Manipulate Festival runs at the Traverse Theatre, Mon 4 – Sat 16 Feb. Callum Madge catches up with Artistic Director Simon Hart to talk about this year’s programme and how it has evolved.
Simon Hart is an immediately likeable man, his affable presence filling the cosy Puppet Animation Scotland (PAS) office from which he runs Manipulate – a visual theatre festival he’s been Artistic Director of since its conception in Dundee, 2008. With its combination of innovative movement and mesmerising imagery, Manipulate has become a highlight of the Scottish theatrical calendar. With modest roots in stage performance, it has slowly evolved and this year rewards with seventeen different pieces: eight of which are theatre-based, eight are films and one a collection of shorts.
Due to Manipulate’s parent organisation, many of the theatre shows involve puppetry but a few performances cross the hazy line into physical theatre. ‘Puppetry is visual’, says Hart, ‘object animation is just one removed from puppetry. Then it’s one removed from that to shift into the area of physical theatre.’ Last year’s experimental piece, Luvos, is a good example of how the line between puppetry and physical theatre can become blurry. ‘The performers were using their own bodies as objects and as puppets. Certainly nobody said to me “that’s just a dance piece” because they had a scenario and a narrative which created a structure.’
It’s this enchanting focus on the aesthetics of the performances that makes Manipulate one of the most beguiling performing arts festivals of the year. Rather than be concerned with how the production fits a specific genre, Hart displays how diverse visual theatre can be. ‘Yes [“puppetry”] is an elastic term but I think what I try to do when I programme is have a broad range – so there’s something more traditional, but to aim for as good a mix as possible in order to get an idea of what’s out there.’
However, Manipulate is limited in the number of shows it can host. ‘The Traverse is a great space but it sets us certain parameters. We can’t do 1000-seater shows. So within the type of space Traverse One offers, there are relatively few shows that will fit really well, that are used to touring internationally, know how to go into a space, set up in a day and deliver really high quality work.’ In fact, the number of theatre companies that can do this is smaller than you might imagine. ‘I and other festival directors in Europe very quickly start chasing the same shows. So I’m able to say that the work we bring here is the best of its kind at the moment, certainly in Europe.’
Interestingly, Manipulate’s animation strand (which only began in 2010) has been primarily aimed at adults. Hart says that ‘adults really enjoy most animation; Wall-E wouldn’t have been such a success had adults not seen it.’ However, Manipulate films such as Alois Nebel (5 Feb) have found it difficult to break into the mainstream. ‘Graphic novels have the same issue and even puppetry to an extent. Perhaps many adults think “it’s great for my children, entering the world of imagination etc, etc, but…” It seems that occasionally in puppetry you get shows such as Warhorse or Avenue Q which rediscover playfulness and spectacle for older audiences – and Manipulate strives to do the same.
After featuring Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) student Anna Ginsburg’s cherubic short animation in 2012 (now a video for Bombay Bicycle Club), this year’s Snapshots series consists of four other pieces of animation by recent ECA graduates. ‘This year we’ve got Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson’s pieces which are up for two different BAFTAs. The other two films have also been winning a lot of prizes; at the moment there’s real energy in ECA and I think it’s great that we can showcase that a bit.’ This is exciting because Manipulate is no longer a narrow platform for established international theatre companies and fledgling Scottish outfits. At a time when “The Arts” is under scrutiny on a school/educational level, Manipulate is championing the work of the younger generation. ‘It’s opened up doors for them, it’s introduced them to people but I think all four have got real talent and the durability to be around in twenty/thirty years. It’s a really important way of highlighting and showcasing younger talent.’
Equally as important to PAS however, is the ability to survive and secure finance. ‘Through our children’s festival, we are visiting parts of Scotland that don’t receive a great deal of touring work.’ It’s because of this community goal that PAS were able to succeed in such an austere economic climate, especially after the controversy surrounding Creative Scotland. ‘We [PAS] are a foundation organisation and one of our strategic remits is about art form development. It’s about supporting professional puppeteers and visual practitioners at any stage of their career to develop creatively.’ Not only does the festival’s programme give young performance artists a platform to work from, but incentivises and encourages an entire generation to get involved in theatre.
The future of PAS looks to be prosperous. ‘Our medium-term aim is to regularly showcase work created in Scotland that could then tour internationally, particularly in the European context. In the past three years we’ve given Scottish artists small amounts of money so they can develop pieces for adult audiences.’ However, it seems that Manipulate has reached its terminal velocity in terms of the size and popularity of the shows it will host. ‘It’s not going to get much bigger’, admits Hart. ‘If one were to suddenly think “what show will we use, what show fits”, that’s an incredible amount of pressure. Then we get up against finance. Because we’re bringing over international companies, there’s travel, hotels and all the rest. We could probably stretch it but then I think we’d have to start taking stuff to fill the gap rather than take it because we really want it.’
You can follow Callum on Twitter @CWMadge.