Theatre interview: Manipulate festival director Simon Hart on this year's programme

These days, when people on the internet share an image or a news story they find particularly tragic, or appalling, or beyond belief, they often introduce it with the phrase, 'No words'. It's short for 'no words can convey what I feel about this'; and it seems almost like a mantra for our time, an age of fake news when people often turn away in disgust from public language that seems like a vehicle for lies and spin.

Ramesh Meyyappans Off Kilter

So it’s perhaps not surprising that in the world of theatre, there is an ever-growing interest in the visual aspects of the art, which reach out to audiences in ways that go beyond language; and in Scotland, that shift in sensibility finds its focus each year at the end of January, when director Simon Hart and his colleagues at Puppet Animation Scotland roll out their annual international festival of visual theatre, Manipulate. This year’s week-long programme, which opens in Aberdeen on 26 January and at the Traverse in Edinburgh on the 27th, marks the Festival’s eleventh year; and if the festival’s early focus on puppet and object theatre has opened out to include a much wider rage of dance and movement-based performance, it still offers cutting-edge object theatre from France, Italy and Israel, as well as dance-based pieces like the remarkable Sabine Molenaar of Belgium’s latest show, Almost Alive.

“It’s always been our aim to show international work of a quality that would help to encourage a growing visual theatre culture in Scotland,” says Hart, “and as we move into our second decade, we can see that process really moving forward. This year, alongside our eight international shows, we’re also showing four Scottish or partly-Scottish productions, with Company of Wolves working on the story of Achilles, Oceanallover working in Orkney on old horse myths, Ramesh Meyyappan working between Scotland and Singapore on the trauma of unemployment and job insecurity, and a collective of clown artists including Melanie Jordan and Edinburgh company Plutot La Vie. And beyond that, we now have two development programmes – our own Snapshots project, and Testroom, run jointly with the National Theatre of Scotland – that allow emerging Scottish artists, or established artists trying something new, to create exciting short experimental pieces, some as brief as five minutes.

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“So this year, we have five short Snapshots shows, mainly playing at 6pm in the Traverse, featuring around 15 young artists from the Tortoise In A Nutshell company to Sarah Bebe Holmes with her new show Egg. Snapshots 4, for example, involves four young theatre-makers who are part of the annual spring course at the Curious School of Puppetry, run by award-winning puppeteer Sarah Wright, which is taking place this year right here at Summerhall, where we have our office. We also have one Testroom programme featuring four companies or artists including Glasgow’s Theatre Gu Leor, who have been working with the National Theatre of Scotland’s leading puppet artist, Gavin Glover.”

Manipulate director Simon Hart PIC: Andy Catlin

And as well as celebrating this flourishing seed-bed of future talent, Hart is delighted that Manipulate is increasingly spreading its impact across Scotland. This year, there are performances at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen by Meyyappan and the French Compagnie A with their show Song Of The Goat; Compagnie Akselere, also from France, will appear at Dumfries Theatre Royal with their solo version of Sleeping Beauty; Testroom can be seen at the Tron in Glasgow as well as the Traverse; and the festival’s whole week-long programme of workshops, featuring Sabine Molenaar and US puppet-maker Eric Blass, among others, will take place at Dancebase in the Grassmarket.

“One of our aims is just to raise awareness in Scottish theatre of the huge visual possibilities of the art-form,” says Hart, “whether that involves movement, lighting, puppetry and objects, or the use of film and animation in theatre. Animation has always been a very important part of Manipulate, as a form of visual expression increasingly used in theatre, and this year we’ve decided to give our animation programme more prominence by gathering it together into a single day-long festival at the Traverse on the 27th.

“There are short programmes – each less than an hour – based on the Edinburgh Short Film Festival, on the Bristol Festival of Puppetry’s 2017 programme on Women in Animated Film, on the relationship between films and comics or graphic novels, and on the great Punto Y Raya animation festival in Spain. Then in the evening, we have a session curated by the great Finnish animator Ulo Pikkov about the art-form’s response to political repression and protest in Eastern Europe before 1989.”

For Hart, though, one of the most satisfying aspects of this year’s festival lies in the sheer diversity of work now being produced by young artists through the Snapshots and Testroom programmes, which ranges from the intensely political and socially focussed to the completely abstract; and he has high hopes for their future contribution to theatre in Scotland. “It’s noticeable, this year,” he says, “how many of our international shows come from France, although I didn’t particularly plan it that way. I think it’s because the network of cultural centres there, the Maisons de Culture, provides such a supportive base for artists no matter what type of theatre they want to explore, as well as a basis for a touring circuit, and a certain flexibility and resilience in dealing with times of financial austerity.

Manipulate director Simon Hart PIC: Andy Catlin

“And although we can’t and probably shouldn’t try to imitate that structure here, I’m hoping that we can provide some of that creative support for theatre artists in Scotland; and give them the space to explore these incredibly powerful aspects of theatre, which offer us new ways of seeing the world – and perhaps also new ways of confronting and changing it, through art.”

Manipulate 2018 is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and other venues around Scotland from 26 January until 3 February, www.