Catherine Barnes plays percussion, making rhythms and adding dynamics to musical ensembles with snare drums, timpani, and tambourines. She also plays the vibraphone and marimba. Catherine Barnes sings. And since 2018, this San Diego native has become a storyteller. She combines characters and songs with offbeat plots to create theater experiences that are unique in every sense of the word. “I knew I wanted something of a cross between A Hard Day’s Night and Thelma and Louise,” Barnes says of her radio play Trouble. That might give you an idea of the curious theatrical creations of Catherine Barnes.
I was first exposed to the storytelling of Barnes back in 2018 when my wife and I went to the San Diego Fringe Festival. The Scottish-born arts celebration had been in San Diego for a few years, and we’d yet to experience the boundary-breaking celebration of theater and arts.
We hadn’t experienced the Fringe Festival, but we had experienced the trauma of trying to find parking in the Gaslamp on a weekend night; so we hopped in a rideshare and made our way to downtown San Diego.
We went through some confusion getting our tickets, and were issued some laminated cards and multicolored lanyards that identified us as Fringe Festival attendees. After some more confusion, we wound up at a very large black door on Fourth Avenue. The door led through a cross between a hallway and an alcove, and we found ourselves in a room with seats facing a vibraphone.
Although everyone was quiet, the crowd was restive, as though free coffee had been on the Starbucks menu all day. A few more audience members entered. The lights dimmed. Wearing a green spaghetti strap dress, Barnes, or as she is mostly known on stage, Queen Mab, entered. She picked up a tambourine and played a figure that looped on an electronic music gizmo, setting up a rhythm. Barnes played the chords of what sounded like a plaintive 1950s ballad on the vibraphone and sang “How Much Longer?”
The song is an original composition, as were the rest of the tunes, such as “Wonderful Being” and the romantic clincher that is at the crux of all great love stories, “Can We Have Sex Now?” What unfolded through these songs, as well as storytelling by Barnes was International Man of Mystery, an autobiographical musical of love, infatuation, a date, yoga, a very hot and interesting person from Uruguay, more yoga, more infatuation, etc. The story has some twists and turns, and the whole experience was over the top funny, sometimes sad, and most certainly different, a perfect fit for the Fringe Festival.
“People had been telling me that I should do a one woman show,” says Barnes, as she describes the genesis of her one-woman show. For months she had been lugging her vibraphone around to different open mics throughout San Diego and performing the songs that she had written about this experience and this relationship. When she heard that San Diego Fringe Festival was accepting applications for performances, she applied and developed the performance around the songs that she had penned.
Barnes received a great deal of positive response for International Man of Mystery, including a review of the CD within the pages of the San Diego Troubadour. She also received accolades when she later performed the one-woman show at the Fringe Festival in Tucson. Critic China Young wrote in the Arizona Star, “The songs are smart, funny, quick, and will make your face hurt from holding back your laughter to ensure you hear every inspired lyric.”
Earlier this year came the airing of Barnes’ Trouble, an hour-length radio show reminiscent of The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, and other great radio shows of yesteryear. More of a rollicking adventure than International Man of Mystery, Trouble features the bandmates of Calamity, the San Diego country-folk ensemble known for its abundance of talent and dearth of Y-chromosomes. The band includes Catherine Beeks, Patric Petrie, Barnes, and Marcia Claire. “I met Catherine Beeks in this song-writing game, where everyone writes a song based on a title or a theme, and, at the time, Calamity needed a drummer,” says Barnes. “I liked that they played Americana, and I liked their wacky attitude.”
One day Barnes said to her bandmates, “Hey, I’d like to write a musical based on your songs.” The story Barnes came up with involves some high jinx, some low jinx, and some four-part harmonies. It all unfolds once the band scores a gig in Las Vegas. Through the action and the songs, the personalities of the bandmates come out, with most of the self-deprecating humor directed at Barnes.
Barnes has been involved with music her whole life. “When I was six a friend who lived down the street had a piano and I thought it was the coolest thing,” she says. She took piano lessons, something she continued until she was ten. In fifth grade the school had a fife and drum ensemble. She couldn’t play the fife, so she played the drums, thus starting a lifelong love of drums and percussion.
Barnes believes that everyone has some drum love within himself or herself. “When people hear drums, they react to it.” Pointing to a chair, Barnes says, “If you have an accordion or a trumpet or any other instrument like that sitting in that chair, people say, ‘Oh, there’s an accordion there or there’s a trumpet there.’ But if you put a drum there, people go over and start to hit it and bang on it.”
In the school concert band, with her love of percussion and her training on the piano, Barnes played bells. She joined the San Diego Youth Symphony, playing snare drum and timpani, as well as other percussion.
“For college, I wanted to get out of Southern California,” Barnes says. With the goal of becoming a percussionist in a symphony orchestra, she majored in percussion performance at Northwestern University outside the windy city of Chicago, in Evanston. After Northwestern, in 2007, Barnes spent 11 weeks studying the traditional music and dance of the Anlo-Ewe people in the southeastern Volta region of Ghana. She learned eight rhythms for five different dances and five songs for each dance, a great accomplishment but still only a fraction of the rich musical heritage of the region.
She says that, as a classical musician, she had always practiced on her own, as have other classical musicians since the time of Scarlatti and Hayden. In Ghana, everything—performing and practicing—is done with other people. “Everybody joins in at all hours of the day,” she says. “It really changed the way I thought about music.” She studied further, spending a little over a year in Brazil learning samba percussion. “I wanted to study in Ghana and Brazil because I wanted to experience cultures where drums were the main event rather than just afterthoughts at the back of the orchestra. I also wanted to get a different cultural perspective on music and being a musician.”
Barnes’s theatrical productions are offbeat. Her musical performances are unique as well. Several years ago she created a concert program entirely for marimba. Performing on a five-octave marimba, with resonators descending from the wooden tone bars and the bass resonators even bending and curving their way to the floor, Barnes opened the concert with a transcription of a Bach composition. Bach is magical in any context, but to hear the Baroque composer’s genius on the Afro-South American instrument was ethereal. The soft notes of the wooden tone bars made the composition gentle and dreamy. The rest of the concert included a duet with an opera singer and 20th-century compositions written for the marimba.
Recently updating International Man of Mystery, Barnes Covidly streamed her show from the Whitefire Theatre in Los Angeles. Still a one-woman show, Barnes has filled out the musical by acting the parts of added characters, including an old roommate, Barnes’s grandfather, and a know-it-all Detective Google. “I made Detective Google into a character because I thought it would make the story more entertaining and theatrical,” she says. “Rather than just saying, ‘Oh, I am going to Google it,’ I could have an actual conversation with Google.”
She credits actor, writer, and director Jessica Lynn Johnson with helping her to identify areas of the original production that needed filling out. Johnson also helped Barnes to develop and act out the additional new characters. “To differentiate the characters you need to develop a stance for them. Every character has a different stance,” Barnes says. For the character of Detective Google, Barnes stoops like Peter Falk’s Colombo but with a smart aleck attitude.
Barnes is currently creating another one-woman show, which will be live streamed from the Whitefire Theatre on November 19th. The theme for this production is consent. “I recently went through an experience where my consent was violated, and it got me thinking as to other times when my consent was violated and times when I violated other people’s consent,” says Barnes. “There are no answers, but I wanted people to think about their own lives and when are they not asked about their consent. We’re not taught to think about things like consent.”