I first heard about the National Theatre of Scotland’s exciting Aberdeen-based theatre production, Granite, while at the launch of my twin city writing project, Passages, in May 2015. I discovered the production would involve bringing together different performing arts and writing groups across the city to produce an outdoor theatre spectacle in Marischal College quad to celebrate the history of the city through the stone it’s built from. It was exciting to hear that, just as my initiative to get folk writing in the city was coming to an end, another was on the horizon.
A couple of months later, I was asked to join the community writing team for the production headed up by well-known Scottish playwright Peter Arnott, who’d previously written stage versions of Sunset Song and Silver Darlings produced in Aberdeen.
The group met for the first time in August 2015. It was great to see some familiar faces from a playwriting course I was previously on: George Milne who wrote the fantastic Play, Pie and a Pint, Auntie Agatha Comes to Tea, and Evening Express writer Donna Ewen who’s as passionate as myself about works of theatre in the Northeast tongue. I had also previously met the former Doric Makar Sheena Blackhall, and Sheila Reid, a brilliant actress and writer who produces theatre for Fleeman productions in the city. Everyone else was a new face, which was very exciting as it’s often hard to know who else is writing maybe just a few streets away from you, particularly in a big, busy city like Aberdeen.
In the first few meetings it became clear that I was the youngest and less experienced “Aberdonian” in the team (unsurprising given I hail from Fraserburgh and have only lived in the Granite City for a decade), and so I came to learn so much from the other writers who all had such a wealth of knowledge about the history of both the city and its former granite industry. Thankfully we had a few strands to work on for the show which allowed me to be able to bring in my own interests, as well as trying out something new – projects and commissioned work are always great for that.
The main focus was to write a scene each for a story called “The Rooshian” which would form the central narrative of the final production. This narrative is based on a true story about a quarry worker, James Bissett, and his family who moved from the Northeast to Odessa when it was still part of Russia back in the 1860s. The family were all kicked out of Russia for James’s alleged attempt to start up a worker’s union (or perhaps just for his mere ownership of works by Robert Burns that were a tad too radical for Tsarist Russia), and it was said that they had to walk all the way back to Scotland, with his young son being known as “The Rooshian” into his adult life because of this.
To get to work on my own scene for the show, I headed straight to the Special Collections Centre at Aberdeen University, as well as the city libraries’ Local Studies collection, and came across a few gems on the granite industry. My favourite would have to be William Diack’s 1949 Rise and Progress of the Granite Industry in Aberdeen, which is worth reading for his grand prose style alone. Take this passage about the wide impact Aberdeen’s granite industry had globally for instance:
While there was such as wealth of information on the industry to be found, I had to remember to not get too bogged down in factual detail as it can end up being a major block to creativity. So for a different source inspiration for this project, I returned to one of my favourite Russian writers, Nikolai Leskov, to see which of his tales of Tsarist Russia could give me a sense of life at the time. One of his stories, ‘The Steel Flea’ (also known as ‘Lefty’) is a fantastic folktale about expanding empires, international industries and the craftsmanship of the folk, which I felt resonated with what I was trying to write for my scene in which James and other granite workers arrive in the quarry in Odessa for the first time to pass on their stone dressing skills.
Sharing my first attempt at this scene with the rest of the writers was a useful gauge of what did and didn’t work in terms of plausibility, historical accuracy and humour. Having such a wide pool of people as a soundboard meant it didn’t take long to re-shape the scene afterwards into something that worked a lot better. Hearing everyone else’s scenes also gave me a sense of where my own fit into the bigger puzzle we were all trying to piece together. As I have found time and time again, this collaborative process is essential when writing for the stage compared with the more personal and private process I have with drafting my prose.
As well as our individual Rooshian scenes, we were given free reign to work on other aspects of Aberdeen as a city and interpretations of the wider ‘granite’ theme. I turned to Grassic Gibbon’s 1934 essay on Aberdeen and worked on a modern take on his description of Aberdeen’s 1930s nightlife which compares ‘the watching granite […] on the façades of the great grey buildings’ with ‘the manners and customs of the folk in the streets’. I was also asked by Peter to write a poem based on the research I’d done on the health conditions of quarry workers. I don’t often write poetry, and do find it that it’s easier to complete a poem when I’m given parameters to work within by someone else. The final poem, ‘Granite from the Heart of the Mountain’, was somewhat of a found piece, taking lines from the reading I’d done on injuries and deaths in the industry, as well as thinking about the uses of granite in relation to funereal practices: tombs, urns and gravestones – cheery stuff!
These two latter pieces were showcased as part of a writers’ night for our script team at the Arts Centre in February. This was a chance to get a taster of the final Granite production, as well as have the principal cast perform some of our other work. Having attended a few ‘scratch’ events in the past in Aberdeen, this one was very effective with its simplified, cabaret staging, musical accompaniment from Howarth Hodgkinson, and Peter’s well thought-out order. For small showcases like this, comedy always works well, and Trish Harvey’s pieces are the ones I remember most for their sheer hilarity, performed so brilliantly by Joyce Falconer, Marc Wood and Elspeth Davies, as Doric seagulls and aul wifies.
It wasn’t long for the final event to come round, opening on March 31st for a three-night run. Doing any outdoor event in Aberdeen at this time of year is risky, but thankfully the rain held off for opening night. The audience were sat either side of a long, slim stage in the middle of Marischal College quad which was reminiscent of a ship; it was swarmed by the cast who recalled the past in their Victorian dress, while a futuristic, asteroid-like granite rock dangled above them. The cast was composed of various groups who’d worked on different aspects of the Granite project, including ACT’s Adult Drama group who celebrated individual Aberdeen heroes, APAs Youth Theatre who looked at what the city meant to them and its future, and various dance groups performing traditional Scottish and Russian dance. These narrative strands were all explored throughout the performance alongside the Rooshian story, and while it threatened to become a bit too overwhelming at the start, all of the threads wound together over time towards a powerful and moving climax, which included a visual nod to the Piper Alpha disaster through a beautiful aerial performance, and an on-stage snowstorm which the Bissett family had to weather to find their way home – the 5 degrees Celsius temperature definitely added to this part of the show!
Given the nature of such a large collaborative project which brings together input from a range of different groups, I had no idea whether any of my writing had made it into the final cut, and wasn’t expecting that much of it would given it was a one-act, 70-minute performance. I was chuffed, however, to see that my poem and Grassic Gibbon homage were both used, as well as a trimmed down version of the scene set in the Odessa quarry. It was really exciting to see my work performed as part of such a large, community effort, alongside fantastic pieces by the other writers and performance groups, and the words and letters of bygone Aberdonians.
The sold-out Granite production took place during a busy week for the city, with packed out events also taking place on the same nights to celebrate the Music Hall before it undergoes a two-year renovation. Alongside the buzzing festivals that have already taken place, this week really felt like an important moment in the city’s cultural scene, marking the drive and desire to reach new cultural heights and to make things happen, so the National Theatre of Scotland and all the partners involved can only be thanked for being such a big part of that, and I look forward to seeing more work of this standard produced in our granite city.