Barney Norris – The Wellspring: From Page to Stage


In this guest post, Barney Norris discusses the link between his memoir The Wellspring and his new stage production of the same name currently touring the UK. Catch Barney and his father David Owen Norris performing The Wellspring at the Oxford Playhouse from today.

Barney Norris' 'The Wellspring: Conversations with David Owen Norris' cover; a greyscale sketch of a countryside scene with a single square turret in the middle.

In The Wellspring acclaimed novelist and dramatist Barney Norris conducts a conversation with his even more acclaimed father, the pianist and composer David Owen Norris, on creativity, cultural identity, and how the two intertwine. In addition to being called ‘quite possibly the most interesting pianist in the world’ (Toronto Globe and Mail) and ‘a famous thinker/philosopher of the keyboard’ (Seattle Times), Norris senior is a respected and longstanding television and radio presenter who has worked with a huge range of musicians, conductors and composers in the concert hall and on the airwaves.

The Wellspring

Seven years ago, I was sitting outside Romsey Abbey when the thought came to me that I should write a book of interviews with my father. David Owen Norris, my Dad, has had many jobs – he’s a pianist, a broadcaster and a teacher, among other things. He’s also a composer, and while we were touring a piece of music he’d written, that I’d written some accompanying poems for, I had the idea of writing a book about this aspect of his life. Partly as a way of amplifying his work; partly to trace the journey of one artist from childhood into creativity, as a means of exploring how that journey happens for every artist; partly as a way of knowing my Dad better. I called up Mick Felton at Seren Books, a publisher with the courage and heart to take on quixotic, idiosyncratic projects of this nature, who had previously published my study of the Welsh theatre artist Peter Gill, To Bodies Gone, and who I occasionally besiege with poetry in the hope that he’ll one day let me have a collection (I’m doing the same thing now, here in this blog, not ever so subtly, look!), and he agreed to publish the book if we wrote it.

Barney Norris lays a table cloth on a table while David to his left brings a saucepan on a chopping board to the table.
Photo by Robert Day

What emerged from that process was a sequence of three long interviews with my Dad, loosely grouped around the activities of ‘listening’, ‘playing’ and ‘writing’. I think you can map these onto any artist’s trajectory: they start by absorbing the world, then explore the art form that interests them, and finally, if things go their way (if kind and visionary publishers give them a collection, say), they find a way to make a statement. Dad’s particular version of that journey took in lots of specific things – he’s a study in a particular kind of Englishness, a particular rural culture and a particular artistic context as well. We were very proud of the book, and all the more so when the theatre I was working with at the time, Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, asked me whether we’d consider adapting the book for the stage. Being a book of interviews, it was done in dialogue, after all – so why couldn’t it work live?

Barney Norris sits centre stage on a chair while David Norris sits diagonally to him in the bottom-left corner, facing a piano
Photo by Robert Day

Dad and I got together in the rehearsal room in December 2019 to work out whether it was possible. The first big decision we made was that we mustn’t use the original book too closely as source material – they had to be companions to each other, palimpsests of one another, because an evening where we read out an abbreviated version of the book wouldn’t work. Reading and performing are so fundamentally different, and require such a different kind of writing. In addition, the relationship in the book – that of interviewer and subject – wouldn’t wash onstage. Onstage, everyone visible to the audience has equal weight in the overall picture; one of them can’t be the interviewer, secondary characters don’t exist. I would need to take up more space in the play we made.

Barney Norris sits with his feet on a chair in front of him (centre stage), right index poised in the air, waiting to say something
Photo by Robert Day

So we created something that slightly resembled a winterbourne – the previous Wellspring, my book of interviews with Dad, had passed through this way the previous winter, and now, in a different winter, new water would make its way through the same gullies and eddies of our life stories. Whatever we created would take the same path, passing through all of the same material, but the summer that has passed between the two projects would inevitably mean everything was somehow different. What emerged, then, was a story that seemed both strikingly different, and strikingly the same. It’s a huge privilege to have got to explore this, the idea of telling the same story twice. Part of what I’m writing is my own journey through life, and the changes in my relationship with my father, after all; I am watching my time pass as I retell this tale from its source again, and note how I change it each time.

Both Norrises smile as David sits by the piano(bottom right stage corner)  while Barney stands centre stage addressing the audience.
Photo by Robert Day

Barney Norris

Visit the Oxford Playhouse website for tickets to see ‘The Wellspring’ this week www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/the-wellspring.

The Wellspring is available on the Seren website for £12.99.

Create your free Seren account and enjoy 20% off every book you buy from us.

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