I initially titled this “New Year’s blog” and aimed to publish it on 1st January. Somehow, time has flown and Spring beckons. The weather seems to be as confused as I am; unable to keep up and a little behind on schedule.
It’s true that time speeds up with each passing year. I remember school days when a 50-minute study period seemed like an impossibly long slog. Now, days and weeks fly past, filled with deadlines and meetings and stuff. They pass with a shimmer; not quite solid enough to grasp onto.
The time to reflect is hard to source. The time to pause and to breathe. The festive season is always when I find myself looking backwards and forwards whilst simultaneously trying to stay present in the here and now. As the celebrations ramp up, I find myself retreating inwards with a desire to reflect and evaluate. I light candles and make lists. I think about who I was and who I want to be.
Every year, I aim to carve out more space for reflection but those precious hours seem to slip away. They are the first victim when last minute meetings need scheduled. I must try harder to safe-guard that time but intentions don’t always translate into action. Time to replenish, re-evaluate and reward. It’s easy to forget to nurture oneself.
I’m writing this now, in March, whilst lying in bed. I had my wisdom teeth taken out so I’ve been forced to take time out to re-coup (pretty drastic action to buy a day or two off…). I couldn’t talk (literally) so work had to halt for few days. It’s the first time that I’ve paused this year and, truth be told, it’s been strangely enjoyable to think only about sleeping, eating (or, at least, attempting to) and when I can take the next round of pain meds.
I scheduled the operation between projects. The last few months have been wonderfully chaotic as various shows, developments, rehearsals and productions all kicked off in various ways. Next week, a new round of projects begins. But, for now, I get to pause for a moment and grasp onto these few days; even though I have a big puffy face and my mouth hurts like hell.
When I started this blog, I wanted to write about the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship which I was fortunate to receive in 2017. I sought the chance to reflect upon the experience; the many opportunities, the highs, the lows. It’s only now, in March, in bed, that I finally have the opportunity to look back.
To give an overview, the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship provides time and space for a writer to develop their craft over a year. It is a rare and extraordinary opportunity to focus on artist development; a chance to be creatively ambitious and fully supported in the manifestation of this. A different host organisation is selected every year and, thereafter, this organisation decides upon a title theme which applicants are invited to pitch proposals for.
In 2017, Creative Learning, Aberdeen City Council were chosen to host and the Fellowship theme was advertised: ‘the folk, the language and the landscape of the Northeast’. When I read those words, my heart skipped a little. The folk, the language and the landscape of the Northeast has been ever and always present in my work; it flavours and informs all of my writing. I applied, pitching a new play for stage, and – to cut a long story short – was offered the position. In June last year, I wrote this blog exploring the process so far.
It’s difficult to know where to begin when looking back. There was the initial appointment which brought a flurry of attention and more social media alerts than I had ever seen. There was the reflection on my own journey as a writer and consideration of how the title theme has developed in my work throughout the years. Then there was the research, the interviews, the library visits and the hard graft of pulling together fact and fiction. Then the preparations and the plot planning; and the discovery that I was writing five plays instead of one. In amongst this, there was the creative engagement with local artists and community groups, the literary readings and special events like the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And, of course, the writing. Lots and lots of writing.
It was a jam-packed year, particularly because of my decision to write five plays instead of one. Well, when I say ‘decision’, I really mean ‘instinct’. I couldn’t stop myself. However, this was an unexpected bonus of the time provided and one that I ran with. The Fellowship offered creative freedom and, rather than containing that, I let it burst out. I unleashed the creative beast, if you will. I let myself write in new and unexpected ways. I allowed myself to explore styles that I had yet to embrace.
Last week, my first Fellowship play ‘Aye, Elvis’ opened at ‘a Play, a Pie and a Pint’. It’s a feel-good comedy of sorts, a Little Miss Sunshine-esque affair featuring a female, Doric, amateur Elvis impersonator. It is completely unlike anything I have ever written. It’s fairly known now that the idea was born in the pub one night when Joyce Falconer and I were having a wee soft drink (aye, right). There was a karaoke session in the club upstairs and Joyce did a wee Elvis impersonation. It was hilarious and I found myself saying “there’s a play in that”. She thought I was joking.
Now, ordinarily, those are the ideas that skip me by because of deadlines and life and capacity. However, whilst on a writing retreat in the West Coast, the idea came back to me and I wrote most of the first draft script in a single day. I wrote it because I had time and space to think; I wrote it because I could.
‘Aye, Elvis’ isn’t the ‘biggest’ Fellowship play I’ve written. It’s not the most hard-hitting (although, I’ve yet to leave the show without a tear in my eye) nor the most serious. But I adore it. I adore the characters and I adore watching Joyce gein it laldy on stage. Moreover, it was an absolute revelation to me to feel such utter joy whilst writing. I laughed my way through, word by word. I would not have had this experience without the Fellowship. Not a chance.
Why is that? I suppose it’s about being able to take a risk. To clarify, when I use the word ‘risk’, I don’t necessarily mean stepping out there into a world of high-end experimental art; I mean, fundamentally, the chance to step beyond everyday practice and to take a risk on oneself. To say ‘I’ve never done that before but I’m going to take a chance and try it’. It’s about not staying safe; not writing the same play over and over. It’s about writing or making the show that scares you.
But, hand on heart, it is far, far easier to try something new when there is financial and institutional support in place. As a working-class artist, I don’t say that lightly. Having financial backing is a rare luxury. I truly believe that this is the biggest flag up that I can make about an opportunity like the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship. It offers artists the chance to make art; to not just think about the outcome but to enjoy the process, to try and to fail and to try again. It’s looking beyond ticking a box or hitting an exact outcome. It’s about trusting that artists will deliver if you give them the necessary resources. Let them play, let them dream, let them create.
I use ‘Aye, Elvis’ as my main example because it opened last week and because it felt so, so very new to me to be writing something that was billed as a comedy. But, beyond this, every play that I wrote took me in a new and unexpected direction and I was able to follow each of these to see where it would lead me.
My main Fellowship play ‘The Stoor’ – initially pitched as a large-scale drama – became a two-hander in development; an intense Blackbird style affair. It is thematically large but told through a much smaller cast than anticipated. However, alongside this, I developed ‘These Clean Quines’ with a ten-strong cast. Then there’s ‘Joy’, my first one-woman show and, finally, ‘Scrubbed’ which clashes harsh reality with young adult fantasy.
I couldn’t have achieved any of this through a normal commissioning process. I couldn’t pitch a ten-hander and then write a two-hander. I couldn’t pitch a hard drama and then write a gentle comedy. I completely understand why organisations need to put boundaries in place but, similarly, I cannot emphasise how luxurious and mind-opening it was to write minus pressures, logistics, deadlines and restrictions. Indeed, I found a new love for playwriting over the last year – the true joy of unrestricted creativity. It’s easier to dream when you know that the rent is taken care of.
Moreover, the freedom to write without restriction also meant that I was also able to explore my work practices in much greater detail; realising that I am slower to research and plan but quicker to write following this type of development. The lightbulb moment within this was realising that residencies work perfectly with this style of writing; where I can shut off the outside world and slip straight into a meditative writing zone.
Each play and project developed during the Fellowship would have been nearly impossible without institutional and financial support to allow time and space for intensive research, development and writing. This is partly due to the quantity of work created but also the varying styles, size and ambitions of each new play. Each play offered the opportunity to challenge my practice whilst developing new skills, insights and experience. It is undoubtedly true that I am a better writer now that I was a year ago. My perspective has changed, my research skills have sharpened and my interests have shifted and expanded.
With ‘Aye, Elvis’ now in production, I will be turning back to the other four plays, each of which is in a slightly different stage of development. In May, APA will host a reading of ‘The Stoor’ as part of Mayfest and I’m excited to interrogate the text and gain vital feedback. A play is never quite ‘complete’ until it is considered collaboratively and put in front of an audience. With this in mind, the work completed during the Fellowship will last far longer than the ‘official’ tenure.
As I reflect now on the past year, I think about the highs and the lows. The moments of doubt (I can’t do this!) and the moments of soaring creativity (I CAN do this!). I think about the title theme and how I have developed my response to this. I think about the chance to interrogate what interests me at this career stage and honing in on this; working class women, multi-disciplinary work, language, etc etc. I think about the nurturing and inspiring landscapes that I was afforded the opportunity to work in; from the west coast to Cove Park to Gardenstoun. I think about the people I met and the creative exchange I experienced with writers beyond my everyday life; poets and novelists and journalists. I think about the outreach and community work and the folk I met during this; the stories that were shared and the interpersonal moments of connection.
Receiving this Fellowship provided vital support at a time in my career where I needed time and space to write. In previous years, I had struggled to 'buy' writing time in amongst an increasingly busy work load. What use is a writer with no time to write? With time to reflect, I understand – more than ever – the importance of opportunities like this that focus on artist development. I only wish that investments like this were more common in the arts. If this were the case, I think we would start to see a landscape of new, exciting and progressive art beyond anything that we can currently imagine. A writer rarely writes ‘the great play’ the first time around. But what about play five? Play ten? Beyond? Play three might be panned but it may just be the breakthrough in discovering the genius in play four. You don’t hit gold without mining through the layers. Invest in your writers and they will keep growing, keep progressing and keep surprising.
Before I sign off, I want to mention Shane Strachan, my project co-ordinator on behalf of Creative Learning (and also a fabulous writer himself). As I look back on my Fellowship tenure, I cannot emphasise enough the support that Shane provided. His belief, encouragement and backing were vital to my experience. Shane is someone who makes things happen; no matter how off the wall the idea is. Most recently, we worked together to develop ‘The Money Tree’, an event that allowed me to interview older people about finances as part of Luminate. Shane took my words and ideas and transformed them into living, breathing actions; in this case, an actual tree with actual money (well, fake money), surrounded by piles of golden coins. I dreamed; he delivered. Sometimes, it just takes one person and, for the last year, Shane has been that person. I can’t thank him enough for being a rock, a friend and a legend.
And so, it’s time for me to sleep, maybe eat something mushy and take more pain meds. Soon, it’ll be back to work proper and onto the next round of projects. Maybe I’ll be more disciplined in the coming months with carving out more time for reflection. Or maybe I’ll start another Spring blog and publish it in the Autumn. My final Fellowship engagement will take place in May, marking the end of a truly remarkable time; although the plays themselves will keep developing and living. And soon, the new Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship recipient will be announced and the mantle shall be passed forward; I can’t wait to see what they achieve in the year ahead.
I, unfortunately, never had the great pleasure of meeting Dr Gavin Wallace but his legacy lives on; his unwavering belief in Scottish writers, his championing of talent and passion for contemporary writing. It’s been an honour to be a part of this valuable and rare opportunity in his name.