How overhead projectors moved from the classroom to the stage

CHICAGO — Before SMART boards and laptops, teachers used overhead projectors to make visuals for fidgeting students, marking black-lined transparencies with a felt-tipped marker. It wasn’t ideal - and plenty of students fell asleep in the dark - but it’s all they had.

While this iconic technology has all but faded from classrooms today, they’ve found new life in the hands of artists who blend live theater, puppetry and cinema in astonishing ways.

“We call it ‘hi-fi lo-fi;’ we are using this obsolete, clunky piece of tech but at the same time… there’s a lot of tech that goes with it,” explains Manual Cinema’s Sarah Fornace.

Here’s how it works: a row of projectors aimed at a screen are manned by puppeteers who use their hands and hundreds of acetate cutouts to create scenery, characters and cinematic effects. Then actors step into the beams, casting their shadows into the world created by the projectors. It’s all recorded by a camera set behind the screen, and projected as a finished film for audiences to see. All in real-time.

“We’re very interested in showing you the designed image and all the mess and human freneticism that’s going on to make the clean image,” Fornace says.

Fornace says artists have been playing with the projectors for years, but Manual Cinema began in 2010 when her co-director Julia Miller discovered one in her garage. They created a silent film of sorts where they would remain behind the screen. It was theater, because they were acting out the story in real time. But it also had elements of cinema, since they could add transitions and effects that would be picked up by the camera.

“We began at a puppetry festival, and then would just perform it wherever people would have us - at bars, zine fests,” she remembers. “Wherever people would have us we would show up with our projector and do a puppet show.”

Fornace says at first audiences were - confused. Is it a silent film? Is it performance art? Then one night by necessity, they moved the screen up above the stage. It was a lightbulb moment.

“We realized actually this is the thing...to juxtapose the mess and the theatricality of running around trying to make a show out of paper, with the clean cinematic image above, is what makes this medium special,” Fornace said.

Fast forward to today, and the group is touring around the world to showcase their unique blend of live theater and cinema, often integrating a live band into the mix, just for good measure.

All together, it takes the projected image from the passive, doze-inducing experience many remember, to making audiences active participants in what they see. Whether it’s the actors on stage, the projected film above, or the band, there’s plenty to see beyond the screen.

“We are in front of screens all day and all of the images on screens and movies are often very clean and polished; they tell your eye exactly where to look,” Fornace said. “We’re excited to make the image of being in front of screens a little more weird and a little more human and a little more handmade.”