Features Published 30 November 2015

Barrel Organ: “The space to be better”

Lee Anderson visits the company behind Fringe hit Some People Talk About Violence as they prepare for their takeover weekend at Camden People's Theatre.
Lee Anderson
Barrel Organ perform Some People Talk About Violence.

Barrel Organ perform Some People Talk About Violence.

I am sitting in the Camden People’s Theatre basement listening to Barrel Organ’s Joe Boylan explain consensus democracy. The company have just resumed work on Assembly – a new work-in-progress they’re previewing at their ‘takeover’ event in December. Joe is giving us all a crash-course in the tenets of collective bargaining, so I’ve placed my phone down on the floor in front of him to record some of the demonstration. But it’s proving difficult to concentrate. The ceiling is reverberating with the guitar feedback, pummeling drums and shrieking vocals of a punk four-piece playing in the theatre upstairs, and Dan Hutton – Barrel Organ’s director and dramaturg – informs me that this is Beton Brute, who are sound checking for a performance later that night.  As I do my best to ignore the angry racket above and focus on Joe’s hand-signals, my thoughts drift to the silent scream in Some People Talk About Violence: the moment when the unnamed female protagonist breaks into the upstairs bathroom of her neighbors house and unleashes a howl of pain.

Earlier this year, Barrel Organ performed their elusively compelling piece, Some People Talk About Violence, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. From Saturday 5th to Sunday 6th December, the company will ‘takeover’ Camden People’s Theatre for a weekend of scratch performances and works-in-progress, as well as performances of Nothing and their aforementioned sophomore production. “The idea for a takeover was floated a while back”, explains Dan Hutton, director and dramaturg of Barrel Organ. “I can’t remember if it was Kieran or Ali or Brian at CPT, but someone had a brainwave at some point – and it instantly felt right. Yes, we’ve only been together for a couple of years and yes we’ve only made two shows, but it felt wrong to be in the venue again and not do Nothing. And last year we all sat down as a group and basically pitched some ideas we had, so it was clear from then on that we’d have things to show at a weekend like this.”

Observing Barrel Organ’s rehearsal process, it’s easy to see why they’ve found a natural home at Camden People’s Theatre. As a space to develop and debut new work, the theatre combines a willingness to experiment with a politically engaged and interdisciplinary program. The building also exudes something workman-like that sits well with what Dan describes as Barrel Organ’s ‘muddling through’ creative approach. There is something hand in glove about this relationship, and its a building that Dan and the company certainly feel a great attachment to: “Camden People’s Theatre, obviously, are amazing”, says Dan. “If I was only allowed to visit one theatre in London for the rest of my life, it’d be them. To be supported by a venue like that at such an early stage in our life, through which so many amazing people have passed, is amazing. They give us the space to be better.”

When I join Barrel Organ at the Camden People’s Theatre they’re busy at work on A Play for a White Male – a new work-in-progress. Kieran Lucas sits at a table full of recording equipment and speakers. He is reading from a script (his own) and speaking each line of dialogue with thoughtful and methodical care into a microphone. There is no attempt at affectation or variation in tone – he is simply reading what is written down. The result is oddly disquieting in its deliberate lack of emotiveness. Sat across from Kieran, Dan listens to a series of recorded instructions and replies to Kieran via a pair of headphones. As he speaks these lines into a second microphone, we listen as a conversation-by-dictation unfolds: Kieran’s ‘speaker’ fondly recalls the front lawn of his imaginary house, whilst Dan’s ‘speaker’ boasts of his extensive imaginary gun collection – rattling off the name and model of each weapon in turn. Throughout their conversation, they both refer to ‘that day’, as a simmering sense of dread bubbles beneath each precisely timed utterance.

Much like SPTAV, overt violent acts in feel conspicuous by their absence in A Play For A White Male. But the piece is loaded with an imminent sense of catastrophe. It would be an over-simplification to say that Barrel Organ make political theatre. Their performances are not straightforwardly issue-based or thesis-led, instead, the politics of their work is bound up in their negotiation of text and representation on-stage, and the formal experimentation that informs their performances: “Interestingly, I don’t think we ever really sat down as a company whilst making Nothing and said “What do we want to say about the world?”, explains Dan. ‘We just sort of muddled through making decisions we thought were interesting or exciting and it was only after the event, once we’d performed it to rooms full of people, that we truly realized it’s power as a piece of political performance”.

Barrel Organ’s create work from a collision of these ideas; a process Dan describes as ‘really tricky, messy and complex” and one that’s more grounded in improvisation, experimentation and trial-and-error – rather than any singular, concrete methodology: “I think our ‘political’ edge is as much of a reaction against dreary, conformist, status-quo, end-on, earphones-under-the-wig brand of theatre as it is a thing in and of itself”, affirms Dan. “We’re more interested in making work that’s live, provocative, direct and present than saying any particular thing About The World.”

You can find out more about Barrel Organ’s takeover weekend on the Camden People’s Theatre website here

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Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

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