Interview: David Owen Norris Talks About the Experience of Writing and Performing THE WELLSPRING with his Son Barney

The composer, pianist, broadcaster and academic can now add actor and playwright to his list of achievements

By: Sep. 29, 2022

Interview: David Owen Norris Talks About the Experience of Writing and Performing THE WELLSPRING with his Son Barney

Multi-talented David Owen Norris - acclaimed composer, pianist, broadcaster and academic - can now add actor and playwright to his long list of achievements, with the new musical memory play he developed with Barney during lockdown.

David's best known for his piano concerto and symphony, operas, operettas, song cycles, and his work as professor (Head of Keyboard) at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. He's also an honorary fellow at Keble College, Oxford, where he - and his son, Barney - were once students. BroadwayWorld caught up with him to ask about working with his son on The Wellspring, now running at Salisbury Playhouse.

Is this the first time you've performed with your son?

No. I've accompanied Barney's singing in concerts, and he's often been the lighting/projection technician on various multi-media shows like Winterreise and Pierrot lunaire. In the tour of our multi-media piece, HengeMusic, where my score is for saxophone quartet and organ, he read his poems.

What's the play about?

Two, or maybe three, non-metropolitan childhoods - each a generation apart - and the story of how every one of us can discover what makes us tick.

When you collaborated together, how did it work? Who did what? Did you have any disagreements when putting together the material?

We each wrote our own story, and then we sifted through my father's family cine films and videos. We chose the segments of our lives that resonated with each other. Disagreements were doubtless so elegantly put that neither of us noticed we were both getting our own way.

Why did you decide to embark on this project? And how did the notion of combining music and words come about?

We collaborated on a book (The Wellspring: Conversations with David Owen Norris) which viewed the same topic through the lens of my music, and Barney's plays and novels. James Dacre, Artistic Director at Royal & Derngate Theatres in Northampton, thought it could transfer to the stage.

In the process it had to become more story-led. We didn't want to give a lecture on my music or Barney's books, but the basic musicality of the book has stuck - much to our audiences' pleasure, it seems. We sing folksongs that have figured in works we have co-created, and we both play the piano to illustrate some of our stories.

Does the play change slightly and alter its focus depending on where you put it on?

Luckily, the whole world seems to have heard of Watford Gap, where the play starts!

Other references change their meaning. Some audiences aren't sure what the WI is, for instance, so we spell it out - Women's Institute, we say, and look appropriately knowing, to convey something of the remarkable place that institution holds in our society.

The most amusing change of emphasis came in my story of risking assault by night in Harlesden, a rough bit of London. Northampton audiences thought I said Harlestone, a very up-market village a few miles out of town. This gave a great layer of irony to the story - the idea of getting beaten up in Harlestone! - which did it no harm at all.

Tell me about the Norris associations with Salisbury. Will it feel special performing at Salisbury Playhouse?

Barney and his brother Joz were at Bishop Wordsworth's School in Salisbury. I lived in Andover at the time. I particularly enjoyed it when Bishop's choir sang the famous Sarum Christmas plainchant in the cathedral where it was created 550 years ago. I pursued the choir all over; I heard it sing in Notre Dame in Paris.

The school was wonderful for music and drama. And there was Stage 65 as well at Salisbury Playhouse. I saw both my sons in many productions in the Salberg Studio, and I've seen Barney's plays (and many others) in the Main House. It'll be a great experience to perform there myself.

Has your relationship with Barney altered, or grown? Are you getting to know each other in a different way?

As in most relationships, there are some places we don't much go. We know where they are, and I think we know, more or less, how the conversation would go. In a way, the play has given us a licence to dip into these places - so much so that we'll be including some of the stories we at first decided not to. A liberating experience, then.

And in your opinion, how are memories formed? Do your memories vary radically from Barney's, or is there a certain amount of common ground?

Memories are formed by extremes. We remember the bad bits and the good bits, not so much the everyday bits. Barney and I remember the same things, but from our own points of view. My bad bit could be his good bit, I suppose, but that helps the kaleidoscopic nature of the play.

Has any of your family come to see the show? What were their reactions?

Yes! They were all delighted to see Grandma and Grandad again.

The Wellspring premiered at Royal & Derngate Theatres on March 17, 2022. It runs at Salisbury Playhouse from October 12 - 15, then touring.

Photo Credit: Robert Day