barb barnett is a Canberra-based director, dramaturg, performer and puppeteer. barb works extensively with playwrights, dramatists, home-grown independent artists, collectives and companies to devise, stimulate and craft challenging and engaging locally-written, performed and produced theatre and performance installations. Some of the remarkable companies barb has worked with include – Aberrant, Splinters [Theatre of Spectacle], Boho Interactive, BKÜ, Women on a Shoestring, and ERTH [Visual & Physical].barb is the Artistic Director of serious theatre – a local, independent theatre-arts Collective. serious and barb are multiple Canberra Critics’ Circle award winners, and barb is an MEAA Green Room award recipient.
barb talks to The Street about i.F and her writing of this new work without words of a story for children that deals with concepts of loss and death.
i.F (IMAGINARY FRIEND) IS ABOUT AN IMAGINARY FRIEND WHO IS SLOWLY FADING AWAY AS ITS CREATOR WHO IS NOW OLD IS DYING? TALK US THROUGH THE GENESIS OF THE CONCEPT.
I’m personally intrigued by a number of notions vis-à-vis death, and am creatively focused on diverse styles of theatrical story-telling for children. How death figures in our society fascinates me. How this vast concept is introduced to our children, and at what age our children begin to comprehend the irreversibility and universality of death is crucial to their overall development. It has always been my belief, that theatre for children should be significant – in both senses of the word. The concept of ‘creator’ and ‘creation’ being linked is age-old, and figures in various works, however the thought that once a creator imagines their creation, they cannot exist separate from each other, and that as one fades, the other is affected, had never previously occurred to me. It is both delightful and profoundly sad.
i.F HAS BEEN IN DEVELOPMENT FOR 18 MONTHS. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR JOURNEY WITH THE WORK UP TO NOW?
So far, this has been quite the curious journey… I don’t see myself as a writer. I have had opportunities to dramaturg playwrights’ works, and I’ve participated in countless script/creative developments, but I’ve never before considered writing for theatre. Being encouraged to explore this aspect of theatre is terrifically challenging, creatively. My internal critics – the directorial and dramaturgical facets – can’t help themselves, they keep suggesting that I emend, edit and generally problem-solve ideas before I’ve even let myself put pen to paper. At least the performer leaves me alone. This propensity does mean however, that I’m exploring multiple aspects of the work simultaneously – which suits me, although, admittedly, it means I can tend to stand still for long periods of time – it is both excruciating and exciting. I’ve been working with Dramaturg, Peter Matheson, and he is extremely deft at getting me back on track!
YOU UNDERTOOK CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT EARLY IN 2016 WITH PETER MATHESON WHAT EMERGED FOR YOU AND THE WORK FROM THIS?
Peter has a wealth of experience, and his insight is always helpful; for me, the interaction across the week was exceptionally stimulating. I was able to spend a fair part of the time on the floor – discovering attitudes, thoughts and behaviours from the inside of the character[s] out; then debrief and deconstruct the improvisations with Peter. I was then able, with his assistance to cobble together a skeleton around which I could build the first draft. A couple of specific character and prop design concepts materialised; I don’t want to give away anything too specific there yet. It also became clear – in that way where you question ever having missed it in the first place! – that i.F is about love and friendship existing beyond death.
HAS ANYTHING BEEN DISCARDED FROM YOUR ORIGINAL CONCEPT?
At this stage, I think all the original story and character elements are still in place – which is interesting to reflect on. Peter and I have been discussing ideas I (and he!) have had from the beginning; about character, lighting, sound and set design. I’m looking forward to talking to designers in more depth once I have a comprehensible script to show them! Material emerged from the script development in June that has only added to the overall aesthetic of the work, which I envisage as much stripped back, and soaked in colour and sound. I’m yet to fully incorporate these elements into the script, and am currently trying different options, as I work out how best to do this.
THE STREET HAS COMMISSIONED YOU TO COMPLETE A FIRST DRAFT OF THE SCRIPT. WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE WHEN YOU HAVE A WORK WITH NO TEXT?
Although there are three characters in the play, in reality the i.F ‘exists’ on stage solo; both the other characters are invisible to the audience. It becomes the job of the solo performer to make those characters ‘live’ on-stage for both the children and adults in the audience. So, it is my job as the writer to facilitate a notation system that allows the reader to understand what is occurring, the same way they would if characters were speaking to each other. The script itself, is a series of dot-points, which correspond to plot points; these are fleshed-out with descriptions of character intention, action, interaction, consequence, mood, demeanour and anything significant that needs to be communicated to the reader and viewer.
WHAT IS THE CONCEPTUAL UNDERPINNING OF USE OF PUPPETRY AND VISUAL IMAGERY IN THE WORK?
One of the characters is created on-stage by the performer, through the use of mime, and the endowment of physical character and presence on empty space. Is it puppetry, or object theatre, with no puppets or objects? How abstract is that?! The work has no actual, physical puppets. This is a deliberate choice; to challenge the makers [us!] to find other ways and means of communicating character – sometimes this cannot purely be expressed in action or image. I envisage an element of shadow puppetry, but because of the long-term goal to tour the work, this will be computer generated animation and projection.
i.F IS ABOUT LOSS AND DEATH. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES IN PRESENTING THIS STORY TO CHILDREN? WHAT AGES ARE THE WORK FOR?
Originally, I was working on a 3-7 year age range, but as concepts have shifted, I’m moving towards 4-10 years. The developmental understanding of death changes for children between the ages of 3 and 4 years of age, making it challenging to bridge the ‘gap’ effectively. The play aims to be entertaining and sympathetic, not frightening or distressing. I obviously do not want the children to be upset by the subject matter, or any of the performance elements, and this includes ensuring their parents support. Attending any public social engagement can be over-whelming, let alone the theatre space itself. I’ve seen otherwise rational 5 and 6 year old children get scared by the lights going down or a beautiful soprano singing. Going through all the possible scenarios is impossible, but understanding what the audience want, and honouring that by writing for them is paramount.
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Anything I’ve read over the past year or so by Caryl Churchill, Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel. I also saw Paula Vogel’s Indecency earlier this year, and it blew me away – I cannot remember the last time I was so moved in life, let alone the theatre. And, as always, I’m inspired by all the independent artists slogging their guts out for the love of their art. What could be more inspiring?
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
Truthfully, I’m pretty focused on the show I’m in later this month, Vinegar Tom, by Caryl Churchill [COUP Canberra]. It’s directed by Street regular, and local theatre maker, Cathy Petöcz, and is showing at the Ralph Wilson.
The last few books I’ve read are all by John Douglas, the FBI agent who literally [co-]wrote the book/s on criminal profiling.
I finished watching Season 4 of the fabulous Ray Donovan recently, and was absolutely floored by the NT Live film version of A View from the Bridge.