This month's puppetry festival Manipulate at Dundee Rep relocates the marionettes art into an adult, more shadowy realm of exitential terror and nightmarish otherness. Gareth K. Vile meets the man pulling the strings.

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 06 Jan 2008
Simon Hart, the artistic director of Manipulate, has a clear vision for Scotland's new puppetry festival for adults. "We want to get across to the general audience that object theatre is more than just the Muppets." Celebrating an art form often marginalised as childish, Manipulate aims at a mature audience, introducing adult themes and stretching the possibilities of puppetery. "All of the pieces take things that might be seen as quite safe - like marionettes - and use them in a way that is unsettling. Expectations are regularly subverted."

Hosted at Dundee Rep, the Manipulate Festival evolved from the collaboration of Puppet Animation Scotland and Projector Animation Festival, and emphasises the close links between puppet theatre and animation, boasting a multitude of international companies.

Puppet Animation Scotland is best known for its annual, and extensive, festival for young people, which is represented in most towns and cities across the nation. But Manipulate is a more adult affair: the brochure describes the shows in terms familiar to enthusiasts of physical theatre or live art. In Light!, Campaignie Mossoux- Bonte, whom Hart acknowledges as "primarily a dance company using the body to cast complex and eerie shadows", grapples with existential terror; Stephen Mottram brings his Seed Carriers up from England to haunt the audience with visions of an insectoid humanity. Theatre Velo follows a lost soul into the further reaches of his imagination in Appel d'Air, a work that transforms mundane objects into potent symbolism.

The puppetry festival segues into Projector's Hot Animation Festival. Before this begins, the puppetry moves out of the theatre and into the community. Hart mentions that "we have five days of masterclasses, working in shadow theatre, and Stephen Mottram looking at the relationship between the puppet, the puppeteer and their relationship with the audience. We are also working with the Dundee Literacy 16 to 24 project to create a short animation film with young people." One show – Angel - is being staged in support of homeless charity Shelter. Alongside the exhibition of designs for the Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre, hosted in the Dundee Rep Foyer, these workshops and events extend the festival beyond the auditorium, and engage with future audiences and performers, as well as placing the performances in a clear social context.

Hart sees this "as an intensification of our core event, the Puppet Animation Festival, which is aimed at 3 to 12 year olds." Puppet Animation Scotland has, in the past year, taken puppetry into one hundred and fifty eight Scottish venues and has seen attendance grow to nearly twenty thousand people in 2007. Manipulate applies this enthusiastic outreach to puppetry for adults. Not content to merely stage shows, it allows the audience to engage with the medium and draw the connections between puppetry and the aesthetic languages of dance or mime.

The Festival is clearly not aimed at children: The Seed Carriers, which has been challenging audiences for a decade, takes influences from the nightmarish paintings of Bosch and the films of the Quay brothers. Hart notes that "it uses a very old technique alongside contemporary themes". Its detailed creation of a microcosmic society is disturbing and advertised as unsuitable for children in any circumstances. Likewise, Light! examines the shadow-play of existence, dwelling on the fear evoked by darkness and the body. Those familiar with the films of Jan Svankmajer or the more Gothic experiments of Tim Burton will be enthralled: those whose experience is limited to Orville might be shocked. There are moments of beauty and clarity in both works, but they are hard won and original: both works express fierce, individual visions and work towards a new aesthetic.

Most importantly, Manipulate promises to relocate puppetry and animation as mature art forms. As has been the case with comic books, they have often been derides as limited in scope or potential. While plenty of novelty acts may have repositioned themselves as adult through explicit themes or shocking tactics, Manipulate is a showcase for more thoughtful and eloquent expressions of the puppeteers art.

From 22-26 January 2008
Hot Animation 29th Jan- 2 February