establishing shots to double exposure to montage, leveraging the complex potential of visual communication to keep the audience engaged with the wordless story.
Beneath the screen, however, the audience is treated to the making of the movie itself, getting to watch the labor and collaboration and craft and timing of collective artistic creation as it is transformed in real time into the movie on the screen above. It’s a bit like watching a car building itself as you drive it around the block: a familiar experience rendered miraculous through the exposure of its precise inner workings.
Stage right, three overhead projectors (like the ones you would see in a high school chemistry classroom) are positioned side by side, pointing away from the audience and towards a plain backdrop. Actors and puppeteers cycle in front of and behind the projectors, carefully adjusting the faders and transparencies when operating the devices, and miming their characters’ roles within the story when before the screen. The shadows of the live actors, puppets, and inanimate objects, along with the illustrated backgrounds in which they perform, are captured in shadow in reverse by a camera behind the backdrop, which then transmits the images to the screen above the stage.
To the left of the shadow studio, a second set with a camera, props, and a green screen allow the actors to show their faces amidst vibrantly artificial cartoon backgrounds. The actors and projector operators edit the movie in real time, rushing back and forth across the stage in between wardrobe changes to adjust which image should be presented on the screen above, and when.
At stage left, a six-piece orchestra of cello, violin, keyboards, flute, and percussion propel each scene forward with an emotional expressiveness that both complements and amplifies the visual music being made by the actors and puppeteers to their right.
The beauty of The End of TV lies in its dual status as an affecting story and effective storytelling. When the disorienting static of late night television shocks the elderly character into muddled disarray, or when the younger character finds solace in harvesting a shadow vegetable from her newly fertile land, the audience gets to experience not just a moment within the life of the character. It gets to experience a moment of live artistic creation, playing out on the stage in front of them, with little to hide and lots to show.
A movie that somehow presents its illusion and its reality hand in hand.
The End of TV plays at the University Theatre on York Street through Thursday, June 22 as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. This week’s run represents the show’s world premiere.