Creators and Directors: Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari
The art of conversation is something most of us have probably forgotten how to do. It has been months since we have been to parties, conferences, networking sessions or other social occasions where we need to interact with strangers. As part of the digital Electric Dreams Festival Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari have put together a handy guide to get us back up to speed, inviting you to join A Conversation.
Performed as a live Zoom event, Barrett is our host as attendees gather online, asked but not forced to have their video and microphone on. Of the 52 attendees a dozen were happy to oblige, finding themselves at the centre of the show on more than one occasion. Framed around The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation first published in the 1940s, Barrett spends an hour guiding the audience through the various lessons.
The technical side of A Conversation is one of the most enjoyable, giving the audience a chance to interact with Barrett and each other as he slowly builds a participatory atmosphere. By the time we reach Lesson Three on leisure activities, video captures of individual are projected onto separate television screens beside Barrett where, holding a microphone to the screen for effect, he hosts the conversation between viewers in London and Norway talking about their favourite sports.
Once the camera-ready participants are warmed-up, interactions develop more readily. The Sixth Principle of Lesson Two – essentially “don’t be boring” – results in one man describing his sky diving experience as a student that leads nicely into refreshments as Barrett asks about drinks. Later in the show, reading from Cotton’s book becomes a little repetitive as the opportunities for audience interaction dwindle and structure starts to strain.
There is an absurdist element to some of the skits that doesn’t quite fit, with several costume changes in which Barrett appears in a wig and pinafore, a safari hat and an American Indian headdress. There are comments about colonialism in there somewhere – especially when a cut away suggests some racially-charged language – but these aspects of the show often detract from the facilitated examples that brought people together earlier in the show and don’t provide as much commentary on the dubious history of Empire as the synopsis suggests.
Richard Williamson’s video design uses different techniques to mark the chapters of the show, either with specific graphics to create a pause, or allowing Cotton’s words to appear as though typed on screen. The technical challenges of multi-user video calls mean the group readings are never quite in sync but Barrett is at his best finding ways to fill in the gaps and coax his audience into the art of conversation.
“Conversation is the great universal need of mankind” Cotton insists and, as we are all probably a bit socially awkward these days, A Conversation has plenty of amusing tips on finding your voice and not starting arguments. Using a video platform to facilitate community is a sad necessity for the moment but Barrett and Mari’s show, live-streamed from theatreland in central London, does just that.
Available here until 15 August 2020 at Electric Dream Festival website