Caro Meets Children's Show Interview

Hal Chambers: Leaper, A Fish Tale

By | Published on Friday 11 March 2016


Sometimes you come across a show that has an incredibly important message, and ‘Leaper, A Fish Tale’ definitely falls into that category. It’s aimed at children and families, but it tackles the very serious topic of the decline of the world’s fish population, whilst still offering a visually beautiful and entertaining piece.
To find out more about the play, the creative team behind it, and the issues at stake, I spoke to Tucked In Productions’ Hal Chambers, director.

CM: Tell us about the show. What happens in it? Where does the story take us?
HC: The story is set in a salmon nursery in Scotland where one man nurtures young fish through to the stage in life where they must start their natural journey from river to ocean. One day his daughter decides to assist him in his work, but falls into the local river with the young salmon and is swept away with them. The adventure then truly begins as we follow the Girl on the fish’s magical natural journey where she experiences first hand the man-made monsters of the sea. It is a very real modern fable, a cautionary tale perhaps, which should thrill and surprise.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
HC: Some research shows that wild fish could be a thing of the past by 2048. We have seen that human beings are slowly plundering one of our greatest natural resources and I think it is about time we communicated this new story to those who will be most affected in 2048 – our children!

Overfishing, pollution and climate change are all very serious threats to the delicate balance of life in our waters around the world. We want the play to inspire children to be more curious about long-term conservation before it is too late. The play will try to create dialogue between the generations. We also hope it will be a positive and inspiring story… and extremely entertaining.

CM: So in staging the show, you are aiming to make specific points about the environment?
HC: The play’s message is, in essence, quite simple: we must help nurture life in the oceans before it is too late. A scientist at Marine Scotland told me that we are approaching ‘the tipping point’, so unless we start practically protecting our oceans (through marine protected areas) and start attempting to change society’s understanding of the challenges (through education) then the fish stocks won’t be able to properly right themselves and we will have real problems.

We have tried to bring the issues into the construction of the set. A large percentage of our set and puppets are made from objects found washed up on beaches as well as recycled objects. So many companies (and people in fact) dump waste and plastic into our rivers and oceans. By using some of these objects we hope this will be an opportunity to further relay our message.

CM: Do you think it’s possible to influence people via culture in this way?
HC: I think the power of storytelling is extremely potent. Facts make an impression on the mind but stories make an impression on the heart. I also believe puppets can hold a special magical over an audience. So yes, I think theatre can be a strong vehicle for this message.

It is worth saying that there has been a lot of talk about this issue in newspapers and on social media of late. I have talked to the brilliant Nicky Rohl about his famous Fishlove campaign (where celebrities posed nude with fish). Even he said he has found keeping the campaign going a struggle as funding and support was becoming was difficult to harbour long-term. This drive for a new generation of conservationists is a therefore a genuinely important one.

I was very inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish Fight’ (on Channel 4) and Charles Clover’s inspiring book, ‘The End of the Line’. Charles’ book later inspired a internationally-released documentary film also called ‘The End of the Line’, whose producer, Claire Lewis, has been a huge supporter of ‘Leaper’. It seems that there is a community of people out there who really want real change to come. Indeed, almost everyone I have spoken to about this project has been so supportive. I never thought a theatre maker like myself would get to work alongside so many interesting marine biologists, social ecologists and artists.

CM: How was the piece put together? What inspired it?
HC: Leaper was originally inspired by Steve Keay, an audience member who had seen a number of previous Tucked In shows with his family. He is the unit manager of a salmon reconditioning unit for the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board in Perth, Scotland. Steve’s story of trying to keep the population of Salmon strong in his local river really touched me. Especially when you consider that, due to funding cuts, he is the only person who runs this unit. Every day of the year he comes down to work with the young salmon until the time is right to take them down to the Tay river and put them into the wild so they can embark upon their natural journey.

His story seemed to sum up what is needed for change: we need patient, long-term approaches to keep fish stocks alive and thriving. These approaches need to come from companies, governments and society as a whole. But for me, it is summed up by a story about one man who is just quietly trying to tip the balance back into the fishes’ favour. In 2014 Tucked In received a research and development grant from Arts Council England, and we were able to able to visit Steve and some of his associates up in Scotland. We also researched Leaper by talking directly to school children. Finally we got the creative team and the actors together to work on the visual identity of the piece before presenting it to an audience for feedback. In 2015 Steph Connell (our producer) and I fundraised, gaining further support from Arts Council England, National Marine Aquarium, Sea Changers and the Unity Theatre Trust, and now, in 2016, we are finally about to bring the show to life!

CM: Who is the show aimed at? Is it just for children, or would older people enjoy it too?
HC: Leaper is aimed at the next generation, however, Tucked In’s work is always suitable for a universal audience – you will enjoy the work whether you are 4 or 104. As a visually led puppetry piece, the production will hopefully be able to relate to any nationality. These issues affect people around the world and one day we hope to take the show beyond our shores.

CM: Can you tell us about the creative team behind the show?
HC: ‘Leaper’ brings together some of the most exciting theatre makers in the UK. The design team is led by puppet-maker Claire Harvey, whose wonderful company The River People came to fame with ‘Lilly Through the Dark’ a few years ago. Claire’s partner in crime is Brighton-based designer Annie Brooks whose exciting company, Colossal Crumbs, is making bold and irreverent new puppetry work. The Edinburgh-based composer is Jim Harbourne whose folk-electronic compositions pop up in shows for Tortoise in a Nutshell and The Flanagan Collective, amongst others. Leaper’s lighting designer is Tom White, who has collaborated with me on a number of occasions and has toured internationally with Propeller. Producer Steph Connell (who most recently work for Frantic Assembly) is the leader of the team.

CM: As well as being the director of ‘Leaper’, you’re the AD of Tucked In Productions. Can you tell us a bit about the company? What kind of work does it do, and what are its aims?
HC: Tucked In was set up ten years ago with the aim of making high-quality, non-patronising new work for children and their families. Our new fairy tales were inspired by modern issues such as war, grief, money, and friendship. We have always loved visual storytelling and puppets (of all shapes and sizes). Our work has been described by a journalist as ‘epic yet local’, which I think sums it up well. ‘Epic’ in the sense that our stories have a big heart and often follow the traditional epic structure. ‘Local’ in the sense that our aesthetic is low-fi; objects and materials become magical worlds out of nothing.

CM: Did you always want to be a theatre director? How did you get into it?
HC: I got into drama whist studying at the University of Sussex. In Fresher’s week I auditioned for the big theatre show and tried out for the football team. Let’s just say I never made it into the football team! After acting for a while I fell into directing. After university I set up Tucked In and then trained at the wonderful Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I have been directing professionally now for eight and a half years. My main workload is spread between Tucked In, freelance directing, drama school productions and education work at Shakespeare’s Globe. It is hard work but making stories for a living is a dream come true.

CM: What hopes do you have for the future, for you and for the company?
HC: Take ‘Leaper’ to audiences across the world. If the play could inspire just one child to make a difference in the future I’d be thrilled. Hopefully we can help the fish to live properly!

CM: What’s coming up next?
HC: I am directing a new play about Henry the First of England (a medieval King from the 12th Century) in Reading. It is a new play based on true events – very much in the style of TV shows ‘Vikings’, ‘The Last Kingdom’ and ‘Game of Thrones’. Very different to ‘Leaper’, but it should be equally as fascinating.

‘Leaper, A Fish Tale’ is on at the Lyric Hammersmith on 19 Mar, at Greenwich Theatre from 28-29 Mar, and at Little Angel Theatre from 8-10 April. See the production website here for more info.


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