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.

FullSizeRenderScratch.jpg

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.