Stephen Mottram, Editta Braun and Duda Paiva among the highlights of Manipulate 2014
The visual theatre festival brings together puppetry and dance techniques to convey narrative
The use of puppets allows performers to enact scenarios audiences could only dream of. Niki Boyle meets with Manipulate’s artistic director Simon Hart to find out more
In the same way that films and TV shows use animation or computer graphics to portray impossible feats, so puppetry allows theatre audiences to witness things not normally achievable by live human performers. The programme for this year’s Manipulate visual theatre festival contains two particular treats that just wouldn’t be possible without the aid of some industrial-scale water tanks and sophisticated breathing apparatus, although the mini-trend they’ve established is apparently quite accidental.
‘It’s interesting, because I programmed it, and then at the end you think, “Oh, here are these little themes that come out,”’ says Manipulate’s artistic director Simon Hart of the shows in question: Stephen Mottram’s The Seas of Organillo and Editta Braun’s Planet Luvos. ‘I think those two pieces arrive in very different places, perhaps starting from a similar initial impulse – creativity, water,’ he adds. ‘They use quite explicit, pragmatic ways in, and then explore what that different enviroment would be like in very different ways.’
Planet Luvos is a sequel to Luvos, a Manipulate highlight in 2012. The original production explored the sinister implications of genetic experimentation; this sequel takes the scenario to an apocalyptic conclusion, with Earth now a completely submerged landscape. While Braun’s preferred means of communication is still very much rooted in human movement, it fits well with the festival’s puppet-oriented outlook. ‘It’s not quite dance, it’s not quite physical theatre … the performers are almost like their own puppets, in that they are creating other animals, other beings,’ says Hart.
The Seas of Organillo, on the other hand, is very much a showcase of what’s achievable with non-living actors, such as poseable artists’ marionettes – one of performer Stephen Mottram’s trademarks. ‘He adapts these models to become puppets. They’re not quite mermen, but the way they swim through the water … Just through experimentation with the weight of the puppets, he’s managed to create these incredibly fluid movements that suggest the medium through which they’re moving.’
A less aquatic programme highlight is the return of another Manipulate regular, Dutch dancer-turned-puppeteer Duda Paiva, with the UK premiere of Bestiaires. Paiva explores the characters of sometimes mirthful, sometimes malevolent Greek deities using life-size puppets and ‘very extreme, very provocative contemporary dance’. What impresses in Paiva’s work, and throughout the programme, is how the presence of both performers and puppets on stage is not an obstacle to enjoyment. ‘Obviously the audience on some level is thinking, “Well of course, the performer is doing the manipulating,”’ says Hart. ‘But when it really works, with [Paiva’s work] in particular … I think audiences in general want to suspend disbelief.’ The act of allowing yourself to be convinced also pays dividends when the unexpected occurs; at one point in Bestiares, for example, it becomes unclear who is in control – performer or puppet. ‘I think, particularly with this piece, you see a lot where you’re not quite sure how it is done, how that effect is created, which I think is very impressive.’
Manipulate, Traverse Theatre and Summerhall, Edinburgh, Fri 31 Jan–Sat 8 Feb.