A Light Grilling: Nigel Barrett & Louise Mari (Nigel and Louise)

What inspired you to make theatre? Did you grow up in a theatrical / arty household?

LM: I have always loved theatre and I have no idea why. I never read books growing up, I always read plays. I wrote my first play when I was 9. I am the only person in my entire family who has been to university. My dad would never go to the theatre because he thought the theatre wasn’t for men. I asked my Aunt to buy me the complete works of George Bernard Shaw for my 14th Birthday and she bought me make up, because she thought it was more appropriate.

NB: No, but I always loved watching the Play for Today on tele when I was very little, which I was far too young to watch and I really liked them. Then when I was 15 I caught the bus to Cardiff and saw a one man show about apartheid in South Africa and sub-atomic physics which blew my mind, because I didn’t know you could do things like that and that was it. As soon as I realised you could do more than one thing at a time I was hooked

Have you had an encounter with a turning point piece of work (or artist) that changed the way you saw what art could be ?

NB: The first time I worked with Sulayman Al-Bassam. We did a version of Everyman in an underground car park with cut up cars that we drove at each other like stock cars while the audience threw fruit at us. It was wild. He had just come over from the continent and his ‘normal’ was so crazy. And I thought “Crikey! This is interesting!”
Also shunt’s The Tennis Show made me realise anything was possible and opened my eyes to the idea that you just could make a beautiful image on stage without having to explain it to an audience. That it would speak for itself.

LM: When I was at school my friend told me about a drama thing that was happening in my local town for the whole summer. So we turned up not really knowing what it was and within an hour we were throwing ourselves backwards blindfolded off of really high ladders into each others arms. The company were called Major Road Theatre Company and that was just the beginning of a wild summer where we were treated as adults and as artists and we spent the holiday being wildly creative and at the end we made a show and performed it in the theatre. They let us make all the decisions ourselves and what we presented was a perfect fusion of all the people who were there and their ideas. I lost a lot of my fear that summer. It was a kind of paradise.

What are your all-time top 3 favourite Artworks?

1. The Shell grotto in Margate
2. The show we are currently working on at any given time
3. The plans-relief in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille

1.    A performance of Hamlet in Kuwait with Sulayman Al-Bassam on an American miltary base in the Iraqi desert. We performed outside on a row of parked tanks and munitions to an audience of US soldiers and special forces. It was a beautiful radical rewrite of Hamlet about the awful damage caused by American petro -dollars in The Middle East amongst other things. It was beautiful night performing in the late evening desert sun, the show lit by the beams of these killing machines. The whole experience dripped with irony and it was a secret and we weren’t allowed to film it or take photographs so it remains this strange dream for just the people that performed it and watched it. And at the end of the performance we got given medals by a General for services to freedom.
2.    Any new idea Louise has. It starts with Louise saying “I’ve been thinking …..” and then you think “Oh yes fucking hell, that sounds great, let’s make that”.
3.    Everything I ever saw by Ken Campbell. You can’t explain it, you just had to be there. He was the master of ‘in the moment‘ and the live event.

Give us a quick overview of your career journey so far

LM: I wrote on my own like a proper playwright until I got fed up with doing that and went back to college when I was 31 to do a collaborative devising MA. I met the shunt crowd there. We took our graduation show to Edinburgh, came back, rented a railway arch between us, made some shows, ran a cabaret. We moved to London Bridge, made some more shows, opened a club where we curated art, dance, music, performance etc. Nigel and I started making work together for the club. Ten years later we are still making work together.

NB: I studied English and Drama at Winchester and then somehow ended up with a bunch of mates from college forming a theatre company in Shropshire and made a show with an all female cast about life in The Trenches for a Marxist theatre festival in Dorset that only allowed work that was made in the round as it was seen to be the only democratic and fair way an audience should view work from a Marxist perspective. It was at that point I thought “hmmm I think I just want to be actor” and ran away to drama school in London, and while working as a jobbing actor fell in with the shunt crew and realized this is what I had been waiting for. Then Louise and I started running the shunt lounge which was like the most amazing dream. A 60,000 square foot series of vaulted arches under a train station with a secret door full of drunks and artists and misfits and seekers where the only rules were make some work and you cannot fail.

Since then I have been living a double life of being a ‘proper’ actor doing plays where you pretend the audience aren’t there and playing farmers on Doctors and hanging out with the weird gang at shunt and other theatre bandits making some of the most exciting work and being stared at when you say, “What’s my motivation?’ and Louise will reply “There is no motivation just be present and at a certain point when the music becomes incredibly loud set fire to yourself.”

How do you feel about the boom in so-called ‘immersive theatre’, considering that you pioneered those audience experiences as part of Shunt?

LM: I don’t know how helpful the term ‘immersive’ is really. Because it groups together completely unrelated forms of work in a way that is confusing for audiences and for artists it can start to become an end in itself, which is kind of weird.
Once other people say you are immersive performance makers, your work is judged on its level of ‘immersion’ - which means something different to everyone.  And inevitably if the experience is judged on whether they are being immersed in the way they want to be, or expect to be, based on their experiences of other ‘immersive’ companies (who are trying to do entirely different things and make completely different forms of work) they are going to be both distracted by that expectation and disappointed that its not like the other immersive thing they saw and liked.  But really anything can be immersive if you lose yourself in it – whether you are sitting in the dark watching a very traditional play or you are made to wear a silly hat.

It’s a bit of a marketing tool gone bad. Which is now eating itself. At its worst immersive theatre is just individualism at its most extreme where the very rich pay artists to make them the centre of the universe. It’s all about me!!!  How brilliant!!!

Shunt have never been interested in immersion. We have really only ever been interested in liveness, and in performance as an event. Our mission statement was and is ‘to explore the live event’. So it’s quite weird that we are grouped together with artists in a ‘school of immersive practice’, with other bewildered companies, none of whom really have much in common, other than that they are collectives who work in spaces that aren’t theatres.

NM: What she said.

Your work has always pushed boundaries with audiences. What boundaries would you still like to break?

LM: I will only know when I come up against them. We don’t set out to break boundaries we just question everything.

NB: I was once told by a director that I had been tainted by the hand of devising. Twat.

How do you decide on the theme / subject matter for a Nigel & Louise show?

LM: We have ideas all the time. Then when opportunities arise we will have a look and see if anything fits or make something bespoke.

NB: We don’t really have themes. If something interests us it’s a springboard into the work and we are very good at bouncing ideas off each other. Also we don’t do much talking. We present the ideas in a performative way rather than talking too much then you can see what it is rather than imagine it wrongly or talk about something hypothetically which is a bit of a waste of time

How do you go about making your work? Is there a ‘process’ you tend to go through or is it different every time?

LM: It’s different every time
NB: We just start with the idea and then try and make it real so there is no one way as each idea is different. So the form and content resolve around each other.

What is a typical day in your working life like?

LM: Most days are filled with the never ending stream of admin. Which is very frustrating because you don’t get paid to do that stuff and its boring and difficult and time consuming and robs the time away from the work.

NB: I rise at 5 and meet my Kung fu master and we meditate on a small hill close to the stream where I live. Then I harvest something for my breakfast which I then share with whoever happens to be passing through the forest. I then run into the town where I meet my stylist and take some phone calls while having a manicure and massage. I make some sushi and watch a foreign language films that my cultural advisor in Berlin streams me to keep up with the new trends in continental cinematography. I may then do some light sparring or maybe some wild fishing. I used to use a stick but found it’s less cruel on the fish if I use my hands, it’s also good for my stage craft reflexes.

At some point between auditions or castings I will check in with Louise to see how she is getting on with the admin. Then we will meet and do some rehearsal.
Then it’s supper in the treehouse, play a bit of Malayan flute and to bed.

What do you most and least enjoy about what you do?

LM: I least enjoy the admin. It really gets me down. I most enjoy the part of the process when it looks like chaos and that there’s too much material and its just not going to happen and people start getting twitchy and fearful - and then things start falling into place and links start to appear and associations start to layer and the whole thing starts to spiral into something bigger than the sum of its parts and become a thing in and of itself. That is very satisfying. To always sail that close to the edge but keep faith that something will happen. To not be scared. And not to chicken out. 

NB: I love it all. It’s living.

If you weren’t doing this, what would have liked to do instead?

LM: I would have liked to have been a florist.

NB: I would like to have been Bruce Chatwin.

If money were no object, what would you do (that you can’t do at the moment)

LM: I would make an arts space in London for us, the artists, to work, meet and show work. Where audiences who visit can become artists and artists become audiences for them.  Where everyone and anyone is welcome. With a tower block at one end, looking over London, with hundreds of subsidized flats for people who need them.  
With a subsidised bar and café and crèche and a club at weekends. And classes in everything you could ever want to know or do. And a gig space. And a hackspace. And a library, where you can not just borrow books, films and music but toys, paintings, scultpures, games, clothes. And a swimming pool. And an outdoor arena. And fields and woodland. And a camping site. And boats. And a farm.

Or we would make a show where Nigel enters on a chariot pulled by a thousand chihuahuas - which is something we have always talked about.

NB: I would like to get all my bits replaced and become posthuman. I love what we do and never want it to stop.

Nigel and Louise make wild, bold, visual performance for people who don’t really like theatre and unusual theatrical experiences for those who do. They are an associate company at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. They will be making a new piece of original theatre for Troop members to perform during Troopfest 27th-20th July (creative process w/c 19th July).