Edinburgh Fringe 2022
My Lover Was a Salmon in the
Humanity ruins everything, but humanity's just a dodgy side-branch of fish evolution. Why not return to being fish? Fin's deep empathy for nature culminates in him thinking he's a salmon, onstage, whilst the band looks on in fishy horror. But could this kickstart a climate revolution?
Hi James, thanks for talking to The New Current, how have you been keeping?
Yeah, I’m good thanks! Things are very busy with the production side of the shows, but it’s really good to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning compared to some parts of the last couple of years!
Your London preview of My Lover Was a Salmon in the Climate Apocalypse takes place at the London Irish Centre (July 28th). How vital are previews like this before a Premiere run at the Fringe, does it give you a good opportunity to make any final tweaks?
There are some very out-there choices I made in the writing for the end of the show, so I’m really excited to see how those moments land! I think we’re in a good place with the show so hopefully we won’t need to change much, but you never know – plays always breathe differently when there are audience members in the room. I always notice so many more details just knowing that there are more people watching.
London Irish Centre has been a really great community space for Kate Bauer (the director) and I since we moved to the UK – so it’s a really great moment for us to be able to create work there ourselves.
What did it mean to you to win the Staging Change x VAULT Award for environmentally-conscious development?
It means everything. As a theatre-maker just writing away in my own bedroom, it feels amazing just getting some support. Josie from Staging Change has been amazing, offered some really great consultation as part of the award around making sure we can get our theatre practice as ecologically sustainable as possible. Some things we’re doing even in rehearsals – like myself or the director Kate cooking big meals for the cast instead of us all heading to the shops to buy meal deals – they’re not just more sustainable choices ecologically, but they’re really wholesome vibes for the production as a whole!
You have another play heading to Summerhall during the Fringe, Rajesh and Naresh, the reviews for this have been amazing, how does it feel to be able to bring this back to the festival?
I’m so excited to be able to bring Rajesh and Naresh back in the first two weeks of the festival. This will be only our fourth performance live in person. I’m so so excited to feel it live in the space. Because all the reaction we got from the people who saw the digital production was amazing, and it’s one of those shows that really tries to bring people together and bring joy into the space, so I can’t wait to feel that with the audience. Absolutely an honour to be part of the show.
What makes the Fringe so special?
This will be my first time physically in person bringing work up to the fringe – I’m really excited to experience it as an artist for the first time. But I loved it as an audience member. My mind was blown when I first went that I was able to choose exactly what type of work I wanted to see – you’re not constrained by the limit of just what local programmers deem worth giving time/money/space to. There’s always really weird stuff going on as well. I love a good weird show.
Can you tell me a little bit about how My Lover Was a Salmon in the Climate Apocalypse came about, what was the inspiration behind this play?
I find fish fascinating. I can’t explain it, but I’m fully obsessed. They’re such amazing creatures, but if you think about modern pescatarian diets or myths like goldfish having no memory and ‘never outgrowing their tank’, it’s clear that fish don’t always get respect in popular culture as having ‘full’ consciousness. I want to challenge that. But I also think fish are really funny too. And scary sometimes. I keep picturing people flopping around on the floor pretending to be fish out of water (do I laugh or do I scream). They conjure up a lot of strong emotions in me, and I have a lot to say about them. Once I started learning more about folk histories of salmon – in mythology, and just as a means of food for survival for many colonised people across history – I realised there were so many things to say on the subject that I might have a lot of fun if I just went ahead and started saying them. Only a tiny fraction of the things I have to say about salmon make it into the play. I’ve already got a second completely different play about salmon coming up in the Dublin Fringe Festival in September – I’m not joking.
How early in the writing process did you know you wanted to include audience interaction?
I think audience interaction is an incredible tool, especially for climate or social justice political work, because it brings people into what’s happening. It’s one thing sitting passively watching a show, it’s another thing if you are literally part of the machine that’s making the plot go forward. If the audience doesn’t go along with it, the plot will stop. There’s power there, there’s agency. And of course the audience always plays along, and the show always does goes on. But once you see that in a controlled setting in a theatre show, it’s pretty easy to see the same thing playing out in society at large. What if we stop playing along?
What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken away from this experience and what would you say your work says about you?
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken an idea and so purely run with it. Once Kate and I finally had a framing structure for the plot, I sat at home over a week and daydreamed the silliest ideas about fish that I could come up with. The challenge was always ‘well if this is going to happen, what would be one step further?’. And I kept doing that, over and over, until we arrive at the final scene for the play. I trusted myself to put in all of the serious content of the play about climate and capitalism and colonialism and erasing of indigenous cultures, so having this top layer of pure surreal silliness going on was the perfect antidote and the perfect way to write a play that could have been far too serious in another form. It’s a way of writing I hope I carry on using again and again!
How important is the creative relationship between a playwright and their director?
You’ve got to trust your director. One of my biggest joys in theatre is writing something and handing it over to someone I trust to take it over and transform it, do what they want to do with it, and really push the ideas. I find it so exciting seeing what they come up with in response to my ideas.
Where did your passion for theatre come from and how did Bradán come about?
Kate and I met on a theatre undergrad in Dublin. I loved writing and I applied to a lot of university courses for English Literature, but only one that included Theatre. The moment I stepped into that room in first year in university I knew I’d finally found people who were just like me, and I’m so glad I went for the one course that included theatre! We’ve done a few collaborations in the past, and when we started working on the idea for My Lover Was a Salmon in the Climate Apocalypse, we decided we’d better formalise things into a theatre company this time round! Bradán means salmon in Irish, so that’s a fun reference that combines our salmon-themed origins and the postcolonial Irish-culture elements of our work – I look forward to seeing how many salmon-themed projects we come up with before we finally branch out!
This is debut production for Bradán, what type of theatre/message do you hope to create through your theatre company?
At the moment we’re branding ourselves as an ecological gig theatre company. I think that’s a good place to start! None of us in the world right now can escape the climate crisis, but creating doom and gloom around that isn’t going to help anyone. Kate and I have talked a lot about how difficult and hopeless subjects like the climate crisis are. The last thing we’d want is to make a depressing climate show for people to sit through – there’s enough of that in our daily lives already! The music in the show is all enormously fun, and we want to give some energy back. Throw in some people turning into salmon, and as many silly jokes about fish that I can think of, and it should be enough to both reflect the world we’re living in, and to be like absolutely nothing they’ve seen before (in a good way).
Do you have any apprehensions about using your platform to open up discussions and bring about social, political, environmental change?
Only that I’m maybe not going far enough. There’s always a question - when there’s an emergency going on, why create art, what place does it have? But it’s easy for people to tune out from statistics or scary climate articles, to close up and not engage from that, but it’s much harder to close up from a story – from something that emotionally moves you in the moment. But I do worry in my more insecure moments that I’m not being radical enough, that I’m not pushing things far enough in my life.
"I think about facilitative approaches such as devising - where a more experienced director or writer can have a practical hand in creating a work with much earlier-career participants, whilst giving all the creative agency to the actors/makers in the process."
You’re an RCA MA Writing programme graduate where you researched actionable allyship in theatre producing, what have been some of the issues you’ve encountered and what more could be to bring about positive and real lasting changes?
It’s a difficult industry for sure. So much of it is propped up by this vast churn of unpaid labour and vastly underpaid ‘profit-share’ gigs. At the bottom end of the chain all the financial risk is with the theatre-makers (eg. hiring venues out), and then as you go up the chain a lot of the theatres themselves are under such financial pressure with the size of the operations they run, that they can find it hard to take a risk on developing new shows and new artists, when they know that a barely-changed revival of a ‘classic’ play on the GCSE school syllabus is guaranteed to sell seats when an unknown name often won’t. At every level, the system is just haemorrhaging artists – and those facing higher pressures and more barriers in their personal or professional lives (whether financial or otherwise discriminatory) are at a much higher risk of just not being able to carry on with the career.
The obvious solution is money. There’s no replacement for actually commissioning up-and-coming artists’ work, but of course this is a lot easier said than done. As far as solutions not directly involving commission-sized sums of money go, however, I think a lot about mentorship-based solutions. I think about facilitative approaches such as devising – where a more experienced director or writer can have a practical hand in creating a work with much earlier-career participants, whilst giving all the creative agency to the actors/makers in the process. You’ve still got to pay people for their time though if you’re involving them in any project, so it’s difficult to come up with something entirely revolutionary when almost all of us across the industry are struggling to be paid enough to keep going.
Do you have any advice, tips or suggestions you would offer a fellow playwright?
Go and see as much work as possible. Minimum once a week if you can afford it, or at least as often as you can – and more if you can manage it. I really love scratch nights and small pub theatre work-in-progress type things. It’s often cheaper to go to than big productions, and you can see a variety of different ideas all in one night. I’ve learnt so much from just noting to myself which plays out of a scratch night bill gripped me the most, and what it was about them that hooked me in. If you want your writing to stand out in a festival of tens or hundreds or thousands of other shows people could buy a ticket to, if you want your show to be the one that people talk to their friends about out of all the other shows they’ve seen lately, you’ve got to crack that code yourself too. There are many ways of making a strong impression, and different types of people will respond to different types of things, so find out what interests you in your theatre-going – and then find who else is doing similar things and learn as much as you can by reading or watching their work.
And finally, what do you want your fringe audiences to take away from My Lover Was a Salmon in the Climate Apocalypse?
I want people to have fun in the show.
It’s show that delves into some interesting specifics about animals rights and the lives of different indigenous peoples and cultures under the conditions we’re creating in the world, and dives in on what that hopelessness of ‘climate depression’ can really looks like between two people – but it’s also a show about someone who thinks they’re a fish. And that will always be at least a little bit silly. There’s just something so fundamentally silly about characters trying to have a serious conversation but uttering lines like “you’re not a time traveller, and you’re not a fish”.