Sleights of hand and tricks of light

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Scotland's annual puppetry festival has much to delight nursery children upwards, writes Miranda Fettes

rom modest beginnings in 1984 as a week of 12 shows in Edinburgh, Scotland's annual puppetry festival has expanded into a six-week extravaganza of 280 performances, film screenings and workshops at 125 venues across the country, reaching 16,000 children.

This year's Puppet Animation Festival, on until April 23, features all sorts of characters, from wizards and washerwomen to mice and mummies.

Priding itself as the UK's oldest and largest performing arts festival for children, it features animation and shadow theatre, glove puppets, marionettes and rod puppets.

The venues vary from city centre theatres to libraries to a village hall on the Hebridean isle of Colonsay. A third of the performances are in primary schools.

"The art form is flexible enough to be able to present a high quality performance in virtually any space as long as there is enough time to set up," says the festival director, Simon Hart.

As for what qualifies as puppet animation, he explains: "Any object which is animated in a theatrical context counts. In terms of what we accept for the festival, using objects to tell stories covers almost anything from the traditional glove puppets, which are as realistically created as possible, to pretty abstract objects, which can be just as successful.

"I think that's why the art form is so appealing to children. If a puppeteer says 'These two pieces of wood represent an aeroplane and we're going to fly to a different country', a children's audience will go along with that much more easily than perhaps an adult audience."

This year's festival features 26 productions from 24 professional companies. Two-thirds of them are from Scotland, with others from around the UK and Ireland.

Highlights for 5-year-olds and older children include a shadow theatre piece called Shadow of the Firebird, presented by the English shadow theatre company Babbling Vagabonds. Adapted from a Russian tale about Ivan, the bullied, belittled youngest son of a Russian tsar, the story follows his quest to catch a phoenix and succeed to the throne.

A goat named Billy is the star of the Irish Dog String Theatre company's The Billy Holiday Show. Billy believes there is a tremendous untapped pool of performing talent among the goat community and his mission is to bring it into the spotlight.

The English company Puppetcraft has adapted the popular early years book Nobody Rides the Unicorn, by Adrian Mitchell, into a show following Zoe's courageous quest to set the unicorn free so that the greedy King of Joppardy and the scheming Doctor Slythe cannot use its magic horn to their own evil ends.

The Scottish company Hoodwink, based in Edinburgh, is presenting Rumpelstiltskin, performed by a cast of clothes pegs, a bulging laundry basket and the odd colourful sock.

For younger children, aged 3 and over, Puppet Lab, also based in Edinburgh, is presenting Funnybones, an adaptation of the Janet and Allan Ahlberg stories about three skeletons that uses ultraviolet lighting.

The Clydebuilt Puppet Theatre's Red Riding Hood's Magic Purse is a new take on the old fairytale and the wicked wolf is so hungry he could eat the whole audience!

The company is also touring Magic of the Mummy, for 6-year-olds plus. It explores ancient Egyptian myths and is proving popular among school groups.

"It has lots of information about the origin of the pharaohs," says Mr Hart. "It's a popular topic for class projects."

The Fife company, based in Strathmiglo, took the show to Kaimes school in Edinburgh. Acting depute head Janice Keay says: "We like to widen the kids'

experience of the visual arts. They're all on the autistic spectrum, so something simple and visual really hits the mark with them. It was wonderful and held their attention for a full hour."

The festival's workshop programme includes puppet making, animation and laundry magic.

Mr Hart, who is celebrating 10 years at the helm of the festival group, is in the process of building it up into a year-round organisation called Puppet Animation Scotland. "Our role will be to advocate further resources for puppet animation in Scotland to allow the sector to develop in the successful way it has," he says.

In recognition of what the festival has already achieved, the Scottish Arts Council has given it an 80 per cent rise in funding. Mr Hart hopes to take puppetry into a wider educational context, and explore the use of puppetry in healthcare.

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