Sleepdogs is a collaboration between writer/composer Timothy X Atack and director/producer Tanuja Amarasuriya. After 15 months of development, their new piece The Bullet And The Bass Trombone opens at Bristol Old Vic studio next week. It’s the story of a concert orchestra who get trapped in a city during a military coup, told by a lone performer through storytelling, music, interviews and field recordings.
For theatrebristol.net, Kate Yedigaroff from MAYK asked them some questions about how they put it all together.
KATE: So, your new show The Bullet and The Bass Trombone opens at Bristol Old Vic this November – can you tell us about the project, what is it about, what has inspired you, and a bit about the process of making it, because it’s been unfolding bit by bit over some time now hasn’t it?
TIM: Sometimes our ideas arrive fully formed (rarely, it has to be said, but sometimes…) This wasn’t one of them. It came from a bunch of images and stories, and we spent a lot of time wondering what it might be. The material seemed very novelistic or, at a push, filmic. But we kept returning to it every now and then – giving it a name, for instance, finding the right name was really important – then we decided, in the middle of 2011, to jump in at the deep end and just start making it. Ferment was essential in knowing we had the audience and the support to do that.
TANUJA: And audience feedback at each stage has been key to how we’ve constructed the piece. It was especially valuable that we could test ideas with audiences who knew our work a bit (like in Bristol) and completely fresh audiences (like in Newcastle). It was amazing that people would sometimes understand so much more from a fragment of story than we had – then that would open up new story possibilities for us, which we might explore when working on the following sections, and so on.
Have there been any particular challenges you’ve discovered in the creation of this piece or experiences you’d like to share about the joys and complexities of making work in the way you do?
TANUJA: Normally we always have a finished script – or at least a script with all the bits in (not necessarily in the right order) – before we go into a studio. This time we just had a few random fragments and a hard drive of orchestra samples. I found that quite scary – I don’t think I’m instinctively a natural devisor.
TIM: Tanuja laid down one challenge to me very, very early in the process, for the written content: no conjecture. Everything had to be about what I knew for certain about these characters, the city, these stories. It had to be anchored to the facts of the world. And I found that VERY hard to stick to. I really like flights of fancy and poetic asides. But Tanuja would just be sitting there, banging a stick like the choreographer from Fame, going: “NO CONJECTURE. TELL US THE FACTS.” I think it’s made it into a really compelling show as a result. I hope. It means as an audience you’re able to draw your own conclusions from the events that unfold. But blimey, there were some days when I properly sulked about the whole ‘no flouncy imagery’ thing.
TANUJA: There’s still quite a lot of flouncy imagery in it. It’s just immediately flouncy as opposed to retrospectively flouncy.
You describe yourselves as being willfully interdisciplinary in the work you make – can you elaborate? Say a little bit more about how and why you find yourself fascinated with this ‘inbetween-ness’ of form? I’m pushing you towards your ‘we are those fuckers’ response to Marina Abramovic once saying that performance art should be protected from the “theatre fuckers” and “film fuckers” who stole or appropriated its ideas, textures, and motifs.
TANUJA: Ha! We are actual fans of Marina’s work. But we’re also fans of Star Wars. And The Wire. And Aphex Twin. We’re influence whores and we’re not ashamed to wear those influences on our sleeves. We’re not so precious about how our work is understood academically. We both love how, with a pop song, you can make the experience of that song your own – its meaning comes from your personal relationship to it, not from what Damon Albarn or whoever was thinking when he wrote it. We’re interested in how people can have that sort of personal relationship with other types of art. I like that some of what has resonated for me from Marina Abramovic’s work informs how I make a theatre show. Sorry Marina.
TIM: Yeah, well I think in that quote Marina’s concerned with integrity and there’s nowt wrong with that. We’re just not of the same bent when it comes to purity of artform. I don’t know, maybe it’s because both of us were born with heritage and backgrounds that sat slightly at odds with the places we grew up in; Yorkshire and Rio De Janeiro in my case, Sri Lanka and County Durham in Tanuja’s. You become very aware of how cultures splice, where the fault-lines are, where it mixes best. It’s pop psychology, I know, but maybe that’s why we enjoy mixing and matching not only generic influences but also the processes by which we make work – if the best tool to keep the work fresh happens to be one that I’ve picked up from my days touring in a pop group, why not bring that into rehearsals? What I’m really excited about post-Bullet And The Bass Trombone is that for our next few projects, we’re aiming to work with much more than our usual two-hander operation. It’ll be interesting to see how other performers, other writers, take to our methods. But to be honest we’re already working with people – like Jessica MacDonald and Adam Peck, for instance – who not only perform but play instruments and write and dissect and research, people who are out-and-out nerds for an interesting process, like we are.
Do you have theatre heroes, or do you think that’s all a load of tosh?
TIM : Actually, in the attic, I’ve got an electric shrine to the actor Gary Sinise.
As a pair your creative roles seem largely to be defined as Tim writer/performer and Tanuja Director. But we assume that this isn’t a rigid collaboration in that way – can you ponder a bit on what those roles mean to you, and if you have secret desires to fill different boots in the future.
TANUJA: I literally do not know what any of those words mean.
Ok, coming back to The Bullet and The Bass Trombone now.
Can you tell us a bit more about your approach to the composition/sound design of this piece?
TIM: In the first case it entirely relied on what we could do quickly, instinctively, with the technology we had. It’s mostly laptop-based but our influences are quite wide within the field of ‘laptop’ music… so we were able to bring in different performance elements from shows that had inspired us. There’s a musician who goes by the name of Manyfingers: he fills the stage with musical instruments and adds them one by one to a repeating series of loops, running around from microphone to microphone like a man possessed. So we mucked around with our own version of that, and it shifted and altered and eventually became something very important in the show.
I think we’ve had a roughly even balance in music that has sprung from texts, and vice versa. You sometimes re-write the dialogue to fit a place or a theme the music is suggesting. Sometimes you really strip the music back, and chuck out a whole bunch of intricate work you’ve done. At one point I was getting more and more detailed and fussy with how I was arranging the music, it was all very beautiful and complex, until Tanuja pointed out that we were making 2 sections of the show that sounded the same. So she suggested the curveball of making some blatantly cut-up electronic music instead – and at one point, that just takes over the show for a few minutes. We blast it out.
What is that you want audiences to take away from this experience, what do you hope will linger?
TANUJA: I don’t know if we’re that fixed about it. But we do actively want to make work that stays with people somehow, so I hope stuff will linger (not in a bad smell sort of way). It’s always great when someone comes up to you months or even years later and tells you that they still think about that moment in that show you did where you did the thing with the thing.
How would you describe the show to someone who is mistrustful of theatre – who worries about being bored and excluded?
TIM : This show has got some loud music in it. And also a few jokes. And it’s quite peaceful in parts and if you like, I don’t mind if you have a little kip.
Theatre or Film?
TIM : That’s one of those questions, isn’t it? Like, “custard or cream”? The answer is: yes, please.
TANUJA: Mmmm, custard.
Is Theatre just people ‘pretending to be other people’
TIM: Nah. Theatre is an amount of time. You can fill it with anything.
TANUJA: Theatre is an amount of time, with people, in space. You can fill it with anything.
What does the word ‘experimental’ mean to you?
TIM: Tanuja has a phrase for it: experimental is not a genre, it’s a process. So I’m not sure what we do is experimental because actually we lift process ideas from different sources, acting upon stuff we’ve picked up elsewhere. Very rarely do we create our own processes from scratch.
It’s a real bone of contention for me, actually. I don’t think I see much experimental theatre. I think there’s a short memory for innovation, and a lot of companies are acclaimed for experimenting with ideas and procedures that, if you do the tiniest bit of research, were old hat in the earliest days of modernism. FINE, CALL ME PEDANTIC.
Endless silence or endless noise?
TIM: Well, HAH, actually – as long as you’re alive and with hearing intact, you’ll never experience true silence. If someone shoved you into an anechoic chamber, completely soundproof, you’d still hear two noises: a low frequency, and a high one. The low noise is your cardio-vascular system. The high sound is your nervous system. Freakily enough, it makes a noise…
(You might think I’m the most pedantic person you’ve ever known. But actually I think you’ll find I’m the THIRD most pedantic person you’ve ever known.)
Thank you. See you soon.
TIM: Not at all. Thank you. That’ll be a pound.
The Bullet And The Bass Trombone is commissioned by Bristol Ferment at Bristol Old Vic. Produced by MAYK. Developed with support from Parabola Arts Centre, Live Theatre, The Empty Space and Forest Fringe. Supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Images 1 & 3: Sleepdogs, The Bullet And The Bass Trombone (rehearsal) Image 2: Sleepdogs, The Morpeth Carol. All photos by Paul Blakemore