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Featured Artist: Marvin Gaye Chetwynd for Liverpool Biennial 2016

Interview with Marvin Gaye Chetwynd at ‘Dogsy Ma Bone’ preview performance for Liverpool Biennial 2016.

Words by Steff Cain.
Interviews with Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and Director of Liverpool Biennial Sally Tallant, with quotes from collaborators Jemma Barns (12), Charlotte Dowson (13), Heidi Tomlinson (7), and Kai Freeman (14).

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd has created a new work with and for children. Inspired by Betty Boop – ‘A Song a Day’ (1936) and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’ (1928), the film has been developed collaboratively with 78 young people from across Liverpool, who have worked with Chetwynd to create props, music, lyrics and script, as well as starring in the live performances and film itself.

Interview with Marvin Gaye Chetwynd:

How did you choose ‘A Song a Day’ and ‘The Threepenny Opera’ as subjects for this project?

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd: We wanted to work with some sort of storyline rather than, normally I’m quite abstract and use anything that I have a whim about, but with this it really felt like it would be good to have some sort of storyline to stick to.
We were looking for a narrative that would fit, and then I thought of The Threepenny Opera because I really love Bertolt Brecht. It has a really good, classic, storyline. But then we ended up working as a team, we got someone in Scotland to write some new music and all the lyrics are original. So we started off with one idea but then ended up creating something really original. It’s quite fun, and the development of it feels really good.

With a lot of your work being quite abstract and escapist, did working with children feel like a natural step?

MGC: I have found it really natural, that’s definitely there. They don’t question, they accept your suggestions and add their own, it’s all felt really natural and organic. From the audition moments some of the girls, and also the main boys, contributed their own scouse versions of the lyrics. For example, ‘Mack the Knife’, they rewrote the lyrics for that. It’s been quite amazing how much they’ve contributed, really positively. One thing I can say that’s really interesting for me is I’ve never worked with actors who can say lines before, of any age. I’ve worked with puppets and I’ve worked with friends who’ve chaotically mimed and it all feels very spontaneous. With this it’s the first time I’ve ever spent a week rehearing things and then filmed, and it’s been amazing. I’d say, actually I don’t know whether it’s because I’m working with children, but there’s something very interesting about how the level of professionalism has been the same amount. The kids are bringing their own, I’m bringing mine, and it doesn’t feel heavy. It’s not too strenuous, it does feel very natural. We all have the same idea of what the standard should be which is interesting.

Yes, especially considering the different ages and backgrounds of the children…

MGC: Yes that was originally very sensitively mentioned, particularly that the older children might feel embarrassed to be working with the younger ones, but there’s been no problems with that at all. The group of thieves was played by boys aged 5 to 14, I’ve been amazed by them all.

The piece was inspired by material from 1936 and 1928, were any of the children aware of this?

MGC: No, what we ending up doing was, the Threepenny Opera was the starting point so we’ve taken the same concept: bad people. And the story looks at why they’re bad: Is it society? And I don’t think the children were aware of the original starting point, just the concept as a classic narrative. The only thing would be, maybe, some of the costumes. The fact that some of the girl’s costumes were 1896, on the edge of the century style, they loved them. But no, they worked with a slightly more edited text.
There’s been two girls who’ve been amazing, they’re really analytical 13 year olds. They watched the Bertolt Brecht film with me and helped work on some of the interpretations. There’s a point during the song where two girls walk in then interrupt, they’re helping with the film. When we’re telling the story we have these sort of artificial breaks where the girls talk directly to the camera. One of them is telling the story and the other is saying, remember this is not to be relaxed in – you’re meant to be analysing the story. Those two girls in particular have been really good at understanding the bigger picture. So we haven’t had to deal with the original starting point, that’s been my job, updating and making it palatable and able to be grabbed at by these young people without any problem.

Would you do more scripted work again in the future?

MGC: Yes I would. I did a soft play design in Dagenham and Barking, a big 10 metre structure, and that was similarly interesting because it’s like working in the real world with design teams, you get to see how useful you are. And with this team, I would say that I have had a real privileged position, working with actors for the first time but it’s not been intimidating for me because they’re younger people. It’s very interesting for me as a growing artist to have had that opportunity.

What can you tell us about the final film, particularly for those who haven’t seen today’s performance?

Sally Tallant, Director of Liverpool Biennial: So we did a casting quite a while ago, and they’ve been working together to construct a narrative and shoot all the different scenes all over Liverpool. And this performance today has been filmed, during the Biennial in this space [Cain’s Brewery] there will be the full film which brings all the different segments together along with an installation, and the public will be able to see a movie basically. A film that has been made with young people and Marvin working together.

And in terms of it being an early opportunity for an education in the arts for these young people?

ST: It brings young people into a process that they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to get involved in. It’s a major commission so it’s not an education project. However, I think given the current governments thinking around creativity and the arts, and their relationship as soft subjects within the curriculum, it’s important as cultural organisations to find ways as early as we can in the work that we’re doing so they do have the opportunity to decide to become artists, filmmakers and entrepreneurs. Creativity is so important to how they’ll be able to run the world as they get a little bit older. I think it’s going to be brilliant, it’s one of the bigger commissions we’re doing in the whole Biennial.

Quotes from some of the young collaborators:

Jemma Barns, 12.
I’ve met so many people I didn’t know before, which was an amazing part of it. Some of us, because the songs only had a backing track, we had a sheet of lyrics and we mixed and matched things to the beat until it sounded right.

Charlotte Dowson, 12.
With the songs, we had our own tune that we could make for them, so that was really fun to play around with and we had the chance to show our ranges. We also had the chance to show how we can become choreographers or composers instead of just singing what someone else has told us to sing. I got asked to write a paragraph for one of my scenes, which was really fun and helped me a lot because I got to work with Marvin and see how she works close up. It has been such a good experience, I’ve had the chance to meet so many people with the same goals, I’ve made friendships I won’t let go of after this.

Heidi Tomlinson, 7.
I enjoyed being part of it all, but the dance with the hippo was my favourite part.

Kai Freeman, 14.
I’ve enjoyed getting to see how films are made from the actor’s perspective, it’s been a great experience. It’s made me even more interested in acting and filmmaking now and I’d definitely like to do another film. Working with Marvin, she helped me a lot and really listened to what we had to suggest. There’s a scene where the camera goes back, that was my idea, so I got involved in the cinematography a little bit too.

The preceding interview took place after a performance enacting key scenes from the film as a live event.
You will have the chance to catch the film over the course of the Biennial at Cain’s Brewery (L8 5XJ), Exhibition and Visitor Hub open daily, 10:00am – 6:00pm.