Written by Chicago-based artist + designer Kelly Parsell
“Be as ambitious and weird as possible.” This is the Lyra Hill’s goal for each of her Brain Frame performers. Hill began Brain Frame, an event where people perform comics, last summer after she graduated from art school at SAIC. There, Hill studied film and comics, and Brain Frame is an odd and intriguing blend of the two subjects.
The event has grown quite a bit from its humble beginning. When Hill’s friend was visiting last summer, he asked her if she could throw some sort of comics event. Inspired by a recent performance she had done at a poetry reading type of house event, Hill decided to get some of her comic writer friends together to perform their works. She asked her friends at the Wicker Park space The Gallery Formerly Known as Happy Dog if she could utilize their venue for the event. Hill was drawn to the openness of the space, both in its size and enthusiasm in hosting untraditional events. About 40 people turned out for the first Brain Frame. The turnout was much better than Hill expected, so much so that she decided to turn the one-off event into a bimonthly series.
Brain Frame 6 was just held a couple weeks ago, still hosted in its original space, Happy Dog, on Milwaukee Avenue. As usual, the event was packed with an artsy crowd of beer and bike helmet toting locals. Six performers/groups presented multi-disciplinary readings and performances of their comics with an intermission halfway through the two-hour event. Hill said this time around was the smoothest of the six Brain Frames. There have been a number of interesting mishaps along the way, including a one-hour long blackout during the middle of Brain Frame 1. Hill says that everyone at first thought it was part of the performance. Once they realized it was an actual blackout, and it was going to take some time for the lights to come back on, the audience members went down the block to get some more drinks and pizza and came back to the performance. That night Hill knew there was something special about her event. It was “undeniably magical with exciting energy,” and she thought, “I think I have to do more.”
Hill has done just that. The one-year anniversary of Brain Frame will be celebrated with an extra fancy Brain Frame 7 on Saturday, July 28th at 8pm at Happy Dog. Hill will be performing (as she often does) and also will be releasing her compilation, Recent Days, of which she read an excerpt from at the very first Brain Frame. There will be five other readers plus a pianist with possible champagne exploding at some point. The entry fee will be $7. This will be $2 up from the last few Brain Frame events. The series began with free entry, but starting at the fourth event, Hill has charged to help cover general expenses, pay workers, and pay the venue. She is hoping that by charging a bit more she can also eventually be able to pay performers and have money to put on other events. Brain Frame events are well worth the price.
I have only attended the last two events, Brain Frame 5 and 6. The piece that has continued to stay with me is Sara Drake’s shadow-play-puppet-performance, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, based on a Cambodian comic from the 1980s by Im Sokha. This performance used cut out transparencies on two overhead projectors to cast a shadow-play for the audience. Drake, along with two animators, Simon Allen and Jenna Caravello, and one cartoonist, Ben Bertin, worked as puppeteers behind the screen. They manipulated hundreds of tiny shapes to tell the story while Wyatt Grant performed a live looping guitar soundtrack to accompany the performance. The show was truly magical, and it was only the first time they had all performed together. In fact, Drake was still making puppets up to the event.
After graduating from SAIC last May, Drake spent two months this past winter teaching comics to women in Cambodia, where gender roles are extremely strict as well as free expression. After returning to the United States, Drake experienced a reverse culture shock. She found talking about her travels to be very difficult and working on this project (i.e., The Romance of the Tiger Lady) was a good way for her to process her thoughts. Drake sought out to share Cambodian comics with a new audience, while also presenting the country in a positive light. Appropriation was a common method she used in her work, but she felt as though she needed to work through storytelling in general and approach it from a different angle. She wanted something that moved.
Drake loosely based her performance on the moral tales told in Southeast Asian puppetry, and she spent three months working on it. It was a full-time job cutting the puppets. The process and end result were very fulfilling for her. Taking comics and animating them seemed boring, but this theatrical element was more exciting for her. The idea that the piece only exists when it is acted was fascinating and collaborating with other artists (something she had not done like this before) was very fun.
Drake will be performing her very impressive shadow-play, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, again tomorrow, Tuesday, June 5th at 9pm at Cookies and Cake!, a fundraiser for the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (C.A.K.E.). The fundraiser will be taking place at Hungry Brain with a $5 donation. I highly recommend going to see Drake’s performance as well as those of four other artists, including Marian Runk whose comic I recently reviewed on Make Space.
In addition to Sara Drake’s work, Lyra Hill of Brain Frame also recommends taking a look at past performances of Nick Jackson’s CHROMOZOID (in two parts) and Ian McDuffie’s Low Spark (1913-1938-1973-201?). She also invites those interested, to take a look at her performances of Night City and Go Down.
You can follow Lyra Hill’s work and future happenings at her blog and her vimeo, where you can also find Brain Frame videos and news. Brain Frame can also be followed on its tumblr and on Facebook. Brain Frame 7 will take place on Saturday, July 28th at 8 pm at The Gallery Formerly Known as Happy Dog, located at 1542 N. Milwaukee Avenue on the second floor $7.