Interview: Manual Cinema's Sarah Fornace

Puppetry is coming out of the shadows across the children's programme

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Manual Cinema Presents: Leonardo! A Wonderful Show About a Terrible Monster
Photo by Lesley Martin
Published 09 Aug 2022

The American children’s author Mo Willems was impressed after seeing a gothic puppet version of Frankenstein by the performance troupe Manual Cinema and decided they should adapt his books next. Having started out as a writer and animator for Sesame Street, Willems knew good puppetry when he saw it. He approached the Chicago-based company and they created the kids stage show Leonardo! inspired by two of his books: his 2005 bestseller Leonardo, the Terrible Monster, about a monster who can’t frighten anyone no matter how hard he tries, and Sam, The Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the Whole World. The show combines Willem’s much loved original illustrations and pastel backdrops with live actors, puppets, DIY cinema effects and a brand new musical score. 

“My two-year-old is a big fan of Mo Willem’s books and absolutely loves Should I Share My Ice Cream? It’s a core philosophical text!”, says Sarah Fornace, who directs Leonardo!, and also plays Sam, the scaredy-cat kid in the show. “In Leonardo!, we see a kid who thinks being scary is cool, kinda like being famous. He’s in this white track jacket, everyone’s following him on cameras. He’s adorable, with boundless optimism. But bullies put pressure on him. He has to make a choice between being a wonderful friend to Sam, who needs him, or being a scary monster. It’s a story about empathy and reaching out to others – and the rich interior emotional life of children!” 

Leonardo! is coming to Edinburgh fresh from a run in New York, and is the follow up to Manual Cinema’s 2019 Fringe run of Frankenstein. It keeps the cute Calvin and Hobbes meets Maurice Sendak-style aesthetic from the original book but gives it the live action treatment with a combination of furry Muppets-esque puppets and moving paper cutouts. The company also uses an ingenious live filming technique where a folder of drawings is flipped through onstage like a stop motion animation, with props and stickers added as they go. 

Puppet Pansori Sugungga, photo by KCCUK

The bar is high for puppetry in this year’s Fringe, with other kids’ productions giving imaginative updates to the genre once made famous by the likes of Punch and Judy, Sooty, Basil Brush and Pinocchio. A Ladder to the Stars at Gilded Balloon is a gentle, charming adaptation of a book by Simon Puttock, using floating lights, twinkling music and a tiny knee-high doll to tell the story of Olive, who wishes upon a star. It’s the first time Glasgow’s Visible Fictions have brought a show to the Fringe, but reviews of a pre-pandemic tour of A Ladder to the Stars declared it magical and enchanting.

Two other shows carry an environmental message; The Man Who Planted Trees from Edinburgh’s Puppet State Theatre Company is an adaptation of a 1953 short story by Jean Giono, and Space Hippo is a science-fiction cautionary tale from Japan’s Mochinosha company. To set the scene in Provence for The Man Who Planted Trees, the Storytelling Centre will be filled with the scents of lavender and herbs as the allegory unfolds, about a man who plants acorns in a desolate valley. Meanwhile the eponymous Space Hippo at Assembly George Square has been tasked with saving a dying planet Earth. Her epic voyage is brought to life by over two hundred shadow puppets in the one-hour show. 

Puppet Pansori Sugungga shines a spotlight on the Korean art form pansori, a type of musical storytelling performed by a singer and a drummer. Although criticised by Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, pansori singers are considered to be national treasures in South Korea, praised for keeping an ancient folk tradition alive. For Fornace, who became a mother in May 2020 during the pandemic, the opportunity to connect with children’s audiences IRL now is a pretty special one. “My toddler didn’t get to play with any other kiddos at first, and Leonardo! was the first live show he saw. Watching kids enjoying stories together now – especially after kids spent a long time not being able to connect with each other, with closed schools and everything, it’s very soul-filling to see.”