What inspired you to write Existential Fish and Dread? Why this story?
Martha: I’d been thinking about the title for a while, but the idea really came together when Stephen Hawking died. Turns out that as ridiculous as it might sound, I really believed that he would figure out where the universe came from and what it all means, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. I wanted to capture that stomach-dropping moment where you realise that actually, you’re probably never going to find out – and whether that actually matters.
I think questions and worries about who we are and whether life means anything simmer beneath the surface for a lot of people, and I’ve always thought of the theatre as the best place to tackle these massive, often unanswerable questions. For me, theatre is a space to take a step back and ponder something from a safe distance. That’s what I wanted to do here – to create two authentic characters to think through the question, come up with as many angles as they could, and leave it up to the audience to decide what they think, if that’s something they want to decide at all.
Having just completed the Emerging Director’s program, how do you feel this has helped you on this project?
Gwenan: I can’t speak highly enough about the Emerging Director’s program, it really has changed my life. The Bread and Roses theatre have provided me with the knowledge, guidance and confidence to create my own work and I am so happy to be taking Existential Fish and Dread to their amazing venue. The program provides such a great platform to meet and work with other creatives – I would highly recommend it to any new director!
Gwenan: We have an amazing team for Existential Fish and Dread. Martha Reed is our writer, of course. We met completely by chance at a networking event with the Bread and Roses. She told me she’d just finished a play about existentialism and fish, and I basically begged her to send me the script! I have worked previously with our producer, Steph Hartland, and firmly believe that she is essential to any production. Our lighting designer and technical magician is Jake Hughes, who we are so lucky to have on board – I can’t wait for people to see his plan to turn the theatre into an aquarium! Sound design is by Seah Hotson, who specialises in recording sound underwater – what are the chances?! Our set design has been a product of all our collective creative brains, but features some amazing additions by Susan Bain of A Moment in Wire… I won’t say any more here, you’ll have to come and see for yourselves!
Martha: I’d worked with Natalie before, and she’s just such a bubbly, friendly, positive person. She was actually a big inspiration for the character of Ellie, so it’s amazing to have her step into the role. None of us had ever met Mark Kitto before his audition for Martin, but he absolutely blew us away. It was honestly like Martin had come to life and walked into the room. He auditioned with quite an emotional part of the script, and I remember thinking I was going to cry – and I’d read it a thousand times! We can’t believe how lucky we’ve been with the cast, they’re absolutely amazing together.
Call someone out by name who should see this production? Be brave!
Gwenan: Existential Fish and Dread is for anyone who has ever stopped in their tracks and wondered “why are we here?” It’s a fly-on-the-wall conversation between two very different people both struggling with the same questions. The focus is at the same time vast and intimate, and if this sounds like your kind of theatre, YOU should definitely see it!
But if we’re name-dropping... it would be amazing to see Becca Hammond from Chippy Lane Productions there. Martha and I are both from Wales and it’s so exciting to see companies promoting fringe theatre outside of London. We’re huge fans of The Other Room in Cardiff, so would be fantastic to see Dan Thomas there. Also Matthew Bulgo – a Welsh playwright I really admire. It would be incredible to see Mat Burt or Andy George, as we really admire the ethos behind the Vaults festival and the platform it presents to upcoming companies.
Martha: I wrote this for anyone who’s ever had a little bit of a crisis about the universe. You’re not on your own, and I would LOVE for you to come and see the show. There are so many people I could call out by name… I think Matt Maltby and Nick Oliver of Pint-Sized are amazing, they do so much to platform new writing. I’d love for them to come along. It would be incredible to see Jane Fallowfield of The Royal Court there, too. And of course, in a dream world, Tom Stoppard – a huge influence and the master of putting science in theatre.
What have been some of the highlights in the development of the show?
Martha: Getting other people on board! As a writer you spend so long just typing away on your own, it’s amazing when you get to become part of a team of creatives. A real highlight for me was the first read-through. It was the first time that anyone (other than me) had read the script out loud. It was absolutely amazing to hear these two people I’d made up come to life, but the best part for me was actually the discussion afterwards. Everyone was throwing all these brilliant ideas at the script, adding funny little moments and helping me tweak sections that hadn’t quite landed. It was so exciting.
Gwenan: Reading Martha’s script for the first time was definitely a highlight for me. From the first page I felt such a genuine connection to the characters, and I can’t wait for our audience to meet them. Another highlight would be our first read-through with the full creative team and cast; then our first rehearsal, second rehearsal, third rehearsal… It’s been a process full of highlights and I’m sure there are many more to come!
What do you think of British Fringe Theatre right now, and how does Existential Fish and Dread fit into it?
Martha: I think British Fringe Theatre is really exciting right now. We’re seeing more diversity, more voices getting a platform, which is creating a really rich and authentic scene. There’s a lot more to be done, but I think we’re heading in the right direction. My favourite thing about British Fringe Theatre is that it’s starting to feel like there’s room for everything – even if it’s a little bit bizarre. A play set in an aquarium on the day that Stephen Hawking died, that wonders why the universe exists and whether it means anything at all? There’s a British Fringe venue for that.
Gwenan: I agree, the British Fringe Theatre scene is SO exciting right now. I have been lucky enough to work with lots of new writing since I started directing, and it’s been such an eye-opening experience. Fringe theatre is such an amazing platform for diversity and self-expression, and there are new venues appearing all the time promoting it. I definitely think that there’s further we can go to promote this ‘anything goes’ authentic environment, but it’s so encouraging to work with venues like the Bread and Roses Theatre, who actively champion diversity and equality and new writing. Existential Fish and Dread is a play about connections formed in unlikely places, how you tackle the big questions and how you cope when the answer is not readily available. The question of ‘why we’re here’ is one that affects people from all walks of life, and it’s amazing to have an opportunity to share and debate it with an audience.
What’s next for Gwenan and Martha?
Martha: We’re currently looking at taking Existential Fish and Dread on tour, which is so exciting. If you think your venue needs a healthy dose of existentialism, hit us up! I’ve also got a short film in production with Reverie Productions, so we’ll be seeking funding and crewing up. It’s called Falling Apart at the Seams, and it’s about a woman taking back control. I can’t wait to bring it to life. I’ve also started writing a new play. At the moment it’s a bit bizarre… I’m excited to see where it goes!
Gwenan: As Martha says, we have big plans for Existential Fish and Dread, it’s definitely not the end of the road. I would love to tour it; the message is so universal I would like as many people as possible to be a part of our journey. So get in touch if you’d like a visit from us! In other news, another company I am a part of, Stage Splinters, are currently working towards a show in September. It’s a puppeteer musical version of Macbeth, and if that’s not intriguing enough, you can find us on all social media platforms to find out more!
Catch Existential Fish and Dread 8th - 10th August, 7:30pm