The Company

MANUAL CINEMA is a performance collective, design studio, and film/ video production company founded in 2010 by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter. Manual Cinema combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music to create immersive visual stories for stage and screen. Using vintage overhead projectors, multiple screens, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, multi-channel sound design, and a live music ensemble, Manual Cinema transforms the experience of attending the cinema and imbues it with liveness, ingenuity, and theatricality.

To date Manual Cinema has created three feature length live cinematic shadow puppet shows (Lula Del Ray, ADA/ AVA, Mementos Mori); a live cinematic contemporary dance show created for family audiences in collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance and the choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams (Mariko’s Magical Mix); two original site-specific installations (La Celestina, My Soul’s Shadow); an original adaptation of Hansel & Gretel created for the Belgian Royal Opera; music videos for Sony Masterworks, Gabriel Kahane, three time GRAMMY Award-winning eighth blackbird, and NYTimes Best Selling author Reif Larson; a live non-fiction piece for Pop-Up Magazine (SF); cinematic trailers; a short, self-produced film (CHICAGOLAND); a museum exhibit created in collaboration with the Chicago History Museum (The Secret Lives of Objects ) a collection of cinematic shorts in collaboration with poet Zachary Schomburg and string quartet Chicago Q Ensemble (FJORDS ); and live cinematic puppet adaptations of StoryCorps stories (Show & Tell).

“this Chicago troupe is conjuring phantasms to die for…”

-Ben Brantley, The New York Times

Manual Cinema’s work has been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) The Tehran International Puppet Festival (Iran), La Monnaie-De Munt (Brussels) The Kennedy Center (DC), The Kimmel Center (Philadelphia), the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Noorderzon Festival (Netherlands), The O, Miami Poetry Festival, Davies Symphony Hall (SF), The Ace Hotel Theater (LA), Handmade Worlds Puppet Festival (Minneapolis), The Screenwriters’ Colony in Nantucket, The Detroit Institute of Art, The Future of Storytelling Conference (NYC), the NYC Fringe Festival, The Poetry Foundation (Chicago), the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, the Puppeteers of America: Puppet Festival (R)evolution, and elsewhere around the world.

Manual Cinema was ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago in the Theater and Performance Studies program in the fall of 2012, where they taught as adjunct faculty. In 2013 Manual Cinema held residencies and taught workshops at the School of the Art Institute (Chicago), The Future of Storytelling Conference (NYC), RCAH at Michigan State University, and Puppeteers of America: Puppet Festival (R)evolution (Swarthmore, PA), Southern Illinois University, and the Chicago Parks District. In Spring 2016 Manual Cinema held workshops at Yale University as visiting lecturers in the theater department.

Currently, Manual Cinema is developing an original, immersive adaptation of Peter Pan with Randy Weiner (Sleep No More, The Donkey Show, Queen of the Night) that will premiere in an open ended run in Beijing in Fall 2016. The company has begun work on a similar adaptation of Little Prince that will premiere in an open ended run in Shanghai in late 2017. In early 2017 they will premiere their latest feature length, cinematic shadow puppetry show based on Edith Nesbit’s novel Magic City. In Summer 2016 they will; begin production on a second, self-produced short film based on Virginia Woolf’s The Haunted House to premiere in late 2017. The company will also create a live performed companion piece to the film that will premiere in October 2017 as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series.

Manual Cinema’s Ada/Ava will receive its European premiere with daily performances at the Underbelly’s Topside August 3-29, 2016.

Danny Ghitis for The New York Times

Co-Artistic Directors

DREW DIR has worked as a puppeteer, playwright, dramaturg, and director in Chicago and London. Most recently, his short play The Lurker Radio Hour was voted Best Production at Collaboraction’s Sketchbook 8 at the Steppenwolf Garage; his Sketchbook plays have been called “daring” by the Chicago Tribune and “ballsy” by Time Out Chicago. He holds an MA in Text and Performance Studies from King’s College London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Currently, Drew is Resident Dramaturg at Court Theatre and a Lecturer in Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago.

SARAH FORNACE is a choreographer, performer, and narrative theorist based in Chicago. Her interests include: narrative structure, theories of time, non-verbal storytelling, spectacle, and interactions with (in)animate objects. She has choreographed fights and stunts for Depaul University, Court Theatre, Red Orchid Theatre, Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep. series, The New Colony, Adventure Stage, and elsewhere. She has performed with Redmoon, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Collaboraction, and Babes with Blades. Sarah has been a member of Blair Thomas and Company (puppetry) and Boum Twa (ladder acrobatics). She is also a member of Cirque du Soliel’s artist database. She currently teaches movement at Columbia College Chicago.

BEN KAUFFMAN is a composer, director and interactive media artist. His most recent work has been exhibited at The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, CUNY’s Baruch College, and he has lectured and given workshops at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York University, Baruch College, and Parsons the New School of Design. He holds a Master’s degree from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP).

JULIA MILLER specializes in the tactile and movement arts. She is a director, puppeteer, and graphic designer. Manual Cinema provides her with an outlet for many artistic impulses, including but not limited to breathing life into the inanimate, making delicate small things, and telling stories without words. She holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University and has studied mask, clown and devised theatre under Teatro Punto,  Familie Flöz, and Double Edge Theatre.

KYLE VEGTER is a composer, producer, sound designer, and Managing Artistic Director of Manual Cinema. As a composer he’s been commissioned by such groups as TIGUE, the Chicago Composer’s Orchestra, and Homeroom Chicago. His production credits span genres, and include recent releases by Thin Hymns, Spektral Quartet, Tim Munro (of eighth blackbird), and Color Card. His past Composer/ Sound Designer credits with Manual Cinema include Lula Del Ray, Ada/ Ava, FJORDS, and various other performance and video projects. He has been an artist in residence at High Concept Laboratories, and co-founded Chicago’s only contemporary classical music cassette label Parlour Tapes+.


Lizi Breit sm

LIZI BREIT (Puppeteer, ADA|AVA, Fjords, Lula del Ray, Show & Tell) is a puppeteer, designer, printmaker and comic artist living in Chicago. Since graduating from SAIC in 2010 she has designed and/or performed puppets with various theatre companies in the city, including Blair Thomas & Co, The House Theatre and Dog & Pony Theatre Co.

MAREN CELEST (Sound and Vocals, ADA|AVA, Lula del Ray, Show & Tell, Mementos Mori)  is a multimedia artist, burrito lover and vagabond collaborator. Originally from middle-of-nowhere, Michigan, she has attended school in London and lived in Oakland, CA and Chicago, IL, released two full-length albums and a 7″ EP in the Photographers, has had photographs published internationally (Levi’s, CZE Magazine, Hope & Anchor’s Paris Exhibit, Firehouse Collective Exhibit, etc), nurtures an on-going solo project and is working towards combining her passions in motion picture.

SAM DEUTSCH (Puppeteer, Lula del Ray, ADA|AVA, My Soul’s Shadow) is a performer and designer based in Chicago. He is a proud company member of both Manual Cinema and The Inconvenience, a multidisciplinary producing organization. Select performance and design credits include: Denise (the fish) in Mistakes Were Made (World Premiere: A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago / Off-B’way: Barrow Street Theatre – 2011 Henry Hewes Design Award nominee) and Zoopy (the dog) in Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money (World Premiere: Chicago Children’s Theatre / Off-B’Way: The Atlantic Theatre).

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MICHAEL HILGER (Guitar, Vocals, Synthesizers, Percussion, Sample Operator, Lula del Ray, ADA|AVA, Show & Tell, Mementos Mori)is a composer, sound designer and multi-instrumentalist based in Chicago, IL. His sound design and composition credits include Redmoon Theater’s 2012 Youth Spectacle, MC’s own Show & Tell, the short film KEPT by Kacey Meyer, Amygdala Rest by Erasing the Distance, and Mariko’s Magical Mix, a collaboration between Hubbard Street Dance and Manual Cinema. He has produced two EPs with THIN HYMNS, a group he founded and fronts. He is currently working on new music and performing solo under the name MICHAEL ALBERT .

JACOB WINCHESTER (Guitar, Bass, Autoharp, Lula del Ray, Show & Tell) is a multi-instrumentalist, writer/poet, and proficient Swedish speaker. After studying English and Scandinavian languages at the University of Minnesota, Uppsala University and the University of Iceland, he relocated to Chicago in order to pursue his dream of becoming an artisanal hummus entrepreneur whose face would be featured regularly on 3 a.m. public access television commercials.  He has also acted in several films by director Mel Gonzalez including Dal Niente, which was accepted into the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and Vetting Wail. His poems can be found in Love is the Law magazine and various smaller publications.


Mike Usery sm

MIKE USREY (production manager, sound engineer) has mixed in around a hundred venues worldwide, ranging from large outdoor festivals to theaters and clubs. He toured internationally for three years with the band Dark Dark Dark (Minneapolis, MN) as front of house engineer. He has also toured with Pillars and Tongues (Chicago, IL), A Hawk and a Hacksaw (Albuquerque, NM), Royal Canoe (Winnipeg, MB Canada) and Pattern is Movement (Philadelphia, PA). He has been the front of house sound engineer for Manual Cinema since 2014.


KATHERINE GREENLEAF (Puppet Build and Production Assistant, Lula del ray, ADA|AVA) is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago in Theater and Performance Studies.  She has worked with Steep, About Face, American Theater Company, Chicago Dramatists, Lifeline, and Mary Arrchie, and interned at Court and the MCA.  Katherine is interested in film and photographs as physical objects.  She loves her Kodachrome collection, and is working on a project about storytelling within families.

IZZY OLIVE (Sound Design Intern, ADA|AVA)

MYRA SU (Build Intern, ADA|AVA, Puppeteer, Show & Tell, Mementos Mori)