Manipulate's artistic director tells us about the ethos behind the festival and selects some highlights to look out for in its latest edition
Manipulate – Scotland's only festival dedicated to visual theatre, puppetry, and animation – is back and ready to break the moulds of traditional theatre once again. Now in its 13th year, Puppet Animation Scotland's annual festival continues to subvert and diversify the ways in which stories are told with a programme that is bigger, richer and more innovative than ever.
From haunting, eerie circus feats in Dreams of Small Gods to adventures on the high seas of shadow puppetry in Twa Pirate Quines, Manipulate's 2020 line-up is thrillingly varied. What unites each work, however, is their emphasis on pushing the boundaries of performance and expression. Whether it be through puppetry, animation, aerial and circus work, or dance, the narrative of each piece is driven primarily by visual means, eschewing the text-based framework of conventional theatre for something more immediate, ambiguous and daring.
'It becomes about the materiality of traditional theatrical themes,' explains Simon Hart, Manipulate's director. Scanning the programme, he stops at Mina, an experimental reworking of animated film Paper Thin by theatre company Improbable Dolls, which combines film, animation and physical theatre to explore the trauma of conversion therapy. 'There's a lot going on visually to absorb,' Hart considers. 'You have this main character, you have this film, this dance – it informs the narrative in a more elliptical way. I think that's where the centre of live performance is increasingly.' Another piece, After Chekhov by French theatre company Samolet, takes Chekhov's Three Sisters as a starting point rather than as source text, drawing out themes of lost love, home, yearning for a better life and trying to express them purely through visual and physical language. 'With puppets and with objects,' Hart laughs. 'That's the sort of work I'm looking for.'
This ability to translate text-based theatrical themes and concerns into a new, visual medium does not limit Manipulate's offerings – on the contrary, it extends their creative possibility. Rather than the familiar framework of scripts, actors and direction, each piece of visual theatre 'has to create their own grammar from scratch every time,' Hart explains. And this new grammar doesn't only push the theatre-makers, but the audience as well, engaging them in the interpretative process. 'It's their responsibility to work out, "what's my relationship to this piece of work?"' Hart reflects. 'They're bringing a lot more of themselves as individuals into the performance space.'
This explicit focus on audience involvement is especially true of the Rising Voices and Cabaret@Manipulate strands. Rising Voices, a collection of 14 shows at varying stages of development, gives artists an opportunity to showcase their unfinished works in front of a supportive audience, while giving the public access to the process of creating and honing a show. Cabaret@Manipulate meanwhile is new to the festival this year. Made up of a series of works-in-progress and snapshots by some of Scotland's leading visual theatre-makers, including Ruxy Cantir, Lucy McGreal and Two Detectives, these free ticketed shows held in a laid-back cabaret environment continue to dissolve the rigid binary of formal theatre performance and passive audience observation.
Cabaret@Manipulate's emphasis on Scottish theatre-makers also speaks to the festival's specific ambition to seek out and nurture local talent. Although Manipulate is proudly an international festival, welcoming participants from Europe, Canada, and the rest of the UK, its programme has a distinct Scottish focus, encouraging a visual theatre scene that has otherwise been somewhat neglected. 'Theatre here has historically been text-driven, whereas on the continent there's always been a much greater mix with visual, innovative type of work,' Hart explains. 'When I set up the festival it was initially to bring great international work to Scotland and through that to help inspire Scottish theatre-makers to have similar ambition. We're just flying the flag for the art form in Scotland.' With such a compelling, inventive programme of events, it's safe to say they've succeeded.
Manipulate Festival, Summerhall and The Studio, Edinburgh, Fri 31 Jan–Sat 8 Feb. For the full programme, see manipulatefestival.org
Puppet Animation Scotland collates a collection of world-class animation, puppetry and related performing arts of all styles and techniques from a range of international artists and companies. The 2020 event features late-night music events, café-cabarets, workshops and more.