An Interview with Sleepdogs about their production, The Bullet & The Bass Trombone

Having graced our Basement with their superb, cracked Christmassy fable, The Morpeth Carol in December, we welcome back Bristol’s wonderful Sleepdogs for another slice of sonically-enhanced storytelling.

We caught up with Tim and Tanuja to get a few clues about what to expect from their latest production…

Sleepdogs_tbatbt_hand_web

What happens in The Bullet & The Bass Trombone?

TIM: A symphony orchestra travel to a tropical country, and just before playing a concert in its capital city, a military coup erupts around them. The musicians are separated when it happens… so they have to try and re-unite, and get home. As you can imagine it’s a bit difficult. The city turns into a war zone.

I play the composer whose music took the orchestra out to that city. The composer didn’t travel out there with the orchestra, so he’s left to piece the story together after the event, through news reports, diaries and interviews. The composer tries to make sense of it all by scoring the whole thing – it turns into a sort of concert of its own. When we’ve shown work-in-progress sections, we’ve had some audiences say they thought it was meditative, all-consuming. Others say that parts of it are properly terrifying, or uplifting. I’d hope it’s all of those things. When you’re telling a story about something so uncertain, so twisty-turny, I think your aim is to distil some of that energy and make it part of the show.

TANUJA: It’s the story of a chaotic, unfathomable event that we could never hope to fully convey on stage. We were interested in how we so often have to understand events through fragments and tangents – unscientific blends of personal testimony, hearsay and journalism. We always use detailed sound design in our work; with this show, we were also interested in whether we could make music a completely integrated part of the storytelling. There’s a lot of music.

What can people expect from the set?

TANUJA: We’ve tried not to make it too, um… ‘representational’. In fact it’s very sparse: a table with wires, an orchestra on a hard drive, music stands. We’re thinking about the ‘set’ more in terms of sound and light than anything else.

The story goes to lots of different locations and we hear lots of different voices, so it felt vital that we left space for the audience to fully imagine the locations and experiences that are recounted in the show. It’s exciting to be working with an actual proper lighting designer for the first time – Aaron J Dootson – to help give the sense of an atmosphere constantly shifting and mutating.

What role has Bristol Ferment played in the creation of The Bullet & The Bass Trombone?

TANUJA: We couldn’t have done it without Ferment. We’d been talking to Kate Yedigaroff (back when she was helming Ferment) for a few months about the idea for The Bullet & The Bass Trombone and it was her suggestion that we go into a studio for five days in July 2011, and test some fledgling ideas with the Ferment audience. It was the first time we’d ever presented something that was so categorically unfinished. Working with Ferment on previous projects, having that strong relationship with Ferment team, gave us the courage to do that here.

TIM: Since then, we’ve continued to build the piece through short residencies and work-in-progress showings around the UK. And audience feedback has been critical in the making – it wouldn’t be the show it has become without the questions, observations and encouragement we’ve had from those very generous audiences in different cities. It’s not a marathon, but it’s the longest show we’ve ever done, and we probably wouldn’t have made it so without those audiences encouraging us to push further. It’s not so much that it’s grown in scale; we’ve just been told, in no uncertain terms, not to lose our nerve, not to sell it short.

How has the production developed since it first appeared in Ferment Fortnight in July 2011?

TANUJA: Well, as I say, that very first showing was just five days exploring how we might write and tell this story. We’ve done quite a bit more work on it since!

TIM: I’ve bought a suit. Oh, and tell you what – if you’re trying to get a feel for the show from the rehearsal pictures currently hanging in the Bristol Old Vic bar: I do actually smile in this, OK? It’s not just me loitering in different parts of the studio and having a bit of a frown.

TANUJA: There is quite a lot of frowning in it actually. But also a few jokes.

Many people will recognise Sleepdogs from The Morpeth Carol – how does this production compare?

TIM: Pro: it’s got the same meticulous attention to sound design.
Con: there aren’t any beautiful people to look at, just my pasty mush.
Pro: as with The Morpeth Carol, we’ll transport you to a strange and cracked-up world, familiar in certain ways but simultaneously shot through with the otherworldly and unsettling.
Con: when you leave the theatre, the first thing you’ll see is the Vanity nightclub, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Pro: this time, we haven’t covered the stage in salt.
Con: this time, we haven’t covered the stage in salt.

TANUJA: I think the Vanity nightclub was outside during The Morpeth Carol too, so strictly speaking that’s not a comparative con. Just a sad, sad state of affairs.

TIM: Vanity nightclub: it’s a sad, sad state of affairs, and it’s all about YOU.

What kind of experience do you hope the audience will have?

TANUJA: We always hope that something from the work will resonate with people beyond the show itself. It’s always great when people come up to you days or even years after they saw a show and tell you how bits of it have stayed with them. Even when people misremember details, what’s great is that something has struck home – become meaningful for them. 

TIM: The absolute ideal is that somehow they feel as though we’ve given them an instrument, and they’re able to play their own version of the tune on it. I think that’s true of most of what we do.

Um, OK, bear with me… there’s this theory doing the rounds amongst anthropologists that maybe the cave paintings in places like Lascaux and Niaux in France aren’t, primarily, intended as paintings. The weird thing is that the size of the animals depicted corresponds with the size of the cave they’re in. That starts to suggest that the caves have been chosen for their acoustic properties, for how they can be used to imitate the animals depicted. So maybe, just maybe, the caves were musical instruments. Maybe the pictures were just guides to the sounds. I love this; that after centuries of one particular supposition, we’re seriously considering that the very first kinds of recorded art had a completely different purpose. So we like to infuse those possibilities in our work. You’re coming to see a piece of theatre, but maybe you’d like to treat it like a concert. Maybe you’d like to close your eyes. Maybe when you remember it later, it’s like a film.

What ISN’T The Bullet & The Bass Trombone?

TIM: It isn’t two people, in a room, talking about issues.

The Bullet & The Bass Trombone is in the Bristol Old Vic Studio from Wed 14 to Sat 17 Nov at 7.30pm daily. And If you fancy meeting Tim and Tanuja (we’d recommend it), they are hosting a post-show chat in the Theatre Bar after the performance on Friday. Entry is free and all are welcome.

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