Eye-opening festival sees puppet and animation grow-up

Yael Rasooly's Paper Cut, one of the highlights of Manipulate

Yael Rasooly's Paper Cut, one of the highlights of Manipulate - Credit: Archant

A festival involving puppets and animation — something to take to the kids to then? Think again as Manipulate at Norwich Puppet Theatre puts a far more sophisticated adult spin on art forms traditionally aimed at children. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Norwich Puppet Theatre is about to host an international festival featuring puppetry and animation — however before you rush out to book tickets to take the kids, you may want to take a second look.

Productions include one about Hitler in his Berlin bunker; another about a young woman led into a dangerous path of self-discovery based on the legendary tale of Blue Beard's Castle; and another about a lonely, frustrated secretary who sees imagination and reality collide in a Hitchcockian nightmare.

It's a far cry from Thumbelina and Three Little Pigs then — but it aims to go a long way towards proving that puppetry is not just child's play.

The second Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival aims to build on the success of last year's inaugural event with an even larger programme of world class visual theatre, innovative puppetry and animation, which includes work by both acclaimed artists from around the world to local art students.

The recent proliferation of puppetry in popular culture has proved that as an art form it is as vivid as ever — an artistic force and one that the UK is at the cutting edge of.

Think of the giant Voldemort's grand entrance at the Olympics opening ceremony, the Cheshire Cat's recent starring role at the Royal Opera House and, of course, the superstar status of the National Theatre's multi-ward winning production of Warhorse. They all indicate that puppetry still holds an impressive power when it comes to creating spectacle.

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Through Manipulate, Norwich Puppet Theatre aims to capture this renaissance and provide a platform for those companies that are challenging the nature of performance puppetry, and using their creations and extended limbs to tell stories, beyond the impact of spectacle.

The five-day event, which sees the Puppet Theatre joining forces with Puppet Animation Scotland and the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, features companies from as far afield as Russia, Israel, the Netherlands as well as across the UK. The programme of events is as diverse as it is thought-provoking and creates a discourse regarding the future of puppetry and animation in the digital age.

Joy Haynes, director of the Puppet Theatre, said this year's programme includes lots of variety with something for everyone, and she especially urged people yet to visit the theatre to come along, try something new, and be inspired by puppetry.

'The evidence is that we in the UK have grown up to the fact that the medium can deliver work of the utmost sophistication and subtly, which is quite simply at the cutting edge of theatrical and visual invention today.

'Manipulate is a chance to discover new territories full of monstrous transformation and wordless eloquence that will unravel the deepest of human emotional experience — come and be prepared to laugh, cry and abandon disbelief.'

One of the most eye-catching events will be Stuffed Puppet's Schicklgruber, a dark comedy about Hitler's 56th birthday, meanwhile TIP-Connection, a group of theatre artists from Finland, France, Lithuania and Russia, will perform To The End With Love, a show exploring the perils of jealously when a young bride is confronted with her husband's past.

The festival's film programme opens with a gala night of film screenings that features animated shorts by students from Norwich University College of the Arts followed by Fast Film, Slow Burn: Uncommon Singularity, a programme of short films from around the world.

Feature films being shown include: Consuming Spirits, which is described as a meticulously constructed tour de force of experimental animation by Chris Sullivan from America; and Big Man Japan, a deadpan, slice-of-life 'mockumentary' which satirises reality TV and monster movies.

The festival will be rounded off with a Puppetry Provocation, in collaboration with Little Angel Theatre and Puppet Centre Trust, an exploration of the nature of puppetry prompted by a question she was asked by a student, which aims to answer the question of when does a manipulator of objects become a puppeteer?

Speaking about the renaissance in puppetry, Peter Glanville, director of Little Angel Theatre, said that while recent spectaculars like the Olympics had helped to revive interest in the art form — and help shake free its children's only tag — it was important to support smaller scale projects like those being featured during Manipulate.

'We're become used to seeing feats of giant engineering. Following the remarkable Royal de Luxe's The Sultan's Elephant in London and Voldemort at the Olympics,' he recentkly wrote on the subject. 'We've seen lots of big animals too: the War Horses, the Lion in Rupert Goold's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and at Royal Opera House a Cheshire Cat. They are all wonderful creations, but if this where puppetry is heading, are we in danger of placing too much emphasis on the big and representational?

'I'm not knocking any of these creations, and I'm pleased that so many puppet-makers and puppeteers are getting work. There does seem to be an increased appreciation of the skill and work involved in giving the inanimate life. It's just that I'm not seeing the same level of groundbreaking avant garde work in the UK that is currently happening in Russia, Poland and France, and I'm not seeing enough new companies creating puppet theatre that explores the possibilities of form and content.'

He added: 'If organisations like ours, the Norwich Puppet theatre and Puppet Centre aren't given ongoing funding, what message does this send out? What we are seeing is a renaissance in the use of puppets but not necessarily in puppet theatre.'

Manipulate is about addressing that by staging an event featuring some of the best innovative and groundbreaking puppetry and visual art.

Joy Haynes said: 'The wealth of talent that we will be welcoming as part of the festival is incredible. We are especially pleased to be welcoming back Rene Baker who trained here in the 1990s and was a core member of our creative team. She went on to perform and teach at puppetry institutes globally, including the Turku Arts Academy in Finland.'

'Rene returns to lead Puppetry Provocation: What is a Puppeteer? She will be following that with two masterclasses in March.

'We are also thrilled to have Anna Ivanova-Brashinskaya from TIP-Connection with us for the festival. Anna runs the festival's Masterclass, Show Me a Story, and her company brings us To the End of Love, a retelling of Blue Beard's Castle.'

The festival is being funded by an Arts Council England grant, and Ms Haynes said the theatre planned to develop the festival further in the future and that she hoped it would become established as a well-known annual event in Norwich's arts calendar.

'Thanks to an ACE grant, we will also be hosting the festival again in 2014,' she said. 'The three secured years for the running of this unique event are a key aspect of our strategic plans for the future. Whilst we want to continue producing and programming outstanding family productions, we also want to expand our audience and develop greater understanding of puppetry and related art forms.

'Manipulate allows us to present some of the most exciting UK and international puppetry companies, who show how puppetry can dissect political paranoia, reinvent traditional narratives and play on popular culture to reveal the face of contemporary puppetry in the digital age.

'The festival is the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in puppetry and animation and the rich worlds that these conjure up for audiences.'

t Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival runs at Norwich Puppet Theatre from February 6-10, performance prices £13-£10/student performances £10-£8, festival pass £130 (student pass £115). Film screenings £7.50, student screenings £6. Puppet Provocation event £5. Book on 01603 629921.

t For full details of days and times and ticket prices for each event visit: www.puppettheatre.co.uk



February 7 (7.30pm)

It is the Führer's 56th birthday. Knowledge of the impending Nazi downfall hangs over the claustrophobic underground bunker where forced merriment and celebrations are about to take place. While explosions make the ceiling shake, Hitler's agitation about his birthday cake, Eva Braun's dreams about marriage, Goebbels' obsession with propaganda and Goering's delight with his impressive uniforms obliterate all thought about the death and mayhem all about them.

Neville Tranter's combination of wicked, down to earth humour, deadly seriousness and virtuoso puppetry has won him international acclaim throughout the world for over three decades. His special brand of life-size puppets work to tremendous effect in Schicklgruber, as he turns his puppets into humans, and turns the humans into monsters


February 8 (7.30pm)

When a happy young bride is left alone in the splendid castle of her husband she discovers quite by chance that there have been other women before her. Driven by passion and unceasing curiosity she enters the hidden space of her man's secrets and is led down a dangerous path of self-exploration and possibly, to the end of love…Inspired by the legendary tale of Blue Beard's Castle, TIP-Connection - a group of dynamic young theatre artists from Finland, France, Lithuania and Russia - create a stylish and powerful piece of visual theatre which wordlessly explores the perils and peculiarities of the green-eyed jealousy one can feel so painfully when confronted by a loved one's past.


February 9 (7.30pm)

Every day a lonely and frustrated secretary of a big Hollywood producer remains in the office long after everyone else has gone home. Using photos from old film magazines, she escapes into a larger than life world of daydreams. As a glamorous movie star from the 1940's she finds her ideal love at last and true happiness seems to beckon. But as imagination and reality collide, her romantic tale becomes a Hitchcockian nightmare. Yael Rasooly's ingenious, award-winning one woman show transforms the vivid language and style of black and white cinema into a delightful low–tech universe of paper cut-outs and object theatre.


February 9 (2.30pm/4.30pm)

A 20 minute low-tech, charming, eerie and comic performance of slapstick puppetry and object theatre delving deeper into the surreal world of adult puppetry from the Invisible Thread Theatre of Animation, formed in 2011 as one of the two companies created out of the split of the internationally renowned puppet and visual theatre company Faulty Optic. It contains scenes of plank action, eyeless shopping, bouncing puppets, toppled towers and prize-giving. It is set to a soundtrack of found and specially composed music and 'poetry'. It is Invisible Thread's second performance at Manipulate, following the company's highly successful debut production, Plucked, last year festival.


February 9 (9pm)

Written and directed by the popular Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, this deadpan slice-of-life mockumentary — featuring a giant man with a Jedward-style haircut terrorising Tokyo — satirise reality TV and monster movies with a lively sense of the absurd and perverse. What happens when a has-been superhero becomes a victim of stronger baddies and falling TV news ratings? Dai Sato's days seem over. His special giant power is no longer a match for the new breed of bad or the harsh demands of modern viewers. When his cover is blown, Dai Sato is left exposed to society's scorn.


February 6 (7.30pm)

Short films by five Norwich University of the Arts (NCA) students will be showcased on the opening night of the festival on February 6 featuring everything from a bicycle ride through north Norfolk to a conversation between two pandas.

Libby Waite, from Norwich Puppet Theatre, said: 'The festival celebrates the symbiosis of puppetry and animation, and these shorts from local students emphasise the creativity and talent that exists within the art field in the east of England. The varied nature and style of the films reflects the range of work that encompasses the festival itself, and indeed of the changing face of puppetry in the digital age.'

Night Vision by Alison Harvey, from Cromer, describes a bicycle ride through the landscape of north Norfolk at night and was inspired by years of sketching and journeying after dark.

What is Animation? by Alex Searle, from Norwich, asks a range of people about their thoughts on animation.

Adrian the Agrophobic Adrenaline Junkie by Andrew Jackson, from Wroxham, is a CGI film which follows Adrian as he attempts a physical and mental challenge.

Pandas Peter Wickham, from Norwich, is a short animated comedy sketch based on a minor marital discussion between two pandas and is inspired by TV cartoon companies such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

The Views of Sir Robert Hampton-Smythe by Shaina Stoker, from Dereham, features Sir Robert Hampton-Smythe, a grumpy and over-opinionated gentleman.