After premiering to critical acclaim in 2014, CELL, a new collaboration by Little Cauliflower and Smoking Apples, is heading out on a UK tour. It’s the story of Ted, who sets off on a life-changing adventure after he’s diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Set to an original musical score, his tale unfolds through the blend of puppetry and physical theatre which both companies specialise in. I caught up with Smoking Apples’ Molly Freeman this week to talk puppetry, collaboration, and dealing with heavy medical subject matter.
So how does the process begin, I wonder − how, as a group of young theatre-makers, do you sit down to plan a puppetry show about MND? “I’d like to say it was a really bold decision, but the subject actually crept in by itself,” Freeman explains. “Our initial idea was more general, to make a show about a man who overcomes an obstacle and goes on a life-changing journey”.
While MND was not the specific theme of CELL from the outset, the two companies soon began to see how their joint style could work to stage aspects of the disease. “At first we imagined the obstacle was Alzheimer’s… but that’s very internal, while MND attacks the physical body, it’s about movement. By using a puppet rather than an actor, Ted’s degeneration could be magnified, and as puppeteers it begins to seem as though we’re caring for him. It shifts people’s perspectives.”
The group began to find points of convergence between their theatrical technique and the physicality of the illness. Yet to stage a condition which many audience members will feel so sensitive about was surely a nerve-wracking task? According to Freeman, research was the key to overcoming any trepidation, and the company members spent time at the MND Association and the Royal Hospital of Neurological Disease.
“We wanted the symptoms and the degeneration to be as close to the truth as possible,” she says.”We aimed to show how MND affects people emotionally. But also to make it fun, sometimes light-hearted or humorous. During our research we met lots of people who had MND or cared for people with it, and they were so overwhelmingly positive and filled with life. So that guided the tone of the show.”
For Freeman and her co-collaborators, the ambitious task of blending comic and hopeful elements with the tragedy of the disease was a challenging experience.” CELL wasn’t an intentional risk, but looking back I can see why people thought it was a dangerous thing to do. But we were all at the point where we needed to make people sit up. We needed to push ourselves.”
So does Freeman want to see more young companies taking the risk and devising work about these kinds of issues? Absolutely. “It’s really interesting to see young companies unafraid to challenge themselves, and say, ‘is this possible? I have no idea. Let’s try it.’ There’s a heavy research element, and you’ve got to dig in and think, ‘ok I’m not a scientist, I’m not a doctor, but that doesn’t mean my perspective on this isn’t going to be interesting.'”
On the subject of young theatre-makers and ambitious work, Freeman cites several other puppetry companies drawing attention to medical issues in innovative ways. These include Sparkle and Dark, whose 2014 show Killing Roger used puppetry to discuss euthanasia, and Theatre Témoin, who garnered critical acclaim for their show about bipolar disorder, The Fantasist.
But there is no one way to approach medical conditions on stage. In May, CELL will be part of the Folkestone Quarterhouse’s Normal? Festival of the Brain, a series which brings together various shows about neurological illness. And Freeman, for one, is looking forward to it. “I think we’re the only puppetry show, and I’ll be really interested to see how you can deal with these issues in comedy, in solo work, in poetry, in dance. Programmers are starting to pick up on the fact that there’s this group of young artists creating work about medical and scientific issues. It’s interesting to see how these topics are being framed by all kinds of different companies.”
The CELL UK tour begins on 6 March, and will be in London’s Pleasance Theatre on 14-15 March. More information can be found here.