‘I like anything that engages my imagination,’ says Tim Watts, creator of The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer. This desire to tell an imaginative story was one of the starting points for the award-winning show, which has gone on to tour the world and is about to set off on its latest journey around the South East, arriving at Farnham Maltings next Tuesday 11 March. Blending live action, puppetry, animation, music and film, it tells ‘a simple story of the power of enduring love, set in a post-apocalyptic water world’.
But before the story, Watts explains, came the puppet. Alvin was originally created as part of a puppet workshop, at around the same time as Watts was thinking about making a touring show. Following the suggestion of some friends, he incorporated the puppet into his new show, and everything else fell into place from there.
Watts and his collaborator Arielle Gray were also inspired by the experience of going snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, which led them to use the ocean as a key setting for the action. ‘I will never forget looking out into the crystal clear blue water, into the endless nothing, and being absolutely terrified!’ Watts recalls. ‘Feeling so small and vulnerable in the face of the deep unknown. We still have explored so very little of the ocean, which is so exciting, and inspiring. It’s full of so many possibilities. It is a creative goldmine.’
As well as exploring the possibilities of the ocean as a backdrop, Watts was keen to make a show that acknowledged the spectre of climate change without lecturing its audience. The ocean was perfect for this, allowing Watts and Gray to set the show in an environmental apocalypse, ‘a world where the icecaps have melted and all that remains of humanity is precariously perched atop skyscrapers, atop mountains’. But Watts adds that audiences can expect ‘lots of fun, and joy and hope, in the face of foreboding doom’.
The show follows the fate of Alvin, who is left heartbroken and alone on the stricken planet following the loss of his wife. Hearing about a final, desperate effort to save mankind by searching for a new home in the depths of the ocean, Alvin volunteers to join, hoping to be reunited with his wife’s lost soul. ‘It’s about grief, loneliness, self-sacrifice, love, and the end of the world,’ says Watts. ‘But mostly it’s about hope, and the belief that life will go on.’
Much of this story emerged as the result of accident and experimentation. ‘None of it was necessarily deliberate,’ Watts admits. ‘It has been a long process of wild experimentation through showings and feedback and intuitively making choices.’ Sometimes, for example, improvisations that came out of nowhere charmed early audiences and ended up becoming part of the final show.
The audience has been vital throughout the process of making the show, and Watts tells me that he has continued to improve and tweak it while touring for the past five years. ‘It keeps it a creative process,’ he explains. Touring has taken Alvin Sputnik to a huge range of different destinations, from Korea to Ecuador, allowing lots of different audiences to encounter Alvin and his heroic adventure.
‘Every show has its subtle differences,’ says Watts. ‘From town to town, from night to night; the different ages, the different cultures.’ Despite this, however, he has been struck by how universal certain responses are, no matter where he tours the show. ‘There are subtle and amusing differences, but it’s mostly the same,’ he notes.
‘The show is lots of fun,’ Watts concludes, ‘and that is my primary motivation, to entertain my audience. To make them laugh, and cry, and punch the air with joy like Bastian riding Falcore in The Never Ending Story.’