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.
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!
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!