The End of TV Manual Cinema

Extra show - Sun 8/5/18 @ 7p.

4 Stars - "..deeply moving show from Manual Cinema.. the very retro-coolest and most creatively compulsive show of the Chicago Summer" - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Told as a song cycle with live visuals, set in a post-industrial Rust Belt city in the 1990's, The End of TV explores the quest to find meaning amongst the constant barrage of commercial images designed to sell us lifestyles in the interest of selling us junk.

7/19-8/15. Thu-Sat 7p, Sun 3p.  $30/$20.

Read 7 reviews @ More Info

7/20/18 - 8/5/18

Thu-Sat 7pm; Sun 3pm

"Puppets, green screens: How did Manual Cinema become the toughest ticket in Wicker Park?" - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 8/1/18. - "In its greatest moments, the Chicago theater has invented entirely new forms of creative expression. In 1955, for example, David Shepherd created a comedy-cabaret group called the Compass Players. Shepherd wanted to be as artistically reactive as possible to societal change. He ended up parenting what is now known as improv.

In the early 1990s, Lookingglass Theatre created a very distinct visual aesthetic for its ensemble-driven shows; a crucial addition to a Midwestern theater scene that mostly had been trapped in domestic realism.  And if you lived in Chicago in the 2000s, before Redmoon Theater flamed out, you'll recall that company being almost impossible to describe to someone who never had seen their work. It was that distinctive - spectacle-oriented but not quite circus, homemade but hipster-friendly, kid-simple but not, story-based but never fully comfortable with narrative cohesion.

Which brings me to Manual Cinema, which has a very cool show right now at the Chopin Theatre, "The End of TV." It's a very tough ticket.

Manual Cinema also feels like a completely fresh direction - the company hand-makes a movie right before your eyes, combining live actors in front of a green screen with cutaway images, music and puppetry. You watch the film, and you watch it being made. That's the brand.

It is very stimulating, which is a good thing in our present moment, when I sometimes think that most theater does not offer enough stimulation of the senses, especially for a Generation Z audience now used to watching several screens at a time. How will live performance compete with that?  At "The End of TV" (a title that can be understood on many different levels), if you get bored with the story, you can turn your attention to how the story is being made.

As I watched the show the other night, it felt to me that Manual Cinema was really on to something important: The need not only for audiences to find lots of different ways into a show but also for transparency of manufacture.  "The End of TV" is the perfect piece of theater for people who spend a lot of their time listening to podcasts. It actually feels like a podcast - except there is somewhere for your eyes to go.

The theater has been very slow to understand this seismic change in how we consume the arts: Most companies still conceal their backstage areas from the public, as if any revelation thereof will spoil the illusion. You're only supposed to watch what the artists want you to watch. This has been the theater's historic role for at least 200 years, of course, but it's showing its age. These days, people like to be involved in their own curation, they do not necessarily want to consume their culture at the whim of an artistic director other than themselves.

At the Marriott Theatre last weekend, I watched something go wrong in a show called "Murder For Two," and what the actors did to cover up the technical glitch was far more entertaining than the show itself. For it was the most alive.

Manual Cinema has been around since 2010, when it was founded by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter. I have reviewed its work before - the show prior to "The End of TV" was "The Magic City" at Chicago Children's Theatre. There has also been several collaborations with such groups as Hubbard Street Dance.  But if you really look at how much Manual Cinema has produced, you realize that there really has not been all that many pieces. That's because they are fiendishly time-consuming and complex to create. They are not built and rehearsed in a month. The other thing that has happened to the company is that the word is very much out about its work - Manual Cinema now is spending most of its time touring to other markets. Most Chicagoans have never heard its name.

I'd also add that Manual Cinema, unlike many of its peers, has never engaged in much self-promotion.

Yet the company, which has affiliated itself with the University of Chicago at various points, is an obvious candidate for civic spectacles of a distinctive kind - it could be the natural successor to Redmoon.  If it wants to be.

The work certainly is ideal for kids (as "The Magic City" proved), especially since Manual Cinema encourages you to come backstage (not that there is a backstage in the usual sense) after the show and see how the images are created.

But "The End of TV" is very much an adult show, given its inherent sadness and thematic complexity. Moreover, you can appreciate Manual Cinema without understanding the English language; this is not work dependent on words, but on the building of images and the expression of poignant and profound ideas about how we build and then mess up our great cities.

And the lives of the people who inhabit them"

Four Stars. Highly Recommended - The End of TV' review: With puppets, projections and a Rust Belt story, Manual Cinema works magic, Chris Jones - Chicago Tribune 7/23/17. - "It's popular to lament the isolation of the digital age. But "The End of TV," the deeply moving show from Manual Cinema now at the Chopin Theatre mainstage for the next few days, is a useful reminder that consumerism did not begin with Amazon, Apple did not invent staring inanely at a screen for hours at a time and the giant oligarchical networks of old had a stranglehold on the lives of the lonely that no current entity could ever hope to duplicate.

At least we have more choice now.

All that said, "The End of TV," surely the very retro-coolest and most creatively compulsive show of the Chicago summer, is not really about the end of TV, which just changed channels anyway. It's actually about how we survive despite it living on.

Manual Cinema bills the show as depicting the "promise and decline of the American Rust Belt." My mind's eye last Thursday night clearly saw Detroit, just as the Motor City was racked by recession. I happened to be driving through that city, late on a foggy, rainy night, just a couple of days after seeing the piece, and, with a shudder of deja vu, it felt like this company's melancholy shadows had suddenly re-started the show in my windshield.

Penned by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman and beautifully directed by Julia Miller, this is the story of an unlikely friendship between two Michigan women of different races and generations, both former autoworkers. One is a lonely senior citizen who lost her only daughter to a car crash and now spends her days watching QVC, fighting off dementia, and ordering over the phone. The other is a younger woman who becomes a delivery driver after being laid off from the plant. She encounters the older woman through her job, unburdens her own issues with her past, and finally finds some purpose in a world tinged with sadness.

If you know Manual Cinema, you'll already have guessed that we don't encounter these two women in the usual way, but through a film made up of shadow puppets, projections, cut-outs before green screens and old-school overhead projectors. If you don't know Manual Cinema, this is what they create before your eyes. And as is typical, the semi-silent movie has a original soundtrack played by small, hipster orchestra, who collectively create a haunting soundscape. Manual Cinema calls the music "R&B-inspired art pop songs," which is pretty much on the money. You'll certainly hear echoes of the moodier artists of the 1990s. Nobody in the band smiles.

Manual Cinema has long been based in Chicago, but the word is very much out nationally, and the company now spends a lot of time on the road. "The End of TV," for example, was commissioned by and premiered at last year's International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Conn., where I expect people were blown away by the originality of the creative impulse. But even for those of us who have attended other Manual Cinema rodeos, this piece is something special. If feels far longer in gestation than the other works I've experienced and thus achieves much deeper levels of emotional engagement. And its execution is formidable.

Most evocative here are the images of how working people live, love and age in the shadows of factories that do not love them back. But I won't quickly forget how brilliantly Manual Cinema re-creates the old QVC broadcasts, with the intimate conversation that was just as fake as the price reductions in the corner of the screen. Much of this is done with live actors who appear as shadow puppets. These performers, who all are excellent, wear little masklike devices that sharpen their silhouettes when seen in profile, and thus they're at once human and something much sharper and sadder. If you go, you will see what I mean.

I am partial, I know, to works about dementia, having lived through it with my dad. This one feels uncommonly kind and yet honest about the struggles we have later in life, when work and TV no longer care about us and we're reliant on the milk of human kindness. And it's also a lovely tribute to caseworkers and all they do - that QVC and its contemporary ilk cannot destroy.  Manual Cinema has never shouted about its presence in Chicago. I kept thinking as I saw this piece how absurd it is that so few people, outside the arty crowd, really know of its existence.

Maybe  now you do."

Highly Recommended - "In Manual Cinema's The End of TV, two women help each other rediscover their humanity: The multimedia ensemble's latest production is a beautiful and transfixing examination of the effects of the industrial age. - Dimitri Samarov, Chicago Reader, 7/26/18" - "In an unnamed midwestern city sometime in the early 90s, an elderly white woman lives out her days entirely through her television, while a young black woman struggles to get by in a faltering economy. Their stories echo and intertwine in The End of TV, Manual Cinema's transfixing new multimedia show, which is receiving its Chicago premiere at the Chopin Theatre. It's a beautiful thing to look at and listen to, with enough real empathy for our country's living conditions to give it contemporary resonance.

Four agile performers run a continuous relay between a bank of overhead projectors and the two screens they illuminate. They interact with silhouettes of puppets and ever-changing backgrounds to present an overlapping narrative of youth and aging in a world increasingly dominated by screens and hucksters rather than nature and authentic human connection. The larger screen shows the internal and external lives of both women, while the smaller screen is devoted to an often nightmarish array of TV shows, dominated by the QVC shopping network, which the elderly woman watches religiously. The only speech in the piece is supplied by ghoulish TV talking heads and a song cycle performed by a talented seven-piece ensemble sitting stage left.

The old woman obsessively orders products after she sees them advertised on TV; her house fills up with boxes of things she doesn't need. Periodically, she's transported into a disturbing TV world in which the Jolly Green Giant steps away from hawking canned vegetables to talk directly to her. Whether these scenes are a manifestation of her advancing dementia or just an escape from the isolation of her day-to-day existence, this is clearly no way to live.

The young woman's life is shown through vignettes that jump in time between her girlhood and her working life as an adult. She grows up with a father who's an avid gardener; she finds him in the yard one day, fallen dead. She works at the auto plant just as he did but is laid off and forced to take a job delivering Meals on Wheels. The old woman is on her route, and she goes out of her way to help her because the older woman's confusion and helplessness is so evident. As she does so, her life gains new meaning.

The soullessness of factory work and television are contrasted repeatedly with the nurturing qualities of growing plants in the soil, the implication being that industrial society has alienated humanity from nature both literally and figuratively. The older woman has withdrawn entirely into the shadow play of her TV screen, while the younger one has gone about her life like an automaton since losing her father, from home to work and back.

In one of the most affecting sequences of the program, the young woman looks through the older woman's photographs and keepsakes, which appear to the audience as a montage on the screen. She sees her as a young Rosie the Riveter building tanks, sees her raising a daughter, and finally comes across a newspaper story about that daughter's premature death in an auto accident. The industry that has employed both women is also the source of much of their sorrow.

By sticking to these two particular lives, Manual Cinema is able to tell a universal story of contemporary alienation and loneliness. The only slightly false note in the production, strangely enough, is the song cycle that was its genesis. With titles such as "Love & Mortgages," the songs are often ploddingly on the nose when the rest of the show is airy and evocative. They spell out the critiques of capitalism that are much more poetically demonstrated by the puppets and performers. It's almost as if Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman, who wrote the show and perform in the band, didn't trust the audience to make sense of what's in front of them and insisted on handing out a bunch of Cliff's Notes, even though the action onstage is more than enough to get their message across. Thankfully, the words are often drowned out by the music and thus easy to ignore.

One of the great joys of any Manual Cinema production is to watch the madcap, kinetic activity of the performers as they make a movie come into being in front of our eyes. I found myself often looking away from the action to the tabletops cluttered with wigs, mannequin heads, and piles of puppets awaiting their turn. The genius of this company is the ability of its members to animate the most inert object. The lowliest paper cut is granted agency in the world they've created.

The end of TV, the show's basis, is unfortunately, as we all know too well, also the birth of the Internet. So while there's a moment of hope toward the end when the young woman cultivates the garden that has lain fallow since her father's death, that hope dims when a PC is delivered to her house and its ominous screen illuminates the room and eclipses the world outside".

Highly Recommended - The end of TV is largely light and shadow, Reno Lovison, - "It seems fitting that The Chopin Theater which began as a local movie house and evolved into a live theater venue, should play host to "The End of TV," a combination of live action and multimedia that comments so poignantly on the blurred reality between television and human interaction.

Simply speaking, the story-line centers around a chance encounter between a laid-off autoworker turned meals-on-wheels driver, Louise, (Aneisa Hicks) and a QVC home shopping obsessed elderly woman, Flo (Kara Davidson).

The time is the 1990s. The place is a post-industrial Rust Belt city. The action takes place amid advertising promises and commercial bombardment.  In the larger sense it is about isolation and the need for human connection.

The genius of this production is that it is performed using a combination of live action, shadow puppetry and video to create a sophisticated visual effect that seems more like a dream that is both real and unreal, and at the same time distinct and indistinct.

The dreamlike illusion is further enhanced by an evocative original R&B inspired musical score composed by Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter.

It is brilliantly performed by seven outstandingly talented and versatile musicians: Shalynn Brown aka RED (drums), Maren Celest (vocals, live sound FX, live video mixing), Deidre Huckabay (flutes, vocals), Ben Kauffman (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Lia Kohl (cello, vocals), Marques Toliver (vocals, violin) and Kyle Vegter (bass).

The production company, Chicago-based Manual Cinema, describes itself as a "performance collective." The final production is truly a collaboration that develops through the coordinated input of its various members.

It is my understanding that the inspiration for "The End of TV" began with music by Kauffman and Vegter that they then developed into a screen play. Julia Miller took on the awesome task of creating the story board and directing the action.

The ensemble of Kauffman, Vegter and Miller along with Lizi Breit, Drew Dir, and Sarah Fornace further adapted Miller's storyboard utilizing an assortment of high-tech and comparatively low-tech devices including an array of overhead projectors to provide the much needed light source for the shadow puppetry as well projecting the myriad transparencies and overlays that make up the backgrounds and animation effects.

The actual performance is carried out by puppeteers Kara Davidson, Aneisa Hicks, Jeffrey Paschal and Vanessa Valliere who play all of the parts in pantomime aided at times by a prerecorded voice over and employing an adept use of body language.

The small troupe moves seamlessly from task to task, changing costumes, managing animation slides, shadow puppets and live performance. The effect for the viewer is like being part of a studio audience at a teleplay or old-time radio show complete with on-stage orchestra.

Because of the complexity of this enterprise it's important to recognize the contributions of costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg; lighting design by Claire Chrzan; lighting associate Shelbi Arndt; masks by Julia Miller; stage manager Shelby Glasgow; production manager Mike Usrey; puppet build interns Zofia Lu Ya Zhang and Kathryn Ann Shivak.

An inspired performance of an art meets multi-media entertainment extravaganza, the is probably unlike anything you might have seen before.

Manual Cinema Creates The End of TV, a Magical Performance with Actors, Puppets and Retro Tech - Nancy Bishop, - "Every once in a while you get to see a work of theater that seems as if it could reinvent the form. Manual Cinema is a Chicago-based company that has earned international visibility for its unique, quirky, retro tech productions. You can see its latest, titled The End of TV, at the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park, but only through August 5.

It's hard to describe what actually happens in The End of TV. Creators Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter have composed a rich and dramatic art-pop song cycle, performed by seven musicians, which accompanies the story played out by actors and shadow puppets on multiple screens. The production is storyboarded and directed by Julia Miller.

The End of TV is set in pre-internet America in an unidentified midwestern post-industrial city. There is a moving story thread about an older woman with a QVC habit and symptoms of dementia, and a younger woman who loses her factory job and takes on a Meals on Wheels delivery job. Flo (Kara Davidson) and Louise (Aneisa Hicks) become friends as the older woman reaches the end of her life and the younger one invents a new one for herself. This story, along with vintage TV commercials and QVC "call-now" invitations, tangle with Flo's memories of her earlier life, working in the same auto plant where Louise has worked. This all plays out on a large central screen, where the actors' shadow figures interact with shadow puppets. The live actors move back and forth in front of a lower screen and the operators of the vintage overhead projectors magically move backgrounds, shadow puppets and more to display on the upper screen.

Meanwhile, on another screen set up to our left, QVC host Vanessa Valliere sells Snoopy caps, clothing and other merchandise. A TV news host, Jeffrey Paschal, also performs as a TV spiritualist offering emotional support to troubled viewers. The four actors are also puppeteers and projector operators. Simple costume changes involve wigs, caps and quick-change jackets, plus silhouette masks that actors wear to enhance their profiles on the projection screen.

An excellent band of seven musicians-singers and instrumentalists-performs the original music and lyrics by Kauffman and Vegter. From a song titled "Real Grace": "It's a smiling face / this economy / It's a bitter taste / this economy / It's a hard-hearted game / this economy.... It's a real place / this community / Made of real grace / this community."

Vegter is also sound designer and Mike Usrey is technical director and sound engineer. Puppets are designed by Lizi Breit. Claire Chrzan is lighting designer.

The End of TV is a magical hour in the theater. I enjoy seeing revitalized productions of work by my favorite playwrights like O'Neill, Shepard, Williams, Brecht, Stoppard and Shakespeare. Sometimes they enable you to hear those old words in a new way. But it's even more exciting to see theater created in a new and revolutionary shape. Manual Cinema was formed in 2010, and is now touring in Europe with another production. The next Manual Cinema production we can look forward to is its world premiere production of Frankenstein at Court Theatre, November 1 thru December 2.

"Manual Cinema's multi-disciplinary brilliance" -  - "Manual Cinema is currently presenting a three-week summer run of The End of TV, through August 5th at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. A critical and box office hit when it debuted last summer at The International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT, Manual Cinema's summer run at Chopin marks the Chicago premiere of The End of TV.

The End of TV is an "art popsong cycle" set to an original soundtrack with live music and visuals. The music is excellent, with multi-channel sound design, blues rock infused with a classical edge, the musicians very talented- they sing while playing! There are intriguing shadow puppets, cunningly masked/painted and wigged performers, numerous props, multiple screens, live feed cameras, 3 old-fashioned overhead projectors, and a host of performers working it all. Two manic characters on a side-screen portray television shills huckstering goods and meditative/religious salvation amid the cacophony of ads.

In a quasi-linear fashion, in a fluctuating 1970's time frame, in "post-industrial Rust Belt America", we are taken into a developing relationship between 2 women, told amidst the exhortations of The Shopping Network and with the strong-arm aid of The Jolly Green Giant.

The ensemble sings, acts, and projects the story. An older woman who has lost her daughter and whose home is becoming tumbledown and filled with her obsessive QVC purchases is befriended by a younger woman who has lost her job at a factory and is delivering for "Meals on Wheels". Their interaction bridges the paucity of their own lives and ends up freeing them both.

While the staging appears a little crowded, and the story could use a little clipping and tightening, the performance is nonetheless intensely immediate, stirring, humorous, and engaging. It is more, much more, than the sum of its parts. This is a unique multidisciplinary artistic experience. It provides a background of now antique crass advertising noise with a foreground of raw pathos and emotional veracity- actually a spiritually uplifting surround-sound experience with stunning music".

Manual Cinema Presents THE END OF TV Review - A New World for Shadow Puppets - Ann Boland,

"Visiting the Polish Triangle (Milwaukee, Division, Ashland), and The Chopin Theater, is delightful. It's about a ten-minute drive due West of Oak Street Beach, easily reached by car, bus, subway, bike or a brisk walk. Thanks to the generosity of Holy Trinity Church, free parking is a breeze. Reasonably priced restaurants abound. The theater, 100 years old in 2019, is funky fun, with a small, vintage lobby, opening into a big box room, which Manual Cinema configured auditorium style facing a flat performance area.

Manual Cinema's Chicago roots

Manual Cinema's roots are in Red Moon, a Chicago performance group, now defunct, that popularized puppet, especially shadow puppet, theater. Their small, exquisite performances of dramatic and funny tales always made us want to look behind the scenes to demystify the magic.

A new art form from Manual Cinema

Manual Cinema has completely disrobed the standard magic of puppet play. Instead of the puppeteers manipulating behind the screen, hidden from the audience, they are front and center, with the performance projected to a large overhead screen.

The transposition takes some adjustment - where's the "suspension of disbelief"? Instead, a new theater art is developed in front of us as we watch the four puppeteers scramble silently between two projection stations. One imitates a television broadcast, so is in color, with characters, sound, and a "puppet" chyron beneath. The other, main projection station, features back projection, with live shadow performers and front projection of various objects used by the live performers.


Don't be, when you see it all running like a fine watch, you realize the gestalt of puppet theater-what goes on in the creation process, the production process and the shadow play on the screen are the art, not just shadows on a screen.

Manual Cinema is an inspired ensemble

The plot??-no need to spoil the punch line of the performance! It's set in the rust-belt, post-industrial 90's. Characters represent two sides of the American Dream. They are brought together to illustrate suffering, death, love, and humanity.

Maybe this would not be so fascinating if we were dealing with traditional shadow puppet play, cut out figures manipulated via sticks. But this is complex, with live performers, cut-outs, a multitude of characters, all interacting on a small floor. The four puppeteers--Kara Davidson, Aneisa Hicks, Jeffrey Paschal, and Vanessa Vallier--fly from performing to manipulating transparencies. One can only imagine what is going on in the production booth at the back of the theater. In this writer's view, Manual Cinema is an inspired ensemble of creative genius.

Shadow puppet theater is the graveyard of the overhead projector. Remember how we prepared transparencies for presentations prior to Power Point and links to projectors? Transparencies are used throughout shadow puppet productions, with a simple cardboard flap that flips over the projection mirror to end the sequence from that projector. Remember this is "manual" cinema.

The Death of TV features original music and lyrics

"But wait, there's more..."

The big more here is the music--seven talented musicians whose music supports and enhances the visuals, much like a silent movie. Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter wrote the music and lyrics. Like this writer, you too may yearn to understand each word as it was performed, á la musical theater. That rarely happened, so one must assume that the vocals were meant to be under the orchestration. The lyrics are reproduced in the program. The band also plays each Saturday evening following the performance.

From Manual Cinema - Told as a song cycle with live visuals and set in a post-industrial Rust Belt city in the 1990's, The End of TV explores the quest to find meaning amongst the constant barrage of commercial images designed to sell us lifestyles in the interest of selling us junk. The two sides of the American Dream - its technicolor promise as delivered through TV advertising, and its failure witnessed in the dark outcome 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 song cycle performed live by a 5 piece band.

Tickets: Previews 7/19 $15, $25. Regular Run $20/$30

More info -


Kyle egter and Ben Kauffman

Julia Miller

Puppeteers: Kara Davidson, Aneisa Hicks, Jeffrey Paschal, Vanessa Valliere. Live Band: Shalynn Brown aka RED (drums), Maren Celest (vocals, live sound FX, live video mixing), Deidre Huckabay (flutes, vocals), Ben Kauffman (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Lia Kohl (cello, vocals), Marques Toliver (vocals, violin) and Kyle Vegter (bass)

Adapted for the screen by: Lizi Breit, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller & Kyle Vegter. Sound design - Kyle Vegter, Puppet Design - Lizi Breit, Lighting Design - Claire Chrzan, Costume Design - Mieka Van Der Ploeg, Mask Design - Julia Miller, Stage Manager - Shelby Gasgow, Technical Directort/Sound Engineer - Mike Usrey, Asst Director - Sarah Fornce, Asst. Light Designer - Shelbi Arndt, Assoc Puppet Designer/Story Board Artist - Drew Dir, Puppet Build interns - Zofia Lu Ya Zhang, Kathryn Ann Shivak, Jeffrey Katz, Skye Murie

Tags: Theater, American, 2018