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BWW Interview: Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROL

MANUAL CINEMA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL will world premiere for The Soraya, one of its co-commissioners, live-streaming December 11 through 13, 2021 via Marquee TV.

BWW Interview:  Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROL

MANUAL CINEMA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL will world premiere for The Soraya, one of its co-commissioners, live-streaming December 11 through 13, 2020 via Marquee TV. Performed live and filmed in Manual Cinema's Chicago studio, Charles Dickens' holiday classic CHRISTMAS CAROL has been re-envisioned with hundreds of paper puppets, miniatures, silhouettes and a live original score. Julia Miller, one of Manual Cinema's co-artistic directors, took a few moments away from her prep for this week's live streaming to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Julia!

What sparked Manual Cinema's creative take on the classic A Christmas Carol?

We'd always thought it would be a fun story for us to adapt in our medium. We are usually on tour this time of year, so it never fit into our schedule. Then the pandemic came around and all of our touring was cancelled, so it seemed like an opportune moment to make it happen.

We knew we would be streaming the show live to our audiences each night and many of them would be viewing the show via their computer screens. Framing the show with our narrator on a Zoom call with family seemed BWW Interview:  Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROLlike a great way to take that and the world's current circumstances into account and make them part of the storytelling. Acknowledging the distance between family and friends over the holidays and making it a part was also important to us.

I've seen the resume of Manual Cinema's numerous projects. Would CHRISTMAS CAROL be considered your first holiday show?

Yes! Most of our productions are without dialogue and play to older audiences. We thought this adaptation would be a great way to reach audiences of all ages, and we were excited to contribute to the vast history of theatrical and film adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Can you take us through the birthing of CHRISTMAS CAROL? What comes first? Designing the puppets? Music - one of the last elements?

We started with a script that laid out the Aunt Trudy framing device, as well as, what sections of the book we would adapt. That script went through several edits and then all the puppetry sections were storyboarded. Those were then edited into animatics that gave us the sense of timing for each scene. Simultaneously parts of the score were being composed, so some sections had music first and other sections had animatics that were then scored. All of this was happening while we were filming the puppetry, and staging sections in rehearsal. The last BWW Interview:  Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROLweek everyone came together and we finished staging the show. Normally we take a year for this process, but because we decided to make this show over the summer it was all condensed into a few months. AND we had half the staff and cast because of safety concerns.

What magnetic force do you think drew the particular five of you together in the fall of 2012 while you all were teaching as faculty at the University of Chicago?

We actually met in 2009 and 2010. I met Drew and Sarah working with Redmoon Theatre and Ben and Kyle via a mutual friend. We came together to make a short piece for a puppet festival I was working on and had a great time. And that was in the fall of 2010. People kept asking us to perform it in bars, at an ambient music festival, all sorts of events around the city. We thought hey, folks like this, what should we make next? And then ten years passed!

How many members in your company?

There are five Co-Artistic Directors. We work with over 30 different performers, actors, puppeteers, musicians and designers for our touring shows. Each show has a BWW Interview:  Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROLdifferent cast, so there are a lot of amazing artists we work with in the company.

Do you ever welcome new members into Manual Cinema? Auditions?

The format in which we tell stories is so specific, overhead projector shadow puppetry is generally something we have to teach folks vs. something they come in having done before. We hold our auditions more like a workshop. We let the performers get their hands on some puppets, try some basic things and see how they take to it. A big part of our performance technique also involves multi-tasking/juggling many things at once, so we're not only looking to see if you can grasp some of the basics, but if you like it! It's definitely not for everyone and can stress some people out.

Do the five of you divvy up the workshop teaching duties whenever you tour? Or do you rotate?

Sarah Fornace is the Director of Education, but we cycle who teaches workshops depending on the focus and who is touring with the show. We are able to teach a wide range of topics from sound design and cinematic scoring to BWW Interview:  Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROLpuppet design, ensemble theatre and silhouette performance.

When you were starting your education, did you originally plan to become an actress? Clown? Director? Puppeteer?

I studied physical theatre in undergrad, and loved clown and mask theatre. I also loved devised work that was ensemble based. I liked to perform and direct, but I had no idea I would get into puppetry when I left school. That was a product of being in the theatre scene in Chicago and being introduced to Blair Thomas' work, performing with Redmoon Theatre, and getting excited about all the possibilities puppet theatre had to offer.

Do you remember the circumstances of winning the Emmy for your documentary short The Forger? Or it is all a blur?

I think it must have been via text message from our collaborators from the New York Times, Samantha Stark and Alexandra Garcia. I was in Redwing, Minnesota on tour with MEMENTOS MORI and we were walking along the side of the road coming back from dinner and heading back to our hotel. It was very surreal because we were in a small town on the side of the road and it felt like such a reality shift finding out something we worked on won an Emmy. It was very surreal.

BWW Interview:  Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROLHow was Manual Cinema's tenth anniversary celebration/South American premiere of FRANKENSTEIN at the Santiago a Mil festival in January of this year?

Performing FRANKENSTEIN at the Santiago a Mil festival was a really special experience. We had never toured to South America before and the festival included a lot of incredible artists we are fans of. We performed in Santiago and were also invited to perform outside the city for a small town where all the tickets were free. It was great to be able to share our work with such a new audience and have the ticket cost supplemented by the festival. We also taught a workshop and got to meet local puppeteers and filmmakers.

We had planned a big retrospective for our ten-year anniversary this summer. The plan had been to perform a different show each week that went chronologically through our touring repertoire. Due to the pandemic, we had to make everything virtual. Luckily we have excellent archival videos of all the productions and figured out how to stream them online for free with a suggested donation. We also created a Telefundraiser event where we made our first short made for live stream performance and helped us raise money to compensate for lost touring. That was our test for creating a feature-length show which became CHRISTMAS CAROL. It was a little heartbreaking not being able to celebrate with all the amazing artists and performers we've collaborated with over the last decade. But, we, of course, had a Zoom cocktail hour instead which was nice, but obviously not the same thing as being in the same room together.

BWW Interview:  Manual Cinema's Julia Miller On Re-Imagining CHRISTMAS CAROLWhat's next on Manual Cinema's docket?

We're working on an exciting collaboration with acclaimed children's book author and illustrator Mo Willems to premier with the Kennedy Center next year. Inspired by Leonardo, The Terrible Monster and Sam,The Most Scaredy-Cat In The Whole World, it will include not only hundreds of paper puppets, but also some fun fuzzy 3-D puppets for the monsters which is very exciting and a new format for us. It was initially conceived as a live theatrical performance, but we are pivoting to adapting it for the virtual realm. It will be available to stream to audiences next February.

Thank you again, Julia! I look forward to viewing your innovative take on CHRISTMAS CAROL.

For viewing tickets for any of the six performances December 11 through 13, 2021; log onto

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