Krannert Center presenting adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ using puppetry, original music

Image of puppets representing Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas Present.

Manual Cinema uses puppetry, actors, overhead projectors, a live music ensemble and multiple screens to tell stories. In “Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol,” the Chicago arts collective adapted the classic story to 2020. A livestream of performances on Dec. 5-6 will be available through Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Courtesy Manual Cinema

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The family can only gather via Zoom, and Uncle Joe is no longer with them. But the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come still have lessons to teach in a new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” that uses puppetry, silhouettes, video and an original musical score to tell the classic story.

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is presenting “Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol” on Dec. 5-6. Manual Cinema, a Chicago arts collective, will perform live in its Chicago studio and livestream the show.

Manual Cinema produces multimedia shows that are a hybrid of live theater and film, using shadow puppetry, actors, overhead projectors, live-feed cameras, multiple screens, live music ensembles and sound design. The company performed “No Blue Memories – The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks” at Krannert Center in 2018. This is the first time the company has produced a holiday show.

“We’re usually a touring company but because of the pandemic, all our touring got canceled. We were in a unique position to move to fill the gap in our schedule and our income,” said co-artistic director Julia Miller.

Puppeteers Lizi Breit and Sarah Fornace create a scene for “Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol.”

Courtesy Manual Cinema

Manual Cinema’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is set in the present. The theater company knew that the show would have to be livestreamed, and because the audience would be watching on computers, they decided to stage it as a Zoom call involving the telling of “A Christmas Carol” as a family tradition.

“Everyone has to socially isolate and not celebrate with their families. It’s a really nice framing device. It’s such a fun story and it still resonates today, but there is a lot of fun stuff you can do with it to bring it into 2020,” Miller said.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is not mentioned in the show, its impact is obvious, including in the recent death of Uncle Joe. The show includes references to murder hornets, a super typhoon and a volcanic eruption, to reinforce the weirdness of 2020.

The puppetry scenes of Christmases past include a nostalgic touch – in the story, the memories are shared with the help of a slide projector and Kodachrome slides.

Courtesy Manual Cinema

The character Aunt Trudy – Uncle Joe’s widow – must carry on his storytelling tradition, although she does not share his famous Christmas cheer. As she tells the story to her family, Aunt Trudy experiences a parallel journey to that of Scrooge.

Manual Cinema has many puppeteers, actors, musicians, camera operators and others working together closely in a theater for its performances. It created specific safety protocols for this show, with limits on the number of people who could be in a space, regular COVID-19 testing and contract tracing.

“A huge part of producing the show right now is mitigating the risk as much as possible,” Miller said. “A big question for us was how to convey the liveness and get the lushness of imagery and sound we’re used to, when we cut the team in half.”

With this adaptation, live puppetry is used with video projections of puppetry filmed earlier, and recorded music is used with the live music. The scenes of Marley’s visit with Scrooge and the Cratchit family home are rendered in silhouette, while puppets are used for the journeys Scrooge takes with the ghosts. The show features more narration than the company typically uses, including a lot of text from the novella.

Manual Cinema uses silhouette to portray Marley’s visit to Scrooge.

Courtesy Manual Cinema

“It’s more cinematic in that we’re controlling the frame that the audience sees,” Miller said. “With the live performances, it’s very much choose-your-own-adventure in that there’s a big cinematic screen above the stage and below it you see all the puppeteers and actors and live music. You can experience it in different ways.

“We wanted to create the rich world inside the novel. The ghosts are such fun characters, and there are the iconic scenes with the ghost of Christmas Past and Marley with the chains,” she said.

Following its live shows, Manual Cinema invites audience members onstage to see the puppets and musical instruments and to ask questions. They are doing so virtually with “Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol” with an online tour and question-and-answer session following the livestreamed performances.

Krannert Center is one of 32 presenting organizations that have booked the show. Krannert Center will present the show four times on Dec. 5-6, with a behind-the-scenes look at Manual Cinema’s puppetry following the 3 p.m. Dec. 6 performance.

Those who aren’t able to watch the show during the Krannert Center presentations can buy tickets through Manual Cinema’s website. Their performances go through Dec. 20.

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