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Highland fling with a puppet on a string

It is a grievous truth that most arts festivals have rather less to do with the arts than with bolstering civic dignity and the service industry's profits. Happily that is not the case with the 21st Scottish National Puppet Animation Festival (March 14-April 20).

This event merely wants to spread the news of this considerable national resource to every school in the land.

"We're getting there," says Simon Hart, the festival director and almost everything else within the organisation.

"More than 40 local councils are supporting us this year. We cover most of mainland Scotland, though next year I would like to see more going on in the Highlands.

"The idea of the festival is to tell teachers about the all-year presence of this resource. Soon schools will be able to look on our website at the beginning of each term to see what is available in their region."

"Teachers can take something 'off the shelf', but the companies also offer workshops, or can tailor something to a school's needs. We understand the parameters of the 5-14 guidelines. Last year, we offered the Egyptian project for P3-5 and were deluged with bookings."

The post-guidelines symbiosis between arts companies and schools is nowhere more evident than with the puppeteers.

"Because of the lack of funding from the Arts Council," Hart says, "puppetry must adapt to schools' needs. Because of that, and the fact that they make few demands on the school timetable or space and are relatively inexpensive, there are puppeteers working in schools all over Scotland."

The British have long thought of puppetry as a children's art form, though the most moving performance of Wozzeck I ever saw was at Edinburgh many years ago, by a Canadian company. Hart is aware of this cultural divide and would like to reach out to secondary level, but realises that the rigid timetabling for S1-S2 is a stumbling block.

"The way into secondary schools," he says, "would be through the workshops that Red Kite are offering this year".

The company, led by Rachel Bevan Baker, can claim to be Scotland's premier film and animation company. This year it is holding schools workshops in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Edinburgh and East Lothian, Renfrewshire, Stirling and Angus, where young people can create their own films with a variety of materials and techniques.

Thanks to the support of the Scottish Arts Council, the festival is able to invite three companies from abroad to perform, from the Borders to the Highlands. The Dog and String company from Ireland brings its 50-minute Billy Holiday Show extravaganza, which proves a sheep can make it big in show business, and that although footballers come and go, a troll is always a troll.

Somewhat more seriously, the Waggish Raddish Puppet Theatre from Bulgaria tells the tale of King Ethelbert and the Happy Scamp, in which the young king has his self-confidence damaged by his mother the Queen and her chief adviser before it is happily restored by the eponymous rascal.

Slotting neatly into the environmental programme and preaching the virtue of teamwork is Adam, Alfons and Amalie by the Figurentheater from Chemnitz.

The three characters are, respectively, the microbe that breaks down the humus, the worm that aerates the soil and the butterfly that pollinates the flower. Together they make the apple tree blossom in Spring and bring a good crop of apples in the autumn.

Also from Germany comes the Theater der Schatten, and one of Europe's leading puppeteers. He uses cardboard cut-outs, but animates them with hand-held lights to create stunning three-dimensional images. Here the technique is applied to the story of Peter and the Wolf, told in English and set to Prokofiev's much-loved score.

Brian Hayward

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