Tortoise in a Nutshell is an Edinburgh-based company that has been producing work inspired by puppetry techniques since 2010. Having recently embarked on a series of international collaborations, Tortoise in a Nutshell are touring Fisk around Scotland, in conjunction with Danish company Teater Katapult. 

As part of a series of conversations with theatre performers at this year’s festival, Mabli Godden talks to Ross Mackay, artistic director of Tortoise in a Nutshell and director of Fisk, about how the company have explored the relationships between puppetry and mental health.

What was it about puppetry that drew you in originally?

I think all of us were really interested in work that was visual. All of us think in very visual ways and our imaginations are sparked that way, and puppetry, in particular, had that ability to really explode and go anywhere. You can sort of play with the rules and bend the rules a lot with puppetry. Also, what I enjoy a lot with puppetry is that it has a unique relationship with the audience in that [the puppet] is just an object and unless the audience invest in it then it doesn’t come alive. So you ask the audience to do that one extra push of the imagination, and when you see a puppet do something like die on stage it can be really emotionally resonant because you’ve already had to do the work of emotionally investing in it.

In terms of the subject matter for Fisk, would you say that themes of mental health and mental wellness are something that’s featured in other shows you’ve developed or has it been a new area to explore for you?

It has been a feature but it wasn’t ever explicit to us. And Fisk didn’t start at all with that as its subject matter. Initially we just had an image in our head, which was a boat and a man on a boat and he’s about to jump into the water and a fish jumps out. And that was it, and we weren’t sure where it led. So we spent a few days exploring how we could make the sea, what does a fish on stage look like? Who are these characters? How does this story progress?

We quite often make installations for each other, that’s how we do a lot of our work, we make little immersive pieces of theatre for two or three people. So we’d make a tiny scene with the sea on it and then we’d talk about it. We’d talk about what those images meant for us, and we kept coming back to it being a metaphor for mental [health] and for someone who is stuck in a moment and the world can be turbulent around them, or it can be very calm but they’re a bit vague. They’re isolated and we realised that it kept relating back to mental health so we realised we should dive right in and explore that.

What were the challenges in dealing with mental health as a subject matter?

It’s such a huge topic and I think one of the reasons why it’s so difficult on stage – obviously for people who are suffering from mental health problems, it’s a very serious problem that can have very serious consequences for all manner of reasons – is because people are very wary of pitfalls, they’re wary of presenting it in the wrong way. Of course, you don’t want to present it in the wrong way or stereotype people because they can have a whole range of issues and deal with them in a myriad of different ways. So, one person’s depression isn’t the same as another person’s: trying to put something on stage that’s universal is really difficult. And also the language of it is really problematic, we use the language of mental health quite often in a really false way and in a way that takes away from its seriousness. So, I think in putting something like that on stage, one of the reasons, as a visual theatre company, [we] thought we were in a really good place to do it was because we can kind of escape that language.

And when did you start narrowing down who this might be for?

In those development weeks we started to think about our audience in that regard and when we settled on the idea of it being [about] a young couple we thought, oh this is a show that might have resonance for students, and we can support theatres that might have workshops for colleges and universities and try and track that audience in. But also, once you start doing shows for students, you’re actually doing shows for everyone, there’s no limitation past that point. Actually the people in the audience can come from all backgrounds and hopefully still get something out of the show.

Interview by Mabli Godden

Fisk is touring to: Clydebank Town Hall (5 May); Byre Theatre, St Andrews (8 May), Cumbernauld Theatre (10 May); Dundee Rep Theatre (11 May); and Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh (12 May). Full details and ticket information here