Morna

Young

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Scottish playwright, actress and musician... writing about writing.

By mornayoung, Apr 29 2019 06:29PM

I’m so pleased by the reaction to Lost at Sea so far but I need to be really clear that the family story at the centre is not autobiographical. The play is dedicated to my dad who was lost at sea and there is verbatim text woven throughout but the central story is fictional. I’m a playwright and my job is to find a narrative that best tells the story I want to tell. I wouldn’t, under any circumstances, put my actual real life on stage. Inspired by, emerged from... I draw from real life a lot in my writing - but this is not directly “my story”. That’s too raw, too personal - most of all, I wouldn’t expose my family in that way. Moreover, my dad’s death isn’t an isolated event. So many men and boats have been lost and I wanted to write something capturing all those voices and stories. If I were writing a memoir, then it would be different - scope for a more intimate exploration of grieving for my dad - but this is a stage play and there is a fictional narrative to drive the story forward. There are collaborators, there is a stage and there is an opportunity to present something wider. If this play becomes solely “my story” then the actual, bigger story I’m trying to tell loses impact. It is the story of many people who experienced a way of life that remains hidden to most. This is a part of Scotland’s history and, really, our present too. It is so much bigger than my one personal tragedy.

It’s really important for me to emphasise the fact vs fiction element because there are many “real voices” in the play and I think they lose their power if this becomes the story of one person. This is where the artistic licence comes in - piecing together a narrative that can, ultimately, support the truth in the best possible way.

Real life doesn’t tie up like a narrative. There’s no neat beginning, middle or end and I have also tried to experiment with this within the form / structure of the play. But this is more than just “a piece of theatre” and I have a massive duty of care to my family and the community to tell this story and to tell it well - these voices haven’t been heard on stage before and there is a huge responsibility attached to that. Right now, I have the privilege of telling this story on a big stage and I really take that responsibility seriously. We all have a responsibility to look at the unheard stories around us - but we also have to be careful about the telling.

This is a play that is full of heart and humour, myth and mystery as much as harsh reality. It is multi-voiced and has many layers. I have tried to write it with a theatricality harking back to big worlds like those created in Cheviot and Bondagers. I wanted to embrace the power of theatre to tell a story of the people.

My storytelling lens is perhaps different because I’m writing from the POV of a working-class woman and that’s not a voice we see on big stages much. Perhaps that also makes the work seem more personal. I’ve been so scared about this opportunity but I’m also aware that it’s a chance to have some larger industry-wide conversations.

To summarise a long thread short - I have a duty of care to protect the story, my family and community that this play was created within. This is bigger than just “a theatre gig” for me. It is a story that I have dreamt up over a long time and it’s my life dream and ambition to write something I can dedicate to my dad.

But that all diminishes if this story is reduced to my autobiographical retelling. I have already given my heart and soul to this play - it doesn’t need to follow the step by step narrative of my own life. The story of two brothers, the family drama, the before, the aftermath, the journey through myth and into politics... it’s created to tell a story that represents an era and a people. I am a part of that era and people - but I am also a playwright and I have to be able to step back enough to look at how we tell stories. This play is my attempt to weave many stories together, to explore unheard lives and to, hopefully, create an impactful piece of theatre that can question, honour and celebrate a unique way of life.

This is a long read (and if you’ve stayed with me to the end - thank you) but I think it’s important for me to clarify these facts as both a person who has experienced an extreme tragedy and as a playwright who wants to tell unheard stories. The two will always cross over and I hope one doesn't diminish the other.

I also really hope that lots of people will go see the play and that they will experience the story with an open heart and an open mind. My personal story is only one tiny part of a much bigger narrative - there are politics at play - and that narrative is what I’d ask you to focus on. One loss is a tragedy - many losses are part of a much, much bigger story.

By mornayoung, Dec 22 2018 01:23PM

“Wherever I live I am in the writer's condition: Work is pleasure and pleasure is work. I find Rome a good place to work. The ordinary Roman is nearly always a ''character,'' which is to say there are no ordinary Romans and therefore life among them, although it may be exasperating at times, is never boring.” (Muriel Spark, 1983).

I am taking a picture of a couple taking a picture. I wonder if they notice me. I wonder what the ethics of this situation are. It is a small, meta experiment whereby I want to capture ‘the public image’ in and around Rome. The location is the Baths of Caracalla, one of the greatest thermal springs in antiquity. Muriel Spark described this place as a “mammoth spectacle with its superabundance of camels and cavalry, its luxurious scenery and massed troops.”. I am here because of her recommendation.

The Baths are quiet today. It is off season and they are away from the centre of town. Still, there are enough iphones and selfie sticks on display to keep me occupied. But my greatest feat comes whereby, turning into a courtyard, I see a woman wearing a full VR headset. In amongst these collapsed vaults and ruins, the juxtaposition of old meets new is extraordinary. I take a photograph and pause for a moment to think: “What would Muriel make of this?” I do not have an answer.

Muriel Spark was an explorer. During her life, she lived in Edinburgh, Southern Rhodesia, Milton Bryan, Kensington, Aylesford, Camberwell, New York, Rome, as well as travelling extensively. She described herself as an exile, yet seemed at home wherever she went. In 1967, she settled in Rome, attracted to “the antiquity of everyday life.”

In 1983, Spark wrote an essay for the New York Times titled ‘My Rome’. Within this, she details each apartment that she lived in whilst listing the atmospheric influences and inspirations she experienced; from the Rome Opera to the Baths of Caracalla, the church of San Pietro to Campo dei Fiori. Rome, said Spark, was “the motherland of sensation”.

I am staying in Italy to follow in Spark’s prestigious footsteps as part of a self-led research and development programme to consider the themes and setting of “The Public Image” (shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 1968). Set in Rome, the novel concerns an up-and-coming film actress who carefully constructs her image to keep her career on course. Written in the 1960’s, I want to explore the ever-contemporary relevance of the central theme – of one’s crafted/projected public image – in today’s online, social media driven society.

I have set myself many interlinking aims for this residency: To follow, visit and explore the places and spaces that Spark cites in ‘My Rome’. To take inspiration and international influence from Spark’s creative haven. To use “The Public Image” and its central theme as a springboard to consider a contemporary response to the piece in situ. To use this theme to consider, interrogate and research Spark’s characters that she describes in and around the city. To carefully consider and develop a response to ‘publicly document’ my own journey to further interrogate the idea of ‘advertising one’s public image’. To further my understanding of using social media and online platforms as part of creative development. To understand and develop ‘complex characters’ inspired by Spark’s eye for detail. And, finally, to use this research as the developmental basis towards writing a play for stage that acts as a contemporary response to the theme of ‘public image’.

Though work has led me to Italy a few times previously, I have never visited Rome. Muriel was a brave woman to write an essay about it; words desert me on many an occasion to describe the vibrant life that exists around every corner. Many a day, I am thankful for her guided walk; visiting the streets she lived on and the places she loved.

The nature of one writer following another intrigues me. I walk many miles every day and, more than once, I think of the film “Julie and Julia” where young New Yorker Julie Powell aspires to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's cookbook in 365 days, a challenge she described on her popular blog. I wonder what Muriel Spark would think of my adventure; would she encourage me to break free and find my own way around the city? I amuse myself with the title “Muriel and Morna”.

Alone in the city, I find myself watching constantly; an observer, witness or voyeur. During a visit to the Roman Forum, I become the official photographer for couples seeking pictures from the top of Palatine Hill. A lassie with a notebook must seem an unlikely camera thief. After a few days, I realise that I have not had a conversation with anyone since arriving, bar the brief ordering of food or drink. This continues throughout my lone trip and, I have no doubt, Muriel would be dismayed by my lack of sociability. In her essay, she describes the lifelong friends she made with the expatriate community in Rome and the many spectacular parties she attended; with writers and actors but, grander still, with ambassadors, cardinals, princes and courts. One of my favourite essay passages describes hierarchical parties and the difficulty of seating guests accordingly. In true, wry Muriel style, she states: “Fortunately these were not my problems, for whenever I throw a party, high and low as it may include, I make it a buffet.”

Socialise I do not but I do partake in one of Muriel’s favourite evening activities; a night at the Opera, though my choice of show – Pinocchio – perhaps breaks away from the classics she adored so much. At this time of year, the programme is a little slimmer. Nonetheless, I have a joyous evening watching the ‘usual’ Opera goers surrounded by young children, boisterously excited to see their favourite story brought to life. On another evening, I visit Muriel’s favourite restaurant, Galeassi’s in the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, where I eat the most divine Carciofi alla Romana (literally, Roman-style artichokes). To my shame, until this moment, I hadn’t realised that artichokes could be served any other way than in a jar. Thank you for the culinary lesson, Muriel. I show her essay to the waiter who delights in their 1983 reference; but, no, they do not recognise her name. I am a little disappointed.

I use Twitter, primarily, to record my journey. I write short posts, include monumental photos and quote Muriel’s words. I enjoy the briefness of tweeting; the concise summary of a moment. When I trained as a journalist, we had to practice writing NIBs (news in brief) – the tiny stories that exist in the side columns of newspapers. Twitter reminds me of writing those NIBs; of condensing news into brief summaries, cutting out all extraneous details. It is a simple, succinct way to publicly document my journey. This is part of my live research but I wonder how these tweets read to others; are they bragging? More often than not, I use social media for work, preferring to keep a small sliver of my life private. With this job, it feels like most of a person becomes available to the outside world. I like to think I can hold onto a tiny part of myself. I ponder over this a lot throughout my residency; about why it feels so important to me to hold something back. My musings lead to no concrete conclusions.

Most days, I walk through Piazza Navona, which “dazzled” Muriel. On one occasion, I force myself to take a selfie to fully embrace the public image through a contemporary lens. Standing in front of a great Bernini fountain, I turn the camera on myself and feel like the biggest wally in the world. I realise that I am much better suited to the role as voyeur than subject. I’m sure in years to come, I will be thankful for this one photo of myself in the city but, for now, I think that my face gets in the way of a beautiful view.

I think often about the infamous characters that Muriel created and, in particular, the complex female ones. Many have been deemed ‘unlikeable’ or even ‘monstrous’; she openly describes Annabel, the protagonist in “The Public Image”, as ‘stupid’. Creating complex, fallible female characters is key to my work. I do not want to simply write ‘strong women’ – I want to write women with strong characteristics. As I make daily notes, I look around at the diverse women I see; I don’t think I have ever seen the reality of these different ages, shapes and races portrayed on television or in theatre. I see women in love, women arguing, women crying. There is one woman I watch for a long time as she tries to take the perfect selfie. She contorts her face and pushes back her shoulders. She looks at the photo unhappily. She shifts her head and smiles. She looks at the photo unhappily. She flicks her hair and shrinks down a little. She looks at the photo unhappily. This take and retake goes on and on with just the slightest shift in focus each time. I wonder who she is taking the picture for and where it will end up. I wonder why she is so unsatisfied by the first fifty or so takes. I pick up my notebook and write a little; not about her per se, but imagining who she might be and why she is here.

Concurrently to reading “The Public Image” and Spark’s essay, I dive in and out of “Curriculum Vitae”, Spark’s autobiography. If anyone’s public image is worth exploring, it’s Sparks. In 1992, she agreed for Martin Stannard to commence work on her biography. This was surprising as Spark reiterated that she thought no life could be wholly captured in words. Furthermore, she had released “Curriculum Vitae” earlier that same year. Spark was not pleased with Stannard’s efforts. Her ex-husband also wrote two memoirs which offered an unflattering portrait. In “Appointment in Arezzo”, Alan Taylor emphasises that the public perception of Spark was very different to her private person. Tapping into Spark’s identity whilst thinking about my own offers a strange narrative; one that blends the past and present, linked only by the commonality of writing.

This merging of past and present is a common theme throughout my residency. Rome, an ancient city steeped in culture, drew Muriel in in the 1970’s and now, I, in 2018, follow her path. I wonder what Muriel would make of the city now; how she would find humour in the selfie sticks or perhaps she too would partake in the carefully curated images as part of a social media driven world. Part of me likes to think she would shy away from it, keen to maintain a sense of the personal and private. She was a classy woman and I doubt she needed to prove that. Nonetheless, I’m sure it would have given her much fodder for her writing.

“The Public Image” feels like a novel much before it’s time; the obsession with curating a life, the perfect photo opportunities and the attempted destruction of an image. The theme feels more pertinent today that ever. Why do we so obsess over how we appear to others? Why do we shape and construct to only show a half truth? How do our real-life identities suffer as a consequence? Of course, there are positives to social media – that I will not dispute and it is not the point of this blog – but image fixation and public identity as a theme feels like rich, fertile ground.

I write a little every day. At each site, I select a point of public image and record a short thought or story about it. Sometimes I simply document the moment. For now, I do not know what this material will amount to but I have opened the door to an interest which is slowly developing and growing in clarity. I wonder if it’s possible to combine all of these thoughts – about Muriel, the past, the voyeur writer, the image obsessed public. For certain, I know that the key character within this work would be the city itself; full of vibrant life and vintage charm.

On my final evening, I return to Piazza Navona and decide to eat dinner on the square. I have avoided this so far, keen to dodge the over-priced, tourist filled restaurants. I order spaghetti and a glass of wine; an appropriate final dinner. I retrieve my notebook and watch the people around me. There are touts selling back-up battery’s and glow-sticks, flashes of cameras capturing Bernini’s beautiful monuments, the sound of busker’s differing songs clashing as their notes meet. I put down my pen and close my notebook. Tonight, I do not want to write; I want to experience.

Muriel Spark remains a mystery to me. Every time I get close to discovering her, I fall back a little more. She was complex and talented and, the more I learn, the more fascinated I become. My Rome residency may have only lasted a fortnight but I know that Muriel’s spirit will stay with me much longer. On the flight home, I feel an old ambition to write a novel sneak up upon me once more and I let myself dream about a place, a people and a public image. “What would Muriel make of this?” I find myself wondering once more. I still do not have an answer.

Thank you to Creative Scotland and the Muriel Spark centenary team for allowing me to embark on this adventure. I can’t wait to continue my literary journey with Muriel in 2019.

By mornayoung, Mar 10 2018 12:40PM

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.

By mornayoung, Jun 28 2017 11:33AM

We all dream. We all have ambitions. Some are bucket list style grandiose adventures. Others are less obvious; aims and mottos to make small changes to our lives. I keep a list for both. The bucket list contains travel plans, long term career ambitions and life challenges. The smaller list is about day-to-day improvements; daily writing and reading, cooking more, waking earlier.

Somewhere in the middle, exists a list of actions that are just a bit further than immediate. Those goals that I have to work towards strategically, the shorter long term plans, the mid scale ideas. Last year, I wrote the word ‘Fellowship’ on that list after a career planning session where I identified a need for more research time, more writing time and greater opportunity to focus on individual projects. After many months of wearing different hats and juggling roles, I desperately needed to reconnect with the writer inside.

Early this year, I interviewed for - and was offered - the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship. This still hasn’t sunk in yet. Even changing my email signature to state ‘Recipient of…’ took a small amount of self-coaching. I wanted to pick up the phone and double, triple check. This is actually happening? No mistakes?

Most writers probably won’t be too surprised by my disbelief. The opportunity for full and focused writing time is unbelievably rare these days. Playwrights tend to be ‘playwrights and…’ teachers / producers / makers / actors / administrators / *insert other bill paying job* etc etc… To say I am honoured is an under-statement. And to receive this particular Fellowship – in memory of the great writing champion Dr Gavin Wallace – is a privilege.

This year’s Fellowship is hosted by the Creative Learning team at Aberdeen City Council (supported by Creative Scotland). The set theme, ‘The Folk, the language and the landscape of the Northeast of Scotland’ feels even more significant. Interestingly, when I wrote my application, I realised just how much my work centres around this theme already. Lost at Sea, Never Land, B-Roads, Netting – the folk, the language and the landscape is ingrained in them all. The Northeast has inspired all of my work to date – and it continues to do so.

As my writing evolves and my interests develop, I still turn to my childhood for inspiration. I turn to the people who have shaped me and the events that impacted upon me. The sea and geography always play an unseen character. The language and dialect bring natural and lyrical poetry. This theme – the folk, the language and the landscape – is in every word, every character and every story. It’s as connected to me as I am to it.

Though announced in February, I ‘officially’ took up the title in late April and my time attached to the Creative Learning team will continue through to next Spring. The bulk of my year will be spent working on new plays but I also sought time and space to reflect upon my artistic journey so far. The past few years have been wonderful but they have been full on and fast paced and chaotic. It’s been all work and very little play, moving from one project to the next with no time to process, reflect and learn; a series of blurred moments without space to breathe between. There are the creative times, of course, but there is also administration and producing and all of the unseen work we all do to keep ourselves moving forward. Last year, I toured Scotland, produced a play, performed in three touring productions, developed two new productions as a maker and set the wheels in motion for two new developments this year, created and performed in Folkify every month, consulted and dramaturged for a community project, spent five weeks in Iceland, took part in a Lyth Arts Centre residency… and I can’t remember the rest. I looked back at 2016 and realised that I was often so busy being a playwright that I wasn’t actually writing plays. It made no sense.

I needed to pause. I needed to stop and to think about where I was and who I am and who I want to be - as an artist but, more significantly, as a writer. What do I actually want to write about now? What interests me? What has led me to the here and now?

The Fellowship is a blessing in every way. Even writing the application allowed me to consider some of the questions above – yes, the folk, the language and the landscape of the Northeast is ever present in my work. But, as time goes on, I realise more and more that it is working class voices and, more specifically, working class female voices that interest me. Why? Because I do not readily see them on stage. I do not hear them on the radio. I do not see them on screen.

The work created by playwrights directly affects the ‘lens’ that we see work through; from gender to language to race to class and beyond. Those ripples spread throughout the industry; by supporting diverse voices on paper, we support diverse voices on stage which impacts actors, creative teams and audiences. If we want more diversity on our stages, on our TVs and our radios, then we need to drastically consider the support we are offering writers who exist outside the white, male, straight, middle class ‘norm’.

This year, I will write a large-scale female ensemble piece in Doric. I will write about working class women, about wealth disparity, privilege and entitlement. I will write about identity and belonging. I will continue to ask myself questions about who I am as a writer and what / whose stories I am choosing to tell. I have questioned my own belonging in this industry many, many times but, in some ways, this is probably more beneficial than I can put words to. If I doubt my place because I am a working class woman then there, in itself, lies a deeper issue.

So I will keep writing and exploring and questioning. I will keep trying to shape and develop my writing and keep striving to challenge myself. I will keep reading and championing the work of Northeast female writers of the past and present. The major difference in the year ahead is that I have the support to make this possible; I will never fail to be thankful for that.

I’m also very grateful to be working with the fantastic writer, Creative Learning team member and generally wonderful human, Shane Strachan, during this Fellowship year. I’ve also been privileged to co-facilitate The Writer’s Room with Shane; an intense programme of professional development for early career Northeast writers. The joy of facilitating is learning as much as you teach. So, thank you, Alison, Sareen, Elaine, Richie, Jan and Frances.

One of my upcoming aims is to set up a writing specific blog separate to my website and I’ll post an update once I finally manage to do that. I’ll also be performing at various events in the Northeast in the coming months, reading extracts of old and, perhaps more importantly, new work.

And, so, to writing…


More soon,

Morna x

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