Joyce McMillan: Simon Hart's brilliant string theory

It began eight years ago as a festival of 'visual and object theatre'.

Close Up with AyseDeniz Gokcin
Close Up with AyseDeniz Gokcin

And because it was created – and still is – by Simon Hart’s Edinburgh-based Puppet Animation Scotland organisation, it was easy to categorise, at first, as an event that would simply explore the wilder shores of 21st century puppetry – a world where a dripping tap or a fragment of cloth can become the embodiment of a whole lifetime of dreams and wishes, in what some called theatre’s “post-human” age.

Almost a decade on, though, the Manipulate Festival – based mainly at the Traverse, but also presenting shows this year in Norwich and London, and at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen – has become something more than a celebration of cutting-edge puppetry; and this year’s programme reveals a week-long feast of visual theatre and animation, from the puppet-based work of the English company Blind Summit – who bring an expanded version of their 2011 Fringe First winner The Table – to the intense physical and musical theatre of this year’s opening show at the Traverse, Close Up, created by the Austrian company Editta Braun and Turkish pianist AyseDeniz Gokcin, which features an onstage grand piano, and a perfect world of musical contemplation disrupted by forces beyond the pianist’s control.

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“Manipulate is now essentially a festival in three strands,” explains Simon Hart, at the Puppet Animation Scotland office in Summerhall. “There are six big evening shows, playing from Monday to Saturday in the Traverse, with three of them also appearing elsewhere – both The Table and Threads, a reflection on war and the refugee crisis by Theatre Incline of Canada, will be in Aberdeen next weekend, for example. We’re delighted with that main strand this year, not least because it features shows from Austria, the United States, England, Canada and Russia, as well as Faux Theatre’s Torn, a Scottish-made show that’s now enjoying a real international success, and that we’re very proud to have been involved with since its inception.

“Then because inspiring and developing new work here in Scotland is a vital part of what we want to do through Manipulate, we have our early evening strand of works-in-progress, featuring artists like Al Seed and Judith Milligan on Thursday, and Shona Reppe and Laura Cameron-Lewis with music by Camille O’Sullivan on Saturday. And finally, there’s the late evening nine o’clock slot in Traverse Two, which includes both smaller-scale shows like Sita Pieraccini’s Bird, and a mini-festival of animation films, including, this year, the 30-plus tiny shorts running for the British Animation Awards 2016. And on top of that we have workshop sessions, and a Sunday conference on Emergent Theatre – so yes, it’s a busy week.”

Despite his characteristic understatement, what Hart is describing is now Scotland’s third-ranking international theatre festival, after the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe in August, and the brilliant annual children’s festival, Imaginate, in May; and it’s one that attracts a strikingly mixed audience to the Traverse, with a young-for-theatre average age of 29, and a rare combination of students, dance enthusiasts, industry movers and shakers, and regular Traverse-goers interested in the new.

“In a sense, these are tough times for theatre,” says Hart. “I would say that in general, across Europe and beyond, shows are getting smaller, with fewer performers touring. Yet the work is still incredibly ambitious, particularly in the way it increasingly crosses boundaries between art-forms, becomes more hybrid. We’re fortunate in that Puppet Animation Scotland has its Creative Scotland funding secured through to 2018; and although it’s just about enough – around £180,000 a year – to employ our three staff, and to fund this Festival and our spring Puppet Animation Festival across Scotland, it gives us a vital base from which to work, to develop our audience, to support new projects, and to form new partnerships, which of course is at the heart of everything we do.”

• Manipulate 2016 is at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 29-31 January, and the Traverse, Edinburgh, 1-6 February,