Mini seagulls, fish and chips, rolls of nets and boats on sticks

Divisive issues are the mainstays of modern politics. Can theatre help people to confront them?

Hattie Thomas
5 October 2016

Alf from In Our Hands. Credit: Richard Davenport. All rights reserved.

With Britain voting to leave the European Union (EU) in June of 2016 and increasing pressures on sustainable food supplies, a visual theatre and puppetry show about trawler fishing might be the last thing people would turn to for inspiration. But that’s what we at Smoking Apples have tried to do in In Our Hands, a theatre production that’s now on tour around the United Kingdom.

Back in 2014, we got together to start designing a new piece. In the rehearsal room, we talked about the issues that had recently been in the news that interested and excited us. When the subject of controversies around trawler fishing cropped up on the BBC, we found that reactions in the group were so mixed that it felt like a great start for our creative process. Nothing kick starts a new show like a host of disagreements.

Sustainable fishing is something that everybody wants, but it’s a complex subject with lots of different interests. Common practices like ‘bycatch’ (when species are caught by accident), ‘discarding’ dead fish back to the sea, and ‘bottom line trawling’ are hugely controversial and have been demonised in the press, but with better communication between fisherman and regulators they can all be managed so that fish stocks are protected. Brexit provides another layer of complexity, with the majority of fishing communities across the UK voting ‘leave.’ The EU Common Fisheries Policy is disliked by many fishermen, not to mention the EU’s control of quotas, but the implications of the leave vote are unclear.

Among the five members of the company, knowledge and awareness of these issues varied greatly. Luke was working at an aquarium, giving talks for visitors about fish, so he was probably the most clued up about trawler fishing and its impact on various marine species. Then there was me, Hattie, a vegetarian at the time. Having read a book about how food gets onto our supermarket shelves and watched a few documentaries, I was originally point blank against trawler fishing, as was Luke.

Molly and George hadn’t looked into the subject as much as us, but they were interested in the debate and the different sides on display in the media. Finally there was Matt, who had spent a lot of time working on a farm as a boy and who was more comfortable with killing animals for food and for a living. With this spectrum of opinions we decided to go to the Cornish coastal town of Newlyn to find out first hand from fisherman how their industry was working, whether trawlers are as bad as they’ve been made out to appear, and how to balance the different interests involved in fishing for a living.

We found a place to stay a short drive from the harbour, and spent a few days trying to get more information about trawler fishing by speaking to the fishermen themselves—unedited by the press or the media. Matt and Luke went out for a full day’s fishing on a small trawler boat, spending 14 hours at sea and learning what it means to do the job. They discovered that ‘bycatch’ does occur but there’s a lot less of it than we thought, and any dead fish are eaten immediately by seagulls which swarm around the boat when they think there’s food on offer.

Secondly, although ‘bottom-line trawling’ (where nets are dragged along the ocean floor) is particularly damaging to the marine ecosystem, it’s not the only technique that’s used. The boat we went out with didn’t carry nets that hit the seabed, so it didn’t do the same amount of damage. In fact the fisherman who operate the boat pointed out that it was in their interest to fish sustainably, since the last thing they wanted was to exhaust stocks because they’d then be out of work. Having met these trawlermen, we could no longer reduce them to the archetypal villains beloved of some campaigners. Instead, they were real people we could relate to, and that meant we had to reassess some of our opinions. 

Molly and I also packed onto a lovely tin can of a mackerel boat and went out for a couple of hours one morning to see how pole and line fishing works. Personally I was nervous about doing this since I didn’t eat fish and couldn’t stomach the idea of killing anything myself, but it was a fascinating experience. We only caught three mackerel, which were generously given to us for our barbeque, and from then on I became a pescatarian. This may seem like a sudden change, but I felt a certain pride in eating the fish we had caught that evening.

The fishermen we met didn’t go to the same place to fish time after time. Instead they left each area to replenish its stocks before returning to fish there. However, they do keep fishing for popular species such as cod, haddock and plaice, because these familiar names are what the majority of consumers want. The trip showed us how fish go from sea to plate and from creature to food, and we learned how the public demand for certain species makes sustainable fishing that much harder. As long as the public are afraid to try pouting or coley because they’ve never heard of them, those fish won’t sell, so there’s no point in catching them.

During our visit to Newlyn we also met a fisherman called Stefan Glinski, whose story provided a lot of the inspiration for the narrative in In Our Hands. We found him fixing some bits and pieces of his boat in the harbour, and ended up talking to him for about an hour and a half. Glinski is inventive and dynamic, and has found a way of catching sardines effectively and sustainably without harming other species of fish. He’s put considerable time and money into changing public opinion and making his product popular.

Of course this is one person’s solution, not an answer to all the problems of the fishing industry, but after our trip we came away feeling that sustainable methods of fishing are definitely out there—it’s just that the interests involved aren’t necessarily talking to each-other or understanding how their different positions could be negotiated. And that’s where theatre comes in.

In Our Hands tells the story of Alf, a trawler fisherman whose experience, camaraderie and loyalty have put him and his boat at the top of the game, but times are changing and so is the industry. The piece follows a fish’s journey from sea to plate, a seagull’s ridiculous attempts to find food, and the re-uniting of a father and his son. Although the show is set in the world of fishing, it’s primarily about a man and his different roles as businessman, father and husband, so it’s extremely accessible.

We use theatre to entertain, but also as a tool to connect the audience with the issues in the play emotionally and intellectually, drawing them into a world of puppetry and visual theatre to deepen their interest in the complexities of the fishing industry and open them up to the different perspectives involved. The research we carried out in Newlyn was essential to the creative process of the show. There’s always this worry for us that it’s not our story to tell, so immersing ourselves in the world of trawler fishing and grappling with the question of sustainability enabled us to present a narrative that was truthful, engaging and enjoyable. One of the most important barriers when it comes to topics that are difficult to digest or things that are overtly political or divisive is that a lot of audiences simply disengage.

‘I’m not interested because I don’t understand it,’ they might say, or worse still, ‘we’re bored.’ Therefore, our job is to integrate all the ideas, opinions and evidence into a story that’s human and heartfelt; something that revolves around people and not just theory; and one that audiences can relate to, allowing them access to difficult ideas and choices in a way that isn’t forced or force-fed. As theatre-makers, we believe that this is our responsibility, so we’ll keep on researching and adapting the show to reflect the evolution of the debate. We always ask for audience responses after our performances, and some have question and answer sessions at the end.

Maybe with more engagement of that kind on other issues, the results of future referenda on divisive topics might be different.

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