Case Study: Manipulate Arts

The aim of the Manipulate Arts Radical Care project was to create a model for international festival programming and female leadership which brings in new voices in the context of a small team.



The mission of Manipulate Arts is to champion, develop and present brilliant visual theatre puppetry and animated film in Scotland and internationally.

Manipulate Arts produces the annual Manipulate festival in Edinburgh in January and February. Manipulate celebrates and promotes innovative, dynamic Scottish and international puppetry, visual theatre and animated film. The Festival aims to engage and challenge audiences with high-quality visually led work which pushes boundaries, plays with form and challenges perceptions.

By bringing together leading puppetry, visual theatre and animated film from across the globe with work developed in Scotland, Manipulate aims to spark opportunities for artistic exchange and to offer audiences a diverse palette of rich visually led work. The Festival has operated for over 15 years bringing artists from over 40 countries and nurturing Scottish visual theatre makers. It has presented work to over 40,000 people.

Manipulate Arts has a small team of typically 3 permanent members of staff. In 2020 Dawn Taylor took over as Artistic Director & CEO, the first change in leadership since Manipulate Arts started. The AD/CEO was on maternity leave from February until August 2022. During this period, the role was split with the CEO function, delivered by a permanent member of staff and a new fixed term role delivering the festival direction including programming.

One of the development areas in the Manipulate Arts 2022-2027 business plan is wellbeing, empowerment and fair pay. This recognises the historic problem in the sector with over-work and under-pay and identifies an aim to work against this.

The Radical Care project

Simple Machines by Uga Dehaes, photo by Mihaela Bodlovic. Simple Machines was programmed by Electra McPhillips.


The aim of the Manipulate Arts Radical Care project was to create a model for international festival programming and female leadership which brings in new voices in the context of a small team. The model was to employ freelance artistic consultants who would form a collaborative team focused on programming Manipulate.

Manipulate Arts identified that roughly 3-4 international trips and 4-6 UK trips were required annually to make the programme selection. International exchange is seen as a critical component of Manipulate and therefore it is important to attend international festivals and events to consider work for inclusion in the programme and to network with the sector. Traditionally, an artistic director will personally attend a large volume of work to make the programme selection.

Attending multiple events involving overnight stays poses an acute challenge for those with caring responsibilities, and particular pressure for small organisations. Manipulate Arts identifies that this barrier risks locking out people with children (and particularly younger women) from programming roles. It cites conversations with mid-career female directors and producers who identify that long hours away from home are the reason they have not applied for senior programming roles.

Other disbenefits of the programming role being held by a single person are:

  • Lack of opportunities for skills development in programming
  • Having a single voice in programming which contrasts with Manipulate Arts’ aim to deliver a diverse programme which is reflective of society

The role of Artistic Consultant was advertised with the remit being to go and see work internationally and in Scotland and feed back to Manipulate Arts to inform future programming particularly for Manipulate.

For the post holder the intention was that they would have the opportunity to develop skills in curation and programming whilst balancing other obligations and enable them to consider an artistic leadership role in future.

There were 14 applicants for the roles and 2 people were appointed. It was not a requirement that applicants had caring responsibilities however the 2 people appointed both care for children.

Impact of caring responsibilities prior to Radical Care

The two artistic consultants identified that roles in theatre direction and programming were incompatible with caring responsibilities because of the travel and long hours associated with the roles. Particularly this relates to a lack of childcare outside traditional working hours and the cost of any childcare available. Both artistic consultants talked about their caring responsibilities leading to limiting the scope of their work and turning down opportunities which involved long hours and travel. They expressed a perception that being a parent made you less valued within the sector. There were perceived to be institutional barriers for parents within the sector:

“We are not allowed to talk openly about the challenges caused by caring responsibilities – we just need to absorb them.

Manipulate Arts’ artistic director identified the challenges of being an artistic leader when you have children. Seeing work is a primary aspect of the role and the same issues apply in terms of shows taking place outside conventional working/childcare hours. She highlights that there are few role models for her of people who are juggling leadership roles while being a primary carer for children.

“When talking about my experience as an arts leader with small children, it’s tempting to try and encourage others by only talking about the positives, suggesting that I in some way have it all worked out – but it’s important to balance this with honesty about how challenging it actually is. Rather than live in the reality that the sector provides I wanted to look at new models that might work for people other than myself in the future.

One intended benefit of the model was to lessen the weight on the single artistic director and therefore make it easier for people with caring responsibilities to take on leadership roles.

Why the specific Radical Care opportunity appealed

Both of the people appointed as artistic consultants identified that they were interested in developing their programming skills but could not see avenues for full time roles that fitted with their caring responsibilities. There are few roles which provide this training full stop which makes it a harder context for people to ask for flexible working around their care-giving responsibilities.

“I could not see an avenue in to programming without loads of travel and being away from my child and which would support good mental health.

The primary motivation for applying to the role was to develop programming skills however both people applied for this specific opportunity because they said it was clear that it would be a flexible role that would work around caring responsibilities. They felt it could be shaped through dialogue.

Another important factor was that this would be a source of income within the sector.

“To achieve my ambition, it is crucial to not stay out of the industry for the next five years [while I have young children]. I trust that the project will offer me the emotional and financial support to continue working.

What was the impact for the artistic consultants?

Both participants report positive benefits to their skills and career. There was an increase in confidence and a change in thinking about what they ‘could bring to the table’.

“It validated what I thought I could do with programming and that I could not see a way into practically. It gave me a route in which I could pair up with my role in my family.

“It has definitely helped me broaden my perspective in festival programming – it is a level of exposure that I would not have had otherwise.

One benefit was shifting external perceptions about the participants skills and capabilities and therefore opening up new conversations with the potential for longer term opportunities.

What was the impact for Manipulate Arts?

In output terms the model allowed Manipulate Arts to see more work than a typical year. The aim was to attend five festivals and the team attended 10. All target shows/festivals were achieved.

Practically two of the shows seen by the consultants are in consideration for future Manipulate programming (out of 3-5 typical international shows in each festival) and the process has also identified other artists to follow. It is satisfying for the artistic consultants to know the work they recommended is being seriously considered.

It was considered a positive benefit by the core Manipulate Arts team that the responsibility for travelling was split up across more people. This had a twofold benefit in that it ‘took the load off ‘ individuals and time was freed up which is important for multi-function roles within small teams. One of the aspects to test in the model was the concept of a collective and ‘can we fill the gaps in each other’s capacity by working together’ and this was considered to be a success.

Manipulate Arts has a small team. The artistic consultants added experience and expertise to a new team. Across the two consultants there was a good knowledge of Manipulate and Scottish and international visually led theatre. This was a very positive addition to the skills of the team. It was felt to be beneficial to have artists inside the programming team.

The core Manipulate Arts team identified that the artistic consultants provided a ‘support network’ for them providing more opportunities for discussion and different perspectives. Manipulate Arts identified that an objective was to diversify the programming team and dismantle the ‘one man auteur model’ and felt that this model was a useful progression in achieving this by increasing the plurality of voice.

“It is clear that having a bigger team of people who understand the organisation takes some pressure off delivering the artistic aims of the organisation

“Another shift that is very positive in this way of working – we are obsessed with director as god model. It does not serve audiences or artists or sector and it definitely does not serve the individual director. I had conversations with the artistic consultants and they were so passionate and informed and had ideas that were totally different from mine. When I present something next year it will have had so much collective thought in it - together we have had conversations all over Scotland and the world and decided. It is our festival – it is not my festival.

One of the measures of success for Manipulate Arts was how many shows seen by the artistic consultants would be programmed. It is felt that the real test of the model will be the 2024 programme and both whether the shows do get selected and whether they have the same level of artistic success and resonance.

Manipulate Arts has recently initiated a wellbeing based economic model which looks at measures of wellbeing alongside financial and activity measures. Within this model a factor will be whether the development of the 2024 programme was achieved better wellbeing measures than the baseline. The feedback from the team from the Radical Care period is that it felt much less stressful with a bigger team to attend the work and share the artistic load.

What made a positive difference to success?

The team worked together at the outset to identify the shows and festivals to attend. Individuals were able to identify, in a shared calendar, when they would be available. The year was therefore mapped out at the inception as a collaborative process.

“I was able to plan the international travel around my responsibilities and travel when my partner was available to cover childcare.

One of the factors that contributed towards success was having clarity from the outset about the role, objective and timescale both for the artistic consultants and the Manipulate Arts team.

The artistic consultants identified that the collective model gave them reassurance that the flexibility was in place should they have an unexpected childcare responsibility.

The artistic consultants identified that Manipulate Arts were ‘very supportive and embraced what the project was about’. They mentioned that there were check-ins throughout the project, they were included as part of the team and their options were valued.

For Manipulate Arts a factor that contributed to the success of the project was the strength of the artistic consultants in their understanding of visually led work and their ability to have a clear opinion and effectively share their insight. They were able to see beyond their own artistic tastes to identify a successful visually led work.

We all brought a different skillset to the table – combining our voices and our experiences and professional backgrounds made a fruitful collaboration.

A positive factor as the project developed was being able to learn about each other in terms of taste and expertise. Over time a relationship of trust was built by the collective team. It was noted that the longer the relationship existed the more benefits would be reaped.

What learnings are there for Manipulate Arts and others considering this model?

There was a consensus that the model would have benefited from a longer approach. It took time to learn the artistic language and skills of colleagues, to develop confidence within the team, to develop a knowledge of the specific programming context and to see the impact. All participants agreed that a two-year engagement would be the best model.

One factor for a longer engagement is the programming cycle of an annual and international festival. The work that the artistic consultants were seeing will not be programmed until 2024 (or later) which means the consultants will not be in post. They would not be able to input into decisions about programming the show (which venue, what time). They also will not benefit from seeing the work at Manipulate and being able to reflect (with Manipulate Arts) on how the show worked in that context. They also would not get the positive benefit of seeing the impact of their work.

This not only applies to the programming of specific work but also to the time it takes to develop relationships with artists and companies and the artistic consultants not being able to follow these through.

There is a particular cycle of an annual festival in terms of periods of planning and delivery. It was felt important that the consultants should be in place for the whole cycle so there is time for ‘speculative, slow chats, travelling to festivals and reflecting on the work’ which is not possible during the busier delivery period. The proposed model would be to have a more intense period of work at the development point in the cycle and then a lighter (retainer) involvement which allows the consultants to be involved during the Festival and have an ongoing feedback.

Programming is specific and contextual, Manipulate Arts benefited from the knowledge of the appointed artistic consultants and their previous association with Manipulate however should consultants without this previous knowledge have been appointed it would have taken time to build this. A practical example of this was an artistic consultant seeing a show and knowing it was a good fit for Manipulate because of having being part in relevant conversations about the artform and specific topic (not as part of this project).

“Relating the show back to that previous conversation made it more important and relevant.

The more intense period is considered important to develop understanding of each individual programming voice and build trust. The Manipulate Arts Artistic Director is ultimately responsible for the programme and identified that it ‘remains an act of trust to programme a work I have not seen live’. She identified that it took different lengths of time to ‘understand each other artistically’ and learn how to best use the talents of the artistic consultants. In the case of the appointed artistic consultants the factors were: previous association, conversations about specific work and engagement during Manipulate

“If we were about to go into another season, I would know how I was going to direct them knowing what they would bring back.

One challenge for a small team is the impact of staff change or absence. The intention was that the artistic consultants would have an induction process which would provide them with contextual briefing including a deep understanding of the remit of Manipulate and conversely to allow Manipulate Arts to understand the tastes and artistic experience of the consultants. Owing to a change in circumstance it was not possible to have this induction process with the artistic director as planned. In this case the artistic consultants had a level of knowledge of Manipulate and the sector which made this not a problem which impacted success but is a risk factor.

“Ideally to enable the best experience for the consultants we would have spent more time in the early stages developing a shared artistic language, but this was challenging due to my maternity leave. However, at the end of the process I felt that the artistic consultants deeply understood the remit of the festival.

One of the positive factors was the flexible scheduling and planning. There was some feedback that it would have been good to have been able to input into the choices about which festivals to attend especially international festivals. There was also feedback that where there were tasks which had not been mapped out, and had a condensed time frame, this was a challenge for the artistic consultants. The design of the model focused around caring for children and incorporated flexibility around this. One artistic consultant identified the wider flexibility required around scheduled events in the context of disability.

One factor that was a risk was that by providing flexibility to the artistic consultants would create a greater burden to members of the core team. This was not the case, with Manipulate Arts reporting that:

“My experience was that facilitating people with caring responsibilities provided the context to reflect back on my own working practices; it is a positive for everyone. I feel we facilitated a positive atmosphere – that encouraged you to think about your own practice.

One of the artistic consultants identified that they would have liked to have gained a more rounded understanding of programming in terms of the wider considerations of budget and programme design. This would have further developed their skills and progress.

One factor for consideration is administration of travel and ticket booking and where the responsibility of this should lie. It was considered that you want the artistic consultants to focus their input on the core role (seeing work) rather than in booking travel or tickets – however taking this responsibility (and still meeting the requirements of the artistic consultants) would require additional time input by the core organisation.

The Manipulate Arts team was new, there was a question about whether the collaborative programming model was particularly beneficial to a new team and this benefit might reduce over time. However, the challenge to this was that the benefit to the sector about plurality of voice in programming would remain and potentially increase.

There was a question about the most effective tools for the role thinking both about the immediate and long-term contribution. Each artistic consultant provided their feedback on a show in a template form. Some conversations also took place. There was feedback that the conversations between the colleagues were more useful in providing effective feedback on the show. These conversations also helped to build up trust between colleagues and understand the task of programming better. It was also useful when the colleagues watched a show together and could provide feedback on the same show and therefore understand the different perspectives.

“You don’t look at shows in isolation. The conversation was better to share knowledge and generate richness

“What is the best use of time for the artistic consultants and the team, is it about completing the form or is it better to schedule a conversation? How can the legacy of the feedback best be achieved?

The longer-term impacts of the models of feedback are harder to identify and it is possible that this is where the forms will have value. It remains to be seen how the feedback and the knowledge generated by the artistic consultants can be retained and utilised.

Manipulate Arts had an expectation that the applicants would be aspiring artistic directors but found this not to be the case. This may be a consequence of a lack of roles in the sector which are compatible with caring responsibilities and therefore aspirations. There is also a question about responsibility in equipping people with skills for routes that do not exist. What Manipulate Arts found was that the roles provided the opportunity to continue to have an input into the sector while having caring responsibilities:

“Before the project I had thought of these roles as a stepping stone to being an Artistic Director, but maybe it’s more interesting than that – perhaps it can be the end in and of itself - a way of having caring responsibilities/barriers while contributing to the artistic conversation.

As a developmental model there is an intention that the artistic consultants will increase their skills and career opportunities. This also requires more time input from Manipulate Arts to explore these development areas.

“If you are being selfish about it and thinking of them as people to go and scout shows for us – then no impact but if you are thinking about it as a developmental process – with mutual benefit, we need monthly conversations and team meetings – it takes time to be a fulfilling experience rather than a transactional one.

In addition to the benefits already identified one artistic consultant identified that they had greater confidence in talking about their childcare requirements before committing to a project. This relates to a greater sense (from the experience with Manipulate Arts) of what is possible as well as wider awareness within the sector as a result of Radical Care. It should be noted that this is in the context of someone who is established within the sector. The other artistic consultant identified that to have an ongoing impact change needed to be made on a wider scale in mindset and funding levels so that there are more flexible models. They reflected:

“Implementing a different model in a more EDI focused perspective will take time – it is great that the conversation has started because 5 years ago it was not even part of the agenda.

There were questions around the sustainability of the model with Manipulate Arts identifying that it could not be delivered without specific funding or an increase in core funding.

“It is still kind of impossible. This is not a one-off intervention – it only has impact where there is resource to continue. The invitations to festivals are pouring in for next year including to amazing places like Iran - I am very aware of how much richer the festival would be with the Radical Care model. For 2024 we have so much to choose from because we have this huge palette of work to look at and I am so aware that I won’t have that next year.

It was noted that the financial landscape and standstill budgets had reduced the capacity of organisations and that typically bids for increased funding are based on additionality (activity, income) which this model does not achieve.