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Seeing the Light
Alissa Mello reports from the Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival 2008

The Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival is a newly launched week-long event presented by Puppet Animation Scotland, in partnership with Dundee Rep Theatre and the Projector Film Festival, bringing together four acclaimed international performances, a film screening and five days of puppet master classes. The festival is in addition to the organisation’s annual Puppet Animation Festival for children and young people, and was very ably curated by Simon Hart (with administrative assistance from Emma Whitters).

It offered a fantastic week of puppetry events for the local community and visiting masterclass participants alike. After spending the past several months in a period of intense research, I was particularly excited about attending as both a spectator and a participant. Throughout, the festival created a very nice dialogue between what we did in the masterclasses and what we saw in the performances.

The first masterclass, Light & Darkness – which was conducted by Fabrizio Montecchi, director and set-designer with Teatro Gioco Vita of Italy – explored contemporary shadow theatre. After brief introductions, we began with physical exercises discovering one’s body in relation to the production of shadows. These exercises developed an alternate sensitivity, an awareness of edges, of bodies and of shadows. What, Montecchi asks, are the tangible qualities of shadow? How do they taste, or smell? What is their texture? Playfully keeping our shadow separate while moving through space, we found different ways to interact between shadows rather than bodies. The exercises were heightened with simple lighting changes (including complete darkness), creating radical shifts in shadow production suggesting numerous possibilities of play with scale; making combined shapes; and offering tricks that can be created with skilled use of relationships between objects, light and surface.

The explorations continued both with bodies and the addition of puppets. We used silhouettes created during the master class and puppets brought by Montecchi that were made in the Gioco Vita style. In addition to experimentation, Montecchi also presented a day-and-a-half on lighting techniques, materials, and key discoveries, (especially the shift away from a fixed screen), which he has made during his thirty years exploring shadow theatre. To conclude the three-day workshop, we viewed videos of different productions, and discussed the various techniques used in each.

The United Kingdom’s very own Stephen Mottram conducted the second masterclass, The Logic of Movement. The first day was designed to take one into a deep exploration and deconstruction of object movement. Mottram’s interest, as I understood it, is an analysis of essential movement. In other words, those actions or weight-shifts that give an audience the information it needs to read a character rather then what we as performers think we are doing. Mottram asks: what is the information that a crocodile needs to determine if what is approaching is a potential meal? How does it know the size, weight and locomotion? The keys to this physical deconstruction lie in how a being counter-balances, and the pendulum motion of its limbs. The counter-balance informs how it moves; he pendulum motion indicates its size. We explore each of these keys using our own bodies, rag puppets, five points of light using small torches, and by constructing viable creatures from odd bits and pieces.

Our deconstruction of movement continues into day two, when we explore focus and the physical qualities of emotion using a body, three-dimensional puppets and five points of light. Mottram’s basic premise is that if one can identify the core weight-shifts or fingerprint for a particular creature’s movement and reproduce it then an audience will believe in the viability of its life. Each workshop inspired a sense of play, exploration and at least for me renewed joy in training.

The masterclasses were followed each evening by performances of award-winning, contemporary puppet theatre and visual theatre from the United Kingdom and Europe. Each of these pieces has received considerable critical acclaim throughout Europe. In addition to the masterclass participants, the performance attracted audiences from the city of Dundee.

Light! performed by Compagnie Moussoux-Bonte was a solo performer’s encounter with light and shadow. It presented a masterful example of the fantastic visual possibilities that can be created between objects and light. Many of the effects were the very same ones that those of us in Montecchi’s workshop were exploring, and provided an excellent opportunity to experience as a spectator the ways they can be translated to stage. The shadows, cast by the performer’s body, were enhanced and altered using textured costuming and light direction in addition to movement.

The Seed Carriers by Stephen Mottram engages the spectator in a voyeuristic role where we encounter a vaguely familiar but not quite human world. Mottram’s masterful display of objects and techniques, including string puppets, automata, and glove puppets, presents an open and circular frame. It is the spectator who must construct the narrative, connecting the series of events or scenes. Mottram, visibly present throughout, positioned himself ambiguously but was clearly the manipulator of action.

Appel d’Air by Théâtre Velo from France, though created eighteen years ago, retains its freshness. A man alone in an attic struggles with solitude and a desire for freedom that is achieved at first through play with objects that shift though several locations. The set, a platform bed, creates a constrained world from which the imaginary world of play with objects emanates. Finally, the character finds a way out of his solitude in a metaphoric leap out of his window.

Angel, by Dudo Paiva from the Netherlands, explored social commentary and poverty physically and textually through the relationship between the audience, a live performer and an angel in a graveyard. The performance blends dance and puppetry, narrative and environment, to communicate on multiple levels. Slipped in between the final day of the masterclass with Mottram and the performance of Angel was a screening of Strings at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

On a personal note, I would like to thank Puppet Animation Scotland as well as all of the workshop participants for creating such a great learning and experiential environment…

I look forward to next year’s festival!

For more on Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival and on Puppet Animation Scotland see 


Images top to bottom:
1 Light by Mossoux-Bonte
2 Stephen Mottram
3 Appel d'Air by Théâtre Velo
4 Angel, by Dudo Paiva
5 From the festival's exhibition Puppet Theatre: The
Designer'sTheatre, by John Blundall

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