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Light and Shade
Alissa Mello attends the Manipulate
Visual Theatre Festival

The Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival 2009 one-week event brings together expanded programming of acclaimed international performances, an artists talk, a film screening and five days of puppet master classes presented by Puppet Animation Scotland in partnership with The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. The festival is in addition to the organisation’s annual Puppet Animation Festival for children and young people, and was well curated by Simon Hart with efficient administrative assistance from Emma Whitters. It offered a fantastic week of puppetry events which were attended by a vibrant mix of people: members of the local community; visiting artists, producers and press; and festival masterclass participants.

After spending the past several months in a period of intense research, I was particularly excited about attending as both a spectator and a masterclass participant. Throughout, the festival created a very nice dialogue between what we did in the masterclasses and what we saw in the performances.

Norbert Goetz of Theater der Schatten conducted the first masterclass, a three-day event called The Language of the Shadow, in which we explored the contemporary shadow theatre techniques and discoveries that he uses in his solo performances. After brief introductions, we began with a philosophical discussion about light and shadow, then shifted to the objectives for the next three days of exploration: what types of light to use and why, what makes good shadows, and ways to handle light in performance. This discussion was followed by a concrete exploration of five different types of bulbs on different screen surfaces to look at and contemplate the properties of shadow that each produces. Within this group of lighting instruments was the one that Goetz generally uses in all of his productions. It is a custom-made, handheld instrument that uses a halogen bicycle light no longer on the market. (Goetz has a large stock of both bulbs and instruments for sale.) For the rest of the first and second day, we worked only with this instrument with objects and people developing direction and focus skills using light. For the third and final day of the workshop, we focused on two techniques that Goetz has been developing – reflection and polarisation. Reflection uses either a simple mirrored plastic and light to create light forms on a screen surface by bending the material, and scratching directly on the material to create light and dark sections that then alters how the mirrored surface reflects light. Polarisation uses a standard overhead projector as the light source masked by polarising filters, one on the tray and one on the light arm.  Working in the space between the two filters with material that polarises, one can create rich colour palettes that can also be manipulated by moving a filter to create special effects such as light changes that mimic dawn to dusk.

The second masterclass, Playing with the Audience, was taught by Ian Cameron and Tim Licata, of Scottish clown company Plutôt la Vie. The workshop shifted our focus away from object manipulation to ourselves, as performers, and our relationship with the audience.  Cameron and Licata used a range of physical theatre clowning techniques and theatre games to propose a rethinking of the puppeteer’s interaction on stage. Both days began with a brief taste of a couple of Feldenkrais movement techniques to reconnect with our bodies in a relaxed, efficient state. We would then play a few theatre games to notice energy states, uses of our bodies in different and extreme ways, and what makes people laugh. In the afternoons, we would more explicitly use clown and improvisation techniques as a means to finding character, relationships between characters, and performance states that may be useful both for the puppeteer with the audience, and the puppeteer with a puppet.

The masterclasses were followed each evening by a performance, talk, or screening of award-winning, contemporary puppet and visual theatre from the UK, mainland Europe, and the United States. The festival has clearly grown in its two short years as reflected in the expanded programming of eight events available to the public. Despite the adverse weather, all events were warmly received by sold out houses.

The festival programming opened with The Politics in Puppets: A Conversation, with American puppeteer and performer, Paul Zaloom and artistic director, Simon Hart. Following the conversation came a screening of Dante’s Inferno, a toy theatre film based on a rewriting of Dante’s The Divine Comedy by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders.  The conversation focused on Zaloom’s performance history, and in particular his involvement with the seminal Bread & Puppet Theater; on choices of material and mediums; and on use of puppetry as a means to disseminate political ideology. Dante’s Inferno was nicely paired with the conversation, though perhaps the conversation should have followed the screening of the film. The film is steeped in contemporary, US political and social references including presidents, pop icons, airport security, prostitutes, and pimps set against a contemporary vision of hell with strip malls and used car lots.

Twin Houses, performed by the Belgian company Compaigne Mossoux-Bonte and The Mother of All Enemies by Paul Zaloom were paired on the following evenings bill.  Twin Houses (from 1997) is a solo performance with one female dancer (Nicole Mossoux) and five mannequin puppets. It explores an inner world of control and multiple personality. The relationship between manipulator and manipulated is blurred in a formal, gothic environment of dominance and submission. In contrast, The Mother of All Enemies has the appearance of emerging out of chaos. Zaloom’s fast paced and seemingly erratic performance style belies the deadly seriousness lying just underneath the laughter.

Thursday evening introduced a lighter sensibility beginning with Poemes Visuales by the Catalan Jordi Bertran company. Known for a number of years because of a viral video available on youtube, this cabaret piece of foam rubber letters plays out very human stories and relationships. The simple puppets were expressively and masterfully manipulated to create a poetic evening’s entertainment. This show was followed the following night by Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by the UK’s 1927 a surrealistic combination of actors, live music and cinema. Bodies seamlessly moved from live to celluloid and occasionally both at the same time. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea draws on a silent film aesthetic, extreme costuming reminiscent of early science fiction and expressionist film, and weirdly dark storytelling.

The festival concluded with a final double bill. Tabola Rassa (another Catalan company) opened with The Miser, an adaptation of Moliere’s classic play performed with tabletop puppets that are constructed from plumbing fixtures. Wealth is measured in litres of water instead of money. The performance was enthusiastically performed and ended in a riot spraying water.

This performance was followed by Snapshots: Creation & Play, a collection of five shorter pieces by four companies: The New Not New by Aillie Cohen (Scotland), Daphne by Sokobauno (Scotland), The Fugue of Pazzy Villycar by 1927 (England), and closing with King Pest and Night Flyer by The Paper Cinema and Kora (England)


Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival took place Tue 3 Feb - Sat 7 Feb 2009 at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. It was presented by Puppet Animation Scotland and the Projector Animation Festival in association with the Traverse Theatre.


Top image:
1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Images left and bottom: Images taken by Alissa Melo at the Norbert Goetz masterclass
Centre image: Paul Zaloom in The Mother of All Enemies


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