Dawn Taylor on Manipulate 2022: 'We have seen incredible creativity'

The Manipulate festival has always incorporated live puppetry and animation, but since Dawn Taylor took over as artistic director in the middle of last winter’s lockdown, the boundary between the two worlds has become increasingly blurred. Interview by Mark Fisher

Fauna by artists Adrien M & Claire B  PIC: ® Adrien M & Claire B
Fauna by artists Adrien M & Claire B PIC: ® Adrien M & Claire B

This time last year, the lockdown forced Edinburgh' s Manipulate festival to go online. For Dawn Taylor, who was making her debut as artistic director, that was hardly ideal. But the switch had two positive consequences.

The first was simply about numbers. People logged on from 39 countries and audience numbers doubled. That's an audience she is determined to keep.

The second was about who watched what. In the past, this self-styled "celebration of innovative puppetry, visual theatre and animated film" has attracted two distinct audiences. There are those with an interest in live performance and those who are drawn to animation. When the programme went digital, the line between the two became blurred.

"We don't usually get as much cross-pollination there," says Taylor, who is especially proud of this year's line-up of films by female and non-binary animators. "A lot of people came to us and said, 'I didn't even know you did animation.' And a lot of puppeteers told us they hadn't realised the links between animation and what they do."

This means, as she readies herself for this month's hybrid line-up of in-person and online events, she has a new and adventurous audience to cater to. She also has a network of artists who are better equipped than many to adapt to performing online. Puppeteers and animators all think visually, so there is less of a leap from one form to the other.

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"I've been constantly bowled over by the ingenuity and resilience that artists have to have to adapt," she says. "The artists that we work with are used to colouring outside the lines. So we have seen incredible creativity."

The two strands come together in a pair of installations by French company Adrien M & Claire B, otherwise known as computer scientist Adrien Mondot and visual artist Claire Bardainne. Their work is rooted in performance but has recently incorporated virtual and augmented reality. That turned out to be handy when Covid hit.

Manipulate 2022 presents installations including Acqua Alta: The Crossing of the Mirror by artists Adrien M & Claire B PIC: ®Adrien M & Claire B

Fauna, a collaboration with the graphic-artist collective Brest Brest Brest, is a sequence of large-scale posters that come to life when viewed on an augmented-reality app. Positioned around Summerhall, they blur the boundary between visual art and performance, as imaginary animals seem to emerge from imaginative landscapes on the walls.

On a smaller, though no less beguiling scale is Acqua Alta, a pop-up book whose ten double pages become a miniature stage. You watch on a smartphone or tablet as a pair of monochrome dancers react to rising water levels made of swelling black ink.

"They have these beautiful installations which are a meeting point between animation, visual art and some futuristic sense of puppetry," says Taylor, who grew up in Perth and studied at the University of Glasgow before working for the National Theatre of Scotland, London's Almeida Theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival.

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"These figures appear in front of you and they're sort of there but not really there. They are being puppeteered by someone you can't see because they're digital and yet you interact with them. It feels like a nice way of bringing the strands of our work together and allowing audiences to see something different from what they would normally see."

As a bonus, the two installations have been mounted without the need for risky international travel. They completed the journey in two small parcels in the post.

Mettje Hunneman creates the third installation, Forest Videolab, a series of site-specific video projections dotted around the darker corners of the Meadows. She projects them from the back of an e-bike carrying portable power.

It is part of a move on behalf of Manipulate and its parent company Puppet Animation Scotland into sculpture, installation and visual art. "We're thinking beyond Covid about different ways people can experience work, whether that's in a theatre, in the street or in a gallery," she says. "Installation is a good way to build into the programme something that feels quite Covid-proof."

When Simon Hart launched Manipulate in 2008, the vast majority of the programme was international. Taylor sees it as a success of the festival that in the intervening years the balance has switched. Now 80 percent of artists are from Scotland or the UK.

"That just shows how much the scene here has developed," she says. "What's exciting about the work being made by the new generation of Scottish artists is they not only appreciate the power of these artforms to engage people's imaginations but also they're exploring thorny and difficult issues. We have shows about gender, sexuality, religion and race. This generation is provocative."

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One example is Snap-Elastic, a female-led collective dedicated to creating celebratory theatre that feels "as special as a wedding day or a wake or a sixth birthday". Its production Eat Me, seen in an early try-out in the 2017 Manipulate, is about an unbridled appetite for sexual kicks that extends, via the dark web, to cannibalism.

"It's about unconventional love," says Taylor. "It uses physical theatre to draw people into this world of our darker desires. While you might not feel you would relate to a show about somebody who wants to be eaten, it's really about the things we struggle to express. It's going to be a special show."

With its mix of meals, performances, installations and screenings, in person and online, Manipulate is a festival designed to cope with all circumstances. "The works speak for themselves," says Taylor. "And we're going to have a really exciting offer for audiences no matter where we end up."

Manipulate is at Summerhall and the Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, from 28 January until 5 February, https://www.manipulatefestival.org/

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