First time Manipulate performers Blind Summit, Sita Pieraccini and Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane talk homecoming and what we can expect to see from their shows at Manipulate 2016.
Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, may be known for its festivals, but some are more niche than others. If your first thought for theatre is August, then you’re missing eight months of fantastic productions, and it all starts here in January with The Skinny’s favourite puppeteers, Manipulate.
Now in their ninth year, this festival (spanning Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Norwich) covers all things puppetry and animation, as well as physical theatre, live foley artists and dance. To have a home for art forms less evident in the mainstream – in our very own capital, bringing in some of the best homegrown and international artists yearly to Scotland – is a great start to the cultural year.
While artists and audience members alike return to the festival every year, The Skinny caught up with some of the first timers in this year’s crop of performers, to see what they were looking forward to and what audiences new and old could expect.
Challenging perceptions of puppet shows
For Stephanie Wickes, executive producer on theatre company Blind Summit, Manipulate feels almost like a homecoming for their show: “The show’s been all over the world in the past four years but it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2011. It’s really great to bring it back to Scotland, and specifically to Edinburgh where it was premiered five years ago. We’re coming back with the original cast, so it’s very exciting to be coming back with those three as the co-creators of the show as well.”
The show itself is The Table and its central star is Moses. “The Table was born from a commission by the Jewish Community Centre in London, which is now the JW3. They came to Blind Summit about doing a show based on the Seder, which is a Jewish tradition, whereby they relive the story of the travel to the promised land. However they leave Moses out of the story. We decided to explore the idea of table top puppetry and Moses was born from that; from this idea that Moses is a sort of vain character who wants to be a performer, he’s sick of being a puppet in children’s shows and he wants to be a serious performer, he wants to perform the role of Moses; however he gets quite anxious about it and digresses from the point quite often.”
In addition to retelling an ancient Jewish story, The Table also aims to change people’s perceptions of what a puppet show might be. “I don’t think people come with a huge amount of expectation about what the show is but they all tend to leave having enjoyed it,” Wickes jokes. To say that Blind Summit are the people behind the 90 foot Lord Voldemort at the Olympic open ceremony must pique audience interest, though Moses is a much smaller creation with a nuanced story to tell.
Also feeling some kind of return to home are Saskia Lane and Julian Crouch, the artists behind Birdheart. “This is very different for me because I don’t think Simon from Manipulate knew this when he approached me but I was brought up in Scotland so I played in my first band in Aberdeen and I was a student in Edinburgh,” Crouch tells us. “Just after that we go to San Francisco where Saskia was brought up. I think it’s the kind of show that doesn’t really make any difference where you do it because it’s not verbal, it’s the kind of show that’s universal, it’s about transformation and loneliness and identity. I would say doing the show anyway is like coming home for me but literally I’m going home to do it and the following month I’m going to her home.”
“The land of hippie meditation,” Lane interjects. “The show probably is part San Francisco, part Scotland. The jokes are probably more Scottish and the meditation more San Francisco.”
Meditation is important to Birdheart not necessarily as a theme but a feeling it creates, so much so that next September it will be performed for the Dalai Lama. “It feels like a meditation to do Birdheart and there’s something that is totally centring about it that removes all of my worries. The whole world kind of falls away,” says Lane.
“Because it’s only paper the audience’s imagination becomes a big part of the show. The audience are working as hard as we’re working on stage, sometimes harder. Part of it is like a group meditation,” explains Crouch, “except there are a few jokes in there as well.”
So what is the concept behind Birdheart?
“The idea came... the little seed began about three years ago when we found some beautiful images of these albatross birds that Christopher Jordan took, and basically they were birds that had died from eating plastic in the ocean. There’s a whole story around that, obviously an environmental one, but they were just incredibly beautiful. The photos looked almost black and white with colour inserted because the birds were very grey and on the inside, in the heart of the bird — in the stomach of the bird — were these plastic bits like a lighter or a shoe from a doll,” Lane describes.
Beyond these haunting images were two inciting factors: the desire to do a show together on a small scale, one which they could to tour; and paper. Crouch explains the idea: “To try and do a whole show with one sheet of paper. So Birdheart is a show with a box with some sand in it, and pretty much one piece of paper that then lifts out other bits, like heads and hands. So the sheet of paper transforms into different creatures. It’s like the paper is the soul in some ways and it takes on different identities.”
Manipulate: an Edinburgh festival that feels like home
Such an intricate piece of work finds a great home at Manipulate. It demonstrates this variety of work that the similarly titled Bird, by Sita Pieraccini, takes a much-different form, although it too touches lightly on environmental issues, of a more dystopian nature. “It’s a solo show with dark, clown elements and the underlying themes of struggle for survival, but also that slightly basic need for greed. I’m very influenced by the way we're destroying the plant constantly with all this stuff going on in the environment, and we’re still consuming. Everything’s been consumed and the character is supposed to be the last person alive, looking for food. But in the middle of that she meets this passing songbird. It means more to her than just food, it’s a friend,” Pieraccini explains. “What’s the balance between company and food? What takes over?”
Although this is her first time working with Manipulate, her second show Make A Hoo has already been booked for 2017. “They’ve been super supportive and I’m really excited that they’re embracing the work,” she says. “ It feels like a home for the piece and I’m just happy that it's been taken on.” To see young and emerging artists like Pieraccini alongside huge companies like Blind Summit, and the successful and varied careers of Crouch and Lane, is an exciting example of the inclusive nature of Manipulate’s programming. Each show is unique and yet each has found its home at this festival.