ANGUS MCPHEE - Weaver of Grass

ANGUS MCPHEE or MACPHEE was a crofter from Uist who spent almost 50 years in a Highland psychiatric hospital. During this time he chose not to speak - instead he wove a series of incredible costumes out of grass. These he hung on trees in the hospital grounds.

This blog follows the progress of HORSE + BAMBOO THEATRE as they develop and tour a show about Angus....

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Workshop life

Most of the time Alison and I are in and out of the workshop, getting on with making the scores of things we need to have ready for rehearsals in June, but also bobbing in and out of meetings; planning and designing programmes of work for the company and, recently, the Boo Summer Programme; plus those endless bits and pieces of office work that arise on an almost hourly basis. 

Above top there's a collection of Alison's carved puppet heads - of Angus, his sister, and his father. Below is my mask of Angus's father (Neil, who was 70 when he moved back to Eochar with the young children, and at a time when his wife had already passed away). In fact there's no photograph of Angus's father that I know of, so I've had to invent this face. 

Now I'm taking an Easter break, although Alison will be working much of next week. When I come back it's the final sprint to our rehearsal time - a period during which films need to get made, music decided on and written, and recordings of the show's Gaelic voiceovers made. It'll be a very busy time.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The final decision...

This is the image we've decided to use on the poster for 'ANGUS - WEAVER OF GRASS'. 

It features Mark Whitaker wearing my mask and the grass swallow tail coat and 'sun-burst' hat made by Joanne B Kaar. The projection is a photograph of grass taken in Uist when we visited last July.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Image for the poster

We had a great yesterday. It was the day Joanne B Kaar finally met up with us at the Horse + Bamboo workshop in Rossendale, having travelled down from Caithness. Mark Whitaker and Jonny Quick were also around, along with the H+B team, so we had a very concentrated day covering everything we could possibly think of that involved Joanne.  

One main objective was to try out the masks on Mark and Jonny (who will play Angus in the show), with the intention to find an image that we could use as a poster image - given real urgency by the fact that tomorrow is the deadline for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme.

We looked at Jonny as a young Angus, as he might have been before going off to the Second World War:

The highlight was unveiling the swallow-tail coat and the 'sunburst' hat that Joanne has recently made, and Mark wearing them as the older Angus. We spent a long time photographing this - feeling it was the right image for the poster - and Christina Eddowes, our technical wunderkind added projected background of grass taken on Uist. The results were stunning:

Friday, 16 March 2012

Angus advances on all fronts

Work on tour planning is ahead moving fast. Esther is close to finalising the details, as the red dots on our office planner above show - these are the venues we're going to this summer with 'Angus - Weaver of Grass', the  title of the show. See details at the bottom of the page.

On Monday Joanne B Kaar is arriving at our workshop from Caithness (via Pittenweem and Manchester) with her additions to our fabulous collection of woven grass items. Mark Whitaker will be working that day too, as will Jonny Quick, and we'll be sorting out a 'signature' image with which to promote the show. We have to do this as the deadline for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme is Wednesday. It means setting up some photographs in the unfinished set, and perhaps combining masks (below) with projected images. 

Among all the rejoicing is some sadness. The delightful red calf, who Joanne made for the 'Rashin Coatie' story section has been cut from the script - as has the whole story. Why? Because 'Rashin Coatie' (a kind of Scottish 'Cinderella', a Scots story rather than a Gaelic one) is not a story that would have been told in Eochar. This decision was made after discussions with Linda Macleod from Clachan in North Uist, and Mary MacInnes, the headteacher of Eochar School. So in the interest of authenticity we're replacing it with a traditional story that has been retold by the great storyteller from South Uist, Angus MacLellan

So the Red Calf, who sits above my desk, is feeling rather sad. We're desperately trying to create a cameo walk-on part for her. Alison can be seen laughing at the plight of the poor calf. 

FULL SCOTTISH TOUR DETAILS for 'Angus - Weaver of Grass' (times and contact details will come later)
11th July Tiree Feis
14th July CEOLAS, South Uist
17th July Mull Theatre
19th July The MacPhail Centre, Ullapool
20th July Rosehall Village Hall, Sutherland
21st July Resolis Arts, Cromarty
24th July TBC
26th July An Lanntair, Stornoway
28th July AROS, Skye
31st July SEALL, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye
2nd Aug Eigg Community Hall
4th Aug Universal Hall, Findhorn
5th Aug Pittenweem Arts Festival
16th – 26th Aug The Scottish Storytelling Centre – Edinburgh Fringe Festival
10th Sept Lyth Arts Centre, Caithness
13th Sept Dornie Hall
14th Sept Craignish Village Hall, Ardfern
15th Sept Ceol’s Craic, CCA Glasgow

Friday, 9 March 2012

Back to masks

I've spent the past two or three weeks making masks; also reworking the masks I made in a hurry last summer to have with us on our trip to the Uists. The re-working has consisted mainly of deciding on whether to scrim them or not, and exactly what approach to use in painting the surface. 

These two things are related. Scrimming amounts to covering the papier-mache mask with a thin layer of muslin, and we do it to strengthen the mask but also to help protect the paintwork. Paint scratches easily off of raw paper-mache, but clings far better to the cloth of a scrim coating. But scrimming also tends to spoil, to some extent, the modelling on the mask as it fills in detail. So it's always a balance between strength and maintaining the quality of the paint on one hand, and the detail and quality of the modelling on the other. Scrimming is also more likely to spoil a mask that has a lot of fine detail (such as in an old, lined face) than one which has a smoother finish (a child, for example).

So part of the exercise has been finding a way of using paint that works with a partly-scrimmed mask. I've decided on part-scrimming to get the best of both worlds - partly protecting the paintwork and strengthening the mask, but not scrimming the areas of finer detail. 
I seem to be heading towards a painterly finish, which can be seen in the lower photograph. I like painterly masks, and I'm often fascinated to see how alive a mask can be that has been painted with powerful brushwork, contrasts and colours. Many mask makers feel the need to stay close to skin tones and gentle modulations of colour, but my experience is that, especially in the context of stage lighting and backdrops, the painting of a mask can be pushed in surprising ways. 

Monday, 5 March 2012

Alan Lomax on Uist

I came across a short piece in G2 in today's The Guardian - The Year Alan Lomax came to South Uist - written by the Uistman Angus-Peter Campbell. The year in question, 1951, was when the great American folklorist visited Scotland and the Hebrides to record the indigenous songs and stories. 

What is newsworthy is that these recordings have just been made freely available on the internet from the site of the Association for Cultural Equity. Go to - look for the 'SOUND COLLECTIONS' on the left column, choose 'Scotland 1951, 1953, 1957' and follow this link through. This will then take you to two pages of recordings from a number of places including Daliburgh and Garrynamonie on South Uist. 

Of special interest are the songs recorded in Angus MacPhee's home community of Eochar during June 1951. These include 3 interviews and 5 milking work songs by Kate Nicholson, vividly accompanied by the squeeze and rush of milk into the pail. Wonderful!