In a first for NSDF, the selectors have programmed a work-in-progress production from Edinburgh University’s Shrinking Violet. BARRY is an exploration of the life and historicity of Dr. James Barry (henceforth referred to as just ‘Barry’), who has been described as Edinburgh’s first ‘woman’ to graduate. This has sparked major controversy, as Barry identified as male from the age of twenty, wearing man’s clothes and using male pronouns. Queer-identifying author EJ Levy’s upcoming book, The Cape Doctor, uses female pronouns to refer to Barry. Shrinking Violet use techniques including lip-syncing, costume exploration, and verbatim text from various sources. This week, they’ve invited me into their rehearsal room as an embedded critic for a first-hand experience of the work in progress.
From the moment they begin (despite an early start on Monday morning) the room makes it an absolute duty to “play”. The cast and creatives blast out some tunes and get going with a lively warm-up. There’s not much sitting around in this rehearsal room. The collaborative sense of ensemble is already being established in the way they conduct their warm-up. Ideas bounce off each other. They play a game where insults are thrown around. Another suggests they make them Victorian insults to get into the era. As they get into devising, there’s a structure to stick to, which provides within it plenty of room for play. They often split into smaller groups, devise separately and then share their work to each other. This enables them to switch between spectator and performer. All ideas are on the table and they group are willing to try out almost everything.
It’s such a pleasure, in a theatre world which focuses so much on the final product, to witness work as its developing. I overhear in the room comments which reinforce the emphasis on trying things out. ‘This is all ideas’, ‘Give it a bash’, and ‘Let’s try it’ sum up the company’s attitude to giving it a go. There’s an openness to getting things wrong, something which has been an integral part of this show’s development process. They originally performed it as part of Edinburgh University’s Bedlam Festival in January this year. After a five-and-a-half week devising and rehearsal period, they realised that they’d made a mistake and focused on the wrong narrative. They wanted to go back and do it again. NSDF have provided a platform for them to do so.
We’ve been talking quite a bit this week about the process of accepting blame. We’ve acknowledged that it’s not always easy. I’m sure many theatre-makers have reached this same conclusion at the end of the devising process – that they’ve not done justice to the story – so how bloody brilliant is it that this company get to go back and do it again! Theatre is about live performance. It’s about making work under pressure. As we’ve seen from this week, this can be the pressure of timescale, budget or following criteria on an academic syllabus. This lot haven’t just let a ‘mess’ (their words not mine) of a show get brushed under a carpet. What is theatre if it’s not a place for us to fail and try again?
And really, we could argue, that all the shows this week are to some extent a work-in-progress. We’re all students just making work, trying things out, seeing what happens. Every year at NSDF, the comment ‘how did that show get here’ often comes up at some point. And everyone has different opinions on which one that show is. But I think, from the conversations I’ve had this week, this is due to an emphasis on the show as a finished production. We don’t seem to value the potential, the ambition, the experimentation, nearly as much as we focus on what we’re sold: on the spectacle.
The work in progress throughout the week of the festival has prompted the company to respond to the festival itself. In rehearsal this morning, much talk was cued by yesterday’s discussion on authenticity. Some of the points that have been raised were carried on into the rehearsal room. The performers are using the week’s discourse to really interrogate the work that they’re making.
Who has the right to tell other people’s stories? This has been a buzz topic of the week. One opinion is that it’s fine for makers to make work that represent other people, so long as said people have been consulted and had creative input. The company of BARRY have three gender non-conforming creatives involved, two as consultants and one who is performing as part of the piece. But does that alone give them the right to explore a real-life historical person? No one knows for certain how the real-life Barry identified. And gender itself is temporal and only relates to the cultural moment it’s a part of anyway. Do any of us really have the right to tell stories about anyone?
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