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Aberdeen Harbour

Why theatre in Aberdeen is well placed to tell the story of now

I was recently asked to deliver a presentation on my perspectives on New Narratives within my practice and my work considering both Aberdeen and theatre. And why I chose to move to Aberdeen to work and create theatre in the city and wider north east Scotland. 

This post is a short version of the presentation and through it I set my story, against the story of theatre and Aberdeen and address what I think the new narratives are and why theatre in Aberdeen is well placed to tell them. 

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whist someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Peter Brook 

Theatre is an act of witnessing. In most cases a collective act. Theatres are stages and spaces where stories are told and listened to. Where characters just like us, under go challenges and conflicts, where we lean in, we listen, we are there for them, their stories touch our hearts and in some cases change our lives. To quote John McGrath founder of 7:84, theatre is…

 “a public event, and it is about matters of public concern….. it launches even the most private thought into a public world, and gives it a social, historical meaning as it passes through the eye and minds of the audience.”

I would also add the hearts of the audience.  

I arrived in Aberdeen in October 2014 through a Creative Scotland funded scheme with the remit of working with Aberdeen Performing Arts to initiate producing theatre in the city and region, which, compared to other regions of Scotland had little provision or history of produced work and scant infrastructure, especially in terms of locally based talent and crew, through which to deliver produced performance.  

Prior to coming to Aberdeen I’d lived and worked across the UK and across sectors and across art forms. I studied and specialised in the experimental, the historical Avant Garde and carnival. I’ve an abiding love the classics, especially when they are re-imaged for contemporary concerns. I’ve worked as a travel writer, playwright, therapist and producer. I’ve taken part of women’s marches in Paris, carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, set up performance poetry scenes in inner cities, performed at the Glastonbury festival, made 3D films of live theatre, created site specific new theatre in National Galleries. To name but a few. 

Looking back the thing that links all of these is pushing boundaries to someplace new and providing a stage or a space through which people, often those who would not otherwise be heard, tell their stories, re-write the narratives they tell about themselves and the world they live in. Whether this is through an inner city poetry slam or within the therapeutic space. 

I’m interested in work that breaks through boundaries, takes over public spaces, explores new ways of telling the past, living the present and re writing narratives for new and better future.  This is the quote that inspired me to set up my company. 

“The reason for evil in the world is because people are not able to tell their stories.”  CG Jung 

The theatre that Aberdeen is known outside of the city for producing is the classic north east texts, The Silver Darlings (Wildcat production 1994, Aberdeen Performing Arts production 2009) Cone Gatherers (Aberdeen Performing Arts production 2012) and Sunset Song (Aberdeen Performing Arts productions 2002/2004/2008/2014). Epic stories of love and loss set against the land and seascapes of north east Scotland and the wider epic narratives of history. 

To broaden the backstory of theatre even more, the most memorable characters that fill our stages have thrown themselves against the meta narratives of their times – from the angry young men of the 60s that populated kitchen sink dramas, to black rights through the likes of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, to women finding themselves through education and sexual liberation in the 80s through the stories of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. 

I worked with Aberdeen Performing Arts for four and half years (October 2014 – March 2019) and while there set up a structure through which talent and projects, both local and national, could be nurtured and supported. This starts at Scratch Nights level which is an open submission and open stage, through to supported R&D and finally full productions, with lots of performance related projects in between. 

All of the time I was living in Edinburgh and commuting and fully expecting to return to Scotland’s Central Belt as a next career step and get back to producing theatre there. Because I thought that’s where theatre really happens in Scotland. However, it slowly dawned to me, that the narrative I was telling myself that I was somehow in personal and professional exile in Aberdeen simply wasn’t true. And actually in both contexts I’d found home.  

I tell this personal back story because of the word home. And its importance with both personal stories like mine, but also the meta narratives of now that the theatre we need to create and the characters that will populate it will throw themselves against. 

Until now the meta narratives that angry young men, of mice and men or even the women in The Steamie threw themselves against were ones defined by the nation states in which they lived. And the boundaries of countries and the confines of the politics and histories encased within each, contextualised their stories.

However, the meta narratives of now must break through the barriers of nation states and become global ones. They are narratives of people leaving home on mass to migrate elsewhere. Of climate change, global trade wars, a planet and humanity in crisis all held within an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. These are today’s matters of public concern. 

Aberdeen is a global oil city. It understands global narratives and has done for a long time. Before oil, Aberdeen was a city with a history of ship building and any port is a place where the local meets and mingles with the world wide.  But for the longest time within professional theatre that reaches beyond the city limits, global narratives have silenced the local stories of Aberdeen. 

Now Aberdeen is a city in which artists are finding their voice and articulating stories of past, present and possible futures. It is a city coming home to itself. 

But as Aberdeen changes and artists, theatre practitioners and creatives of all kinds choose to make the city home and find their voices within it, the wider global narratives to give their work and their stories context are ones that will come naturally.  And give the local even more resonance and relevance.  

Someone said to me that I always have my eyes on the horizon. So does Aberdeen. For anyone who wants to create theatre that give voice to the voiceless, explores new narratives and sets personal stories against the meta narratives of our times, where else would I possibly want to be.