Joyce McMillan: the Manipulate Festival is thriving thanks to the creative drive of one man

n Hart is a quiet man. Director of the 30-year-old Puppet Animation Scotland organisation, and '“ for the last ten years '“ of its annual festival of visual theatre, Manipulate, he moves unobtrusively around the theatre scene, co-commissioning a show here, offering small development grants there, observing, programming. Yet there's something of a miracle of loaves and fishes about the organisation he runs, out of a small office at Summerhall in Edinburgh; for with a small Creative Scotland grant of just £185,000 a year '“ augmented by some small-scale support from local authorities and other trusts '“ he and Puppet Animation's two other staff members not only stage a major international theatre festival every January, at the Traverse and elsewhere, but also run a spring children's festival of puppet theatre across Scotland that features around 130 performances, and now ranks as the UK's biggest performance festival for children. This year's Manipulate Festival, which opens on 27 January, offers 12 major shows from England, Scotland, Canada, Belgium, France and Spain, alongside an impressive programme of works-in-progress, masterclasses, and animated film. And there's a real sense of satisfaction in Hart's voice, as he looks back to the first Manipulate in 2008, and to the changes he has seen since then in Scotland's contribution to this vital strand of theatre, which focuses on the visual possibilities of the art-form.

The End of Things PIC: Brian Hartley

“Our first Festival was based at Dundee Rep, during Dominic Hill’s time there,” says Hart, “and really at that time it mainly offered an opportunity for people in Scotland to see some of the work that was emerging in visual and object theatre across Europe, and beyond. It was always one of our aims, though, to encourage the development of this kind of work in Scotland, and after a decade of work I’m delighted that we now have five major Scottish-made shows in our programme. We’re also hosting return visits from some key international artists who have been with us in the past, and so this year’s Festival feels like a bit of a celebration, as well as an opportunity to catch a glimpse of what we hope will be some inspiring future work.”

The 2017 Manipulate programme therefore features a powerful mix of familiar artists and brand new visitors; the opening show in Aberdeen, on 27 January, will be Cities, by the Quebec company Theatre De La Pire Espèce, a work which reflects on the fact that in 2016, for the first time in human history, the number of people living in cities surpassed the number living in rural areas. Other newcomers include the explosive Agrupación Señor Serrano from Barcelona, who use film, puppetry and live action to explore layers of reality and illusion around the story of the death of Osama Bin Laden, in A House In Asia.

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There are welcome return visits from the astonishing Sabine Molenaar of Belgium, and from the Compagnie Mossoux-Bonte of France, who also appeared at the very first Manipulate Festival. And the Scottish artists taking their place among these international stars include Sita Pieraccini, Al Seed, the Glasgow-based Company Of Wolves, Jordan & Skinner with their Scotsman Fringe First-winning show Sanitise, and the young Scottish company Tortoise In A Nutshell, who open the Festival at the Traverse on 28 January with their latest work Fisk, a co-production with the Danish company Katapult.

“The impact of Manipulate on our development has been huge,” says Ross MacKay of Tortoise In A Nutshell. “Back in 2008, when the first Manipulate Festival happened, I was a student at Queen Margaret University, and Simon Hart kindly gave me a small bursary so that I could travel up to Dundee and experience the festival. I remember just being totally inspired by the possibilities of this visual theatre world.

“We launched Tortoise In A Nutshell soon after that, and ever since Simon’s long-term commitment to us as a company has been vital; our shows The Last Miner and Grit both appeared at Manipulate, in that inspiring international context. Now, Fisk is our first-ever international collaboration and our first Manipulate show in Traverse One; and once again we had a small early grant from Puppet Animation Scotland to enable us to travel to Denmark and explore possibilities. So there’s been this steady development, over the years, which Manipulate has supported all the way.”

And although Manipulate, like other arts organisations, faces an uncertain financial future, Hart seems confident about the prospects of an art-form that seems to catch the mood of the times, operating as it does in the unsettling borderlands between human and non-human imagery; and about Manipulate’s ability to keep flying the flag for international theatre in Scotland, outside Edinburgh Festival time.

“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far,” says Hart, “particularly of the strategic help we’ve been able to give to developing artists in Scotland. This year, for the first time, we’re collaborating with the National Theatre of Scotland on new programme called Testroom, at the Traverse and the Tron, which will allow artists to try out new ideas and collaborations in brief five-minute fragments; and also for the first time, we’re creating a formal international delegate programme. There are pressures on any art-form during an age of austerity, no question; certainly, at international level, there’s less large-scale work than there once was. The quality and intensity is still there, though, the artists working as brilliantly as ever; and in the end, that’s what truly matters.” ■

*Manipulate 2017 is at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, from 27 January- until 3 February;, and the Traverse, Edinburgh, from 28 January until 5 February. Fisk is also at the MacRobert, Stirling, on 26 January, and on tour across Scotland until 20 February, www.manipulatefestival.org