A Shadow Puppet Performance Delves into Dementia and Post-Industrial Detroit

Performed at the Columbia Festival of the Arts, Manual Cinema’s The End of TV impressively incorporates shadow puppetry, live actors, video feeds, a live quintet, and lots of cutout paper props.

Manual Cinema’s The End of TV (photo by Julia Miller)

COLUMBIA, Md. — Ever wonder where all those overhead projectors from elementary school ended up? While most are probably buried in the landfill under years of newer technology, a fair amount are now in the hands of Chicago-based artist collective Manual Cinema, which has been using them in performing some of the most creative shadow puppet theater since 2010.

Wrapping up the 30th annual Columbia Festival of the Arts last month, Manual Cinema’s unique performance integrated shadow puppetry with live actors constantly switching roles (and wigs), live video feeds, a live quintet, and lots of cutout paper props. The performance was akin to a behind-the-scenes look of the making of a movie, with the film itself made in real time and projected on a screen above all the action, using a few of the aforementioned overhead projectors which make the image look like a grainy old movie. The puppeteers ran around on stage, setting up each scene in a meticulously choreographed dance so as not to block the cameras and create extra shadows. The precision needed to pull this all off was both impressive and astounding.

Manual Cinema’s The End of TV (photo by Judy Rosenthal)

As for the story, The End of TV revolves around two characters in post-industrial Detroit — a young black woman named Louise and an elderly white woman named Flo. Louise gets laid off from her car assembly line job when the factory closes and subsequently finds a job delivering food for Meals on Wheels, which is how she meets Flo, who used to work on the same car assembly lines back in Detroit’s heyday but is now struggling with dementia.

Manual Cinema’s rendering of Flo’s dementia was both the most memorable and, obviously, the most moving aspect of the performance. Like many old women who live alone, Flo spends a lot of time watching TV. She’s particularly fond of shopping channels, often buying things just for the sake of buying them, piling up delivery boxes in her hallway. Flo’s bouts of dementia often involve her getting pulled into the TV and into infomercials and commercials — all of which are lovingly and convincingly created by the members of Manual Cinema. One she keeps going back to is the land of the Jolly Green Giant, who leads her through verdant fields and reunites her with her long-lost daughter. When she comes to, Flo finds herself walking in the middle of the highway.

Manual Cinema’s The End of TV (photo by Judy Rosenthal)

The End of TV packs a huge amount of themes, all carefully arranged into the stories of these two women, creating complex characters out of literal two-dimensional shadows. Themes include aging and dementia as well as race relations, social services, the decline and emptying of Detroit, foreclosures, the history of union labor and women’s rights, and, of course, changing technologies.

Manual Cinema’s The End of TV (photo by Judy Rosenthal)

Technology is one theme with which Manual Cinema is particularly enamored. It’s a red thread that weaves through many of the group’s projects, and it takes on a meta-narrative quality, what with the extremely traditional technologies used to create the shows. Perhaps following a larger trend in going back to basics and making things from scratch, Manual Cinema’s performances highlight the importance of simpler technologies and handmade objects, but without rejecting the new. (They use live video streaming, after all.) The title of the show, The End of TV, seems to represent more the end of an era of manufacturing than the literal end of television, and although TV at times takes over Flo’s life, there’s no judgment as to whether it’s furthering her illness or making her life less lonely. The TV itself, and the shopping channels and commercials, are just a stand-in to mark the passage of time.

Manual Cinema’s The End of TV  was performed at the Columbia Festival of the Arts (Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center at Howard Community College) on June 24.  

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