Turntable on tour in Mannheim – reflections from co-creator Martin O’Connor

The Turntable team have recently returned from Mannheim in Germany, where the show was staged as part of the Here and Now Festival, which is an English-language festival of new performance work including shows from Chris Thorpe, Daniel Bye and Nassim Soleimanpour. Turntable co-creator Martin O’Connor reflects on some of his experiences there.

I arrived in Mannheim after two days of driving with our Production Manager Suzie Normand. Suzie is quite new to the project and so we spent most of the time discussing Turntable themes – music and storytelling – and sharing some of our own. We listened to lots of ABBA, a wee bit of Alanis Morissette and Suzie’s playlist (which was my personal favourite) of 90’s Club Anthems – covering everything from Black Box and Nomad to Baby D and Crystal Waters. If anything it helped the long drive go quicker, and shouting “I love this song – I haven’t heard this in years!” every four minutes distracted me from my anxiety of driving on the other side of the road. But that is the beauty of Turntable and the central theme to our tour in Mannheim: sharing songs with someone and learning something new about them with every tune.

We started off with a few pop-ups around the city. The Turntable pop up was an early incarnation of the project where we collected stories from people who would come to browse the records and select a song. We decided to continue with the pop ups as a way to engage with more people around the country. And of course, being in a new country, this was an excellent way of getting to know local people and their experiences of music.

Turntable pop ups have taken us to some weird and wonderful places over the last few years, including providing the music for a pensioner’s chair dance class, and a session with a group of fire-walking women. And this visit was no exception – our first pop up was situated in a pharmaceutical company, which is one of the biggest employers in the city. We placed ourselves on the terrace of the canteen, which was soon full of workers on their lunch break. There were certainly a few bemused faces around as we set up our records and blasted the opening spoken dialogue of Into the Groove. However, we had interest from a range of workers in the company, and they choose a variety of artists including The Pixies, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra. My personal highlights included a young intern giving us a performance of Dream a Little Dream of Me; a great chat with a country and western expert who schooled me in Hank Williams and his artist offspring; a part time chemist / part time Butoh dancer who chose The Morning Fog by Kate Bush (you know you are dealing with a serious muso when they choose an obscure album track); and a trip down memory lane with a former disco dancer who chose Night Fever from the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack. One last observation: Mannheimers love The Bee Gees.

Our second pop up was in the courtyard of TiG7 – our venue for the Turntable show in the centre of town. The theatre is small but perfectly formed and has a courtyard at the front entrance where we set up shop. Staff from the venue came along to choose a record and it became clear that the pop up is the best way to get to know your fellow company members. Records selected on that day included Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Light My Fire by the Doors and Autumn in New York by Ella and Louis. We heard lots of stories about the company’s personal connections to these songs, but the stand out moment for us was when a Michael John McCarthy came to visit our very own Michael John McCarthy. The Mannheim MJ happened to see a poster for the festival and he was bemused to see his own name on the bill. He came along to meet his namesake and one hour later they were still chatting about what a crazy coincidence it was. It did seem strange at first, but given the themes of the show – immigration, identity, moving away to find oneself – it seemed like a completely likely occurrence.

That evening, we staged our first show. We had no idea how it would go down for an international audience – and I admit I had some reservations: would they understand MJ’s West Cork accent? Is the show too local to be universal? Will the music selections translate in another country? But in fact, I needn’t have worried at all. MJ opens each show by playing a track chosen by an audience member, and this first track on the opening night – Back in Black by ACDC – was given a rapturous applause even before the show started properly. I noted this early on – that in Mannheim they like to show their appreciation by means of extended applause. I looked around the audience on that night and on subsequent nights and I was faced with row upon row of smiling faces. The show does that to you – it puts a smile on your face that is hard to resist. And I realised that these audiences in Mannheim loved music just as much as we do.

At each performance we have a special guest, who steps on stage to select a record to play, and then discusses the choice with MJ. At our time in Mannheim we invited Daniel Bye (a UK theatre maker also appearing at the festival) and two local artists – Alexandra Lehmler, a Jazz musician, and Einhart Klucke – a veteran satirist. On each occasion, the special guest spoke of the importance of music in their lives, with Daniel choosing a record that was played at both a wedding and a funeral; Alexandra speaking of the importance of emotion in pop music; and Einhart reminiscing on his political awakening with a blast of Hendrix. It was obvious the power that this section had on the guest and audience alike – and as MJ articulates in the performance – the power lies in “the act of sharing a piece of music with another person.”

For me more than other project Turntable is the one I find most difficult to define, the performances most difficult to predict. There is an ever-evolving nature to the performance both in practical terms (MJ inserts new references to conversations as they happen) and in aesthetic terms – the piece literally gives a space for conversations to take place throughout, and for new engagements and relationships to emerge. And staging the work for the first time in a new international context, I have witnessed the power of the local and personal story to transcend place and specificity, and be welcomed by universal audiences who have a great deal in common with us: not least in the power of sharing.

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