GETTING TO KNOW: BARB BARNETT

barb barnett is a Canberra-based theatre-maker. Her artistic bent tends towards dramaturgy, direction, and puppetry. Her profound curiosity has remained focused on sustainable local community and independent arts practice, and her enduring support of youth arts, has seen her collaborate with diverse resident, national and international practitioners over the past 25 years. barb has worked extensively with playwrights and home-grown independent artists to devise, stimulate and craft challenging and engaging locally-written, performed and produced theatre. Her particular focus on physical puppetry, and interest in extreme physical forms; including Butoh, influence her style and approach – both to text and movement. barb focuses on non-dialogue based story-telling. barb is the Artistic Director of Serious – ACT’s multi-award-winning independent theatre-arts Collective.

The Street talked to barb about her role as facilitator in INTER-PLAY 2020 and the impact of COVID-19 on theatre-making and her own practice as a theatre-maker.

WHY IS INTER-PLAY VITAL TO THE CONVERSATION CONNECTING COVID-19 AND THEATRE-MAKING?

How creatives respond to the pandemic will be revealed in their work sooner or later. Doubtless, it impacts their capacity for artistic output; influencing perspective, objective and delivery. Creatives who get involved with/in INTER-PLAY will find a safe haven – a place intended for theatre-makers; a space where their individual concerns or opinions ‘matter’, where doubts can be securely raised, or questions asked, without fear or regret. I’ve repeatedly felt my understanding or judgement aren’t unique, only to find surprising effects from an ostensibly innocuous remark; or a concept described in a new way, or with different words clarifying perspective. Answers can be found in other points of view: by voicing concerns aloud, thoughts or ideas can become clear. Now and then, yelling into the void is best done in company…  

WHAT IS THE STREET TRYING TO ADDRESS IN THIS NEW PROGRAM FOR PLAYWRIGHTS AND THEATRE-MAKERS?

What could a ‘new normal’ look like? INTER-PLAY exists in direct response to how profoundly the world has changed in the past six months. An exploration of this interplay between the pandemic and theatre making into the future, sessions are open to all playwrights and theatre-makers at all stages of their career. Caroline has spoken with theatre-makers across the community and spectra; each has expressed an interest in connecting with other theatre-makers during these extraordinary times. I’ve found with some colleagues, an inability to articulate quite how they see the future. The putatively dystopian nature of that thinking provokes a number of reactions, and appears to be widespread. Hence, it’s imperative we address a multiplicity of voices; represent gender equity, cultural diversity, and time of life – by way of collaboration, or solo in isolation – all work is welcome, no matter the phase. 

HOW WILL THE SUBMISSIONS FROM ARTISTS FOR DISCUSSION INCLUDING TOPICS, ISSUES, PROVOCATIONS, PROJECT CONCEPTS OR FINISHED WORK, LEAD SESSION CONTENT?

Given the desire to open an exchange, the scope is quite literally as wide as the offers we receive. Each INTER-PLAY session will focus on a specific, provocation or question significant to making work into the future – what individual artists bring to the table will steer the direction and content. When you tell us how we can support you and your work, we can be proactive in providing assistance. If your focus has shifted, or your technique has ‘had to’ adapt, we want to know. What does that mean practically? Creatives may feel compelled to discuss a change in direction, or to float an idea about style or delivery… some may want to listen in without interacting, others may have a lot to say about the future of the theatre scene nationally, or what COVID-19 has them thinking about. Theatre-makers and playwrights may elect to have section/s of work read by the group for the purpose of receiving, and engaging in, critical feedback and discussion. Or there’s nutting-through character interactions, dialogue, symbology… the list goes on and on!

WHAT TAKES PLACE OVER THE TWO-HOUR SESSIONS?

Conversation. Connection. All-embracing analysis. INTER-PLAY asks creatives to unpick/unpack the complexities of creating work for performance in a world mid COVID-19. Concentrating on constructive critical discussion and debate, the virtual gatherings are designed to enable connection with fellow creatives, writers and those interested in fresh new Australian work. YES IT’S FOR YOU. All voices are valid and welcome. Confused? Excited? Busting to share!? Join the chat online via zoom.

WHAT CONCERNS ARE YOU HEARING FROM THEATRE-MAKERS ABOUT THE STATE OF THE ARTS SINCE COVID-19 CAME INTO OUR LIVES?

Artists I’ve spoken with are having profound doubts about what comes next. Some are in hiatus – through disincentive – catalysed by necessity, or a lack of inspiration; others are filled with frustration and a kind of low-simmering anger that they cannot express in words. Yet. Many creatives have been beggared – literally and/or figuratively – by how the arts have been sidelined. Of course, there are also those [lucky few!?] who say they’ve ‘never been busier’. Everyone has been affected in some way, the effects are not yet apparent, nor will things stay static. These changes will have knock-on effects to every aspect of theatre-making – hence INTER-PLAY becoming the title.

WHAT IS YOUR OWN PERSPECTIVE?

It’s been a battle to self-motivate – particularly when pessimism is at its most dogged. Acknowledging this seems redundant, nevertheless in the main, I’m sure people are experiencing the past 6 months similarly. That each individual will be dealing with their relative isolation differently is a no-brainer… to me, it feels like 2020 has been Smoke, Drought, Fires, Floods, Hail, COVID-19, and pretty well nothing else… it’s been wearing. Facilitating INTER-PLAY will be edifying. I think of artists as somewhat inured to discussing their practice; embracing their inspirations, stimulations, collusions and even their frustrations and the walls they come up against… but this is not necessarily the case. Like everyone, creatives can find themselves working in a vacuum; interplay allows a conduit to other artists. This will definitely be a positive thing for my creative self.

PLEASE TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR OWN PRACTICE AND THE IMPACT OF COVID-19?

I was commissioned by The Street to write a play for young people. The subject matter seems particularly pertinent at the moment, so I’m hoping the INTER-PLAY sessions will help to rejuvenate my own creative imagination, as I’ve been finding myself a little bereft of late.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET?

My first professional show was with Shortis and Simpson at The Street in 1999. Local cartooning legend, Geoff Pryor drew live on-stage, and the 2 striking images of my character look down from the wall in my study. I first worked for The Street Theatre assisting with rigging lights in the theatres, and collating an Artists’ Register. Since then, I’ve been involved through a number of different programs; including Made in Canberra and the Hive, I’ve also performed, directed, dramaturged, produced, ushered, Stage Managed, was on the board for a short time, and worked in and coordinated Front of House and Facilities.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

The interplay between storyteller and audient[ce] is the heart of my practice. Countless layers enfold this bond; underpinned by the playwright’s intention[s], attention[s] and motivation[s]… ensuring this purpose remains unclouded may be challenging for a playwright whilst working in isolation. This area inspires me more than anything else. I had an opportunity to work on a truly remarkable piece last month. A live-streamed reading, the ambitious nature of the play excited me in a way I hadn’t been for a long time.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

Jasper Fforde’s latest book, The Constant Rabbit has been released; his imaginings never fail to refresh me! & I’m watching pretty-well any detective series I can lay my eyes on.

INTER-PLAY 2020 sessions are scheduled through to November 26th.