Puppetry is all about movement. A group of puppeteers creating a show about an incurable muscle-wasting condition that takes away all mobility sounds like a paradox, but the deterioration of movement with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is what drives Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower’s new show, CELL. This show is part of A Younger Theatre’s Incoming Festival in May. It is the first collaboration between the two companies, with Little Cauliflower coming at puppetry from the design and technical point of view, and Smoking Apples from a performance one.
Molly Freeman from Smoking Apples says they decided to “go somewhere neither company had gone before”, wanting to explore movement and loss of movement with puppetry. “The overwhelming thing that we found when we met people with MND was that they were so positive, so hopeful.” This mindset has been the basis of the puppet character of Ted, who is “living with Motor Neurone Disease, not dying from it”.
The team did a lot of research on the disease in preparation for the show, working with the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Royal Hospital of Neuro-Disabilities, to get a grasp of the biomedical side of it. Whilst it’s not an issue based show, “it’s nice to do a little bit to help raise awareness”. Several members of the cast have direct experience of family members with MND and wanted their play to be based in something factual but also personal.
In the play, which is almost entirely non-verbal (“that’s been a challenge”), Ted’s home life is interrupted by lots of people but they’re not necessarily his friends. His one companion is his goldfish, also a puppet. “We decided to try something quite obscure like a goldfish as something he could build a relationship with, and see how much character and personality we could get in it… It’s easier to show someone’s character, their compassion, all those really nice human qualities, when you’ve got a companion.” Ted and his pet fish go on an adventure, showing us the reanimation of this man’s life when he’s losing his ability to move.
As part of the preparation, the companies held rehearsals in Folkestone in a room with glass walls through which they were visible from the street. Freeman says it was like being in a fishbowl. The idea was to attract attention from the locals and engage them, and it was “quite bizarre for the first few days”. During this process they spent a lot of time “smashing everything apart and putting it back together again”, which Freeman describes as a necessary evil in order to intensify and tighten the play. They often get asked whether they are puppeteers or actors, but Freeman insists they are both. “There is a skill in balancing both of them as when you puppeteer you’re pushing your energy through an object but don’t want to be too prevalent.”
Both companies are extremely excited to be part of INCOMING. “It is such a good idea and I was so excited when the line up was announced,” says Freeman. “It’s great to see top quality stuff and be surrounded by brilliant people. That network of people is really important, and is one of the reasons we love collaborating.” Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower have known each other for three years, and the timing suddenly seemed right to make a show together. Freeman notes that “in a true collaboration you can see both styles working together”, but she says there is still the individual identity of each company within the show. They have all learnt about themselves and their strengths. “We have used our different styles to create something new. They wanted to learn something from us and we wanted to learn something from them.”
The Incoming Festival is a co-production between A Younger Theatre and the New Diorama Theatre. Freeman is looking forward to working at the New Diorama, which they have never performed at before, but which she says has a really incredible support system for emerging artists: “Being given those mentoring skills is invaluable.” She has also followed A Younger Theatre since the beginning: “The form in which it’s done is very clever and insightful,and it doesn’t shy away from the stuff that’s difficult too. It allows everyone access to it.” She stresses the importance of there being a voice for young people making theatre and performance.
CELL has been in development between the two companies for nearly a year. Animating a puppet of a man with no movement is not an obvious treatment of the subject, but hopefully it will achieve Freeman’s ambition: “We really want to push the boundaries of puppetry.”
CELL is at the New Diorama Theatre on 20 May as part of A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival. For more information and tickets, visit NDT’s website.