Emma Leishman attends Manipulate, Scotland’s ‘annual celebration of inspirational international visual theatre’
'Traverse' in red neon shone out through the cold night, over the top of street-level construction, like an X marking the spot. I entered the theatre foyer and a familiar face was there to greet me. Simon Hart, artistic director of the third Manipulate Festival, seemed to be working out some last minute details with the box office, but something was missing. There was no frantic frenzy or fervent energy about him; no, in fact he was an island of calm. Maybe I was dreaming it, maybe it is just the 'Edinburgh way', or maybe it was Simon’s energy permeating through the theatre, but for me the rest of the festival continued in the same cocoon of relaxation and tranquillity.
This was a festival of firsts for me – it was the first Manipulate Festival I had attended, the first festival that felt as laid back as a holiday, and the first festival I had been to that was created around one location. For this festival-goer all these firsts were major pluses. I began this night of firsts by attending the launch party. And after talk, talk, talk it was on with the show...
A warmly-lit stage, a lonely tree to the left, and in the centre a boxed room on wheels with many different sized windows – this was setting the scene for a performance of Portuguese company Circolando’s Quarto Interior. What played out for the next hour or so was an intimate exchange between two friends – intimate in that they shared everything from feelings to physical space. The performers' quality of movement was highly engaging, but at times they played the moments out until they started to lose their meaning. A highly physical performance where object manipulation was taken to extremes through the manipulation of beds, walls and various bits of furniture, the show climaxed with a fantastic rice frenzy. But, for this festival-goer, it was just the beginning.
I was already in love with the Traverse Theatre when, the following morning, I rolled up to observe Joy Haynes’ masterclass, Stories & Objects. (And the coffee from the small coffee bar next to the box office was only £1 AND it tasted delicious! I was set for the day). The masterclass explored the life of the object and how an object may be moved without giving it characterisation. Participants also explored story perspective using traditional folk stories and a myriad of strange objects that included the spine of an umbrella, a ball of string, pieces of wood, metal and paper – it was like opening the mind of a puppeteer and extracting the physical objects used to make and create. Joy also allowed the class to experiment with an old-fashioned slide projector, lighting, screens, and we even had a musician join the group to offer an improvised soundscape. As an observer I was a little jealous that I was only observing as it looked like everyone was having so much fun. Over the next couple of days it was fascinating to watch the participants produce short puppet performances – among them stories of a little match girl, a young women disguised using the skin of an old woman, monsters, and strange things that looked deceptively like a white sheet of Lycra but were so much more.
The fun continued into the festival nights with performances from the fantastically fluid Frank Soehnle of Figurentheater Tübingen (Germany) in the cabaret of death that is Salto.Lamento. For once musicians were not merely part of the scenery but were instead integral players in this beautiful nightmare, joining the plethora of characters that appeared out of golden boxes, black piles of ash, and the darkest shadows. Centaur-like puppets took centre-stage and transformed before our very eyes, while a skeletal death floated around the edges and a dancing old man and a small sheep-like character kept us entertained with their quirky humour and preoccupations.
From the magical to the thought-provoking: Explorations of Love, Death and Power Tools, the second part of Wednesday’s programme, presented a great breadth and depth of animated shorts from across the globe, and was followed the next evening by Snapshots, a collection of performances by six Scotland-based puppet artists/companies. With an eclectic mix of style and technique, all the work in Snapshots was produced with the same stipulation – create a piece lasting no longer than four minutes! The most impressive performances were Simon Abbott’s But for this..., the short story of the death and eventual total, earthly eradication of Jon Kovaks, presented as small moments with seamless fluidity amongst the company of puppeteers; and Shona Reppe's hilarious Blind Alley, about the nursing home carer that looked after ageing rocks, feeding and watering them and carefully dispensing of them when they had expired.
My funny bone continued to be tickled for the remainder of that evening with the political satire and comedic stylings of Pangolin's Teatime in The Great Puppet Horn. A silly show of shadow puppetry, political personalities and movie stars.
My only disappointment was not to see more 'home-grown' talent from Scotland. When I asked Simon how Manipulate has improved and influenced the status of adult puppetry today in Scotland he said that the festival had attracted a 'significantly new, and younger, audience to the Traverse' and one 'less hide-bound by old high/low cultural assumptions and expectations'. As Simon sees it, the next challenge will be for a Scottish company to begin to create a full length show: 'It's always a problem; not because there is a dearth of ideas, but because there are a lack of performing – and box office earning – opportunities in Scotland for work of this kind. One way in which I see Manipulate influencing the situation is by giving Scottish practitioners a platform on which to start to create work for adults.'
So the gauntlet has been thrown down to all Scottish puppetry artists – be bold, be brave, and do it for 'adults-only'. Don’t let the kids have all the fun! It is hoped that some of the work-in-progress pieces at Manipulate, and indeed some of the workshop participants, may progress further and perhaps have the chance to present their work at the next festival.
Stay tuned for next year’s Manipulate to see what happens, but a juicy hint is that the festival may expand its reach as far as Glasgow – can’t wait to see what’s next.