An appreciation for the old-fashioned can lead you to something new. So it was for Chicago’s Manual Cinema. This unconventional performance troupe starts with perhaps the most basic form of theatrical storytelling: casting shadows on a screen.
With the addition of hundreds of small, paper puppets, some live actors, and a few overhead projectors — the sort most likely found these days stacked away in the storage closets of aging American schools — they achieve an effect that is similar to a live film.
“People have been experimenting with puppetry forever,” says Drew Dir, one of Manual Cinema’s five cofounders, “but a lot of the techniques we use to create a cinematic world with them, we had to teach ourselves as we went.”
Manual Cinema performs one of its signature pieces, “Ada/Ava,” at the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage for six shows beginning Wednesday, in a presentation by ArtsEmerson. A haunting and somewhat gothic story of identical twins who live in a cottage beneath a New England lighthouse, “Ada/Ava” was lavishly praised upon its New York debut in 2015 and has toured as far afield as Iran.
For live performances of “Ada/Ava,” the troupe includes actors, puppeteers, and a musical trio that plays an original score. Everyone works in full view of the audience, with the images they create with light and shadow on a smaller screen beamed live to a larger one above them. Audience members can simultaneously view the final product and see all the human effort that goes into pulling it off.
Dir cites the work of Alfred Hitchcock as a particular influence on the style of “Ada/Ava.” In the story, one twin dies early on, and her sister feels like less of a person without her companion. As she goes through the stages of grief, she explores whether there is a way to keep living with her sister after all.
“We get to combine all these cool cinematic storytelling methods that we’ve all learned unconsciously from film and television — cinematic cuts, pans, zooms, all the storytelling, camera technique that you’re used to seeing in a film but not in a theatrical context — and we get to bring those onto the stage,” Dir says.
The five founders of Manual Cinema came together from the worlds of legit theater, puppetry, music, and other realms of visual and performance art. They collaborated on a short shadow-puppet project suggested by puppeteer and puppet designer Julia Miller after she found an old-school overhead projector in a garage, Dir says.
The popularity of that first experiment led the group to create the show that would become “Ada/Ava.” They gave its first performance at a Halloween party at Dir’s apartment, using a curtain drawn across a window as the performance space. Guests went downstairs and watched from the sidewalk outside.
The group has steadily refined its techniques, now employing multiple projectors to create the effect of cutting between camera shots. Colored transparencies, layered on the displays of the projectors, contribute to the effect. Manual Cinema’s aesthetic resulted in part from trial and error. Its current procedure, in which the performers do their work in front of the audience, is now considered a key piece of the final product; originally it was just a way to occupy a larger onstage footprint when the show was first booked at a moderately sized theater.
“It’s totally fun to pick up this archaic form that you think you’ve seen before and actually figure out what it can do, and bring everything that you know about theater and film and apply it to it and see how fast it can go,” Dir says. “How awesome can you make it?”
In its melding of theatrical and cinematic effects, “Ada/Ava” has something in common with “Cold Blood,” which ArtsEmerson will present in the spring, and Teatrocinema’s “Historia de Amor,” which was performed here last season. Live video has become a staple of devised theater works, and shadow puppetry has even had a moment. (Imaginary Beasts’ production of “The Fall River Axe Murders” last season notably put the technique to good effect.) But Manual Cinema’s particular blend reflects the eclectic tastes of its founders.
“They’re down-to-earth artists who are really following their own curiosities,” says ArtsEmerson artistic director David Dower. “It makes the most quixotic kind of art when people are just genuinely themselves following their own interests. They’re doing it with all the technologies you could find in a school or your garage and they’re piecing them together in ways that seem disarmingly simple but are highly complex.”
Dir says the hands-on approach of Manual Cinema may lend it a special appeal
‘It’s totally fun to pick up this archaic form . . . and actually figure out what it can do.’
“Now that we’re living in a digital world, we’re becoming interested again in vinyl and cassette players. Some of that may just be nostalgia and some of that may be an interest in using a medium of art that feels more intimate and personal and handmade, because it’s such a contrast to the ways we live our lives online right now.”
Created by Manual Cinema. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, Jan. 10-14. Tickets $20-$90, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremyd