‘Telling Stories with no Words’ – Apple John – Theatre Alibi

From a very young age I was fascinated by stories, as most children are. I would tell stories to my baby sister before I could even read, pointing my chubby infant fingers at the colourful pictures and telling her the bits I could remember. When I couldn’t remember, I would fill in the gaps with my own imaginings.

Every one of us is reading and telling stories on a daily basis. Perhaps you read a book or a news app on your daily commute, but similarly an advert on a poster, or an Instagram post constitutes a story. Not all storytelling modes are written or spoken ones, and this is what Theatre Alibi have captured so beautifully in their latest production Apple John. 

Apple John tells the stories of four generations of a family, and an apple tree. As a train speeds along a railway line, a heavily pregnant women in a rather fetching felt hat (Kirsty Cox) is munching on an apple. She bites to the core and finds, strangely, the seeds have already started to spout. As she throws it from the train window it’s new life begins, and the same night, so does her baby’s. The stories of John (Derek Frood) and the apple tree are told side by side. As the tree grows, blossoms and bears fruit, so does John. Through hot Summers and snowy Winters, through births, through accidents, through play, slippers, sadness and love – lots of love -but no words.
 
Image Credit: Steve Tanner; Source: Alibi Theatre

Two years ago Alibi theatre, who are currently celebrating 35 years as a company, began researching and developing a production that would be accessible to Deaf audiences. In all their time working with children and families highly visual storytelling has always been at the core of their work, but Alibi wanted to push this further, to really captivate and speak to these audiences – but still create a story for hearing audiences alike.

Of course stories without words are nothing new. When taken to the ballet, I can’t have been more than five or six , I reportedly tapped my mother insistently on the shoulder after the first few dances and asked in an incredulous tone, “Is there going to be no speaking at all?”. Nevertheless, I apparently enjoyed myself with no further questions. Ballet however relies on a visual storytelling language that is intrinsic to it’s style of dance, it’s music, it’s costumes and its sets. How could Albibi tell a satisfying story without one portable set, just a few props, two musicians and two actors?

Workshops were held with deaf actors in the early stages of R&D, in order to generate ideas for how to speak the language of movement, of mime, in a way that is accessible young children. In children’s theatre in particular, sign language, which is more commonplace now on the mainstream theatre stage (although usually only at one or two selected performances) is not age appropriate. There are other ways of showing things like rain, for example, without need for a prop or a word. In this examples, the actors made individual drops with the tips of their fingers, following them drip by drip into their palm. There is a ‘plop’ sound made for the benefit of the hearing audience, but no other visual cue is needed. Snow is represented in the same way, as young John captures the invisible flakes on his tongue. Some visuals cues are easier, riding a bike for example, and there is no mistaking the ambulance, it’s flashing light is cue enough without the siren atop an actors head as he runs around the stage with fellow actors in tow. The apple tree is simply one upward hand on another, gently swaying in an imagined breeze.
Image Credit: Steve Tanner; Source: Alibi Theatre

The apple tree was also rendered by a projector. Projections interspersed the live action with short video clips and sometimes stills. They were always projected onto props or actors, so a dedicated screen was not required which liberated the set from a blank white space. Sometimes these show details of props that cannot be shown up close, taking the place of where a script might describe it verbally. The apple core, for example. Other times they give a hint for larger props or scenes that are harder to communicate with just two bodies. An old steam train projected on a baby blanket, being one example. After showing the clip, Cox and Frood’s arm movements, signifying the movement of the train, were much easier to read.

For the hearing audience, original live music was composed and performed live. It’s presence aided not only in identifying visual cues such as rain (a stroke of a cellos bow followed by a stop) but in opening up the emotional heart of the story, which really soared. Musical director Thomas Johnson identified very early on in the project that the music would need to composed in conjunction with the movement in order to truly reflect it. He therefore sat in on rehearsals by day, and composed by night. The actors all noted that the influence of the music also refined their movements, and helped them with timing. It became a fluid and symbiotic intervention, that creatively lifted the music and the movement by drawing them closer together. Over time in rehearsal placing the musicians on stage enabled them to not just soundtrack but become a part of the scenes, taking part in a visual and a narrative sense. It was a natural progression that really unified the company in the stage space.
Image Credit: Steve Tanner; Source: Alibi Theatre

But telling the story is just part of the production, would it also be funny? Being an excellent mime artist not only requires excellent control of the limbs and work with props but facial expressions that read all the way from the front row to the back. Frood and Cox both had them in spades, and this is largely where the comedy comes from. The scenarios are often in themselves funny, but watching a grown women in a wig and a tutu playing with a doll and a plastic giraffe just wouldn’t resonate without the addition of Cox’s gleeful child-like facial expressions. Child and adult alike were delighted by this sketch in particular. Does the child recognise themselves in this scenario? Are they laughing at the grown-up child as they might laugh at one of their friends, or siblings if they were playing in a similar way? Perhaps to try to unpick why a child might find such a scene funny is the wrong way to go about it. Perhaps, just to question it too deeply would make it decidedly unfunny. In another scene, Cox plays a teenager solo moshing to a punk record, her face screwed up in a spot-on rendering of teenage angst. Some of the adults laughed knowingly, but some of the children were in stitches. Do they recognise the teenager in this scene? Or are they laughing at the grown-up’s crazy dance? Perhaps they could even be laughing at the silly music, maybe some of them were hearing a rendition of ‘punk’ for the first time. But again, why question it? The sweet irony of them laughing at the antics of the teenagers they will one day become was enough for me to laugh even harder. Alibi have created something truly special here where adult and child can laugh as one, even if it is not always for the same reason.
Image Credit: Steve Tanner; Source: Alibi Theatre

As we are led in whirlwind fashion through the lives of John’s family (in one scene, meeting, marrying and producing a baby are boiled down to about three minutes!) we can understand through their movement what Alibi’s talented performers are showing us, and draw emotion and laughter from what we see. But as we are reading each visual cue, we are filling in the bits with our imaginings as we did with stories as children, and it is this beautiful combination that really makes this a magical and memorable piece of theatre. Not just for children and not just for deaf audience, but for all ages and hearing audience alike.

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