Caro Meets Music Interview Theatre Interview

Max Barton: STYX

By | Published on Friday 30 August 2019

As you’re probably aware, many of the edfringe performing community are busy taking a well earned rest after a back-breaking month of relentless publicising, performing and networking. Others, having completed an Edinburgh run, have headed straight down south at high speed to start on almost-immediate runs at London venues. The company behind acclaimed gig theatre piece ‘STYX’ falls into this latter camp.

The show won praise for its biographical exploration of Alzheimer’s and its effects on those close to sufferers of the condition. I spoke to writer and performer Max Barton to find out more about the show and the people behind it.

CM: Can you start by explaining the style and form of the show? Can you explain how gig theatre works and how it can be used to tell a story?
MB: ‘STYX’ is really a marriage of several different styles and forms – verbatim theatre, autobiography, live music, spoken word and a kind of pseudo-TED talk register thrown in for good measure.

I actually hesitate to fully define it as gig theatre, because it’s a much more focused brain/body experience than that term might immediately suggest. For a while we used the term “theatre concert”, which acknowledges the more poised and concentrated audience relationship that we use to tell the story, but found that in the end people defined us as gig theatre anyway, so we’ve decided to go with it.

As to how that can be used to tell a story – well, in both content and form the whole experience of ‘STYX’ is deliberately fragmentary, a choice we made in order to embody the way in which memory works, and the way our brains process disparate information. So the story happens through juxtaposition, by creating emotional landscapes, offering intellectual stimuli, relaying details of the narrative and allowing the audience to do the rest.

CM: What is the story you tell in ‘STYX’? What is the show about?
MB: ‘STYX’ is essentially the story of my grandma and grandpa, who respectively lived with and died with Alzheimer’s disease. The core of the narrative is built around a series of interviews I held with Grandma, and the detective story of me trying to trace back the history of a club she started with my grandfather in the early 50s called the Orpheus Club.

Woven into that is a fractured retelling of ‘Orpheus And Eurydice’, a series of songs that I wrote a few years ago about that same myth, and an exploration of the neuroscience behind the formation and loss of memories. Ultimately it becomes a story about intergenerational connectivity, about the impact we have on people that transcends simple factual memory, and a questioning of the nature of legacy.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
MB: The show explores loss, grief, love, memory, myth, legacy, family, music and a whole lot of other stuff in between.

CM: As you’ve said, it’s drawn from a real situation. To what extent does that inform the content of the show?
MB: Everything about the way ‘STYX’ was formed hinges around my grandma’s true personality, and the way she looks at the world. When I’m speaking, and indeed when my sister – who is also in the show – is speaking, we are being completely vulnerable and honest about our lived experience. The only parts of the show that are not informed by our own situation are the sections that go on philosophical or scientific flights of fancy, though these also have a strong basis in truth.

Actually, I don’t know if “truth” is quite the right word in that context, but certainly they have a basis in philosophy and neuroscience research. Very little of the show is fictional, and even the Orpheus and Eurydice elements, which take the form of heavily sound-processed spoken word, are built from the real memories the band and I have about that myth.

CM: Why did you want to tell this story? What inspired you to make a show about it?
MB: Well, my grandparents were the most enormous figures in my life growing up, and making this testament to them has felt like a deeply important process. It also has enabled me to articulate a lot of other complex feelings I have about what it is to live and die, what it is to try to understand the mind through science and where that limits us, and what it is to be kept alive within the memories of the people who have met you. Apart from all that, I suppose it was also a case of following my nose. I started interviewing Grandma without any real sense of what show I was planning to make, if there would be any, and when the link was made between the Orpheus music I had written, and the Orpheus Club that they had started, it felt like the show began writing itself.

CM: Where do you start when creating a piece like this? How do you go about bringing all the elements together?
MB: This piece has been a process of detective work, of self-curation, of experimenting in a room, and of working closely with collaborators to explore how to deal with varied and disparate information in a way that felt ultimately uncluttered.

Jethro Cooke, who I founded Second Body with, worked closely with me early on to develop a production language that would enable complexity to be expressed in that simpler way. And this I think freed me up to be more of a collage artist when compiling the script.

The band out in Australia, and particularly my sister Addison Axe, then brought exactly the right openness, skill and energy to the piece, and the end result really felt quite organic and effortless. The combination of music and light – which plays a very practical role throughout the show – is a fairly instinctive process.

CM: You’ve just completed a run at the Edinburgh Fringe? Did that go well, and did you enjoy being there?
MB: It was extremely stressful and tiring, as it is for almost every artist who risks themselves to be there, but of course it was an absolute blast as well. We received a super positive reception from audiences and critics alike, and being shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award for our first show as a company really means a phenomenal amount to us all. I hold that award in the highest possible esteem, so it was a privilege to be part of it this year. But being in Edinburgh is like temporarily entering a frenetic and wild parallel dimension. It feels very strange to be back.

CM: Can you see yourself returning to Edinburgh for the Fringe in the future?
MB: There’s a big conversation taking place about the need for more support for independent artists and producers at the Fringe and I really hope that the valiant people leading that are listened to – I’d definitely recommend this awesome piece from Fringe legend Jo Mackie for reference. So part of me wants to scream “no” at the top of my lungs, but in all honesty yes I’m absolutely sure we will.

CM: Second Body is a new company, isn’t it? How did it come together and what hopes do you have for it?
MB: Jethro and I have been working together for a few years on over ten individual projects. Second Body was born out of a frustration at not being in full control of our work, and due to a desire to bring music, theatre and science together in new ways, something we’ve been exploring under the radar for some time. This was triggered by some personal health stuff we’ve both gone through recently, which forced us to reappraise the important things in our lives, and which forms the thrust of the next show we have in development. We really hope to capitalise on the success of ‘STYX’ and endeavour to make Second Body our full time jobs in the future. It’s also worth adding that we now see the band of musicians as an integral part of the company, and we hope to work with them more in the future.

CM: What plans do you have for the show after these upcoming London dates? Do you have any further dates to complete anywhere else?
MB: We have been approached by several producing houses and companies in Edinburgh, so are in discussion about touring Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe and Britain. Who knows if any of those things will happen – time will tell!

CM: Do you have any new shows in the planning stages?
MB: Yes, our next show is called ‘The End Of The World’, and we’re taking a long time to develop it and really get it right.

CM: What’s coming up next for you right after this?
MB: Personally I will be finishing up a couple of writing commissions, and then taking a beat to absorb everything that’s happened before dusting myself up and carrying on.

‘Styx’ is on at The Playground Theatre from 2-14 Sep, see this page here for info and to book, and at Streatham Space Project from 15-19 Sep, details here.

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Photo: Ilme Vysniauskaite