Sign up for our weekly newsletter
TRCH Hairspray

Interview: Andy Barrett

1 April 11 interview: Adrian Bhagat
photos: David Baird

Andy Barrett has been creating community drama events and site-specific performances in Notts for years, as well as writing plays such as Garage Band and a musical about Dolly the sheep. We caught up with him as he prepared for the Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival (NEAT).

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a number of projects for NEAT in May and June. I’m working with the Theatre Writing Partnership and a group of four writers from Eastern Europe. I’ve given them little audio clues and they’ll write plays from that and come over to record their pieces as part of the festival.
I’m also doing an audio trail around the Lace Market that you can download onto your phone. You get sent to various locations as you’re told the story of the relationship between an older man and a girl. They are brought together when they witness an accident and they learn about each other’s lives. You find out about the rise and demise of the Lace Market area as you walk around. Although it’s quite a sad story, the writing should make the experience enjoyable.

You are also adapting Ibsen’s League of Youth play…
Yes, apart from a one-off reading in 1900 it’s never been done in this country before. Giles Croft (Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse) commissioned a literal translation of it and thought of me because I’d adapted The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe for BBC Radio 4. It’s a fantastic gig to get.
It’s about a liberal politician who espouses radical views but, when given the chance of power, is willing to shed his principles easily. When we first looked at the play, it was before the general election happened, but it fits Nick Clegg perfectly.
I’m really pleased that the adaptation will be published. All the work I’ve done so far has been one-off performances or short runs, so I’m glad this will be performed again by professional companies and drama schools who want a ‘new’ Ibsen play.

You’re also staging a play at the Castle?
I’ve been running a community theatre group with Julian Hanby for ten years now. We do a lot of large-scale community performances where we work with around forty to a hundred performers to create site-specific promenade theatre based on local heritage. We have a really good production team who create great costumes and pyrotechnics, but it’s all performed by local folk. We were commissioned by Broxtowe Borough Council and created a performance in the ruins of Beauvale Priory called The Cries of Silent Men. The audience were led round in different groups and there were lots of burning torches and stuff. We’re going to perform that again at the Castle because we’ve still got the costumes and it’s a good piece. Although the location is different, there’s something there that will work.

It seems that a sense of place is important in your work…
The Arts Council always ask what the benefit is of the work they fund. We’ve been doing a project with the University of Nottingham to look at the impact of our work on communities. We’ve created really unusual, provocative work rooted in personal narratives and local heritage. We present this in an imaginative way to people who don’t go to the theatre and they’ve embraced it. Community theatre is much more interesting to me than conventional theatre. I’d rather do a show where the audience aren’t theatre-goers and are going to remember the event.
Location is really important to us. We had napkins sent out to cafés in Nottingham with questions on and we made an installation out of them at Nottingham train station. We took over the announcer’s tannoy with an old lady reading out good advice that had been written on napkins; “Bing-bong. This piece of good advice has been brought to you by Napkin Café. Always get trolleyed at parties.” We played opera music and people with radio mics posing as commuters would suddenly stand up and start doing something. People were walking around wondering what was going on.

What made you turn the story of Dolly the sheep into a musical?
I was asked to do it – it wasn’t my idea! Daniel Buckroyd (Artistic Director of New Perspectives) was keen to work with me and had this silly idea. Dolly was cloned from a mammary gland cell and so she was named after Dolly Parton and he wanted to make a musical about both the sheep and the singer. I was never confident it would work but agreed anyway and it went down a storm with audiences and got really good reviews.

Did you have to understand the science of cloning to write it?
Yeah, I had to get my head around it and whilst it’s not ridiculously difficult it’s not immediately obvious either. You don’t want to get the science wrong. Keith Campbell – one of the two main scientists who created Dolly – now works at Nottingham University. I asked him to write something for the programme and all the things he wrote about were actually in the play so I was pleased about that. He enjoyed the performance and said the metaphors I used had worked. It gave me a huge sense of pride that in the interval I was able to converse with him, a genius, about the science of cloning.

Tell us about your Chinese opera...
All Chinese opera is very formal with very specific movements, colours and costumes. They are tales of retribution, honour and justice mostly adapted from folk tales. People are trained from youth for particular roles and they learn amazing skills like ‘face changing’ where they swap between a series of masks at incredible speed. It’s a dying art as mostly old people go to watch it and the tea houses where it’s performed are closing down. While they demolish the buildings the government wants to preserve the artistic form.
Julian and I got Arts Council funding to go to China and spend two weeks watching Sichuan opera, collecting storylines and music. We were very lucky to do be able to do that. The idea was to do a Western version that was true to the original spirit. When we got home we found performers who could face-change, do acrobatics and sing beautifully. The costumes were incredible – some had taken months to sew – and it looked completely authentic but really new. It gave a sense of how the culture of China is changing.

What do you like in the Nottingham theatre scene?
More than plays, I like off-the-wall events like the early Gob Squad stuff. I love experimental work that takes real risks and can be terrible one minute and brilliant the next. So I like the Hatch events and also a group called The Gramophones. They’re an all-female collective who do really quirky and fun stuff. In the last few years a real buzz has developed in Nottingham and it’s worth checking out.

Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival takes place across various venues from 26 May - 12 June 2011.

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now