ED2015 Interviews ED2015 Theatre ED2015 Week1 Edition

Elspeth Turner: Ballads of old inspire writing new

By | Published on Thursday 13 August 2015


In ‘SpectreTown’ playwright Elspeth Turner explores the traditions, history, dialect and folk songs of North East Scotland from over a century ago, before bringing things bang up to date, and considering how that history still impacts on the present day.
Along the way she mined an archive of so called bothy ballads, gathered stories about the secretive Horseman’s Word, and workshopped her emerging script with the community from which she was inspired. We spoke to Elspeth about the inspirations for her new play, the fascinating process she went through to write the piece, and the challenges of writing, producing and acting in a new play.

CC: So, an important starting point, what are bothy ballads?
ET: A bothy ballad is a kind of traditional Scottish folk song, mostly particular to North East Scotland. These songs began emerging really strongly in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. As I understand it, they came out of a changing agricultural landscape which created an itinerant workforce, moving from one big farm town to the next. The unmarried male labourers on these farms slept in very basic out-buildings called bothies, and in the evenings would entertain themselves by singing songs – some old, some recent – though often adapted to make them specific to their own situation – and some new. In these songs the men felt free to praise or criticise the people they worked for, the women around them, and celebrate or bemoan their own status in the town. So they’re a rich source of social history, and often quite funny, as well as being very political.

CC: When were you first exposed to this tradition, and what inspired you to research it some more?
ET: While spending time writing in Portsoy, in the North East, I came across something in a book about The Horseman’s Word. A farm town, from the 1840s and into the Twentieth century, until tractors came in, depended on horses and so also depended on horsemen to drive them. At some point, probably also in the Nineteenth Century, though some say it’s older, a union of horsemen called ‘The Horseman’s Word’ was created. The men of ‘The Word’ were believed to have a particular power over horses, and so they became valuable to the tenant farmers, which gave them some leverage to negotiate better conditions and fees and so on.

Since it was in their interest to keep ‘the secrets of the Word’ amongst themselves, their meetings and initiations were clandestine affairs, mostly conducted during the night in a far off barn. These men were said to have some magical power over women, too, and in some bothy ballads that’s certainly the image they were selling. All of this I found very interesting, as a woman who writes plays and songs, and I wanted to delve some more into this slightly murky-sounding masculine arena, where they freely sang songs from a woman’s perspective too. Then I asked a farmer friend about The Word and he told me quite plainly that he couldn’t discuss it with a woman, so that was that – I had to get into it then!

CC: Tell us the basic premise of ‘SpectreTown’.
ET: At the top of the play, we meet two farm labourers, working in a Nineteenth Century farm town, called Meg and Doddie. They have grown up together and begin falling in love, but this is interrupted when two things happen: Doddie joins The Horseman’s Word, and he also begins following what Meg sees as the radical preachings of a new church minister.

As they reach breaking point, we leave them to join their descendants down the line, who are living in modern day Aberdeen and are in various kinds of trouble. What we look at is how the actions, habits and temperaments of our ancestors might carry consciously down the line, and unconsciously down the bloodstream, and whether it helps for us to be aware of those tendencies and that history, or not.

CC: How have you translated the themes of the old ballads to modern day?
ET: The people writing and singing these songs are trying to make sense of the world around them, and questioning why one man might be his boss and not another. These farm servants were living in incredibly harsh conditions and found a way through it by singing about it. I think there’s great power in that. Nowadays I think we’re encouraged to live quite passive lives, to sit and watch stuff happen, to sort of drown in a deluge of entertainment and distraction. What’s happening now in this country is that folk no longer wish to sit back, they are probing, questioning, contesting the way the world is, where power and wealth is distributed and how. I think by exploring these songs in a contemporary play, we’re seeing that the way people try to assert themselves – with the world and with each other – doesn’t have to be that different. Except that now women have more of a voice where they didn’t before.

CC: Tell us about how you further developed the show in Tullynessle in Aberdeenshire.
ET: We spent a week in the lovely studio at Cumbernauld Theatre working on the play before presenting a work in progress at The Traverse. Then we headed up to present the piece in Tullynessle in the heartland of the old North East farm towns, which felt totally fitting.

We presented some script extracts and songs, and had a lot of chat with the audience during and afterwards with a cup of tea and a scone. We were joined on stage too by the great singer and poet of the North East Sheena Blackhall, who had everyone singing along. The atmosphere was perfect for tossing around opinions and ideas. The oldest audience member was 102 and had a brilliant memory for his days working with horses!

CC: How did the locals there respond to your project?
ET: We were testing the script in its early stages, but they were extremely enthusiastic and generous in their feedback and suggestions, which meant I left with so many ideas and food for thought. Also, it all led to an impassioned discussion about the local Doric dialect, and what it means to them to hear it on stage, which really solidified my intentions to write and put on this play in an authentic North East dialect.

CC: The show has an original score by Matt Regan. How did that come about and how did he go about developing the music?
ET: Matt is an incredibly talented musician and composer. He has been working with us on the project since our development week last October. We began by heading into the archived recordings at the School Of Scottish Studies here in Edinburgh and listened to lots of bothy songs, and interviews with horsemen, mostly from the 1950s. He began exploring how to allow these to feed the contemporary story we’re telling – by playing with electronic music, looping and effects – and I, in turn, let them feed into my writing.

Then once we were in a rehearsal room with our Director, Matthew Lenton, Matt created the soundscape and score through experimenting, really, with all of us on our feet, responding to the story we realised we were telling as we went along. Our wonderful Assistant Director, Rob Jones, also helped to create some of the sound you hear in the show, and he and Matt were so insightful in reflecting and underscoring what was happening in the space. It was beautiful to witness. Matt is on stage with us, creating this feast of sounds and music live, and I love that he’s very much a part of the open theatricality we have in our storytelling.

CC: You wrote the play and perform in it, with Matthew directing in the middle. Is it challenging giving up your script to a director, and then performing to his direction?
ET: It can be challenging playing the three roles of actor, writer and producer – for me and for the whole team – but we generally get through that by being kind and patient with each other. And I am always, always learning. However, I never really felt I was giving up the script to Matthew, we had a great conversation right from the off, and he was always very generous in asking me my intention with certain trickier aspects of it, so that he’d be able to discover how to communicate that intention.

During rehearsals I was also doing a lot of editing and some re-writes – sometimes at home in the evenings and sometimes on my feet in the room – so that was challenging at times, but eventually you have to leave the writing alone and invest completely in the story you’re telling as an actor.

CC: Tell us more about Stoirm Og, why did you set up the company?
ET: I set up the company in order to present my first play ‘The Idiot At The Wall’ at the Fringe. and then the following year used it to tour the play around the highlands and islands of Scotland. We soon realised that there was a hunger in these remote places for powerful, challenging, professional theatre, which poses big questions as well as telling great stories.

I also realised that I loved delving into our country’s social, political and cultural history, and that a great way to do this is through folklore and folk songs. And audiences seemed to love that exploration of history, culture and identity by a young company, especially in an age where older generations might assume young folk aren’t interested in listening to them.

CC: You are currently company in residence at Cumbernauld Theatre. Does having this base help when developing new works?
ET: Yes, bigtime! From the start, everyone at Cumbernauld Theatre has been incredibly supportive. It’s a beautiful theatre and studio too. As a new company, what you mainly need is space, so it was very special for us to have been tucked away in those woods for five weeks creating this.

CC: Why did you decide to premiere the new show at the Edinburgh Fringe?
ET: We wanted to make a certain leap onto an international platform, and in a festival where you are trying to find your audience in a throng of thousands of shows, it felt daunting and so completely necessary to debut this Scots dialect play here. After all, we’re an Edinburgh company and we have this incredible arts festival on our doorstop!

CC: You will be performing in a number of village halls in North East Scotland after the Fringe. Do you expect to get a different reaction from audience more familiar with the tradition that inspired the play?
ET: Yes, certainly, and that’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to about the tour – talking with these village hall audiences and feeling the room vibrate with their reaction to it – good, bad, angry, moved. It’s what people might carry away from our performance that excites me.

‘SpectreTown’ was performed at Assembly Hall at Edinburgh Festival 2015.

LINKS: stoirmog.blogspot.co.uk

Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic