Following sold out premieres in London and Leeds, celebrated puppetry company Smoking Apples (co-creators of last year's Fringe hit CELL), return to Underbelly at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to present their new show, In Our Hands. Alf is a trawler fisherman whose experience, camaraderie and loyalty have put him and his boat at the top of the game. But times are changing and so is the industry. How will Alf adapt in order to survive? In Our Hands will transport you out to sea, under the ocean and onto the deck of the Catcher’s Fortune. Using innovative puppetry and inventive staging, mini seagulls to fish and chips, rolls of net and boats on sticks, join Alf as he journeys from the depths of despair to rise again and rescue the life he loves.
What was the inspiration for this performance?
We knew that we wanted to create a show with a bigger cast. Our previous show CELL has a cast of just three so we wanted to increase to five people to what new possibilities this might bring to the puppetry. We all sat down in a room for a day, trying to decide what subject we should look at, something that we were collectively interested in!
Luke, one of the cast members, mention fishing and we got hooked on that (awful pun but it’s true!). The most interesting thing for us was the variety of opinions on trawler fishing, even within our group of five.
It ranged from everything to Luke who used to work at the Sea Life Centre in London and is very clued up on marine conservation, to Hattie who was a vegetarian and then all the way to Matt who comes from a farming background and was raised on a kill to eat mentality.
We undertook a week of research in Newlyn, Cornwall, very early on in the process and this inspired us hugely. I think we naively expected to find an industry of heritage and trade that had been passed down through the generations but we found something quite different. The trawling industry is gritty, brutal and takes a very robust type of person to work in it and survive.
Luke and Matt went out to work on a trawler boat for 16 hours and saw first hand just how difficult the job is, and how many people are giving up on it. This inspired the rough, battered aesthetic of the show and the puppets. We were very keen to stay away from the idyllic waders and sea shanty stereotype that Cornish fishermen have because that wasn’t reflective of what we saw and experienced and isn’t a reflection of what the industry is like.
How did you go about gathering the team for it?
As the main bulk of our work is puppet based, having a full puppet onstage usually requires at least 2 members at one time to operate it, leaving no-one spare.
For this show we decided we wanted to make a larger piece that could be more flexible, so that we could have multiple puppets or puppet - human interaction, therefore we decided to extend the team to 5 members for In Our Hands. We have worked with George and Luke many times before, on different projects, and felt that they would make great additions to the team for making this show. Trawler boats rely so heavily on a team to make them operate so it was also instrumental to making that idea work.
George and Luke also have a cracking set of beards between them so it was a bit of a no-brainer.
How did you become interested in making performance?
For me personally, I have always really enjoyed telling stories through movement and this was one of the biggest draws towards puppetry. I also really like the challenge of transporting audiences and think that puppetry is a great way of doing this. As a collective, we’ve always has this fascination with very ordinary people, the person who is at the back of the party eating crisps, not the person who is the centre of attention. A desire to tell these stories is what got us started initially.
Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
I don’t think we’re at the point yet (and may not ever be) where we have a typical process. We’ve always worked as a collaborative devised company so the fact that a group of people come together to make a show stays the same but that’s about it!
With an increased cast of five, it was a completely different experience. There were more performance possibilities opened up but there were also more voices in the room pulling in different directions.
We worked with our dramaturg, Gemma Williams, who also worked with us on CELL and she was invaluable to the process. Our interest and desire in creating a show with a human narrative wrapped around a complex subject was integral though and that is similar to our previous work. The challenge for us is to continue exploring these subjects in entertaining ways and develop a performance style that is unique to that production.
With In Our Hands, it took us a long time to develop the idea of having three different scales, one in miniature so that we could show the vastness of the ocean, one on Alf’s human level and then one on Gertie the seagull’s level. This allowed us to explain trawler fishing from multiple perspectives.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
In Our Hands is ultimately a show about a man called Alf, who happens to be a trawler fisherman. It’s about the realities and struggles of the current fishing industry but it’s also a heartfelt, human story about making tough decisions, turning your fortune around and him repairing his relationship with his son. Yes, the show is about trawler fishing but it is also about being human and that is something that every audience member can relate to.
The trawling industry is industrial, labour intensive and tough so the set, puppets and props reflect this. The action is fast paced, shifting from Alf and his crew hauling in their catch to the London tube and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz bar, with the set transforming multiple times to allow for this to happen.
The rough hewn exterior of the aesthetic conceals a very real and sometimes emotional narrative but combined with comedic moments throughout we hope that the audience will get on Alf’s side, feel part of the crew and cheer when he pulls through.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
In Our Hands is predominantly non-verbal and this was made as a conscious decision in relation to the economy and efficiency trawlermen operate with at all times.
The breaking down of communication between Alf and his son, also inspired this move. For us, the lack of language means that the actions within the show are magnified and there is space for the audience to project their own thoughts and feelings onto the characters and narrative. This is a huge part of the audience experience and how they engage with it.
We were also very conscious to communicate the truthful facts about trawler fishing but not preach to the audience. They are allowed to come to their own conclusion about whether it is wrong or right and In Our Hands shines a light on the how it affects the people who do the job.
In order for this to be absorbed, we also wanted to make the show entertaining and although we hope that the audience will come away having been informed, if they come away having been only entertained, we will be delighted.
Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
We describe our work as puppetry and visual theatre but those things are quite sprawling and have multiple definitions, which is both the beauty and downfall of them. I always describe puppetry as the ultimate thief because it borrows and adapts from so many different performance traditions and styles and we’re no different so I wouldn’t say we fit within any specific area.
A lot of our inspiration comes from visual sources, film, photos and materials and we often work with an adapted style of Japanese Bunraku-puppetry. We’re playing more and more with this form though, particularly with In Our Hands as the main characters have just a head and hands.
All questions were answered by Molly Freeman, Co-Artistic Director of Smoking Apples.
In Our Hands is a human story about what it means to work in the trawler fishing industry, told using their trademark style of puppetry and visual theatre. Trawler fishing is rising in public interest due to the popularity of programmes such as Trawlermen (Channel 4) and The Deadliest Catch (Discovery Channel). Being a trawlermen is also considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world which adds a bizarre glamour and has sparked people's curiosity in both the trade and the people that do it.
The narrative was also inspired by Cornish fisherman, Stefan Glinksy, who was almost single-handedly responsible for the turn around of the Cornish sardine industry. Hailed as one of the brightest emerging companies, In Our Hands is the latest offering from Smoking Apples following their critically acclaimed collaboration and Edinburgh Fringe hit, CELL, which was nominated for a Peter Brook Award 2014.