ED2021 Caro Meets ED2021 Theatre

Maria MacDonell: Miss Lindsay’s Secret

By | Published on Sunday 15 August 2021

As someone who is always interested in both historical stories and also dragging my family to folk museums, my ears pricked up when I heard about ‘Miss Lindsay’s Secret’, which is currently doing a Fringe run at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The play follows the story of sweethearts separated by the Atlantic ocean, and explores – amongst other themes – how significant events in Scotland’s history still have an impact on national identity.

The play has been written by Maria McDonell, who also performs in the show. I spoke to her to find out more about the piece, as well as what to expect from her in the future.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of ‘Miss Lindsay’s Secret’? What story does it tell?
MM: ‘Miss Lindsay’s Secret’ sees a true story emerging from letters long concealed behind a cabinet at the Glenesk Folk Museum in North East Scotland. They are from Alexander Middleton, who left the glen in 1902 for Canada’s crazy Klondike goldrush. He writes to Minnie Lindsay, his childhood friend and sweetheart. It is a story of two lives and of a love. And it shows the ups and downs of a difficult relationship between the eccentric museum curator and the young correspondents.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
MM: This intimate tale lies within upheavals in Scottish history, which continue to shape Scottish national identity. It is a local tale which explores themes reaching out across time and place – love, homesickness, hope and how to find happiness – as well as desire, greed and the exploitation of First Nations’ land. And it asks whether it is right to make public the private lives of otherwise unknown people.

CM: What was the inspiration for the play? What made you want to create work on this subject?
MM: I have always been fascinated by history and how to tell its stories. I have been involved with the amazing Glenesk Folk Museum for many years. I first read the letters a long time ago and considered different ways to tell their story through publications. But the trigger for this piece was my mother’s recent death, and clearing the house she lived in for 63 years. I was handling all the objects of her life and her legacy and it came to me how to tell this story through my own engagement with it. Our lovely sepia toned set is created with furniture from that house which my parents bought in 1956.

CM: Can you tell us about the musical elements of the production?
MM: The music is created and performed by Georgina MacDonell Finlayson using a collection of different instruments. In solo interludes and musical undertow, she draws from classical, Scottish folk, Yukon tunes and natural soundscapes. The music is essential to communicating the story and filling the whole space with undulating emotional threads.

CM: As well as writing this, you’re also performing – was that always your intention when you were writing it?
MM: Yes. This piece is very personal to me.

CM: Can you tell us about the rest of the creative team involved in the production?
MM: Georgina, who I’ve already mentioned, is a composer and violinist with a particular interest in multi-disciplinary performance. She is completing a Masters at Royal Northern College of Music and is a composition mentee with Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Alan Finlayson is a performer and filmmaker. This summer, we made ‘Miss Lindsay’s Love In Lockdown’, which is available on YouTube, a seventeen minute film highlighting the themes of the play and shot entirely in the story’s real Glenesk locations.

Molly MacDonell Finlayson – who is responsible for our costumes and props – is part of the Scottish Opera costume team which made the stunning costumes for Falstaff in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. She has her own company MacFin, making clothes from sustainable fabrics.

Ian Cameron worked with us for two days at the Glenesk Folk Museum as Consultant Director. He is well known for his considerable experience in all theatre forms including the show ‘White’. We were extremely grateful for his sensitive and creative outside eye.

CM: What made you decide to stage the show in this uncertain year?
MM: This July we were developing the piece with support from Creative Scotland – to be ready for any opportunity. That opportunity turned out to be a Fringe run at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, so we took it. Tickets are selling well and we are all discovering how audiences and performers can come together, distanced and masked, to make theatre happen in these strange times.

CM: You had an early career in theatre, but then stepped away from it for quite a while. Tell us about that.
MM: My parents met as actors at the Glasgow Citizens in 1947. I always wanted to be an actor and my dream came true after university. I was with the Bristol Old Vic at the end of the 80s when my father died suddenly. I moved back to Scotland. I found myself in museum work, journalism, television, screenwriting. Then I moved to Glenesk, had a large family and created an arts charity, while being a college drama tutor for adults with learning disabilities. My life is a story about stories and how to communicate them.

CM: What made you decide to return to live performance? Is it good to be back?
MM: In 2014 I was sitting with my family in onstage seats for the first of the three ‘James’ plays by Rona Munro. Suddenly I had a great urge to just get up there and join in the scene. It was quite alarming really. It simply felt like the place I needed to be. Yes, it is good to feel performance muscles and memories stirring. It’s rejuvenating.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future, for this play, and in general?
MM: We are hoping in September to have some performances in the north to help North East Arts Touring build audiences again. From 25-26 Sep we have four shows at Swallow Theatre for the Wigtown Book Festival. We would like to take the play all over Scotland and the UK, to a wide range of venues from theatres to museums. In the longer term we have to take it to Canada! In general, I want to continue performing as much as possible – in film, TV, theatre, storytelling – in other people’s work as much as mine.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
MM: Immediately comes ‘Cottongrass’ with Harriet Grindley and musician Kai Dudley, commissioned by Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2021. Next spring Harriet and I are reviving our family show ‘Dagba’s Forest Tales’ and I have recently been developing ‘The Not So Ugly Duckling’ as writer and performer with Jo Clifford. With Mike Healey I am writing a radio play ‘Tea With Tutankhamun’, based on an extraordinary true experience of mine. I am very lucky. I always wanted to be a child actor. Hopefully, there is still time for that too.

‘Miss Lindsay’s Secret’ was performed at the Scottish Storytelling Centre at Edinburgh Festival 2021.

LINKS: www.scottishstorytellingcentre.com | www.mariamacdonell.com

Photo: Andy Catlin