Features Published 19 November 2014

Something from Nothing

Catherine Love asks three of the members of Barrel Organ about the evolution of their debut show Nothing.
Catherine Love

Catherine: Much like Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – which shares the same unpredictability and love of rules – Nothing rewards repeat visits. Consisting of a series of interlaced monologues, the show’s text can be performed in any order, making it noticeably different each time. There is no fixed structure as such; the way in which the different speeches unfold is only determined in the moment. There is no set, no props, not even a stage. Instead, the performers speak from amongst the audience, revealing themselves one by one.

Having now watched Nothing three times, in three very different locations, on each occasion new connections have occurred to me and new thoughts have jumped out as the show once again changes its shape. When I saw it for the second time in Edinburgh, for example, the movement between the various monologues was more rapid, offering smaller chunks of speech at a time. As a result, it felt more as though – despite the atomised alienation of each speaker – the separate pieces of text were in dialogue with one another. Thematic strands suddenly emerged and were tugged on.

But of course many of your audience members will only ever see the show once. With those audiences in mind, what do you think the fluidity of the show’s structure adds to the experience? And what informed this formal decision in the first place?

Dan: I’ll answer those questions the other way round as I think the initial choice we made was actually a relatively banal and instinctive one, but has led on to something far more exciting. When we start rehearsing Nothing in Easter 2013, we spent a week or two basically just dicking around and exploring Lulu’s text. We played games, did some free-writing, shared some reading and films. At one point, we for some reason decided to play Just A Minute as a company, and later that day tried the age-old exercise of counting as a group without looking at each other or deciding who says the next number. The whole idea and shape of the show just sort of clicked from there – suddenly we had a loose ‘structure’ (for want of a better word) which would define this show.

I think the reason why we latched onto this with such vigour was because we were all a bit bored of the theatre we’d been doing. We were tired of doing a run of four or five performances which were pretty much the same every night, which followed a broad two-and-a-half-hours-and-an-interval structure and whose texts, as actors, we had little or no control over. At the time, we were having a lot of discussions about the nature of theatre and performance and what makes live art different from other aesthetic forms, and we wanted to embrace the idea that theatre cannot – by definition – be the same every night. I think this is probably the statement we were trying to make with that initial run in Leamington.

Even in that first weekend, however, the form wasn’t fixed – one performance we did on the phone (audiences would call in and hear the monologue from the comfort of their own home) and in another we each found a room in a house and allowed audiences to walk round as we performed the monologues on repeat.

The final form we decided on, however, is the one which feels most viable for us as a presentation of these texts. It’s morphed and grown in the past eighteen months so that now we each know three or four monologues, but the central idea is still pretty much the same. I don’t think we’ve ever really been concerned about audiences who only see the show once (that is, after all, the majority of people who’ve seen the show), as we’re confident the basic themes and experience of the show don’t change too drastically for anyone to feel short-changed. If anything, those one-time audience members are the ones we’re thinking about most, as we try to give them an experience which is unique and memorable. Which is more than can be said of a lot of British Theatre.

Dan Hutton in Nothing.

Dan Hutton in Nothing.

Lulu: I do think about those audience members, and I don’t know how much they’re losing.

When I think about the justification for this performance I think it’s just about creating something that is truly in the moment. I think we wanted to make theatre at its most basic level – so just the audience and the performer. And everything the performer gives comes from the audience.

I think maybe I’m different from the performers, because for them the ability to make a performance different each time is obviously very different from most shows, and allows them to have real agency in the show which is really important and exciting. But as my part in the show now is really that of audience member, I think from that perspective, it’s not really about it being different each time, but how the spontaneity of it allows an audience member to have an impact, and brings out the ideas of the text most truthfully. The play is about apathy and alienation; each character acts alone, yet ignores everyone else in the room, hurtling through their own tales of isolation. The central contradiction of the ideas presented is literally performed through the form. So I don’t think it matters that much if you see the piece once, or a million times.

But if people do want to see it multiple times, that does brings out other weird stuff. For example, the show we just did in Warwick was kind of just about sex. It happened that in the second half of the show all the monologues with sex references collided and suddenly – it was about sex! So I think seeing it many times brings out all that kind of stuff, and you will get a pretty different show each time. But I think there’s an extent to which you’ll always get that, because themes are subjective.

tumblr_n4sbxd0qx91sbrebno2_500Ali: We do think about those audience members, as Dan says – I think that our “one-time audience” are the people we focus on the most each performance. And it’s from them that we often get the most exciting and interesting in-the-room responses. By that I suppose what I mean is that it’s the audiences who don’t necessarily know what’s going on (who aren’t aware of the complex structure or the rules) who give the actors most to feed off.

As has been said, Nothing and Barrel Organ came out of a frustration with systems and styles of performance that were both stifling and a little boring. As a director I was frustrated with watching actors who, although highly skilled at what they were doing, were not living in the moment – there was no real liveness to what they were doing. What we wanted to create was an environment where actors couldn’t get away with that – they had to constantly be alert and live – hence the unscripted interruptions and more recently the uncertainty over who performs which monologue. On a very basic level it automatically raises the energy and concentration levels of the performers, and that has a tangible, knock-on effect on the audience. We want our audiences to be live and alert, but if as performers we’re not doing that then we’re not setting a very good example.

I think that as a company we very much believe in the idea that the theatrical experience should not be safe – one of our ‘rules’ is that “this is not a safe space” – and that is just as applicable to the performers as it is to the audience. Therefore it is important to create a high level of risk in the performance space – the actors do not know who is going to speak first, what they are going to say, or when they might be cut off. And yes, that naturally causes a little ‘messiness’, but also creates a sense of risk and danger that brings a performance to life, makes it immediate and unavoidable.

I think that stereotypical British ‘politeness’ is something which is in danger of ruining British theatre; it makes it apologetic and therefore excusable or ignorable, and we don’t want to make work that people can ignore. So we need to be unapologetic and bold and brave, with each other and with our audiences. The key thing underpinning all of this is trust, which is why the ensemble nature of our work is so important. It’s vitally important that we have been together for 18 months now, that we’ve been through shit together and had massive arguments with each other and also had great times together, because that level of understanding and trust enables the performers to take risks and perform dangerously.

So to try and come back to your question, the fluidity of the structure is one which is consciously based on an aspiration to liveness and danger, and tries to always avoid being safe. The reason for that, from an audience point of view, is based on the very basic idea that if the performers are comfortable then the audience are too. And if you’re comfortable it can become all too easy to disengage.

Nothing is at Camden People’s Theatre 19th – 22nd November.

Photos: Aenne Pallasca.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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