In 2013, Smoking Apples and Dogfish Theatre began their collaboration on the critically acclaimed, puppet-led production of CELL. It tells the story of Ted who is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and decides to travel the world before his mobility degenerates.
Puppetry is an age-old educational technique (see Sesame Street and the shadow-puppets of cavemen warning cave children not to go near that dinosaur) and CELL cleverly uses movement and puppetry to communicate how Ted continues his life as illness becomes more prominent.
Molly Freeman, the co-artistic director of Smoking Apples offered her insight into CELL.
For those who are unfamiliar with Motor Neurone disease, could you explain a bit about it?
Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is a progressive disease that attacks the motor neurones or nerves in the brain and spinal cord. It prevents the electrical signals that control movement, from reaching their destination and leads to weakness, paralysis and wasting. Currently, there is no cure for MND. We’ve been closely supported by the Motor Neurone Disease Association throughout the creation and touring of CELL and they’ve helped us to understand the disease so for more information, their website has lots of great stuff on it.
Smoking Apples creates innovative theatre combining puppetry and movement, what drew you to producing a piece exploring MND?
Puppetry has this wonderful ability to transcend things and that is one of the main reasons we work with it as an art form. It allows the audience to be very slightly distanced from the action and as such, it can be really powerful. As a company, we like to explore ordinary characters and make our puppetry as life-like as possible and by that I mean reflect human behaviour and movement accurately. That’s not to say that our puppets necessarily look life-like, as you can see in CELL, Ted is a four foot white puppet but we (hopefully) still convey the human emotion and movement through him. As two puppetry companies collaborating, we were drawn towards the idea of challenging our puppetry skills and practice so we started to look at physically debilitating diseases. That’s how we first came across MND. Puppetry relies so much on movement in order to sustain the illusion and the audiences’ belief so we wanted to try creating a show in which that gets stripped away. The more we developed the show, the more we started to realise that there were also lots of parallels between the puppet and the puppeteers and someone living with MND and the care and support they need. There is a paradox that runs throughout the show that MND causes a person to lose their animation but as puppeteers we are re-animating Ted.
How did you come to the collaboration with Dogfish/ Little Cauliflower Theatre?
Back in 2013, when we first started CELL, Little Cauliflower (now Dogfish Theatre) and my company, Smoking Apples were being supported as emerging companies by Creative Youth, a charity in Kingston. We had admired each other’s work for a number of years and both had a gap in our schedule so decided to throw around some ideas together. This slowly formed into CELL. It’s hard to know why the union worked so well but I think that part of the reason was because we pushed each other artistically. Although both companies work with puppetry, each of our processes and approaches were different so we really had to work to fuse the two together. Dogfish is very much about a strong narrative and striking aesthetic whereas in Smoking Apples, we concentrate on movement style and detailed animation.
CELL has toured very well since 2014, what has stood out about the shows/audiences since the production’s debut?
We’ve been hugely lucky to have performed CELL so many times since we premiered it in 2014 and our audiences and venues have been brilliant along the way. However, there are a few that really stand out, the first being our premiere which was at the Little Angel Theatre as part of their FIRSTS Festival. We were completely and utterly exhausted, we’d spent the last few weeks beforehand finishing the show, including all of the build and we’d been staying up all hours to get it all done and dusted. By the time we reached the Little Angel we were an absolute wreck and had gotten to the point where we didn’t even know if what we had produced was even any good. It’s very easy to lose sight of things when you’re that tired! The audience reaction there was incredible and the Little Angel is such an intimate space so we could see the faces of everyone there, it was brilliant. Another favourite audience was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when we sold out the show for the first time, around two weeks into the run. The audiences at Edinburgh were just electric, it’s hard to explain but there was just a crazy buzz, particularly so with that sold out show. A more recent favourite from this tour has been the Drill Hall in Lincoln. We played to around 150 people and again, the atmosphere was just incredible. CELL has a very, very quiet beginning and going from a raucous pre-show atmosphere to complete silence with our tiny Ted on a huge stage was magic, the audience at the Drill Hall were behind us 100%, they wanted to love the show and Ted and they did.
There are strong themes of mobility and travel in CELL, what is the importance of these?
Throughout our research and development of CELL, we spent a lot of time at the Hospital of Neuro-Disability in Putney. There was an overwhelming feeling of positivity that ran through everyone we met, whether they had MND, had a family member with the disease or were professionals working in the field. This positive attitude influenced the show hugely and helped us to find the narrative of Ted going inter-railing. The idea of positivity in adversity and Ted experiencing life outside of his comfort zone became an integral part of the story and the travelling allowed us to really show the degeneration of his movement.
What would you most like audiences to take from CELL?
CELL is a hopeful, life-affirming show and we hope that audiences come away from it with their heart warmed to Ted and his story. Yes, the show is about MND but it’s also about one ordinary man making the most of his situation, grabbing life with both hands and enjoying it. That’s something everyone can relate to.
CELL is at The Lowry on Thursday 19th May. Book tickets online here or call Box Office on 0843 208 6000.
Written by Jamie Walsh