A Very Special Event: Chicago Manual Cinema’s A Christmas Carol

Author: Jade Ryerson

There are a lot of things we’ve all missed since the onset of the pandemic back in March. Luckily, the innovative team at Chicago’s Manual Cinema has ensured that live theater no longer has to be one of them. In a show suitable for all ages, Chicago Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol combines original music, live performance, and paper puppetry for a remarkably timely and relevant take on the Dickens classic. Although there have been countless adaptations over the years, Manual Cinema offers a night of entertainment like nothing you’ve ever seen.  Honors Program students were treated to a performance of the classic on Thursday, December 3rd. 

Besides Scrooge’s supernatural visitors, stunning visuals and a haunting original score contributed to Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol’s magical quality. Performed by a small yet masterful team, the show consists of seamless transitions between shadow puppetry, miniatures, and live acting. Complex layering of dramatic lighting, transparencies, and silhouettes add both visual and emotional depth to the scenery and story. Some of the best elements, though, are in the subtle details, including a tatted Christmas Present and Christmas Past’s cross-generational banter. 

Although the protagonist, Aunt Trudy, struggles to get into the Christmas spirit, Manual Cinema has no trouble adapting the tale to our time. With both the show’s plot and the audience firmly planted in a COVID-19 world, A Christmas Carol’s themes of gratitude, love, and family have perhaps never felt more relevant. Like other families during lockdown, Trudy reluctantly attempts to translate holiday traditions—namely her late husband Joe’s puppet rendition of A Christmas Show—over Zoom. Despite her initial cynicism, Trudy accompanies Scrooge on a transformational journey that ultimately reinforces the importance of connection in trying times. Even over livestream, Manual Cinema’s ability to speak to our current moment made the performance feel more personal and poignant. In addition to its creative presentation, I was most struck by the team’s thoughtfulness surrounding our collective fatigue, grief, empathy, and need for human connection.

After the performance, students joined Honors Program Director Dr. Jennifer Conary for a discussion about the enduring relevance of A Christmas Carol. With infectious enthusiasm, Professor Conary—DePaul’s resident Dickens-expert—shared her insights about the novella’s various film and stage adaptations and the dire financial circumstances in which Dickens wrote it. In addition to Dickens’ pursuits as a Victorian social reformer, this context enabled students to view A Christmas Carol and what we regard as ‘quintessential Christmas’ in a new light. As Professor Conary explained, A Christmas Carol was transformative, not only for Dickens’ career, but also the holiday festivities we know today. Even over a century and a half after its publication, Manual Cinema still found a way to put an inventive spin on this Christmas classic.
While we can’t gather with family and friends, Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol provides a new way to connect; it reminds us to pause and remember how meaningful those moments and relationships are. With the dawn of the new year comes the promise of a vaccine and hopefully the return of live, in-person theater. Until then, Manual Cinema is hosting live one-hour performances every night from through December 20. Be sure to stick around for a Q&A with the cast and tour of the set after the show.

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