It’s been quite a journey for the Edinburgh based Vision Mechanics company to bring their new show, Little Light, to life. For what will be the first ever known theatrical co-production between Scotland and Jordan, it has taken three years and a lot of two-way traffic between continents to make something happen. The end result of such an international cultural alliance is an immersive puppet show for children which sees the two companies involved take a similarly expansive trek around some of this country’s more remote areas with a magical tale of falling stars, friendship and family that takes place inside a Bedouin tent.
“It’s a very simple story,” says Vision Mechanics artistic director Symon Macintyre. “It’s about a father who works as an electrician in a village where his son is left alone all day with his dog. And because the father is out at work all day, he never gets to spend any time with his son. It’s a story that’s told without words, and there are no screens or anything like that, so you can do it anywhere. There’s fire, there’s light and there are shadows. A tent is an inside-out sort of space anyway, so that makes seeing the show even more of an experience.”
Little Light is presented by Vision Mechanics in co-production with the Amman-based Haya Cultural Centre, a multi-cultural oasis where children can come together creatively. The centre is run by Dhalia Khamra, who embarked on her own global quest to make the show happen.
“She went to university in Edinburgh,” explains Macintyre, “and she came to Scotland to look for a company to work with. We’d done a lot of work in India, and the British Council suggested us.”
Macintyre and Vision Mechanics visited Amman with a view to making something happen that turned out to be significantly different from how it was originally intended.
“We’d originally planned to make the show there,” says Macintyre, “but there weren’t the resources, so we did a whole development there, that was about story-telling. Jordanian performers are quite versatile, but they’re not used to working with puppets, so some of what we all did was trying to match expectations of what they might want with what they’re going to get.”
The show is performed by Hanin Awali and Mohammad Awad, two Jordanian actors who tell the story through a mix of dance, puppetry and shadow.
“The magical element of the star falling gives you the opportunity to explore other worlds,” Macintyre explains. “After you’ve got the concept of the narrative, you can make something quite beautiful beyond it, so you can just go through the curtain, pull up a cushion and enjoy the show.”
Formerly operating as Puppet Lab until their increasingly visual-based work outgrew such boundaries, Vision Mechanics has created a series of narrative-driven spectacles driven by impressionistic visual poetry as much as the stories they tell. Previous work has ranged from Dark Matter, a ghostly monologue performed in an ordinary garden and accompanied by a haunting sound-scape; to Big Man Walking, an environmental intervention led by a giant eight-metre puppet which has travelled across Scotland, to the Arctic Circle and beyond. In 2017, Drift told the true story of Betty Mouat, a sixty-something nineteenth-century Shetland crofter who was missing presumed drowned after the ship she was the only passenger on was wrecked, only for Miss Mouat to turn up in Norway eight days later.
On one level, then, Vision Mechanics’ core artistic duo of Macintyre and creative director Kim Bergsagel are very much getting back to their roots with Little Light.
“Kim and I are trained puppeteers,” says Macintyre. “That’s our medium. We love puppets, and a lot of what we do is informed by everyday objects, so it’s not theatre making in any kind of traditional sense. As artists we’re naturally drawn to what inspires us, and we love images, and don’t ever want to be stuck in a box.”
As if to illustrate this, Macintyre talks about how one idea for Little Light was to make a giant head that talked to people. Having a giant star fall from the sky as happens in Little Light sounds relatively easy by comparison.
“We haven’t done a standard puppet show for quite a long time,” says Macintyre, “but we didn’t want to do a traditional show. We wanted to create an environment the audience can be immersed in. That brings a lot of problems and challenges with it, but hopefully a lot of excitement as well.”
Little Light will be performed to an audience of roughly 60 young people. Depending on how many grown-ups are in attendance, there may be less. Either way, anyone who comes along will remove their shoes before entering the tent’s intimate interior knee-deep in cushions.
Vision Mechanics are transforming spaces elsewhere for more practical reasons. Up until recently, the company operated out of a workshop space in Leith. The ongoing gentrification of the area, however, recently saw the company forced to move out of their home for the last decade as their now former premises is converted into a supermarket. While such a decimation of local resources is a sign of the times, a positive by-product of the move saw Macintyre and co stumble on a former stables outside Musselburgh which has become their new home. They are currently in the midst of transforming the building a new art-space which they’ve dubbed The Big Shed.
“It’s this massive open space,” says Macintyre. “We’ve got a ten-year lease on the place, and we’re letting some of it out for studio space, but it’s brilliant for trying things out and being able to experiment.”
Beyond Little Light, which should eventually travel to its spiritual home in Jordan, Vision Mechanics have plenty of irons in the fire. Much of this is under wraps for now, at least, although there are mutterings afoot of virtual reality spectaculars and such-like, possibly inspired by the Wizard of Oz. Whether great or small, the end product will undoubtedly conjure up a series of hi-tech images in the company’s unique style. This operates at a holistic and internationalist level that may sit slightly off-kilter to the mainstream, but which retains a hugely popular appeal that stays true to a form of sensory overload that captivates children of all ages.
“We’re saying that Little Light is for 5 to 8 year-olds,” says Macintyre, “but I hope in the tradition of great children’s theatre that it will appeal to other age groups as well. That’s one of the things that makes working like this so exciting. We’re drawn to what inspires us, and I think audiences will pick up on the energy that the two performers bring to it.”
Little Light, then, already sounds like a well-travelled veteran which can cross invisible borders between countries in ways that have already left a tidal wave of uncertainty regarding the future of community in an otherwise scary world.
“At its heart, it’s a different form of puppet show,” says Macintyre. “Because it takes places in a tent, it becomes something to be involved in. I hope people are captivated by the story in Little Light, but I also hope they enjoy being in the show as well as watching it.”
Little Light, SEALL, Isle of Skye, today; Lyth Arts Centre@Pulteneytown People’s Project, Wick, tomorrow; Paisley Arts Centre, Sunday, then touring until April 15.
The Herald, March 22nd 2018