Learning (at) Curve

10 April 2020

Jess Haygarth and Angela O'Callaghan reflect on the development of their twice NSDF-selected show BARRY

On the 4th of April last year, Shrinking Violet rocked up to the Curve in Leicester. The 9 of us were sweaty from carrying several IKEA bags of costume, had yet to book anywhere to stay, and were absolutely buzzed that our name was on the NSDF t-shirt. BARRY was having it large at the National Student Drama Festival, and we were excited.  

We were also pretty confused, and a little bit terrified. BARRY had been selected to be part of NSDF as a work in progress, and boy did we have work to do. Context: the show is a devised, verbatim piece of theatre about Dr James Barry, misrepresented in history as Edinburgh University’s first ‘woman’ graduate but championed by the LGBT community as a transgender man. Originally, as a company made up entirely of cisgender women, we made BARRY under the assumption that James Barry was a cisgender women pretending to be a man. We were wrong. Through interviewing gender non-conforming people, we came to realise our mistake a cool three days before an NSDF selector was coming to see our supposedly finished show. We had royally fucked up. 

We decided to stage this mistake and reshape our first performance as a beginning – a way of showing the importance of checking your privilege and doing your research. We were selected to come and explore what was next for BARRY at NSDF, expanding the company to include trans and non-binary consultants and re-casting a wonderfully talented trans man to play James Barry. We were all set, kind of. Except we were not really sure what we were going to make.

We found a ‘luxurious and clean’ apartment in the centre of Leicester, and tucking into our first pint at Spoons, we were ready to embark on the week – and what a week it was! Honestly, it was pretty magical. The team at NSDF were unwaveringly supportive in helping us to hone our craft and make work that was not necessarily polished and perfect, but that showcased and uncovered our strengths: work that was silly, messy and honest. We were given rehearsal space each day and professional development in these rehearsals by theatre makers such as Chris Thorpe, James Blakey, Helen Goalen and Ali Pidsley. This, along with the support of Peter Bradley, helped us to develop as artists while creating a new 20 minuite iteration of BARRY

It was also a bit overwhelming. There were a lot of people coming in with a lot of opinions, and we got lost in our process more times than we can count. We also got tired of hearing that the fact that we made a mistake was the most interesting thing about us as a company: hearing ‘just show that you fucked up’ and ‘be brave’ ten times a day did get to be a bit much. However, the visitng practitioners wern’t really to blame for us feeling overwhelmed. The truth of the matter is, we are a collective of nutcases, and instead of rehearsing for a couple hours each morning with professionals, we rehearsed from 9-9 everyday, meaning we barely had time to see shows or attend the fabulous workshops (sorry everyone else).  Note for the next R&D group: don’t be like us. 

At the end of the week we had made a piece. It celebrated trans and cis people working together to tell Dr Barry’s story. It was funny and silly and drew attention to the festival. We made a joke about Simon Stephens and everyone laughed. It worked, it was a success, it helped us push ourselves as a company and as individual performers. All jokes aside, it was a pretty legendary experience.  

Since NSDF last year we went on to perform our show at Bedlam Fringe for five nights. We then reached out to the wonderful Slung Low and they let us use their space in the Holbeck Working Men’s Club in Leeds for a week in January. We rehearsed and refined our (pretty much) finished version of BARRY and then performed in venues in Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. We were shortlisted for the Charlie Harthill Pleasance Fund and took part at their tryouts in London. We secured a full Fringe run for this year (RIP) and a run in Glasgow next Spring (still hopeful). All in all, the show has done well, we’re very proud of it, and we maybe even feel like we are ready to stop working on it and make something new. Watch this space! 

Massive thanks to NSDF for giving us the space and time to be creative and messy and of course to fuck up.

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