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CELL - Exploring Motor Neurone Disease through Puppetry

CELL is a new piece created through a collaboration between three puppet companies - Smoking Apples, Little Cauliflower, and Red Threaders. The show is being performed as part of FIRSTS festival at the Little Angel Theatre, London. Further details about the show and the festival here.

Below, Molly Freeman from Smoking Apples and Will Aubrey Jones from Little Cauliflower tell us more about their new performance and how they collaborated to create CELL.

Tell us a bit about your previous work

Molly: Smoking Apples was formed in 2010 and since then we have been working collaboratively to devise visual and physical pieces, always using puppetry, ranging from theatre shows, festival performances and film/TV. We like to make shows about human nature, about things that everyone can relate to and most importantly, about how this makes us unique.

Will: Little Cauliflowers previous work has all been more about stories and less about real life experiences. Weve made a show about a machine which flies round the world planting trees and one about a old man who lives in a rubbish dump when all the rubbish starts to come to life. Whilst always engaging with adult subject matters our previous work they have been predominantly aimed at children so this show is very different for us.

What led you to choose to explore MND as a theme for your work?

Molly: On a personal level, myself and Will have lost Grandfathers to MND. MND is difficult to diagnose, it shares symptoms with many other diseases and my Grandfather was only diagnosed with MND after he had died – just six weeks after we realised something was really wrong.

Will: The loss of movement associated with MND made it a very interesting subject to explore through puppetry as puppetry is all about animation and people diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease effectively lose their ability to self animate. My grandfather died of Motor Neurone Disease when I was 14 and so once we had found a way the idea would work artistically I knew that I could bring my personal experiences into the rehearsal room.

Molly: Artistically, as two puppetry companies collaborating, we were looking for something that could really challenge us and the notion of someone losing their mobility was exactly that. It is a tricky thing to animate puppets to make them move in a believable way but to break that down without breaking down the illusion was something we really wanted to explore.

When considering exploring MND through puppetry – do you feel that puppetry offers more opportunities to explore these sorts of themes as compared to other theatrical forms? If so, how so?

Will: I wouldnt say it offers more opportunities but it does offer different opportunities. I personally dont like theatre that uses too many words and tells me what to think. I like to interpret the story myself as it develops. Puppets never shout and demand your attention, instead they exist in their own world and you can sit and watch the beauty of their movements, allowing for subtler storytelling.

Molly: When an actor is on stage everything - from the movement, voice and emotion - is all something very close to that of the audience. Puppetry is often used to explore difficult themes because of the distance it provides. Yes, character and narrative are there very strongly but there is a deliberate gap for the audience to lay onto it. I think puppetry allows for new and multiple perspectives to be explored in a relatively fluid manner, for example, reality, dream, imagination, the impossible. I wouldnt necessarily say this was our impetus behind using puppetry and exploring MND in the same show but of course Im totally biased because I always choose to work with puppets!

As two separate theatre companies with differing styles - how did you approach the collaboration? How do your styles differ?

Molly: It was incredibly difficult in the beginning, both companies have spent the last few years working out a process individually and when we came together, that almost had to start over again. Yes, we were able to use our previous experience and yes, we are operating under the same craft but aside from that and a fierce passion to make this work, we had to go back to basics.

Will: There is no right or wrong method of devising, only what works for each group and each piece. Both companies had been working predominantly within the same small groups of people so our early rehearsals were a steep learning curve. Little cauliflower would start shows with narrative and writing exercises, mapping out the story before working practically. Smoking Apples were more comfortable generating material and images and then afterwards sitting down and sifting through it in order to piece together the show.

Molly: A key factor that really helped us to collaborate effectively was having a dramaturg, someone outside of both companies to help highlight the complimentary qualities.

Your production uses different forms of puppetry and light effects – did you have a clear vision when approaching the subject that these were the techniques you wished to use?

Molly: In terms of what they were, how they are used and a clear vision, I think the answer to that is no! As individual forms, we know how they work and what they can represent but when it came to putting them all together, this was really something that developed through our R&D phase.

Will: The forms of puppetry evolved as responses to the elements of the narrative. We use the types we do as that is what the piece requires for the audience to best understand each scene. It’s a very fluid process and very little is decided on in advance. We might spend 2 days blocking a scene in shadow puppetry only to decide it would work better with a bunraku puppet at the last minute.

When approaching a subject like this – how do you find the balance between it being an issue based show and storytelling?

Molly: Its been a really delicate balance. It was never our intention to make an issue based show but instead our focus is to tell the story of man who has MND, and within this we felt incredibly strongly about being truthful about the disease.

Will: We ensure Ted, the main character, and his emotional journey is the primary motive in every scene. When we are devising if an idea becomes too much about the disease or about issues we ask our self “how does this relate to Teds journey?” and this really helps us to stay on track.

Molly: Meeting people with MND, those who support them and medical professionals has been overwhelming and this stuck with us throughout our initial R&D and inspired the tone of the show. CELL is actually very humorous and light-hearted in moments and incredibly tragic and devastating in others. Yes, the truth of the disease is there, always, but the story allows an audience to access it in a way that is human.

CELL is an entirely non-verbal piece of theatre - why did you decide this and how much of a challenge has this been?

Molly: It has been a great challenge! MND is not an easy disease to get your head around and as such, we not only needed to find a way of giving clear information, we also needed to find a way to make it accessible to audiences. MND is so much about movement and mobility that we felt as though the piece needed to speak through movement, through visuals.

Will: Little Cauliflower has always avoided using text in our work. We feel stories can be told much better if you are always having to question how to demonstrate a complex storyline to an audience without words and is a challenging limitation we have enjoyed working within for the past 4 years. Ive also felt that puppets are never able to work with dialogue very well and serve a story much better as a visual tool.

Molly: During the early development of the show, we really battled with text, trying to use it, trying to work it in but anything the text said, we always found a way of saying it through the visuals and as a result, we dropped the text. From a Smoking Apples perspective, we really only use text where it is absolutely necessary, where the words tell the audience something the visuals cannot.

March 2014

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