Why We Tell the Story: In Conversation with Abby Clarke

This summer, ‘Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, A Musical Parody’ was my surprise discovery at the Fringe Festival. In a style similar to Wicked the musical, Unfortunate retells the story of The Little Mermaid from the perspective of the villain, Ursula. It turns out that she isn’t all that bad and is just misunderstood. In truth, I enjoyed this musical parody a lot more than Wicked; it’s witty, sharp and thoroughly entertaining. What particularly stood out for me in the production was the creative aquatic set and brilliant puppets. In this interview, I’m joined by Unfortunate’s set and puppet designer Abby Clarke, to gain more of an insight into what it was like working on Unfortunate. Enjoy! 🙂

Name: Abby Clarke

Role: Set and Puppet Designer for Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, A Musical Parody

Favourite Show/Play: The Royal Exchange’s recent staging of Death of a Salesman absolutely blew me away – brilliantly simple design that allowed the stunning performances to shine through.

Favourite Part About the Theatre: My favourite part of working in theatre is collaborating with brilliant people and getting to try out ideas with them. My favourite part of going to see theatre is that moment where the house lights go down and you can feel the tension and anticipation in the room as everyone in the audience gets ready to share in the piece of theatre – I still get excited every time the lights start to dim in an auditorium.

Q: Can you tell us what Unfortunate is all about?

A: It’s a queer, feminist, environmental, musical parody of The Little Mermaid from the badass (and much understood) perspective of Ursula the Sea Witch!

Q: What drew you to be involved with this project in particular? And how has it been different if at all from the other projects that you’ve worked on before?

A: I was excited to be working with a young, female-led company and to work on a show that is funny, outrageous and never takes itself too seriously! I love traditional plays but it’s also great to be able to work on something that is so playful.

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Q: In Unfortunate, you’ve not only been responsible for designing the brilliant aquatic set but also the puppets in the show in collaboration with Hugh Purves. Can you describe what the creative process has been like and what needed to come together to make it all happen from text to the stage?

A: From the start, we wanted to give the space a sort of underwater drag-bar feel – something glitzy and camp with a gritty edge – along with the practical need to provide a quick change area for the cast to flit in and out of Cory Shipp’s fabulous costumes – so idea of the whale bones working as doorways and a shimmer-curtain backdrop evolved from there. It also needed to be incredibly flexible to tour to so many different venues so I worked closely with our brilliant lighting designer Katrin Padel to build lighting into the set elements so it could transform for different moments.

When thinking about the puppets I came up with some initial ideas for the designs and then me and Hugh bounced ideas back and forth and the puppets evolved from there. Some of the puppets changed a lot from initial ideas – Flotsam and Jetsam grew in scale and Hugh designed and created their skeletal articulated body to work with the dance numbers – while others like Max the Dog who is inspired by a ship-deck mop stayed pretty much the same from the initial sketches.

Q: What challenges are involved with taking a show with a set like Unfortunate to the Fringe that most may not realise?

A: That there can be some very last-minute changes! The dimensions for our stage ended up being changed a few weeks before the fringe started which meant we had to rethink the layout and blocking for some of the numbers – fortunately the design worked for the new space as well as the old. The change-over time between shows is also incredibly quick – sets have to get onto stage and be wired up and ready to go in a matter of minutes so that all has to be thought about from the beginning.

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Q: What’s been your favourite part about working on this production? 

A: Working with the brilliant creatives on the team and getting to see it all come together on opening night and seeing people in the audience crying with laughter at Ariel’s love song.

Q: Is there any advice that you would give to aspiring creatives who’d like to work in the theatre? 

A: Show your passion and enthusiasm and find people that you love working with and who want to make the sort of theatre that you love.

Q: Unfortunate is now on tour and its next stop is in Sheffield. What should audiences expect when they come to see the show?

A: Glitter, glamour, dirty jokes and a whole lot of tentacles.

Thanks for reading and a big thank you to Abby for the interview. You can catch Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, A Musical Parody this December in Sheffield and Birmingham. For tour dates, click the link below. https://fatrascaltheatre.com/tickets/

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