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Puppetry fuses with mixed media for festival

While Joey, the resounding hero of War Horse, does his bit at the Festival Theatre to challenge and enhance an audience's understanding of puppetry, another event arrives in Edinburgh next week that flies an equally visionary flag for the artform.

MAGICAL: Stephen Mottram creates wonderful illusions in Seas of Organillo.
MAGICAL: Stephen Mottram creates wonderful illusions in Seas of Organillo.

Now in its seventh year, Manipulate - the visual theatre festival produced by Puppet Animation Scotland - takes over the Traverse with a showcase of both international and home-grown work that takes a creatively elastic approach to making objects, and our imaginations, come alive.

Sometimes, as in Planet Luvos (by the Editta Braun company from Austria), the 'objects' are human bodies capable of uncanny 'trompe l'oeil' shape-shiftings that border on the fantastical. This is the companion piece to Luvos, a huge hit with Manipulate audiences in 2012, where the bendy faceless forms teased us with evolutionary processes that would have bamboozled Darwin. In Bestiaires (by the Dutch DudaPaiva Company) the line between human performer and beastly puppet constantly blurs in close encounters where you lose sight of who is actually in control. Elsewhere - and not just in the film and animation strand of the programme - there's an integrated use of mixed media that Simon Hart, Manipulate's artistic director, knows will appeal to a generation brought up on new technologies.

"What's important and often surprising is the fusion of traditional skills and 21st century technologies - whether that's video, graphics of soundscapes - that is taking the artform forward," he says.

There is, however, still plenty of room in Manipulate for the painstakingly hand-crafted virtuosity of a puppeteer such as Stephen Mottram, who transforms the little articulated wooden models used by artists into puppet-people for the magical, mysterious Seas of Organillo - the organillo being a miniature street organ that Mottram has also built, recording it playing music by Argentinian composer Sebastian Castagna. "There is a kind of Heath-Robinson quality to Stephen's inventiveness," says Hart. "But it is actually a hugely sophisticated piece of work, where everything has been engineered by him to create these wonderful illusions - the little creatures really do seem to swim, under water!"

Mottram's globally-acclaimed Seed Carriers was part of the first Manipulate season in 2008 and it's tempting to see, in some of the new Scottish work that's coming through, a filament of connection and inspiration. "I would very much hope so, " says Hart. "It's always been one of our strategic aims when programming Manipulate to make it more than just tremendously interesting and entertaining for audiences. By bringing international work in, by having workshops and masterclasses, we are hoping to encourage Scottish artists to create work that has a similar ambition - and I'm really pleased that this thinking is now bearing fruit. This year's programme reflects that. We've said 'here's a slot, do you want it? If so, you have really got to go for it!' And they have."

Francisca Morton, whose Faux Theatre company is presenting Torn, has surely taken Hart at his word. She's currently juggling the many demands of her busy psychotherapy practice, family life - she's a single mum - and the solo show that she's devised, hand-crafted and will perform at Manipulate. Why jump so many hoops and hurdles? Morton, chuckling, can trace her passion and commitment back to "before I even had kids, I was going to the Puppet Animation Festival. I was fascinated by strongly visual work and children's theatre is often strongly visual. I then did various puppetry workshops and animation classes through Puppet Animation Scotland, and - my background is in dance and performing arts - realised how much I loved this."

A stint as a play specialist at the Sick Children's Hospital in Edinburgh proved her ability to communicate with young audiences but it was only when her first show, Celeste Circus, clearly clicked with tiny babies (all under 18 months old ) that Morton felt confident about her work.

"I'd say it was a personal moment of triumph for me. Thirty-five minutes, which is the length of that show, is a long time for babies to concentrate and I just saw all these little faces looking at me, eyes agog and dribble running down their chins!" Audiences for Torn - for a 14+ age group - might find themselves closer to tears, as Morton opens up her solo tale of love and loss. "As a psychotherapist, I'm interested in how we behave in relationships, in the universal need to bond and our difficulties when we do. Serious issues, yes - but it wouldn't be me if it didn't have humour in it. I'll be interested to see how audiences read it - she falls in love with a pair of jeans. I have my own ideas on what they represent, but the thing about this kind of non-text-based work is that the audience can use their own imagination and create their own narrative."

Manipulate opens at Aberdeen's Lemon Tree on Friday, and Edinburgh's Traverse on Monday.

www.manipulatefestival.org

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