Like so many theatres, organisations and festivals, this year MANIPULATE Festival – a collection of Scottish and international puppetry, visual theatre and animated film – is presenting its first digital offering. The three shows that were part of its first Saturday demonstrate not only a range of approaches to visual theatre, but also different ways of translating those approaches to people’s computer screens.
The Lonely Sailor Weather Report
The Lonely Sailor Weather Report is an experiment in creating hybrid online theatre. Working with the digital worlds of artist Meghan Judge, designer Craig Leo and puppet company Ukwanda Puppets & Designs Art Collective, it trials new ways to incorporate live puppet performance with digital design.
The graphics are the star of the show – combining space imagery, static and distortion, they create a space that feels both handmade and otherworldly, intimate and vast. They form a complex and visceral ocean without footage of waves or water. It is an ocean that at first overwhelms the puppet at its centre, creating an effective sense of a single sailor in a vast sea. But gradually the scale of the puppet grows, and the animation and figure interact more, until it seems that the sea is within the sailor as much as the sailor is within the sea.
The movement of the puppet is simple but effective, bobbing in its boat and staring out to sea. The puppet works well on camera, its large, dark eyes always seeming to look right at you, in a way more intimate than a human actor. The text in the piece is only occasional, but each time it appears it’s a piece of intriguingly off-centre mundanity – whether it’s radio broadcast declaring ‘my name is News’, or a sailor describing their bodily functions in the style of a weather report.
Together, it results in a promising and exciting model for online performance – the puppetry encapsulates the physicality of theatre, but within a fully formed digital space. It feels like we’re getting the full, intended experience, rather than something that would be better in person. As a short, single showing of a work initially supposed to be shown in a loop, it feels more like a proof of concept than the full work, but it certainly proves a lot.
Ballad of the Crone
Where the first performance of the evening was an experiment in fusing live and digital, Ballad of the Crone is, at least partially, about what we lose when our only contact is through a screen, or on the end of a phone. Created and performed by Leonor Estrada Francke, the show uses a wide variety of physical and storytelling techniques to explore isolation, distance, and family.
Its use of projection is particularly effective at creating a sense of lockdown distance, especially when alternate versions of Francke appear, urging her real, unmoving body to action. She’s separated from the audience twice, both through our own screens and the video onstage, in a fitting metaphor for the feeling of being disconnected not only from the rest of the world but from your own memories and sense of self.
The almost cabaret-like bursts of different styles and skills do make it occasionally difficult to keep hold of a throughline, but they also mean that there’s a whole host of moments to delight and surprise. The best of these often come from the meeting of Francke’s performance and the brilliant design by Lucas Kao (Video Artist), Rubén San Román Gámez (Art Director), and Marta Aspe Fernandez (Costume Designer). From a stop-motion fight with a chair, to baking gore, to unsettling wet clay masks, the show is like looking at lockdown through a kaleidoscope.
When we first see Kasia Zawadzka she is seemingly cocooned in slime – which in reality is plastic sheeting and some black paint that looks black and oozing and visceral on camera. When she breaks out of it she is already in the air, spinning and stretching, suspended from her midriff by ropes knotted using the Japanese art of shibari. Even when she is on the ground, the ropes guide her movements, both lifting and constricting her movements as she crawls and writhes on the floor.
Between the moments of suspension is a section where we hear, seemingly, a session with a psychiatrist. A (literal) empty suit takes the place of the psychiatrist and Zawadzka embodies the patient Walter, who receives a number of instructions. Fascinatingly, Zawadzka always follows the instruction just before it is given, creating a sense of repetition, even though we’ve only seen what is happening once. It feels like she is repeating an act that she has had to perform many times before, an impression increased by her dressing in the suit and ripping up the stage at the end of the performance.
Of the three performances, Ill-lit has the least purposeful relationship to the way it is filmed, being a documentation of a live performance, but this presentation still gives an interesting added atmosphere to what we watch. With handheld cameras occasionally shaking, filming from unexpected angles, or cutting suddenly, it feels like found footage of some secret ritual.
It’s typical of MANIPULATE’s 2021 programme, which offers a fascinating look at not just how the human body and the objects around it can be manipulated, but at how space and presence can be manipulated through film.
MANIPULATE Festival runs from 29th January to 5th February. More info here.