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

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, Apr 20 2016 05:21PM

I have been in Ólafsfjörður for only one week and, yet, it feels much, much longer. A persistent feeling of deep time, all that has come before and all that will be, is suffocating. Here, in this abstract landscape, I am in a constant state of dreamlike thought. Time has become a surreal concept.

I have been trying to find a way to describe this feeling and, yet, words – my usual currency – seem decidedly insignificant. A few years ago, I came across the Japanese word “yugen” pertaining to 'a profound awareness of the universe which evokes feelings that are inexplicably deep and too mysterious for words'. I believe this means a state of awareness although I cannot say for certain. The word feels bigger than my knowledge but, all the same, it pops into my head whenever I consider the insignificance of man next to nature. This is precisely what I feel here in Ólafsfjörður.

A blizzard has hit. Snow falls and snow falls again and again. On arrival, the sun shining deceivingly, I could see the surrounding mountains dominating every view. Now, they are hidden in the whiteout. For some unidentifiable reason, this makes me uneasy. They are hidden in plain sight.

Ólafsfjörður – a small town in the northeast of Iceland - is both familiar and unfamiliar. The pungent stench of fish, the harbour, the boats – they are part of my habitual history. But their familiarity is tainted by an intangible difference. It is my world through an alien lens.

We are inside a valley, connected to the outside world by two mountain road tunnels, one on either side of the village, great long passageways that seem never ending. Another word that I cannot fully comprehend – claustrophobia – seems appropriate. Inside these tunnels, my skin crawls and there’s a pounding weight inside my head. It is a feeling of being trapped.

I feel a similar pressure inside the village. I usually spend great amounts of time on the road; travelling, searching, asking questions. I have a strange obsession with ‘freedom’. If I stay in the same place for too long then cabin fever forcibly kicks in. Indeed, when the blizzard came, I found myself pacing back and forth, fighting some irrational fear of being confined. The imagination flies.

There is, of course, another escape route aside from the tunnels: the sea. Ólafsfjörður’s harbour and fleet of boats is precisely the reason why I am here. I am working with Sound Artist, Kate Carr, on a collaborative project for the stage. As yet, we don’t know what this will be but our key research centres around fishing culture, memory and musicality. We’re gathering film, photographs and stories with the eventual aim to create a fully immersive performance.

So far, we’ve been working with a community choir to record Icelandic and Scots fishing songs. Kate has been experimenting with rebroadcasting these and I’ve been on the research trail including joining an Icelandic fishing crew and heading out to sea. Much of my study has touched upon the mythology and folklore of Iceland but I am, as yet, only scratching the surface of one area in this magnificent country. I have no idea what I’m searching for but I have a million questions and a growing intrigue. I can sense a gathering force in my dreamlike state.

We’re building the foundations of a story that we cannot yet describe but there are floods of ideas and themes and potential. It is the stage of creative development that I love the most; where anything and everything seems possible. I am especially excited to see how text/performance can be woven with Kate’s incredible soundscapes and how these forms can influence each other.

And, so, with a lack of words, it seems ever more fitting that this project will focus on storytelling through sound. Perhaps my senses are heightened through working with Kate because I find myself listening acutely to everything. The dull silence of snow is deafening. The feelings of abstract time, sense of myth, wonder of nature, the extraordinary in the ordinary and insignificant words. Themes of isolation, loss, memory, being on the outside… I can hear it in the sound. This clip shows a small sample of what we're exploring. Happy listening and imagining.

Morna x

N.B Our residency in Iceland has been kindly supported by both Arts Council Australia and Creative Scotland.

By mornayoung, May 20 2015 06:31PM

When the CATS awards were announced last week, I felt an all too familiar disappointment as I read the nominees. There were, of course, wonderful names and brilliant productions. But the all male list of nominated directors and playwrights showed, yet again, how rife the gender imbalance in theatre is.

Lynn Gardner recently published this blog titled “In 10 years nothing has changed for female playwrights – it’s time to act”. It’s a well informed but frustrating read. What stood out for me most was the term “organised forgetting” coined by playwright and academic Julie Wilkinson. Essentially, many hoped that equality would come ‘in time’ following progress made in the 70s and 80s but a lack of continued commitment has stalled this effort.

I am a female playwright. I am friends with many gifted female artists who, quite frankly, are not given the opportunities they deserve. Over time, I have heard numerous ‘excuses’ as to why women playwrights remain unequal to men in the industry. Apparently women don’t pitch as well as men. Women can’t write about political subjects. Women in their 30s leave and have babies, why invest in them? Blah dee blah dee blah. Most of these reasons are so innately sexist that I’m ashamed to even type them.

People live in fear. Fear of criticising an employer and losing a commission. Scared of commenting about critics in case they get a bad review. Worried about challenging those who hold the balance of power. I understand this. I had a terrible theatre experience in the past where I was treated appallingly and experienced blatant sexism. I felt bullied, vulnerable and, honestly, I didn’t know who to turn to. People don’t like it when you rock the boat. Keep your head down and get on with it. That’s what I did and I’m not proud of it. This is where my biggest problem with the arts lies. Most of us like to think that we’re progressive left types. We fight injustice. We lead campaigns and challenge politics. We’re very good at speaking eloquently about unfairness. And, yet, I don’t think this is necessarily echoed in our own work environments.

I originally trained as a journalist because I believed (as a naïve teenager) that reporting was an honourable profession. I imagined myself exposing injustice and fighting the bad guys. All too soon did I realise that the media wasn’t the vehicle of truth I imagined. The elite at the top hold the power. In recent years, I found a new way of telling the stories around me through theatre. I was perhaps naïve to think that the media was honourable but I see no reason why theatre shouldn’t be.

In November last year, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced her new 50/50 cabinet after “pledging to put equality at the heart of government”. Here we are in Scotland with a uniquely balanced Government. Has this great feat trickled into the arts? A simple answer: no.

Theatre prides itself as being at the forefront of politics but change only happens when people pledge to make it happen. Let’s put this to scale. We’re not talking about defeating poverty. We’re not talking about tackling the bankers or austerity. We’re not talking about changing the world. The challenge that lies before us is actually one that is easily fixed with a bit of time and careful planning. It is not an impossible situation. It’s not even a particularly tricky one. We have an abundance of wonderful female directors, playwrights and theatre makers in Scotland. They are out there. So why aren’t they represented?

Venues and organisations have a responsibility to ask themselves this question. In England, Tonic Theatre’s Advance Programme has been working with 11 theatres including the RSC and The Young Vic to bring concentrated change to the gender imbalance. The 11 theatres involved recognised that something was preventing talented women in the theatre industry from breaking through. They wanted to understand why and to pave a way for tackling this. Advance asked theatres to consider what barriers exist within their organisations that prevent female artists from prevailing. They asked them to monitor statistics.

We cannot keep taking part in the “organised forgetting”. It is everyone’s responsibility to address this and challenge patriarchal institutions. All too often, venues and organisations hold the power. Artists shouldn’t be afraid of the places that present their work. At the end of the day, what is a venue without artists? It’s just a building. Yes, we need them to showcase our work but they need us too. That relationship should not and cannot be one sided. Venues and organisations have to adapt their thinking. They can, very simply, make alterations that permanently change the gender landscape in theatre.

Every year, I attend some sort of women in theatre event, be it play readings or discussions or showcases. These are the types of events that I should be heralding and, yes, it is wonderful for women to have this kind of platform. All too often, however, it feels like these become tick-box “that’s the women’s contribution done” and we all go on our merry ways, back to business as usual. These events have little standing unless theatres actually embrace and incorporate the discussions and feedback. They have to back up a conscious effort to address the gender balance otherwise they simply become excuses for not programming enough women because they’ve had ‘their slot’. I’d also like to point out that, often, women aren’t paid for their contribution to these events.

I am proud to live in Scotland with our 50/50 Government but I would be even prouder to work in an industry that embraced, relished and showcased their commitment to equality. Women’s events are a temporary solution. We need long term monitoring and plans. I’m all for embracing 50/50 quotas but venues and organisations have to take the lead. Gender imbalance in theatre isn’t exclusive to Scotland or the UK. It’s echoed around the world from France to the US. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a country that was used as a positive example of gender equality?

In Sweden, gender equality is taken seriously. They were declared to be the 4th most gender equal country as of 2011 (The UK is 16th. Figures from In Parliament, half their delegates are women – sound familiar? In 2006, the government appointed a committee to investigate gender equality in the performing arts as it was overwhelmingly dominated by men. A vital part of this was gathering data that allowed yearly comparisons to be made. By 2011, 46% of new Swedish drama was written by women. The success of some small actions showed that it is entirely possible to embrace gender equality in theatre with strong commitment and an ongoing monitoring process. This is exactly the lead we need to follow in Scotland. It isn’t good enough to know there’s a problem and to simply forget it. Know the problem and then, for goodness sake, take steps to bring about positive change.

Awards like the CATS will continue to showcase the gender imbalance if programming doesn’t change. Indeed, we essentially accept under representation every time award lists like this are published. Venues and organisations must start to monitor their statistics and consciously consider the problem. Critics need to criticise inequality. If you programme an all male season (playwrights, directors and actors too) then, clearly, there is an issue. If you claim not to know enough talented women then try harder. Go out into the world and find them. They’re there. Form relationships. Nurture and develop the talent. Ask artists what you can do to help foster links. Women are not a minority and it’s important to remember this. At 52% of the population, we are a desperately under-represented majority.

I don’t want to go to the theatre to be reminded that, yet again, women are unequal. I don’t want to see a continued focus on white male stories written, directed and performed by white men. Theatre shouldn’t look like Westminster. It should be diverse and representative of the world we live in. I want to live in a fair and equal country and I most certainly want to work in a fair and equal industry.

Change is possible but we need commitment and ongoing evaluation. We need to celebrate our female talent and remember those that history forgot. We need to lose the fear of asking questions and, instead, open up legitimate dialogue between artists and theatres. Only then will we see tangible results.

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