You’re seated comfortably in the Yukon Arts Centre, absorbed in the live streaming of a multi-layered interpretation of a Gothic horror/sci-fi story you’ve known for years. The person on your right is following an all-female troupe of live performers who frantically discard wigs, costumes, and the occasional animated puppet, as they move on- and off-camera. Meanwhile, the person on your left is watching a classical music ensemble, including both human and robotic players whose instruments range from traditional flutes and marimbas to pots and pans, even bits of scrap metal.
“You’ll have a different experience than the person sitting next to you, depending on where you choose to look,” according to Sarah Fornace, one of the five artistic directors of the Chicago collaborative theatre company, Manual Cinema. “And every experience of the show is the right one to have.”
The show is Frankenstein, the latest creation of a group born 10 years ago this summer when Fornace met Julia Miller while they were both working with an outdoor-theatre company called Red Moon. Chicago, Fornace said, is “a really rich place, full of young artists who are interested in making ensemble work, coming together in groups to make original pieces.”
When Miller shared her idea for a short film project called The Ballad of Lula Del Ray, about a young girl on a quest from her satellite array, Fornace immediately hopped onboard, also recruiting her life partner, Drew Dir, a writer and illustrator. The circle expanded when Miller met two young musicians, Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter, at a house concert. Trained in both experimental sound design and classical composition, they offered to render a cinema-like score for the project.
Of all the shows the five co-artistic directors have worked on since, Frankenstein is the most ambitious. It was Dir who first pitched the idea of a project based on Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel about the hubristic scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who “creates” human life from various discarded body parts. Fornace was already well-acquainted with Shelley’s masterpiece from a course on narrative theory she had delivered as a Teaching Assistant during her graduate work in English in Toronto.
“It’s such a beautiful example of Russian nesting-doll structure, and it’s kind of like a novel of frames, and the questions it throws about reliable narrators and who is telling what story,” Fornace says.
“The person who pitched Frankenstein was actually Drew, who not only loves that era of literature, but also grew up with Universal [Studios] monster movies. So we’re kind of approaching it from both the films and the book.
Unlike Shelley’s original work – published anonymously in 1818 when she was 21 – the initial frame of Manual Cinema’s version is not Victor Frankenstein telling his tale to an Arctic sea captain, but the author’s own personal story. Much of that material came from the foreword Shelley wrote when Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was republished under her own name, following the deaths of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her philosopher father, William Godwin.
“She has to make a defence, like ‘Hey, Percy Shelley didn’t write this novel. This is my hideous progeny; this is my masterpiece,’” Fornace explained.
“And she talks a lot about her postpartum experience, losing her first baby, Clara [she and her poet husband actually lost three of their four children], and having a nightmare about resuscitating her back to life.”
As one of the five puppeteers, Fornace portrays both the young author and the anti-hero she conceived during the well-documented storytelling contest involving the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, and others, on a stormy night in Switzerland.
“For me, performing the role, I really thought a lot about what Mary gets out of imagining herself as this mad scientist with unfettered ambition who brings himself down,” Fornace said.
“Like, what freedoms does she get through playing this role? And we really approach the process of her writing the novel as a part of her grieving and closing and processing a childbirth experience that she had.”
Far from the shy wallflower she’s often portrayed as, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was actually a “firebrand” who grew up among the most progressive thinkers, writers and activists of her day, Fornace stressed.
“It blows my mind that for so many years, for over a century, she wasn’t given credit for inventing a genre [the science fiction novel]. In her own time, she wasn’t even given credit for writing a novel. It’s so unfair.”
Calling Shelley’s life “extraordinary”, Fornace added, “If I were going to write a League of Extraordinary Women, like a graphic novel series, I think I’d start with Mary Shelley.”
The Chicago ensemble’s production, though, is not just about the creator of the misguided “creator”, Victor Frankenstein. Some 500 paper puppets, along with numerous other elements, combine to produce “a kind of silent-film esthetic” that explores such themes as love, loss and abandonment, as well as beauty, horror, and the responsibility of creation. It also promises all the sturm und drang associated with various cinema versions of the Frankenstein story.
“There’s wall-to-wall music and sound design in the piece. And the sound design is made in quadraphonic sound, just like you would have in a movie theatre, so the sound moves around the audience in 3-D.”