Adie Mueller brings her solo adaption of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic short story ‘The Sandman’ to the Fringe this year. The Student asked her about her interest in the story and what it was like adapting it for the stage.
What was it about ETA Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ that appealed to you?
A friend told me about the story a long time ago, and I felt intrigued. When I was looking for material for a solo show, I remembered the story and read it. I knew immediately that I wanted to work with it. And my collaborator Mike Carter was very keen, too. It [was] an immediate attraction, like falling in love with someone, but you don’t quite know why. Afterwards, you find some reasons, even if they don’t explain everything. The story is really evocative and rich in terms of its themes and motifs. It speaks to the child’s fear of the dark, the eyes and the process of growing up; it questions whether we see an objective reality or our perception is distorted by our own fears and desires. [It also questions if] there are some dark forces that have power over us and whether we are in control of our lives; it also features a female automaton, called Olympia, a nineteenth century robot. All in all, the story is very uncanny and unnerving.
What were your main ambitions for telling this story in your own way?
I decided to do a solo show after a long break from professional theatre. I wanted to be able to fit my theatre work around childcare and a job, which is a lot easier when you are on your own. So once we had chosen the story, the main ambition was to find a form that would allow one person to tell the story in a way that reflects its unnerving and unsettling nature. I also wanted to create a solo show that was dynamic and surprising from moment to moment. The danger with solo work is that it becomes predictable and boring after a while.
We also wanted to make the story contemporary, i.e. move it from early nineteenth century Germany to early twenty-first century Britain. The question “what is reality?” is particularly pertinent in the digital age, where a lot of our thoughts and actions are influenced by ‘unknown’ forces and we can no longer verify what is fake and what is true. We were also interested in the idea of artificial intelligence. In our version, Olympia is a sophisticated humanoid sex robot, whom Nathaniel falls in love with. Funnily enough, Mike recently came across a documentary about the rise of the sex robot [in real life]. An American company will launch one on the U.S. market this autumn! One can’t get more topical than that!
How long have you been touring with the show?
We did a preview at The Place Theatre in Bedford in 2015, where we had also developed the show. I then performed at Bedfringe (Bedford’s Fringe Festival) and Camden Fringe. The show was also selected for the London Horror Festival 2015, where it had a one-week run. I toured the show in spring this year and it’s now coming to the Edinburgh Fringe. I am organising another tour for spring 2018.
What challenges, if any, did you experience in adapting the story for a solo show?
That’s a really good question. First of all, I play all the different characters and had to make them vocally and physically distinct. As mentioned earlier, we wanted to tell the story with one performer and find a form that reflects its uncanny nature. When we started, we had no idea how to get there and it took us a long time to figure it out. We came up with the figure of a woman narrator who shows up on stage with a few objects. She begins to arrange them, and then suddenly these characters appear through her, as if she was some kind of spiritual medium. And she is not fully in control of the story and quite scared of what might happen to her. So it’s almost like a séance. The audience doesn’t need to know this, but it’s helpful for me to have a sort of ‘back-story’ in my mind while doing it.
Do you feel that the story is experienced by the audience differently through a solo show, as opposed to a more traditional theatre production?
Yes, definitely. In our version, I decided not to ignore the audience but to use direct address. Each character tells a bit of the story to the audience, who almost become confidantes. This creates a very direct and intimate relationship. We also decided to tell the story in a non-linear way, i.e. it moves forward and backward in time, and the audience gradually pieces together what happened to Nathaniel as a child.
How long have you been using puppetry in your performances?
Oh, it’s the first time I’m using puppetry! Nathaniel as a boy and his sister are represented by dolls, and that really had to do with the story. The creation of human-like ‘dolls’ is central to the story; Nathaniel believes he is being controlled by the Sandman like a puppet. And dolls are very ‘uncanny’. A friend of mine who is an excellent puppeteer, taught me how to animate them.
The main character Nathaniel is a student. Can you tell us a bit more about his character, without giving too much away? How similar is he to the protagonist in Hoffman’s short story?
He is pretty much the same as in the original story. As a child Nathaniel is terrified of the figure of the Sandman, because his nanny told him that the Sandman comes into children’s bedrooms at night to take their eyes. When he hears a nightly visitor, he believes him to be the Sandman. He investigates and something terrible happens. Many years later, when he is at university, he encounters a man who looks exactly like the ‘Sandman’. This brings back traumatic childhood memories and Nathaniel thinks the Sandman is coming after him… So he gets really obsessed with this idea and slowly loses his grip on reality. I will not give away anymore.
What do people tell you about your show? How do they react?
Honestly, I’ve had really fantastic responses to the show. People love the performance and the fast-paced switches between characters. They also relate to Nathaniel as a boy and because of that invest in him as an adult. Some people find the show genuinely terrifying. I was really amazed to find that it appeals to a wide range of audiences; teenagers and young adults love the gothic genre, and older audiences are equally enthusiastic. During the Camden Fringe and London Horror Festival run, some reviewers took issue with the non-linear structure and said that it was not always easy to know where you are in the story. We’ve since addressed this and made changes so the audience can feel a little more secure. But ultimately, it’s not an ‘easy’ show that you can watch and then forget about. It will stay with you long after it has finished.
Is this your first time at the Edinburgh Fringe? Why did you want to bring Sandman to Edinburgh?
I went as a student many years ago, so it’s my second time. I decided to take the show to the Fringe for the experience of being part of a huge festival, to reach out to new audiences, to get more feedback and reviews and to promote it for touring. I’m also keen to see as much work by other companies as possible and meet interesting artists and people. Ultimately, I love performing. It’s feels like a huge privilege to me to be able to do what I love.
In three words, how would you NOT describe your show?
Predictable, safe and pedestrian.
ZOO @ the Pleasance
From the 17th until the 28th August.
DISCLAIMER: Sandman by Adie Mueller is not to be confused with Shindig Theatre Company’s The Sandman, which is a different production.
Image: Adie Mueller