There’s something about the word “puppet” that just doesn’t cover it, any more. From the gorgeous, almost life-size versions of elephants and giraffes that crowd the stage in The Lion King, through the huge Scottish walking figures Big Man Walking and Storm devised by Vision Mechanics of Leith, to the powerful Tiny Tim figure who starred in this year’s Edinburgh Christmas Carol at the Lyceum, puppetry itself seems to have entered a whole new age since the turn of the millennium, defying the image of toy-like smallness that seems to shape in the very word.
Nor is it, any more, necessarily all about creating figures that mimic the shape of humans, or animals, or even sea-goddesses. Instead “object theatre” – often combined with a brilliant use of light and shadow – can animate the simplest household object, or fragment of fabric, or isolated part of a human body, with what seems like a life of its own; dancing fingers, weeping taps, mourning head-shawls, all inviting our imaginations to shape what we see on stage into narratives that tell the story of our times.
And so it’s hardly surprising that Edinburgh’s international Manipulate Festival – staged every winter by Puppet Animation Scotland – has long since stopped describing itself as a festival of puppetry. Today, it’s an “annual celebration of innovative visual theatre and animated film”; and in 2020, Manipulate is on the move. After a decade at the Traverse Theatre, this year the festival will be based at Summerhall, the rambling and magnificent former Edinburgh veterinary school – now turned major arts centre and Fringe venue – where Puppet Animation Scotland currently has its office base.
“The Traverse has been a wonderful home for us in so many ways,” says Simon Hart, director of Puppet Animation Scotland, “and its technical team is world class. What’s happened, though, over the dozen years of Manipulate, is that the Scottish strand of our work has become stronger and stronger; and there’s now a generation of young or emerging Scottish-based artists who really want to show their work at Manipulate, but in a short form, and in an informal atmosphere. The maze of different spaces at Summerhall really lends itself to that; and we’ll also be using The Studio, at the Festival Theatre, for a few of our international shows.”
Over nine days, the festival features around 75 events, including 26 full stage productions; and although the live programme also includes artists from England, France, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and the USA, a high proportion of the shows – playing hourly all day on Saturday 1 February – feature young Scottish companies strutting their short-form stuff in small spaces around Summerhall. Among them is the Scottish based company Swallow The Sea, who occupy the Basement Gallery with two of their own shows, titled Journey and Lamp, and four other shows, by different artists, curated by them; and for the three women behind Swallow The Sea – Jess Raine, Emma Brierley and Jemima Thewes – this Manipulate Festival represents a chance to try out their work in a completely new setting.
“We actually met at Manipulate several years ago,” explains Raine, who first came to Scotland from Northern Ireland almost 20 years ago, to study drama at Queen Margaret University. “We were all in a masterclass with the French theatre-maker Philippe Genty, and thought that we would like to work together on some kind of object theatre; then in 2016 we bought this old 1970s caravan for £100, and started a crowdfunder to raise £5,000 to convert it into a little travelling theatre, and get a show together.
“We did that because we just liked the idea of having our own space, and being able to take it wherever we wanted to go; and we were also drawn to the idea of working in a very small, intimate way, with a maximum audience of six or maybe just four people. There’s something about that kind of space and this kind of theatre that’s very powerful and magical; and I guess we called it Swallow The Sea because you need a lot of imagination even to picture that, swallowing the whole ocean into such a small space.”
Since 2016, the Swallow The Sea Caravan has been seen all over Scotland, including one Edinburgh Fringe when the company would park up and perform “guerilla-style” behind the National Museum of Scotland. During last year’s Fringe they found themselves at Summerhall, for a highly successful three-week run; then in the autumn, courtesy of Puppet Animation Scotland and Creative Scotland, they spent ten days at the massive Charleville-Mézières international festival of puppet and animation theatre in France.
“Puppet Animation Scotland has been a huge support to us,” says Raine, “and now this is another big step for us, to see how the work stands up indoors, in a different venue. We never want to leave the caravan behind, though. We’re all interested in themes to do with land and water and journeys, the planet we live on; and next year we’re hoping to take the caravan on tour across Europe.”
Why are they so determined to continue this work, even though it’s so modest in scale, and often hard to sustain?
“I think it’s the freedom,” says Raine, “being free to be creative in our own way is what really drives us all. It’s also because we’ve been amazed, so far, at where this work has taken us, and where it might take us next. We all have to work on many other jobs and projects, of course, to keep going as artists. But we’re determined to carry on doing this, as much and as often as we can; simply because we love it, and it’s just so much fun.”
The Manipulate Festival runs from 31 January until 8 February, at Summerhall and The Studio, Edinburgh. Swallow The Sea showcase their work at Sunmmerhall on 1 February.