In a cool room with brick walls, blankets block any light coming through the windows. In the middle of the room, three overhead projectors sit opposite a white screen, where four actors perform as silhouettes, then quickly run behind the projectors to place and move the slides that create the set and backdrop for their performance. Much like an assembly line, there are many moving parts in this rehearsal space as Manual Cinema prepares for the July 19 Chicago debut of The End of TV at the Chopin Theatre.
The End of TV premiered last summer at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut, and thanks to a New England Foundation of the Arts National Theater Project Grant, Manual will be touring the show around the midwest this summer.
A tour of the midwest is appropriate, as The End of TV is set in an unnamed rust belt city and follows the lives of two women, Flo and Louise. Flo is an elderly white woman with dementia. She spends her days among boxes of QVC products that she keeps ordering; in her mind, the lines between reality, memories, and television have blurred. Louise is a young black woman who has recently been laid off at the local automotive plant. She takes a job at Meals on Wheels and subsequently meets Flo. Using puppets, actors, overhead projectors, a green screen and live camera feed, the show takes a look at our relationship with television, advertising, and consumption.
As the artistic directors of Manual Cinema learn more with each project they make, their technique gets more difficult says Julia Miller, one of the five artistic directors. The green screen and live camera feed are new storytelling tools for the company; in this show they will allow the puppeteers to recreate shows and advertisements from the 1990’s. There’s a QVC channel, an advertisement for Socker Boppers, and even a moment with Urkel.
“I hope [the audience] feels like they went on a journey with the show and feel attached to the characters and what they go through,” Miller says. She says that the audience at the show’s New Haven premier greatly appreciated the nostalgia of the 1990’s television references.
The End of TV was written by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, two of the company’s artistic directors who work on the sound design and music side of things. Miller says that the two originally wrote the play as a song cycle.
“Usually we start with an outline, then create the visuals and those get scored,” Miller explains. “But this, we had the entire score to the show as well as the script before we got to storyboarding. So the music is a really big part of the production.” While Manual Cinema does have live music in each show, The End of TV features a five-piece band.
This Chicago debut comes in the midst of what has been a busy year for the shadow puppet company. The performers spent the early portion of the year touring the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Czech Republic. So, Miller says, the company is not only happy to be performing for a home audience, but also happy to have to be in one place for a “sit-down run.”
After The End of TV, Manual will continue to work on its adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is set to be a part of the Court Theatre’s subscription series this fall.
The End of TV, Thu 7/19- Sun 8/5: Thu-Sat 7 PM, Sun 3 PM, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, 773-278-1500, chopintheatre.com, $30, $20 students and seniors, $15 on 7/19.