A Journey Through Union Street's Unreal Estate

As part of this year's Look Again Festival, artist Gabrielle Reith created and curated the Unreal Estate Aberdeen exhibition which reflected on and redressed Aberdeen city through new artworks and writing about 10 buildings on its iconic Union Street. I was commissioned to write new pieces for five of the buildings focused upon in the exhibition which were displayed in the Bon Accord shopping centre between 28 May - 2 April. Below you can read each piece, learn more about the research and writing process for it, see the piece of artwork created for each building and listen to new music created by Fitlike Records for the project.

The Tollbooth

At the start of my research, I took a walk up and down Union Street, taking note of the aspects of each building that I found interesting: architectural details, information plaques, how folk interacted with them, what I could see through their windows... For The Tollbooth, I decided to take a visit inside as the building is now a museum displaying various exhibits about its history as a tax office, its later use as a wardhouse, the prisoners it held within, and the architectural changes the building has undergone. Although I've visited the building before, I'd never had a proper tour around the exhibits and was lucky to have my own 1-1 tour with one of the guides, Doug Strachan, who delighted in telling me more about the building's history as well as some great anecdotes about his time working there. I took a ream of notes by hand, trying to capture all the details I'd noted about the building itself (the wee windows, the narrow spiral staircases, the crumbling sandstone) and the stories Doug told.

A few days later, I picked out words and phrases from my notes that still resonated with me and typed them up in a document. I wanted to get the sense of crampness you feel in the building (and the prisoners would have felt when up to fifty were held in one cell!) as well as comment on what little light gets through the building through the small openings in the sandstone. A series of haikus seemed a natural fit, which is surprising as I don't normally write in the form. It really felt like it came together though, when I shifted into using Northeast Scots (Doric) to capture the voice most prisoners would have spoken with over the Tollbooth's use as a wardhouse. The final touch came when I realised that, forming part of an art exhibition, it wouldn't be too bad a thing to play around with the form and layout on the page, and so the haikus zigzag as you read through them, capturing the sense of the spiralling of both the narrow staircases and the prisoners' minds.

Hilary Duncan

Hilary Duncan

 

The Athenaeum

For this building, I did a fair bit of reading on the life and works of Aberdeen's most acclaimed architect, Archibald Simpson. I knew he had a massive impact on Union Street, but I was unaware of just how much work he'd managed to produce in his relatively short life across the Northeast of Scotland and beyond. The best resource I came upon was Archibald Simpson, Architect by David Miller, which gives a thorough overview of Simpson's career and, particularly important for my fabricated letter, a great sense of Simpson's bold, yet charming character. For the final draft of the piece, I looked at examples of letters from around this time to ensure I used a plausible register and the correct salutations.

The building went on to play a central role in the wider Look Again festival, as the launch took place in the basement of The Athenaeum building which now houses Brewdog's first nightclub, Underdog.

Allan Watson

Allan Watson

 

Esslemont & Macintosh

It's strange now to think that this is the only proper prose piece I wrote for the exhibition given that this is the form I work in most, but it's not so surprising that it turned out to be my favourite to write. I gave myself a bit more leeway with this piece in terms of how much research I did as I wanted to be a bit more playful, rather than sticking too closely to facts. I did sift through various images of the former Esslemont & Macintosh department store, which now sits empty except for a Jamie's Italian on one half of its first two floors. However, what caught my attention was a news article about a lift operator named Charlie Gordon who worked in E&Ms for over 40 years, and who passed away only a few months after the store closed its doors in 2007 after around 134 years in business. Given my recent involvement in the National Theatre of Scotland's Granite production, I was also inspired to make reference to this industry as well as Aberdeen's former textile mills, and the beginnings of a certain industry that still dominates the city now.

Given there are on-and-off plans to convert the former E&Ms building into a hotel, I love mixed-media artist Caitlin Hyne's vibrant piece which encapsulates what she'd rather see in this relatively massive space.

Caitlin Hynes

Caitlin Hynes

 

The New Market

From David Miller's book on Archibald Simpson, I also learned a lot about this former Victorian Market which was knocked down in the 1960s and involved the destruction of one of Simpson's most extravagant works: an Egyptian temple-like facade on its Market Street entrance. While I ultimately chose to write a fake news paper article about a lost building and many lost opportunities, I did come across a brilliant STV article about the inShops Market which currently stands in its place; if you want a laugh and a great example of the 'truth is stranger than fiction', have a read here.

Andy Kennedy

Andy Kennedy

 

The Colonnade

Given that the colonnade is a decorative work (a 'funcy dyke' some might say), rather than a building, I decided to focus on its form and neoclassical style. Reflecting on neoclassicism, I was soon reminded of Alexander Pope's 1712 mock-heroic narrative poem, The Rape of the Lock, with its satire on Pope's society through the recalling of heroes from ancient epics, and decided to do something similar for present-day Union Street.

I'm not usually keen to write in strict poetic forms, and while the piece did require the most editing and fiddling to fit a primarily iambic pentameter metre scheme (10 syllables in tee-TUM rhythm), I'm glad I persevered, particularly for the resulting musical take by Fitlike Records, which brings out a very different, unexpected feel to the piece I think.

Anne Marquiss

Anne Marquiss

 

Sitting Empty

I also collaborated with Fitlike Record on the following song to reflect number 520 Union Street, the final building on the street which is currently sitting empty. It features the vocals of Katie Buchan from one of my favourite Aberdonian bands, Best Girl Athlete.

 

The Unreal Estate exhibition was visited by 3170 people across the Look Again Festival weekend, which speaks volumes for the success of the Festival and the cultural appetite of the city. Besides this exhibition, I had great fun playing on Assemble and Simon Terrill's Brutalist Playground, and being a tourist in my own city on Doug Fishbone's Boomin' Bus Tour of Aberdeen! Check out my Instagram for my festival pics.

You can listen and download all the Unreal Estate tracks on Bandcamp, and find out about the other art works, writing and buildings on the Unreal Estate webpage.

Michty Mia! Student Show 2016 Lyrics

Over the past week, the 95th Aberdeen Student Show, Michty Mia!, was performed six times in Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre to around 7,000 people. After being involved in various productions of the local musical in the past, I was chuffed to be asked to write a couple of parody songs in Doric for this Aberdonian take on Mamma Mia!

Design: Alasdair Corbett, Studio Four

Design: Alasdair Corbett, Studio Four

Now that the final curtain has come down, I thought it’d be great to share the lyrics I wrote for this all-round brilliant production which saw over 40 students give over a month of their time to raise tens of thousands of pounds for Aberdeen Students’ Charities Campaign. The first is a mash-up parody of Abba’s ‘Thank You for the Music’ and ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ and the second is a parody of Megan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’. Enjoy!

 

Mannies, Mannies, Mannies / What’s Been Missing

 

Bridgette begins reading Reeva’s diary as the intro plays.

Bridgette (‘Thank You For the Music’):

Bidin’ in Stonie, at times, is a bit o a bore,

fan mam faas asleep, I aften just sneak oot the door.

Fan I feel this lonely, I ken fit to dee:

heid through to the Deen for some male company,

 ‘cos fan I feel forlorn

I’ve an affa bad case o the horn...

Reeva (to ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ chorus, while Bridgette reads with increasing shock; Reeva dances back and forth between all three dads):

CHORUS

Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

There’s nae much to choose fae doon at Estaminet.

Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

Guess he’ll hae to dee, I hivna gotten aa day!

(Reeva and one dad – Al – end up under a spotlight)

Half past ten!

He’s a bit o a mover – really kens hoo to sway,

oh I’ll hae me some Italian ony day.

We decide

to sneak into the lavvies, canna wait to see the sights

that are hidden underneath his tighty-whites.

(Reeva looks shocked and moves away from Al)

But this Italian stud,

his salami was a dud!

(She moves on to dance with the two remaining dads; chooses Glen by the verse)

(CHORUS)

Half past twelve

Am I weering beer goggles? ‘Cos he looks like Richard Gere…

Hiy! Ere’s nae “Pretty Woman” gan on here!

S’pose he’ll dee

‘cos I’m fed up o ess place, oh ma feet are getting sare

and I’d hate for half his bed to end up bare!

(Reeva looks disgusted and moves away from Glen)

But his breath was pretty foul –

I’m back oot on the prowl!

(dancing with the final dad, Broch)

(CHORUS)

Half past two

And we’re baith doon the Boolie, hae-in a pull in his car,

he reclines the driver’s seat back affa faaaaar!

Beeped his horn

fan I climbed owre to his side – oh, I wisna very slick

‘cos I ended up entwined wie the gear stick…

(Reeva waddles away from Broch and sings to audience)

He was an aarite ride,

but I’m never satisfied!

 

Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

There’s nae much to choose fae doon at Estaminet.

Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

Ony loon’ll dee fan Reeva Don’s oot to play!

...

Bridgette (Music back to ‘Thank You for the Music’):

Mum’s never mentioned these men when I’ve asked Who or What?

But Grannie has hinted, that mum used to be a right… nut!

Oh, I’ve always wondered, who my dad could be?

Had zero suspects, but now I have three!

The thoughts making me smile

of my dad walking me down the aisle!

Oh my God!

This is what’s been missing, why I’ve been dreading

turning up to my own bloody wedding!

Why be down about it? Why should I stress out my bae

on our big day?

Oh now I’ve stumbled on this puzzle piece,

I can see this has what’s been missing

to make me feel complete.

 

Aa Aboot the Deals

 

Grannie (backing singers in brackets):

CHORUS

Because you ken I’m aa aboot the deals!

Love a steal!

(Home Bargains!)

An Asda Smart Price meal

maks ma feel!

(Pound Stretcher!)

Thon Tesco Finest chiels

are unreal!

(T K Maxx!)

I’m aa aboot the deals –

Boots meal deal…

(deal, deal, deal)

 

Noo you listen here: way back in sixty-two

Fan I got mairried (mairried), wisna that big a do

We both said ‘I do’ doon at the registrar

Then dooned a few pints, doon at The Grill Bar (Far?!)

 

The kinda money folk will shell oot nooadays,

enough to mak ye boke! There must be other ways…

If I was Bridgette (Bridgette), I’d just elope!

Hoo can these brides be bothered? I would never bloody cope…

 

Oh, my mither, she telt ma “Da buy an expensive dress”

(No, nit-nit, no-no nit-nit)

‘Cos my wedding was shotgun and I was a big fat mess!

 (That belly belly! Urgh! That belly belly!)

Ye ken there’s nae better fit for an ever-expanding whale

than a frock made fae fresh bedsheets oot o the Markies’ sale.

 

(CHORUS)

 

Oh my daughter, I telt her to set up a B and B,

(Aye, aye-aye, oh aye, aye-aye)

to hae somewye to bide far I ay get breakfast for free.

(That bed and breakfast! Ooh! That bed and breakfast!)

And noo I’ve convinced oor Bridgette to wed at the bowling club

So I get member’s discoont on aa my ain drink and grub!

 

Because you ken I’m aa aboot the deals –

love a steal!

(Home Bargains!)

An Asda Smart Price meal

maks ma feel!

(Pound Stretcher!)

Thon Tesco Finest chiels

are unreal!

(T K Maxx!)

I’m aa aboot the deals –

Boots meal deal…

Granite: a True Celebration of Aberdeen

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.

box office image-01 (2)_1.jpg

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:

The products of the granite yards of Aberdeen are to be found in every quarter of the globe. They mark the last resting places of Kings, Emperors, and Statesmen. They may been seen in churchyards and cemeteries on both sides of the Border, in the Dominions over the seas, in the great Republics of North and South America; the in the snowy wastes of the Far North; and even in the arid deserts of Central Africa memorials of Aberdeenshire granite tell the world where gallant British soldiers have fallen.

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.

Granite principal cast and writers.

Granite principal cast and writers.

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.

The programme and a wee granite cassie given to the audience after the performance.

The programme and a wee granite cassie given to the audience after the performance.

You can see images of the production here, and find out more about the wider project on the Granite website.

 

#WriteCity

Across November last year, I ran a series of story writing workshops for Aberdeen City Libraries' #WriteCity Creative Writing Festival. The workshops took place in Cummings Park Community Flat with the same group of participants, building on their knowledge each week to complete and redraft their own story. Across four sessions, we covered character creation, showing versus telling, dialogue and dialect, and avoiding clichés. Although I've worked with university students across several sessions in the past, it was great to do the same in a community setting with older participants who were more willing to be open and share stories in person and on the page.

Participants' work from these sessions feature in the #WriteCity publication, along with work by Alan Spence, Helen Lynch and other workshop tutors and participants. Although written long before I was asked to take part in #WriteCity, my own story begins in Aberdeen Central Library itself before shifting through neighbouring St Mark's Church and His Majesty's Theatre, so it seemed only right that I submitted it for the collection. The publication is free to pick up from libraries throughout Aberdeen.

#WriteCity

Recent Print Publications

Two stories from my Orra Though It Be collection have recently appeared in Causeway/Cabhsair magazine and The Interpreter's House.

I'm particularly pleased to appear in The Interpreter's House for the first time, as the magazine's primary focus is on poetry from some of the best writers in the country, with only room for 2 or 3 stories per issue. As a former Editor of Causeway magazine, it's great to see that it's still going strong and is featuring work from established writers like James Robertson and Christopher Whyte, as well as continuing to encourage new writing in Scotland, Ireland and beyond.

10 things since my last blog post…

I’ve been pretty busy of late which has made writing another blog post a bit of a challenge since my last one in June. So here's a quick catch up on some of the things I’ve been up to in the last 5 months:

1) My story ‘Starnie’ appeared in the latest issue of Stand magazine, and another, ‘Gyurd’, is the November selection for Long Story, Short journal which you can read here.

2) Thanks to funding from a Made in Aberdeen bursary (Aberdeen City Council) I received in May, I attended two writing courses at Moniack Mhor to help develop my writing practice further and to get some time to get on with writing. I promise I’ll do a blog on the Moniack Mhor experience very soon!

3) I visited Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on behalf of Immpact to research follow-up projects to the Mother’s Journey play I wrote for them earlier in the year. As well as visiting two maternity hospitals, we got to experience the city's vast cultural activity and see so many beautiful sights nearby such as the Matopos national park, Khami Ruins and Victoria Falls. This was a special experience that I’ll never forget, and we’re hoping it will lead to long-term sustainable projects in the city’s maternity hospitals.

4) I’ve been running Beginner writing workshops at Cummings Park Community Flat for Aberdeen City Libraries’ #WriteCity writing festival. As well as being a chance to share writing skills with participants, it’s been great hearing stories about their community, their experience of the city and, in particular, their family history.

5) I’ve been asked to speak at a few events recently in relation to my writing career, such as a talk for an arts intervention project ‘Freed Market: How do we feed ourselves?’ and a presentation on what culture means to me for a Culture Aberdeen event. This Thursday I’ll be speaking at a European Cultural Connections conference about the Write Aberdeen/Write Regensburg project; on Saturday, I’ll be speaking to medicine students about the Mother’s Journey play as part of a MEDsin Global Health conference; and next Tuesday I’ll be helping run a session on Global Health and the Humanities for medicine students which will involve the students coming up with alternative endings to the play.

6) I visited Regensburg, Germany to attend the launch event of Passages, the twin city writing publication I coordinated and edited. The launch took place in September on the week of the 60th anniversary of the cities’ twinning, and featured traditional music from both regions. It was great to revisit the city and meet up with all the friends I’ve made over the past couple of years working on the project.

7) I’m currently part of the writing team for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Granite project in Aberdeen. Led by playwright and novelist Peter Arnott, the team of local playwrights are working on scenes that will form part of the final Granite production in Marischal College quadrant next March, as well as a Writers’ Night featuring our individual work.

8) I started working part-time as a Creative Project Practitioner for Aberdeen City Council's Creative Learning Team in July. So far this has involved supporting a school public art consultation, visiting the Tramway in Glasgow to see the Turner Prize nominees with art students from Aberdeen, planning upcoming professional development workshops and programmes for creatives in the city, and lots more!

9) My PhD in Creative Writing was nominated for the Ross Roy Medal for best research in Scottish Literature. Although I didn’t win, I’ve been invited to attend the Saltire Literary Awards in Edinburgh next week, which I’m really looking forward to as some of my favourite writers have been nominated for awards this year.

10) Lastly, I’ve been working away on my first novel. It wasn’t easy at first transitioning from short fiction forms to something larger, but lately I’ve been on more of a roll and have got through a fair bit. This has been a major reason for the lack of another blog post as I’ve really been trying to focus back on writing prose after being caught up in so much else. I could never commit myself to something like the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), because I just DO NOT work at that speed, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this larger project unfolds over time…

 

 

A Mother's Journey

In January 2015, I was approached to write a short play for IMMPACT, a global research initiative based in Aberdeen which seeks to raise awareness of, and overcome, the various obstacles faced by pregnant women in low- and medium-income countries. The brief was pretty straightforward: a 20 minute production for the upcoming May Festival which would focus on the transport issues women in labour faced when trying to reach medical facilities.

Dr Julia Hussein, the Senior Director of IMMPACT, and Shelagh Barr, the group’s Business Development Manager, were very helpful in sending me resources for my research such as: articles IMMPACT had worked on detailing the reality of the situation; Touching Distance, a novel by Rebecca Abrams about Alec Gordon, a real-life Physician in 18th-century Aberdeen who had to face up to a deadly infection killing newly delivered mothers; and links to various campaigns partnered with or doing similar work to IMMPACT including Soapbox Collaborative and MamaYe!

While research for my PhD in Creative Writing would sometimes influence my creative work, this was the most closely linked project between academic research and the arts I’ve been involved with so far. Primarily from IMMPACT’s research, I planned out a narrative structure which progressively outlined the various obstacles many pregnant women in low- and medium-income countries are facing. I then had to decide between the following three options as the best way in which to convey this narrative:

  1. set it in an Asian or Sub-Saharan African country where these issues are particularly prominent in rural areas, making for a true-to-life drama.

  2. take inspiration from Rebecca Abrams’s novel and set it in 18th-century Aberdeenshire, conveying how these transport issues have long been overcome here, and ask why cannot this be the case the world over.

  3. or, take a surreal slant and set the play in modern-day Aberdeenshire, provoking the audience to consider how they’d feel if these issues were taking place on their own doorstep today.

As a writer, the most appealing option initially was the third, as I am interested in surreal and absurd theatre, and often try make the familiar strange and the strange familiar when playwriting. I decided to work on a version of the script along these lines and completed a full draft relatively quickly, given that it wasn’t as constrained as the other options would given the factuality necessary. However, I decided to sit on it a week or so and see how I felt when I re-read it.

Going back to this version of the script, I realised just how tricky it was going to be ensure all of the audience were aware of what the intent of the piece would be; this was also complicated by the fact that problems with the NHS were in the media a lot at the time, and I began to realise that the play could be misinterpreted as a hyperbolic attack on our own health and transport services, rather than a true reflection of another country’s. Around this time, IMMPACT also put in a bid for Twin City funding to build a link with one of Aberdeen’s twin cities, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. As part of the bid, the play would be performed to medical workers from Bulawayo and, potentially, could be performed in the city itself as part of a longer project. This made me reconsider the setting of the play, and so I got to work rewriting the whole piece so that, while the narrative structure was the same, the setting would now be rural Zimbabwe.

The next few weeks I put my ‘researcher’ cap back on and got hunting in the library and online for various resources that confirmed the obstacles outlined in the play could happen in rural Zimbabwe, particularly things like the terrain and weather conditions. I also began re-adapting elements of the language such as the names of characters and using some Shona language like ‘Sabhuku’, the term for a village head. This part was tricky because, as I know from my own interest and research on using Scots in my prose, getting a balance between a use of the characters’ actual language for realism, and a use of standard language for audience accessibility and aesthetic reasons, is always a juggling act. All this effort was worth it, and in the end necessary, as IMMPACT were successful in their Twin City funding bid.

Once I got the play to a stage I felt comfortable showing to, and developing with, actors, I set out to cast 'A Mother's Journey', the title I'd agreed on with IMMPACT. The first actor I got on board was Vicky Parker, a medical student at the university of Aberdeen who’d appeared in various productions in the city including Hairspray, Sweet Charity and the 2015 Aberdeen Student Show, Tilly Elliot. I was particularly keen for Vicky to be part of the project as she helped found the charity Born Positive, which primarily supports children affected by HIV in Mozambique, and so had her own experiences with development in a low-income country. Vicky was up for the challenge of playing Evie and suggested I contact Tehillah Sihlabela to play her husband, Jo. I’d seen Tehillah perform brilliantly as Seaweed in Hairspray, and was pleased when he got back in touch to say he’d like to take part.

Tehillah Sihlabela and Vicky Parker

Tehillah Sihlabela and Vicky Parker

The rehearsal and development process then looked something a bit like this over the limited hours we could all meet due to work and study commitments:

  1. We did an in-depth script read through which was great for helping me catch any uses of language that seemed unnatural or that were overt British or Scottish idioms that had snuck in from earlier drafts.

  2. We spent the next couple of rehearsals blocking the play, which was also useful in terms of deciding the physical logistics of the venue we would be working in, and making my mind up over which props were really essential or would just get in the way of the flow of the piece.

  3. Once Vicky and Tehillah had learned all their lines, one (long!) Sunday was spent running over the play again and again. I think this was crucial as it allowed them both to really consolidate what they were doing and saying in relation to the narrative structure of the play and their own character motivations at each point.

  4. We then previewed the play to my friend Michelle Bruce, who has a lot of directing experience and who I'd recently taken part in Scrapyard with. We worked on the suggestions she gave us in time for another preview for the IMMPACT team at the Suttie Arts Space in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. This gave us the chance to iron out any final kinks in the flow of the play before the final performance. It was also when we got feedback from our two guests from Bulawayo, Dr Davidzoyashe Makosa and Mrs Sikhangezile Moyo. They were both very positive about the piece and said that they would be more sympathetic in future towards women who turn up so late on in their labour to the medical facilities they work in, given that it may be due to the numerous transport issues outlined in the play. Their comments alone gave us a  much needed final confidence boost before the looming May Festival performance...

On the Friday evening of the festival, Vicky, Tehillah and I were all feeling pretty nervous as we arrived on Aberdeen University campus to prepare for the final, sold-out performance. Having worked as a Producer for the Aberdeen International Youth Festival, I’m aware of how tight time can be for tech rehearsals, so had tried to ensure everything was in order for the hour or so we had to run through the play in the Linklater Rooms, the first time we’d been able to practice in the space. Thankfully we managed to get through the whole piece and sort out all the technical issues that could have arisen during the performance: think feedback through the speakers and microphones jumping out of pockets onto hard wooden floors…

Before we knew it, the audience had filled the room and the Zulu lullaby ‘Thula Mtwana’ had begun playing through the speakers. A few years back, I would have been shaking with nerves, but the more work I have staged, the less my heart races before a performance. I was also quietly confident things would go well knowing how much work Vicky and Tehillah had put into learning their lines, but was hopeful that they would go all out for this final performance. That they certainly did, leaving me a bit choked up with pride as the audience applauded them both during their bows.

The performance was followed by a Q&A session; now there really were nerves! Thankfully, one of our guests from Bulawayo, Dr Makosa, joined in on the discussion. She was particularly emotional as she explained how the play wasn’t fiction, but something which occurred every day in Zimbabwe. One audience member questioned what real impact a staged drama could have on the situation, but many other audience members said that the play was a powerful and more human way of getting across IMMPACT’s important research. For myself and IMMPACT, this performance was a way of trialling this method of engaging a wider audience with these issues, and with the great responses from the May Festival audience, we now have the impetus to take this work further and do something on a bigger scale to really raise awareness and make a difference.

After the performance: Mrs Sikhangezile Moyo and   Dr Davidzoyashe Makosa from Bulawayo; myself; Francisco Castiñiera, Lena Dirnberger and Helen Stellner from Regensburg; and Laura Paterson, Aberdeen City Council's Twin City Officer.

After the performance: Mrs Sikhangezile Moyo and Dr Davidzoyashe Makosa from Bulawayo; myself; Francisco Castiñiera, Lena Dirnberger and Helen Stellner from Regensburg; and Laura Paterson, Aberdeen City Council's Twin City Officer.

You can read a review of the play here, and I’ll be sure to keep this site updated with news of future stages of the project. A shorter review of my May Festival weekend can be read on the Aberdeen Festivals blog here.

Write Aberdeen : Write Regensburg

Since 2013, I’ve been working on the Write Aberdeen – Write Regensburg project, a twin city writing initiative which culminated in the launch of a book of new writing at the 2015 May Festival to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the twinning of Aberdeen with its German twin city. The project was born out of an earlier arts project I was involved with called the 100 Words Project which sought to turn Aberdeen’s favourite Doric and Gaelic words into artworks. Interested in possible connections between the use of Doric in Aberdeen and Bavarian in Regensburg, as well as other connections between the cities, I applied for Twin City Funding from Aberdeen City Council to look into developing a project which could celebrate these dialects and cultivate new writing in both cities.

Successful in my funding bid, I visited Regensburg at the end of summer 2013 to meet potential project partners and to get a better sense of the use of Bavarian in the city, and the literary scene in general. Regensburg has around half the population of Aberdeen, but is just as well known for its industrial prowess: many multi-national car and tech companies have bases in Regensburg such as BMW, General Electric, Siemens and Toshiba. However, unlike Aberdeen, it’s hard to tell this when wandering around its spectacular city centre. The medieval Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 and is often described as “the northernmost city of Italy”, with its ancient Roman walls, colourful buildings and cobbled streets. What I found most interesting visiting from Aberdeen was the Schottenkirche St Jackob, a Scots monastery founded in the 11th century which has the names of monks hailing from Aberdeen lined across its walls – the links between the cities clearly extending well beyond sixty years…

As well as sightseeing, I had several meetings with Regensburg residents interested in being part of the project: staff at the Volkshochschule (VHS), a popular adult-education centre who match funded the project; arts organisations from across the city; and Helen Stellner, an Aberdeen quine who has lived in Regensburg for several decades teaching English at the VHS and translating works between German and English. I had met Helen once before in Aberdeen, so it was great to chat with her in her own city and discuss the potential of her husband Norbert, owner of local publisher Edition Vulpes, publishing the final book of new writing. Helen has been vital to the project given her understanding of English, German, Bavarian and Doric, which meant the final translations could incorporate all aspects of the standard to non-standard continuum in both languages, as well as all the help she offered in translating food menus! The meetings with those at the VHS and throughout the city also confirmed a couple of other aspects: that we wouldn’t restrict the writers to using dialect, but that it was an option if they wished to do so; that the theme would simply be to write about their home city in prose or poetry; that we would include images of some kind in the final publication.

Spurred on by the enthusiasm for the project from residents in both cities, competitions to find the winning pieces of writing were set up, as well as free writing workshops to encourage beginner writers to take pen to paper. For me, this was one of my favourite aspects of the project, as it meant that the funding money would not only benefit the final winning writers, but would also encourage new writing on a larger scale. In the summer of 2014, all three fully-booked workshops took place at Seventeen on Belmont Street, a relatively new arts space for Aberdeen. Each workshop was run by a professional writer and focused on different aspects of writing: Alan Spence ran a ‘writing from experience’ non-fiction workshop, Helen Lynch ran a beginner prose workshop, and Wayne Price ran a poetry workshop focused on ‘writing the city’. It was clear from these workshops that there is a big need for these sort of opportunities in Aberdeen as, outside of academic courses, creative writing has often been overlooked as other artforms have thrived; this need combined with the positive feedback from those who participated led to the decision that all proceeds from the final publication would go towards further free writing projects in the city.

After receiving over 90 entries, the five poets and five prose writers who won one of the ten prizes of £100 and publication in the final book were announced in September 2014. I was really impressed with the quality of the winning pieces, and the varied overview they build up of Aberdeen across ten relatively small pieces. It was also around this time that I received confirmation that the book launch would form part of the 2015 May Festival, which gave Helen until the end of 2014 to translate all twenty twinning pieces from both cities, and gave me the first few months of 2015 to edit, typeset and design the book before it was sent off to the printers. Thankfully I’d done a lot of similar work on Causeway/Cabshair magazine which often features Scottish Gaelic and Irish alongside English translations within its pages, so getting the layout correct wasn’t too problematic. Decided the order of the pieces wasn’t too tricky either thanks to the natural flow that stood out of moving through chronological time across the collection, bookended by general overviews of each city. The hardest part was deciding on a title! Helen and I sent many an email back and forth trying to think of something which would capture the sense of moving through time, and the coming and going from cities which many of the pieces explored. Ultimately we decided on Passages as it also conveyed that this was a collection of small pieces of prose and poetry, and it is not too distinct from its German translation, ‘Passagen’. Once this was decided, it was a bit easier to choose images for the collection from previous photography projects between Aberdeen and Regensburg. I chose a picture of the Schottenportal for the cover, the famous doorway of the Scots monastery in Regensburg, given that is emblematic of the connection between both cities.

About a month before the May Festival, the books arrived on my doorstep all the way from Regensburg. It was so exciting to hold the final publication which was of such a high quality: the cover image came out great, all 88 pages are made of creamy ‘Munken’ paper, and each copy is individually shrink-wrapped for protection – I can’t say it’s been as positive an experience receiving proofs and even final print runs of books from UK printers in the past...

Around this time, two writers from Regensburg were chosen to visit Aberdeen to read their work: Lena Dirnberger and Francisco Castiñiera. At 20 years old, Lena is the youngest writer to be included in the final publication, and Francisco, having originally hailed from Galicia before moving to Regensburg, adds a unique Celtic connection to the project. It was fun arranging flights and accommodation for them, and planning what sights to see in and around Aberdeen, but I was nervous as Helen and I headed out to the airport on the Thursday before the festival weekend to pick them up, as I wanted to make sure they’d have a brilliant time. Fortunately they were both really nice and enthusiastic when we met them, and we hit it off properly over dinner and a tour of Aberdeen city centre on the Friday morning. It was great showing them around as it’s always good to play tourist in your own city to remind yourself of what’s on your own doorstep. We visited the Tolbooth Museum, St Nicholas Kirk, Union Terrace Gardens, His Majesty’s Theatre, Marischal College, and even dropped by Seventeen on Belmont Street to check out their exhibitions.

While I headed off to get the IMMPACT play organised for the May festival on the Friday afternoon (another blog to follow soon!), Helen, Lena and Francisco visited Stonehaven and Dunnotar Castle with the Twin City Partnerships Officer, Laura. Francisco has some brilliant pictures of their time their on his own blog which he writes in Galician.

The next morning, we met at the Sir Duncan Rice Library for a quick tour before the book launch. I work part-time at the library, so it was a little odd heading there in my funcy suit, but great fun showing Francisco and Lena round, particularly Lena as she is currently studying to become a librarian in Munich, and is on placement at Regensburg University Library. We then headed to meet the Aberdeen writers who had all congregated in a room at King’s College in preparation for the reading. It was great to see the excitement in the writers’ eyes when I handed them a copy of the book for the first time. Some looked a little nervous though when I then handed them the running order for the reading… I was glad to have been that organised in the end, as we has no time in our venue pre-event and had to follow directly after another reading – after being involved in a few festivals now, I really shouldn’t have expected anything different!

Just as the writers and audience had settled into their seats in the marquee, the rain came on in time for my opening speech... I made light of it, but it was a little off putting to have to read into a hand held mic and make sure I was being heard. It really thumped down during Helen’s speech, but she did a great job of powering through it and keeping the audience’s attention. Thankfully it calmed by the time the readings began. I was really chuffed at how well each reader performed their work, particularly Lena and Francisco who were not reading in their native language; this is even more impressive in Francisco’s case since the original German version is not his first language either. There was a real warmness to some of the pieces, as well as a bit of humour now and then. Overall, it made for a varied and compelling mix which reflects the strength of the printed collection.

After the launch ended, we all headed to the council Town House on Union Street for a Civic Reception hosted by the Lord Provost, who attended the launch in the morning.

The Town House is a beautiful building which really makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time with its regal red interiors and gold-framed portraits, as well as the large Town and County Hall where the reception was held, which features a painting of Queen Victoria worth millions of pounds – not intimidating at all! Thankfully, my speech for the formal part went fine, and I finally got to fully relax and mingle with all the readers and guests. Here are some fantastic and fun pictures taken during the reception by the council’s official photographer Norman Adams, and my pal Kate Sutherland who’s been involved with the project since we launched the competition:

After the civic reception, our Regensburg guests got some rest before a stroll along Aberdeen beach and Footdee; thankfully we avoided the fits of rain, and had plenty of entertainment from the costume-clad Aberdonians heading back into town from the Granite City Comic Con at the Beach Ballroom. On this final night, Francisco remarked how he'd heard Aberdeen wasn't a very attractive city, but that he thought different after all the beautiful sights he'd been taken to – mission accomplished just before him and Lena headed home the next morning!

I got to enjoy a couple of events stress-free on the Sunday of the May Festival: the launch of the thirteenth issue of Pushing Out the Boat, and a talk on ‘Inequality and the 1%’ – both engaging for very different reasons. I also discovered that the Waterstone’s stall had sold out of the stock allocation of Passages I’d given them which was very exciting. They’re now topped up so you can get the book in store at Waterstone’s Union Bridge Aberdeen.

The book is to be launched in Regensburg during Bürgerfest 2015, while sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the twinning will be in full swing in September in Aberdeen where Passages is sure to take centre stage once more. 

Scrapyard Northeast

Before you proceed any further, watch our Scrapyard performance here first. Bear with, and pay close attention to, the first 2 minutes 30 seconds if you want the rest of it to make sense!

During the last two weeks of April, I took part in the first Northeast Scrapyard event at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen. Scrapyard was set up in 2012 by four theatre-makers from Edinburgh who wanted to provide a platform for theatre artists to collaborate and devise new works which take risks and aren’t held back by a lack of resources or performance space. Aberdeen Performing Arts decided to incorporate this platform as part of their ‘Made in Aberdeen’ programme to continue nurturing talent in the Northeast, following on from recent Scratch Night events. Thanks to a slightly calmer April in terms of teaching duties, I decided to apply as it seemed like a rare chance to build on my previous collaborative experiences with Student Show and APA Youth Theatre, and to create something a little different to what I had before.

On the first Saturday I stepped out of the bright sunshine and into the cool open space of the Lemon Tree lounge to be met with a group of faces, some known, some new. After initial introductions were made, we took part in various icebreakers to get to know a little bit more about the other fifteen theatre-makers. I liked the approach of the ‘getting to know you’ games, as they involved filling the space and finding out information about the others in ways I hadn’t done before. However, being more of a writer than a performer, I wasn’t a big fan of the more performative aspects like when we were asked to produce an image with our bodies of what it means to take a risk. All that flashed through my mind was Mr G from Summer Heights High flailing around in a school classroom as his pupils look on in confusion…

Once we’d all become pretty comfortable with one another, we then found out who we’d be working with via a clue hidden away in an envelope. I opened mine to find a metal screw inside, before looking up to see that two others had found the same: Michelle and Mairi. This was very exciting as I was hoping to work with Michelle again as we previously worked on the 2014 Student Show together, and I had only recently met Mairi at APA Youth Theatre as she helped out in the sessions as a Young Leader and we’d discussed how great it would be to work together at some point. Within minutes we decided on our team name – Screw Loose – and were given a ‘Northern Lights’ theme for our piece, as had the other three groups. It soon became evident we were going to get on very well given the bursts of laughter we had over our initial ideas: a Northeast Eurovision entry called ‘The Northern Lights’; a ‘Northern Lights Talent Contest’ featuring a  dodgy host/minister, a questionable psychic, and a Doric ABBA act... Whatever we ended up doing, it was clear it wasn’t going to directly involve the astronomical phenomena in any direct way.

Come our first rehearsal session on the Monday, we’d all had time to reflect on our ideas and realised we’d maybe gotten a little ahead of ourselves in terms of what we could achieve with just three of us in a 15-minute piece and a £50 budget. So we spoke through other ideas we’d had since the Saturday and also discussed how we might want to try and involve some aspect of contemporary theatre even though we hadn’t ended up with a contemporary theatre artist in our group. Michelle proposed the idea of potentially doing a contemporary dance piece side-by-side with two people going about their everyday life, their every daft thought ‘represented’ by the dancer. This soon evolved into what became the idea that stuck: two likely lassies fae Aberdeen who take part in a contemporary dance piece with very different ideas about what their movements represent compared to their camp contemporary-dance choreographer. This idea was solidified after a wee bit of research on the old Youtube, taking the following videos as inspiration: a sketch from French and Saunders I hadn’t seen since the 90s but had never forgotten, and a parody Mairi found called ‘How to Contemporary Dance’:

Over the course of the first week, we developed the dance finding inspiration in these videos and other laughs that came about while improvising (mucking about). We also began writing dialogue for the female characters; much of this came from transcribing snippets of speech from Michelle and Mairi as they riffed what their characters might come out with. It became apparent that we were going full-force with our parody of these two Aberdeen quines, so we decided that my choreographer character would have to be just as satirised, taking on all the preconceptions and nightmare stories people would have of what a ‘contemporary theatre artiste’ might be like… When it came to writing my lines, Mr G reared his head once more, and our own personal experiences with ‘constructive criticism’ and ‘feeling the moment’ also formed part of my character Graham (the most glamorous name I could think of!). In order for me to feel comfortable in the part, I found that speaking in a Glaswegian accent helped me to get away from my own voice and to perform it in a more caricatured style. This is important for someone who struggles with acting: I’ve always found it easiest when the character I’m playing is as far removed from me as possible. It also meant we could have a few digs at Aberdeen from an outsider's perspective, such as the mention of a lack of an IKEA in the Northeast, Graham’s one -stop prop shop.

Halfway through the process, we met up with the other groups to see how everyone was getting on. At this point we had something pretty close to our final script but decided to keep our ideas under wraps – not in case anyone would steal them, but because we wanted to dupe the others as audience members when they watched the piece for the first time later in the week as the first three minutes involved Mairi and Michelle performing a rather dodgy contemporary dance piece dead-pan, before I shattered the fourth wall by getting up out of the audience to give them my 'notes'. If it worked on the other groups, we’d know it would work on the audiences paying to see us who knew nothing at all of what we’d been up to!

In the second week, it was good to keep coming back to the piece and refining what we’d done as this ensured it got progressively stronger. I was grateful that we had so much opportunity to meet up as a group, but was glad we kept our sessions relatively short as I think I would have maybe got bored of the idea and been tempted to try something else. However, nearing the shared performance, I did start to find myself over-thinking every aspect of our piece, particularly how the audience might react at each stage. Thanks to the advice of the others I’ve learnt to just keep it simple and trust in the original idea for future projects.

Come the sharing with the other groups, it was great to see what everyone else had been up to. One group took a big risk using live technology, and another group pulled off a simple but very effective movement piece which was particularly impressive given how much rehearsal time their group had been able to have together. The final group created a more traditional piece which highlighted all of their different writing styles well, but in a way that still seemed coherent as a whole. Thankfully, the other groups enjoyed our piece, found it funny and really got what we were trying to do in terms of parodying the theatre world. This sharing was useful for me in terms of considering my volume and pacing also, as I’m naturally a very fast talker and the Glaswegian accent would often go a bit too breathy to be heard considering we were mic-less.

"I'll seen hae a duncer's body."

"I'll seen hae a duncer's body."

When it came to the final performance day, I was a bit anxious as an illness I’d had the week before had returned just in time for the show... I willed myself not to let it affect anything, and it was maybe for the best the illness happened as I focused more on that being an issue than the other fears that normally creep into my head about performing on stage, such as forgetting my lines. I’d already tried to counteract the latter by having some parts of the script in my choreographer's notebook, but thanks to a lot of practice, I didn’t really need these come the final day.

After a pretty straightforward tech we performed the piece to a proper audience for the first time at 6.30pm. Although the place wasn’t packed to the rafters, we got a big reaction from the audience which really pushed us to go for it in the final performance at 8pm. Having a lot of my friends in for 8pm showing also really helped my confidence as I could pick out their laughter throughout the performance which was a real boost. It was however a bittie hard to not corpse on stage, especially when all three of us were hamming it up more than ever before!

"Finish me aff!"

"Finish me aff!"

After both performances it was satisfying to hear how horrified everyone who knew us was by the first three minutes of the performance and the prospect that we had actually seriously decided to do a contemporary dance piece. It was the last thing anyone would expect of Michelle in particular, so of course they naturally assumed I had managed to convince her to do something which would ultimately ruin her acting career… We had a lot of laughs over drinks about how they’d all sat trying to think up what lie they’d have to say, or how they would have to leave straight away after the show. It was exactly the reaction we’d hoped for  well, for the first three minutes anyway.

I think the biggest thing I got out of Scrapyard was getting some of my confidence back for performing on stage again, and even considering the possibility of performing my own work in future. I hadn’t been on stage for about a year and a half (queue flashback to me sleepily mumbling through song lines in a 24-hour rehearsed version of High School Musical).  As well as this, the possibility of doing further work as part of a Scrapyard group is also on the cards now, and so I’m even more optimistic about the future of theatre in the Northeast. Now I just really need to get back to doing some actual writing for a little while. Watch this space!



'Read and Remember' Workshops

As part of Aberdeen City Libraries’ WW1 ‘Read and Remember’ campaign, I was asked to lead two creative writing workshops last week, one for adults and one for teenagers. Both workshops took place in a fantastic meeting room in the Central Library complete with fireplace, oak table and high walls which gave the feeling we’d been transported back to 1892, the year the large granite building was opened by Andrew Carnegie. Knowing it had existed through both world wars also made it an ideal setting, which was enhanced by the selection of WW1 collections the library kindly laid out for the workshops such as war medals, diaries and a selection of images from the Local Studies library.

I decided the focus of the adult workshop would be on short fiction forms, such as flash fiction and the short story, as we only had an hour and a half per session and it would allow us to read through a couple of examples, and also give the participants the chance to potentially write a complete piece. Shorter forms are also a great way for beginner writers to appreciate the discipline required for an effective story through precise language and omission, which can be applied to all other forms.

For reading stimuli, I selected Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Very Short Story’ and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ since they are two successfully taut pieces which have a focus on The Great War in unexpected ways. This ‘unexpectedness’ was important because I wanted to encourage the participants to consider how their own pre-conceptions about war literature could lead them down well-trodden paths (or trenches!), and that they should try and take a new angle on the topic, otherwise there would be a danger of writing something that will inevitably pale in comparison to the powerful literature we already have from first-hand accounts. As well as their stories, we also looked at writing advice from these two authors; this included Hemingway’s famous ‘iceberg’ principle which is especially pertinent when writing about historical events as, while writers must really do their research, they should avoid including too much factual detail if it’s only going to dampen the narrative force.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
— Ernest Hemingway (1932)

Inspired by Mansfield’s unexpected introduction of a fly into her remembrance story, I asked each participant to choose one of the WW1 images from the Local Studies collections and then connect it to a random image from a selection I provided which included a butterfly, a dream-catcher, a ragdoll, a guitar, a rail of vintage military jackets and a tinned can of tuna. Thankfully, the writing each participant produced was so unique and I was pleasantly surprised at just how high the writing quality in this particular workshop was – I have a sneaking suspicion some of them may have had a lot more writing practice than they let on! The use of time in several of the pieces was particularly strong, and some of the participants commented on the influence of Mansfield’s story on this, which I’d recommend everyone read.

For the teenage workshop, I decided to look at characterisation as I often find that children (and many adults) often neglect to develop their characterisation as they are more concerned with what the plot should be, or about ‘ticking boxes’ in terms of descriptive techniques they’ve been taught at school, such as shoehorning in adjectives and similes…

We started off with a discussion of where each participant takes character inspiration from for their own writing: themselves, other people they know, or something completely made up? It became apparent that they stuck to one of the three, so we discussed how it might be better to take elements from each to produce fully rounded characters. This is important as young people will often rely on what they know too heavily, leading to flat narratives about things that only interest them instead of exploring new ways of thinking and seeing, which writing should really be about just as reading is.

To aid this process, we first read through and discussed examples of different types of characterisation in four different stories from Stories of WW1, a selection of young adult fiction edited by Tony Bradman. We then played a game in which we created a set of unique characters that incorporated different aspects from everyone in the group. Each participant was then given one of these characters at random, and asked to write a narrative which displayed some of the flaws and positive traits the character had been bestowed. Once again, I was really impressed by the writing produced, and found that the WW1 theme had influenced the participants to consider the use of time in their narrative in unusual ways.

To round off the session we discussed how writing using pen and paper, instead of a computer, is the best way to get new ideas into existence as it allows for an unrestricted flow to creativity, instead of the temptation to go back and begin self-editing on a computer. I felt it was important to get this across to young writers particularly, who are being pushed more towards technology within schools and at home, and who may have neglected good old paper and ink. There are several articles online about the benefits of writing by hand, and it’s definitely something I’d consider returning to if you have long neglected the practice yourself.

I was very grateful to by a part of Aberdeen City Libraries' ‘Read and Remember’ campaign, a campaign that has taken place all over Scotland this year. It has now come to an end, but all the books and resources will still be on the shelves in your local library, and I’d definitely recommend a trip to your own Local Studies archives if you’re looking for inspiration from years gone by for your own writing. Having a focused theme of ‘WW1’ during each workshop was a new experience for me as I haven’t run workshops with a connected theme in the past, but it’s definitely something I’ll consider in the future: it led to a lot more dialogue between the participants themselves and a more general sense of cohesion across each session.

For one final piece of writing advice, I thought I would follow Mansfield and take inspiration from this Chekhov quote, which reminds us what stories should really invoke, an important point when writing about a topic like war in which there is often very little comfort and resolution to be found:

What the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question [...] There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true and false writer.
— Anton Chekhov, quoted by Katherine Mansfield in a letter to Virginia Woolf (1919)

Scratching the Surface

Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to have a short play chosen to be performed as part of Aberdeen Performing Arts’ first event in a three-part Scratch Night series taking place across 2015. Scratch nights give up-and-coming playwrights the opportunity to see their developing work performed in front of an audience for the first time. This is primarily for the writers’ benefit as it allows them to see where any issues lie in their script or where improvements can be made, but it also opens up opportunities for actors and directors new to the scene to work alongside professionals and develop their skills. The plays are performed script-in-hand, use as little set as possible and, in most cases, the same group of actors perform in two or more of the plays throughout the night. The actors’ transformations between vastly different characters has been my favourite aspect of these events as an audience member – if you haven’t been to a scratch event before, I recommend you do so soon to experience this!

Sunday’s event had a ‘Black Gold’ theme and so each of the eight plays had some relation to oil, with several focused specifically on the industry in Aberdeen while others were more oblique in their references, which led to an engaging mix. There was even an international feel to the night as one of the performances was composed of three excerpts from a Canadian play written by Katherine Koller set during Canada’s great oil strike of 1947. Find out more about all of the plays via the online programme here.

Having been unable to attend my rehearsal due to work commitments, I was a little nervous to see my play performed not knowing how the preparations had gone. I’ve been part of three similar events before while developing work as part of a playwriting programme run by APA, so I’d been used to seeing the process of the directors working with the actors first-hand, and had been able to suggest changes or provide context for my work when necessary. Usually I didn’t have much to say in these sessions as I found that the directors had really got what the work was about and they often improved it before my eyes, particularly when it came to stage directions and the pacing of the dialogue. It was a welcome relief that, within the first couple of minutes of Sunday’s play, I saw my writing had once again not only been understood by the director (Cameron Mowat), but had been enhanced by the reinterpretation of some of the stage directions, and Paul Hughson and Meg Fraser’s brilliant take on each character. The audience thankfully laughed when I’d hoped, and the more serious moments in the play were handled really well given the piece changes tone quite a lot in such a short space of time.

My favourite plays of the night were Every Time You Go Away by Laura Miller and ESSO S by Adam Coutts. Laura’s play successfully compressed the development of one relationship across several years into ten minutes, exploring the tensions that arise for a couple when one is always disappearing offshore. It accomplished the tricky task of being both funny and moving throughout. Adam’s play went for full-on laughs with a young oil worker struggling to decide which wrapping paper would impress his father most – it was a great end to the night and featured top comedic performances from Michelle Bruce and David Rankine. I thought that these two plays had the most potential to be expanded into longer productions, unlike my own which depicted a job centre appointment and so is probably best kept as a ten-minute piece.

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After the performances, we were asked to take part in a Q&A session with the audience, led by professional playwright and actress Lesley Hart. All Q&A sessions are awkward, but none more than a panel of writers who suddenly become quite shy when asked to talk about their own work! It also doesn’t help that it’s hard to see out into the audience with the only lights in the room focused right into your eye line… Out of the darkness, it was quickly noted by one audience member that a negative view was taken on oil in the majority of the plays. While one writer joked that he was probably just jealous he doesn’t work in oil and make a tonne of money, another rightly argued that drama doesn’t often come out of positive situations. I also passed comment on the fact I was influenced by the current job crisis in the city which isn’t exactly all sunshine and flowers. I think we may have missed the point that was being asked though as it was probably about the fact there seemed to be an overall attack on oil exploration itself at times, and on the effect it has on Aberdeen’s inhabitants. I did try in my play to voice some of the positive sides of the industry, such as it being fortunate given the decline of other industries in the area such as fishing, but I do find it hard to be positive about the rampant materialism and inequality visible in the city today, as well as the larger global implications of oil exploration, and don’t see how any writer could really put a positive spin on these.

Another audience member commented that only two plays used Doric (one of which was mine) and that they would have liked to have heard more. I personally think that two out of eight plays isn’t bad, and that this is pretty reflective of the use of Doric in Aberdeen city today, which has declined faster than it has in the shire where I was brought up. While I often use Doric in my work, I try to ensure that my writing still tackles universal themes, and that it doesn’t rely on local jokes and references; this sort of parochialism has its place in productions specifically targeted at local audiences such as pantomimes, but it can only be a misstep in the long-term for those hoping their work will reach out to a wider audience and will lead non-Doric speakers to an interest in the dialect.

One audience member commented on the fact she preferred this scratch event compared to the last one which featured excerpts from the plays the APA playwrights’ programme I was part of had written. I could see her point given that a self-contained piece will be more satisfactory for an audience rather than something which may appear out of context and hard to follow, as the Canadian piece had been at times on Sunday. Lesley Hart argued for the need for scratch events to showcase work in progress, which is the main reason they ever came about in the first place. The audience member conceded that, in future, it should be about finding the balance between an emphasis on ‘process’ for the writers’ sake, as much as a satisfactory ‘product’ for the audience. I agree and hope that the following Scratch Nights do still allow room for more excerpts from larger works in progress to be performed, although this is a little less likely given that the each event has been themed which will provoke most writers to produce short pieces pertinent to the theme, rather than risking writing something larger to only send in a section of it. However, while the next event’s ‘Northern Lights’ theme may be a tad too restrictive, the final event, ‘My Aberdeen’, does at least allow for a larger possibility of playwrights sending in excerpts from a longer work if they are prone to writing about the city.

Whether or not I write something for the next two scratch nights, and whether or not it is accepted, I look forward to going along to watch these events and would encourage everyone to go to at least one, if not to submit their own writing. All info on how you can submit a play, as well as when performances will take place, can be found on the Aberdeen Performing Arts website here.

  • See more of my previous theatre work on the Drama page.

Welcome

After being able to comfortably refer to myself as a writer for the past couple of years, I’ve finally decided to make this little home for myself online to share my work with the world out there…

On this page you can find links to my short stories and poems, my theatre work, the various creative projects I’ve been involved with, and the writing services I offer, so feel free to browse around and find out more.

This month:

  • A short play of mine will be performed as part of Aberdeen Performing Art's "Black Gold"-themed scratch night at The Lemon Tree on Sunday 12 April from 7.30pm. Book tickets here.

  • I’ve been selected to take part in Aberdeen’s first Scrapyard theatre event from Saturday 18 April to Friday 1 May in The Lemon Tree. This collaborative theatre process will culminate in performances of 'scraps' of theatre devised across the fortnight. Book tickets for the final show on May 1st here.

  • On Wednesday 29 April, I’ll be running two writing workshops for Aberdeen City Libraries as part of their WW1 ‘Read and Remember’ campaign.

  • Issue 13 of Pushing Out the Boat will be released which features one of my short stories, as well as poems I was lucky enough to read and select as a member of the Poetry Panel.

  • The 2015 Aberdeen May Festival programme will be launched, which includes several events I’m involved with such as the Write Aberdeen - Write Regensburg project and my play, A Mother's Journey, written in conjunction with the global research initiative, IMMPACT.

I aim to post about all of these events in coming weeks, as well as other updates, so check back regularly.