Manipulate festival puts puppetry centre stage

ONCE upon a time, mainstream theatre-makers seemed to think that puppets were for kids and aerial work was for the circus. Not any more. Susan Mansfield talks to Simon Hart, director of this year’s Manipulate festival

Threes A Crowd by All or Nothing. Picture: Contributed

At the end of January, as the theatre world begins to wake up and embrace the new year, the time comes for one of Scotland’s most interesting festivals. In the eight years since it was founded, Manipulate, which opens at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre on 30 January, has developed a reputation for showcasing innovative work from around the world in visual theatre and animation.

A project of Puppet Animation Scotland, Manipulate casts its net far wider than traditional puppetry to bring in the best work from overseas in genres ranging from contemporary puppetry and animation to physical and aerial theatre. While it might at first seem to serve a niche interest, it is in fact showcasing a mixture of innovative approaches which are an increasing part of the mainstream theatrical landscape.

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“I think the festival rides a wave of a greater and greater interest among audiences in cross-artform theatre,” says festival director Simon Hart. “I think audiences are increasingly sophisticated and catholic in terms of what they enjoy, even in mainstream theatre. These art forms do take a bit more time and energy and resources, but when they’re done well, they work incredibly well for their audiences.

“I think that means that artists themselves who might have started in one art form or another are skilling up, trying new things. As technology and skills get better, and the costs fall, the incorporation of live film with live action, for example, becomes much easier and more seamless. It becomes much easier for artists to realise ideas which combine these techniques.”

This year’s Manipulate Festival hosts as broad a range of work as ever. Hart singles out That’s It, the first solo piece of work by Belgian dancer Sabine Molenaar: “It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s a marvellously weird piece, it could be about a person, a creature, a state of being, as they cope with very extreme emotional situations. Her control of one’s own craft and technique is very impressive.”

Other highlights include Autumn Portraits, by American company Sandglass, and work by Russia’s Theatre Akhe, the company behind ground-breaking Fringe shows such as White Cabin.

Leading animation artist Ülo Pikkov from Estonia will curate a programme of films which have inspired him, and there are two animations by Neil Kempsell, inspired by the music of Martyn Bennett, marking ten years since Bennett’s death.

The festival continues to expand in range and scope, taking work to the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen and, for the first time, to the Big Burns Supper in Dumfries, and hosting workshops and work-in-progress sessions.

Hart says: “I started the festival to bring the best international puppetry, visual theatre and animation that I could find to Scotland, and also through that to inspire and encourage Scottish theatre artists to create work of a similar ambition and scale. Over the last couple of years, that has become an increasingly successful part of what has been flowing from the festival.”

This year, the strength of home-grown work is evident: there’s a premiere of a new work by aerial dance company All or Nothing, an adaptation of Madame Butterfly by Ramesh Meyyappan, the artist behind Snails & Ketchup, a highlight of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and a fresh take on Frankenstein from Spotted Stripes Circus, the Edinburgh-based company run by Phil and Emma Hardie.

It’s all part of a shift that’s taking place in British theatre, an acceptance that puppetry is not just for children and aerial dance not just for the circus.

Hart says: “In Europe, there is a much more consistent tradition of this kind of work for adult audiences than there has been in the UK, it has been an accepted part of the cultural landscape for longer. Because a lot of our theatre traditionally has been focused around the written word, it’s an area where there is room for a lot of development.”

Increasingly, mainstream theatre-makers are using skills from puppetry or physical performance as part of their work. Hit shows such as War Horse, with its magnificent horse puppets, have proved that, used well, these are a worthwhile addition to a theatre-maker’s toolkit.

National Theatre of Scotland’s directors typically draw on a wide palette of genres, from the puppet used to represent the young James II in the James Plays to aerial artists in The Tin Forest.

“I think if one has children, one almost can’t avoid puppetry, and one is usually converted very quickly,” Hart says. “I think that shows like War Horse, Avenue Q and The Lion King have helped everybody to rediscover puppetry. A success like War Horse almost gives everybody permission to use the art form.”

He says that audiences are increasingly visually sophisticated, able to understand and enjoy work which is not text-based. “We live in a very visual culture where we’re very used to picking up body language through gesture and response, understanding more and more about a person’s emotional state. We read those situations more and more quickly and easily. Work like this has a particular attraction for audiences because it allows an individual audience member more room to develop their own interpretations of what they’re seeing on stage, and their own responses.”

Reading body language is an important part of the work of aerial dancer Jennifer Paterson, artistic director of Edinburgh-based company All or Nothing, whose new show, Three’s A Crowd, will premiere at Manipulate. Featuring six aerial performers, the show is Paterson’s biggest theatre production to date, using a combination of narrative and aerial techniques to explore the relationships of three friends, meeting again for the first time in ten years.

The show is an illustration of how far things have come in developing diverse types of theatre-making in Scotland. When Paterson founded All or Nothing in 2006, she was one of the only aerial artists working in Scotland. Now, the company offers 23 classes per week in the genre, and she has made work with a variety of other aerial artists, as well as bringing her skills to bear on many productions for other theatre companies. To be granted funding to develop a show on the scale of Three’s A Crowd, which will tour Scotland in the spring, feels like an important benchmark.

During the cultural programme in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last summer, where many large-scale productions used aerial artists, there was a chance to see the range of skills which have developed here. Paterson was involved in several shows: performing and training local amateur performers for White Gold at the Sugar Sheds in Greenock, choreographing eight aerialists who abseiled down the sides of Glasgow Science Centre in Theatre Cryptic’s Sound to Sea, and flying herself in The Tin Forest and aerial extravaganza Perch.

She says: “It’s part of a trend throughout the UK that aerial work is becoming much more popular. The Millennium Dome in 2000 kicked a lot of things off. Now there’s a little scene going in Scotland. People are starting to use aerial within theatre or large-scale spectacular, the skills are there, the artists are there, and others are coming in. It’s exciting to be part of such a new concept in Scotland anyway as we don’t have a big history of physical performance.”

• Manipulate is at the Traverse, Edinburgh and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, from 30 January until 7 February,; Three’s A Crowd will tour Scotland in the spring.