Taking to the Stage

Having had work performed by others earlier in the year (Sister Echt; The Granite Mile), the last couple of months have seen me return to the stage to perform myself. These stage appearances have also marked a progression in my work as I move from completing my first novel, Quines at Sea, to exploring new ideas and projects.

Esther Woolfson reading at Aberdeen Booked Unbound (photo by Lewis Camley)

Esther Woolfson reading at Aberdeen Booked Unbound (photo by Lewis Camley)

First up was Aberdeen Booked Unbound, part of Edinburgh International Book Festival’s On the Road programme. I hosted this fun evening event in the Arts Centre in Aberdeen, with fantastic performances from Esther Woolfson, Jake Arnott, Morna Young and Morna’s band Folkify. As well as hosting, I read the opening chapter of my novel Quines at Sea which covers five women’s escape from Fraserburgh harbour in an old fishing trawler. I read a much earlier version at the May Festival in 2016 when I was only about halfway through writing the novel, so it was great to give it a second outing now that I’ve written to the end of the novel (but not necessarily completed it!) and I'm sure of the characters and overall direction of the work. If you’d like to read the opening chapter yourself, it’s just been published in issue 34 of Northwords Now which is available in print and online.

The next stage outing was much more of a challenge. I was commissioned to write a 10-minute piece about ‘home’ as part of Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From series, a fantastic project where four playwrights from different cities and towns across the U.K. are invited to perform and record new plays which are then all uploaded to an app. Having recently dislocated my knee (long story!), I decided to incorporate this into my piece, exploring dislocation in the sense of 'disturbance from a proper, original or usual place or state'; this involved rapidly moving through many of the homes I was brought up in throughout the Northeast of Scotland and the memories attached to them, memories of movement and unrest, and of stillness and isolation. I was so nervous just before the performance as I've never written something so personal and usually avoid autobiography, but I'm glad I was challenged to do it as it's made me realise I have many more stories to tell, even if I decide to tell them through different characters and perspectives in the future. It was also great to perform alongside playwrights Neil Cargill, Morna Young and Lesley Hart, as I think our plays resonated with each other in that we all come from small coastal towns and have all moved around, generating a complex sense of place. You can read a Wee Review of the evening here.

Finally, I was selected to take part in the National Theatre of Scotland's development opportunity, One Day to Play, as part of their new Engine Room initiative. Led by NTS Associate Director Cora Bissett, this project was all about generating new cross art form ideas, and I was very excited to be paired up with visual artist Kate Steenhauer.

After an initial discussion about how to approach working collaboratively across art forms, we were sent out into the night with a task to gather material from a public space in Aberdeen. After wandering around for a little while, Kate and I finally settled on a bus stop on Union Street as a perfect location to eavesdrop on conversations to gather verbatim text and for her to stand slightly aside and sketch the scene. What was fascinating about this process was that what I heard and what Kate saw told two different narratives, even though we were interacting within the same confines of one bus shelter on Union Street.

We decided to explore this further the next day, gathering more sketches and voices, until we had enough material to create a new piece that could potentially involve a live drawing and a monologue unfolding at the same before an audience, giving different perspectives on the same physical space and scenario. While Kate refined ink drawings from her initial pencil sketches, I got to work on typing up all my (badly handwritten) scribblings from the shelters. Unsure of how to progress with how I could cut, paste and structure the verbatim material into something theatrical and performance worthy, I decided to watch Kate at work, and noticed how she would return to certain aspects of her figures, adding more detail and definition as her drawings progressed, or even drawing them all over again from a different perspective. With the realisation that, over time, an audience watching Kate drawing live would slowly start to work out what her drawings represented, I decided to chop up the text I had gathered, repeating certain lines up to three times, with the next line being added in on the repeat, so that, by the end of the monologue, fully coherent stories are being told by the different voices I embody, and the audience can finally work out the location and who is talking. 

After a few practice runs, we presented this to an invited audience and it seemed to go down well; we're looking forward to receiving the feedback so we can find out more about what caught the audiences' attention most (sight or sound) and their ideas of how we could develop this further, either in a theatre context, or as an art installaton (or both!). It's definitely something Kate and I would like to explore and develop, so I'm looking forward to visiting Kate's studio and collaborating further!

Sarah Ord, Cora Bissett, Kate Steenhauer, Lynn Shaw and me!

Sarah Ord, Cora Bissett, Kate Steenhauer, Lynn Shaw and me!

As you can probably tell, it's been a busy few weeks! Now it's time to do some reflection on the new material I've generated for the stage, as well as new prose ideas I've been developing and consider how best to progress in the coming months... Watch this space!