Liat Rosenthal goes to Manipulate Festival of Visual Theatre and meets its founder and director Simon Hart
Manipulate is Scotland’s annual festival of visual theatre for ‘consenting adults’. Presented by Puppet Animation Scotland, and hosted by the prestigious Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Manipulate brings together an exciting mix of performance styles to an enthusiastic audience – a mix that includes puppetry, object theatre, and animation, presented live and on film, with lectures and masterclasses a key element.
Under the direction of festival founder Simon Hart (who is also artistic director of Puppet Animation Scotland), Manipulate has gone from strength to strength over the past four years, providing audiences with a varied programme designed to entertain, to challenge and to inspire. Hart’s desire to develop Manipulate stemmed from the need to ‘showcase the best of world visual theatre with a focus on puppetry, object animation and animated films in order to allow Scottish practitioners to engage with the work’. Festival participants can engage through many means – via the masterclass, this year led by the Compagnie Philippe Genty, or through witnessing a wide range of performances, films and talks.
Simon Hart’s strategic goal for Manipulate is to develop new talent, and the festival programme provided an excellent platform for new work, and a space to cultivate, nurture and promote new Scottish-based artists who work in puppetry, animation and visual theatre.
The 2011 programme featured established artists from the UK and further afield, including festival favourites Duda Paiva (Netherlands) who presented Malediction, and Mossoux Bonte (Belgium) who returned in 2011 with Kefar Nahum; and new talent, including emerging Scottish theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell, whose production The Last Miner was noted for its touching narrative and ingenious use of scenographic element.
One exciting aspect of Manipulate is the Snapshots: Creation and Play showcase programme, in which a number of artists or companies present short works, or excerpts from work, in one evening programme. For 2011, each of the three artists or companies showcased in the first half of the evening had received an award from Puppet Animation Scotland to support the development of their creative vision. The evening offered a variety of interesting work: Edward’s House of String, a unique woven world created by Cindy Derby, a US artist now based in Scotland; the anarchic, political and poignant Spoon Fed by Ewan Macintyre (from Scotland); and the touching tale of Freaks by Vision Mechanics (also based in Scotland). After a break came Matthew Robins Sings the Death of Flyboy, Sad Lucy and Other Stories by English artist Matthew Robins – a magical mix of shadow puppetry, live music, sinister tales and eccentric characters.
Clearly, there is no shortage of creative talent and ideas, nor is there a shortage of practitioners based in Scotland who are interested in exploring puppetry and animation, however, as Simon Hart articulates, ‘it’s just the economic context of the lack of opportunities to get out there and sell them’ which prevents the development of this area of work.
Another company presenting work was the London-based 1927, whose tremendously successful mix of live performance and screen animation first saw the light of day in worldwide hit Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The company’s meteoric rise over the past few years has been helped by their ongoing relationship with Manipulate. In 2009, the company presented the first stage try-out of what would become their new show, and the completed version of this show, now called The Animals and Children took to the Streets, returned triumphantly to Manipulate 2011 (this show previously reviewed in AO32, seen at BAC London by Penny Francis).
Jerk by Gisele Vienne promised to be one of the more controversial offerings from the festival. The audience assume the role of psychology students witnessing a serial killer (Jonathan Capdevielle) recreating his crimes with the use of hand puppets. The post-show discussion raised interesting debates surrounding the representation of violence, the criminal, and the power of puppetry in portraying the show’s challenging issues. Whilst Vienne’s detached and almost clinical use of the puppet has routes in the traditions of Kantor, it was rather hard to engage in the more academic reading of the piece whilst watching a Sooty and Sweep style hand-puppet undergo anal rape.
Hart stated that a key object of Manipulate is to inspire Scottish artists, encouraging them to raise their ambitions and explore creating work for an adult audience – an area of work which is underdeveloped in Scotland. Hart astutely notes the pragmatic and economic challenges facing Scottish companies who wish to follow this route and the need for strategic support for practitioners: ‘It’s the sort of work that needs to be supported, that has a really important niche within the arts ecology in any country. Creative Scotland has been very supportive – they really believe in this.’
The masterclass is a core part of the festival; an opportunity for Scottish artists to work with internationally acclaimed practitioners as well as attracting participants from the rest of the UK and beyond. The six-day course, run by the acclaimed Compagnie Philippe Genty, was attended by a range of artists – writers, directors, dancers, puppeteers and actors. There was mixture of established artists and emerging practitioners and this mix of skills and experience was celebrated by the open and supportive group.
As a practitioner supported by Crying Out Loud’s Pipped to the Post scheme, I was fortunate to participate in the workshop as part of my professional development. The workshop introduced practitioners to a range of methodologies used by the Genty company, including movement-based workshops as well as puppetry manipulation techniques.
The physical rigour and attention to detail were qualities that renewed everyone’s respect for the work of Genty; discovering the details of the Genty rehearsal process and exactly how many hours of rehearsal time were required to create a few moments on stage reminded us all of the commitment of the company members and why the work is exemplifies excellence within the artform. My top pick from the masterclass exercises involved everyone embodying and enacting ‘chemical reactions’. I genuinely enjoyed being a fried egg! Everyone wholeheartedly committed to their interpretation of melting ice, fizzing water, dye diffusing in liquid, and the union of oil and water. The week culminated in a sharing of singing fish, paper mountains, animated objects and anthropomorphised plastic sheeting.
The festival also included a performative lecture entitled Ephemeral Animation by puppeteer Nenagh Watson, presented under the auspices of the John Phillips Annual Lecture, and a number of films featuring puppetry or animation. Simon Hart described his festival highlight as ‘getting 100 people to sit in a space and watch a weird Armenian film [The Colour of Pomegranates, directed by Sergei Parajanov] which no-one understood – but which everyone was enjoying.’
‘Our audiences want to be challenged and they are happy and ready to commit in that way,’ he says, ‘there is a real discipline required to sit there and go with the work.’ For me, this genuine desire of Manipulate to engage audiences in new work, to support innovative companies and emerging companies is crucial to the success of the festival, or, as Hart puts it, ‘having the confidence in the event to take a risk.’
When quizzing Simon Hart about the plans for Manipulate 2012 he says, ‘we want to develop a range of ongoing partners with leading European partnerships – but I can’t say more then that.’ However, I can see that he wants to share the ideas which are tentatively taking form, one of which, he says, ‘will have an orchestra and a 360 degree shadow screen – with the audience in the middle’.
Sounds brilliant – that’s good enough to get me back there!