Hänsel und Gretel: fairy tale of Chicago
(© Danny Ghitis)
In Hänsel und Gretel, the Brussels opera house presents a real Christmas classic. Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 Märchenspiel, based on the well-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is given a magical dimension in this production thanks to the amazing shadow theatre of the Manual Cinema puppeteers.
This version of Hänsel und Gretel owes much to De Munt/La Monnaie’s Children’s Chorus, under Denis Menier; it also features the Munt/Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lothar Koenigs, and the singers Dietrich Henschel, Natascha Petrinsky, Gaëlle Arquez, Talia Or, Ilse Eerens, and Georg Nigl – a baritone who was recently acclaimed as singer of the year by the German specialist magazine Opernwelt.
A key role in this production is played by Manual Cinema, an innovative performance collective, design studio, and film production company from Chicago. Founding member Sarah Fornace, one of its puppeteers, who will also perform as Gretel in the live action, gives us some insight into Manual Cinema’s magical artistic world.
You guys haven’t been around that long, but success came quickly and one project has followed another at a rapid rate.
Sarah Fornace: The company was founded in 2010, but we have only been working full-time for six months to a year now. Five of us are full-time artistic directors [Fornace, Drew Dir, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter – MB] and then we have a number of puppeteers and musicians with whom we work on various projects. We do a lot of commissions and work for hire, as well as our own live shows, which we create and stage internally and then send out on tour. We work simultaneously on three to four projects at any given time.
Is there any reason you can point to why puppeteers get together so easily in Chicago?
Fornace: The great thing about Chicago is that it has a great and vibrant puppetry, object, and physical theatre scene. It can be hard to make a living out of it, but there are a lot of young people doing this kind of work because there is space for it, more than in New York for instance. The city is supportive and there are a lot of outdoor spaces, warehouses, and store fronts available so you can do puppet performances virtually anywhere.
And then there is the well-known Redmoon Theater, a big spectacle company that was founded by Blair Thomas, who later set up his own company and hired Julia and me as puppeteers. Julia then had the idea of making our own first show, Lula Del Ray. We made that with just one overhead projector for a puppet festival and then took it wherever they would have us, in bars, at film festivals, etc. And from there we moved on from project to project until we had a company. Half of us have a background in theatre, visual arts, and writing. Kyle and Ben have a music, sound design, and composition background. They actually played in a band when Julia asked them if she could use some samples of their work for the first show. But instead they asked to compose a whole score for us.
Is the use of old-school overhead projectors the distinctive feature of Manual Cinema?
Fornace: There are other companies that use them, but we are the only company that I know of that focuses on them and uses them exclusively. And we use them cinematographically. When we make our feature-length shows, but also even when we are doing site-specific work like installations, we try to use the language of cinema. On the projectors we work with a mix of transparency paper and scale paper puppets, and we combine that with live actors operating behind the screens. Even when we make movies and videos, with which you can achieve a higher level of complexity, we still try to mimic depth and camera movement by moving the flat paper, and not by moving the camera. The exciting thing is that we discover new ways of working as we go along.
(© Katherine Greenleaf)
Do you also draw inspiration from the history of cinema?
Fornace: When we get an idea for a new project, we always watch a lot of different films which we then reference to pretty directly. Ada/Ava is a suspense thriller that references a lot to Hitchcock shots but also steals a lot of shots from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Because even if people can’t name those references, they are part of the inner cultural library in our heads that carries that narrative baggage of suspense with it. Lula Del Ray uses a lot of cutaway in the style of Wes Anderson. Hänsel und Gretel will have a lot of Busby Berkeley references in it – he was the American director and choreographer of the golden age of cinema who was responsible for those famous kaleidoscopic dance sequences with hundreds of dancers.
Especially because we don’t use any words in our storytelling, we rely heavily on those film references and also on the cinematic language of editing and shot composition. We’ve all grown up with TV and film, so we all recognise what a far shot means, what a cut to a close-up means, or what a dissolve into a dream sequence means. You don’t have to know The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to know that sideways light streaming in from the window is an ominous light, because Blade Runner and a lot of suspense films also referenced it.
Another of your strengths is the immersive character of your shows.
Fornace: We think a lot about how to make it immersive and exploit the contrast between the flat objects in the 3D environment that is the result of the depth we create. The audience can also see the puppeteers in real time running around to create this illusion. So there is at the same time that sense of separation from the image and the experience of being in the same space as the puppeteers. And the music is mixed quadrophonically, so the sound is immersive too.
It’s an unusual combination of hi-fi and lo-fi.
Fornace: Definitely. All the Hänsel und Gretel figures that we will use on our four overhead projectors, around six hundred in total, have been drawn and cut by hand. But then our sound designer, Kyle, also made about three to four hundred cues with very advanced sound design software that will go through all these looping pedals and be mixed live with the live music. In Brussels, we will all be in a separate room doing our puppetry and then we will live feed the final image to be shown above the orchestra and choir.
Is it a very complex choreography to manipulate the puppets and do live acting at the same time?
Fornace: People ask us that a lot. As a puppeteer, you get to be editor and director because you are cutting, framing, and moving the zooms, and you also get to be pretty much all of the characters. But it is all so task-based that it is generally not so difficult to memorise. Although I have to say that for Hänsel und Gretel it has been a whole different level of rehearsal and composition. It is the first time we have been commissioned for such a giant opera piece, and it is also the first time that we have timed and written everything out in a script.
How inspiring was the Hansel and Gretel story for you?
Fornace: We had actually never really adapted fairy tales before. Which is interesting, because a lot of people immediately think of fairy tales when they think of puppets. And Hänsel und Gretel itself was originally a puppet show that Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette, who wrote the libretto, created for her children. But we were especially excited because there are a lot of themes in the story that are interesting to explore. I can say that the work of Pixar is also one of our big references in terms of emotional storytelling and the combination of fun, slapstick, and lightness, but also gravity. In Pixar’s Toy Story 3, for instance, there is a really important message about consumption and capitalism that the parents can perceive while the children can just enjoy the action. We are doing the same thing with Hänsel und Gretel, which also deals with capitalism and the stratification of society. While we were writing for the show, we drew a lot from the talk that was going on in America about income inequality.
So, for the prelude, we created an extremely cinematic backstory in which we show the decadent city the father sings about. A fairy-tale town that is harvesting the benefits of the industrial revolution. They have this huge factory that produces gingerbread filled with strawberry jam, and you have this decadent upper class eating all these gorgeous and beautiful foods, set in contrast with the poor suburbs and tenements where Hansel and Gretel live.
And apart from that there are a lot of giant whirling sequences. My favourite one is definitely the one in which the father describes the witch and the forest of Ilsestein.
Together with choir and orchestra, that must result in an impressive spectacle.
Fornace: Yes, and that is also totally new for us. We have not been able to rehearse with the orchestra so far, but we rehearsed with different recordings to get used to different conductors and possible interpretations.