FORKS – just ordinary, everyday forks. Polythene – the stuff of ordinary, everyday packaging. Pencils, rubber gloves, torches – ordinary, everyday objects that we pick up and use without a second thought.

But at various times during Manipulate, the visual theatre festival that opens in Edinburgh today, these – and other such commonplace items – will become major players in all kinds of mischief, mayhem and unexpectedly profound episodes of storytelling.

It’s the very essence of Manipulate, this lovely insistence on looking beyond the surface appearance, not just of things but of situations and even people – and, by doing so, altering our perceptions and our understanding of the world around us.

Does this seem a very big claim for shows that are often on a very small and intimate scale? Well, if you’ve gone along to previous Manipulate seasons, you’ll already know how being at close quarters with a piece of cunningly crafted visual theatre – maybe watching miniature puppets go on epic adventures, or seeing a table-top model of a town or landscape spring clever surprises – has a particular charm and value.

Unwilling to miss any fresh detail, you really do focus on the unfolding action: quite simply, you look more carefully and actually see more.

With this in mind, the festival’s artistic director, Simon Hart, can point to the UK premieres in this 11th Manipulate programme with a flicker of wry amusement.

“We have some of the top international companies coming to Edinburgh because we can offer them a really sympathetic environment for their work – and not every venue or festival can do that.

“Box office returns can play a part in that, of course, but I do think you have to look at the quality of the experience – both for your audiences and for the artists – when deciding what shows go where either here, at the Traverse, or in the other theatres who are sharing in the festival.

“I mean, what’s the point of booking a beautifully miniaturised production into a 400-seater space if the main character is only four inches big and won’t be seen by anyone sitting further back than row G?”

He’s laughing as he says this, but it’s just one of the considerations that he takes into account when curating the different aspects of the programme.

Today, for instance, the Traverse spaces are given over to the realm of animation, with a series of themed screenings that include a first-ever selection from Spain’s Punto Y Raya Festival alongside contributions from emerging Scottish artists. Animation has always been part of Manipulate seasons, but increasingly Hart has felt that it deserved its own specific showcase.

“We have so many talented people working in this field,” he says. “Their work has frequently achieved real success and won awards internationally and yet, somehow, I don’t feel the sector has the profile, the recognition, it deserves here at home.

“Unlike many other countries, we don’t have a dedicated animated-film festival that would show funders, especially, what we have to offer – audiences don’t need any convincing, nor do the young people who want to get involved.

“I’d really hope that our one-day showcase could develop into something bigger in the future.”

The same future-forward ambition also applies to the professional skills workshops that run throughout the week, and to the supportive performance strands tagged as Snapshots and Testroom.

The latter has been a recent mentoring project, run since last November by Manipulate in association with the National Theatre of Scotland, while Snapshots, which offers a platform for works-in-progress, has long proved a highly popular element with packed audiences who are willing to give feedback on the excerpts that arrive, often in rough cuts, before them.

“It’s really a chance for artists to try out ideas, without the pressure of a make-or-break full production,” says Hart.

“We say to them here’s a slot in our programme, here’s the space – it’s Traverse 2 – and here’s a little bit of money: feel free to experiment, take risks, just see what happens.”

This kind of open encouragement is a luxury that many practitioners working in the more radical art forms rarely enjoy, and yet over the years this initiative has fed fresh creativity not only into puppetry and visual theatre but into mainstream drama, music and performance as well. For countless Scottish artists, this foothold in the public gaze has proved invaluable, even if afterwards a cherished notion has been put to one side... permanently!

Now, remember that earlier reference to polythene? Well, sheets of it come on-stage in Nothing, presented as part of Snapshots 3 by the Edinburgh-based Faux Theatre.

In 2014, the company made its Manipulate debut with Torn, a witty but poignant solo where Faux’s artistic director Francisca Morton exorcised the memories of a significant ex while rending, scrunching, trampling and scattering reams of white A4 paper. Audiences were in raptures at how such a familiar commodity could cleverly underpin all the nuances of Morton’s tragicomedy.

Torn went on to leave a successful paper trail that reached as far as Estonia. When it came to that crucial “What next?” moment, Morton realised that she just loved working with the physicality and visual potential of materials.

“With this piece,” she says, “I wanted to work with polythene sheeting – and cling film, actually – to see what it could say. What images could emerge, what kind of story might come out of it.

“Experimenting with materials is not like in most theatre-making where you start off with a character, or maybe a theme. It’s more about finding out if there is a ‘character’ in the material, or what images it can create – and if there’s maybe a story in there that will speak to an audience. The cling film, unfortunately, didn’t last as an idea.”

She’s laughing as she describes her early attempts to, as it were, stretch its possibilities.

“The moment it clings to itself – that’s the end of its story! You can’t do anything else with it, uncling it, re-use it. But with polythene you have so many possibilities. It can become a transparent wall between you and the audience – so is it a physical barrier? Or maybe a mindset?

“If it catches in the air, it can be like a cloud, floating, atmospheric, spiritual even. And always there is is this question: is the performer in control of the polythene or is the polythene in control of the performer and that’s where you can start to look at the all-enveloping effects of depression.

“And how, sadly, some suicides result from suffocation inside a polythene bag...”

Morton is still sifting through her thoughts – some of them will surface during Snapshots.

What about those forks? Colette Garrigan will be putting them to unexpected use in her distinctly adult version of Sleeping Beauty for Compagnie Akselere (France).

Set in her native Liverpool, it’s a modern-day walk on the darker fringes of the familiar fairytale where the fateful spindle is replaced by an equally deadly needle and our little princess is already at risk in a city stalked by high unemployment, poverty, gang violence and drug-dealing. Is there a happy ending? It depends on how you define “happy”.

What’s facinating, however, is how many of the performances in this year’s Manipulate use puppets, animations or object manipulation to explore

thought-provoking and topical social issues.

Song of the Goat (Compagnie å, from France) conjures up an American suburbia of manicured lawns and similarly regimented minds.

The arrival of a new neighbour, with his pet goat, unleashes the innate prejudices within the perjink community to hilarious effect... but

even so, the whiff of anti-immigration and nimby-ism lurks among the model props.

Ressacs by Compagnie Gare Centrale (France) deals with the corrosive effects of headlong consumerism – more is never enough, until the money runs out and our couple are cast out of their supposed Paradise with scarcely a fig-leaf to their name.

Hmmm – did they invest in Bitcoin, perchance?

As for the pencils – well, they figure in the superb Off-Kilter, where Ramesh Meyyappan (from Scotland) conjures up a telling vision of work-related stress and the anguish of sudden redundancy with a physical theatre performance that speaks volumes without using any words.

“I love how visual theatre and physical performances can really engage audiences in storytelling without saying a word,” says Hart.

“Often with spoken drama, we’re guided so much by what the text is telling us. Whereas, all across Manipulate, it’s the images we’re offered that carry the narrative and they’re absolutely open to our own interpretation.

“We have the freedom to call on our own imagination, our own experiences – be part of an audience, and yet have our own personal responses that might well be different from those of the person sitting next to us.

“And I’m genuinely proud that we can offer those possibilities with Manipulate.”

Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival is at the Traverse, Edinburgh from today (January 27) until February 3,