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, 9 November 2013

Angus is resting...

The Angus - Weaver of Grass set has now been carefully stored away; our technical equipment has been filleted out from the staging and the props and is ready for re-use in Red Riding Hood and other future productions. In the course of doing these things we have also measured and sorted everything in case the next journey for the show is to Canada.

Esther has reported back from her trip to Nova Scotia and we're very excited about the prospect of the show crossing the Atlantic. Of course this isn't a straightforward thing to do - funding for the travel has to be found, and a decision has to be made about how the large elements of the set - mainly the woodwork - are transported. Jonny has started doing some work on this - and the solution will be to rebuild them in Canada in advance of the tour. But by who? Do we send someone over, or do we find someone to do the job for us? The job isn't totally straightforward because as anybody who has seen 'Angus' knows, everything is at odd angles! Fortunately we do  have old friends Anne and Brad, of Shadowland Theatre, living and working on Ward's Island in Toronto, and perhaps they would know how we could do this? I've written...

Meanwhile our attention turns to other projects while the actors/performers have moved away to other things, although Jonny Quick and Mark Whitaker are both involved in soon-to-happen H+B shows. 

For now there's lot of work for Esther to do, seeing if she can move forward the idea of the east Canadian tour (plus there's interest in Germany too), and the memories and friendships that were made these two past summers in Scotland.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The final show

Last night was the final show of the 2013 tour of Angus - Weaver of Grass. Nice to have it at home, in our theatre at the Boo, and with a sold-out show. The cast had driven up from London after a busy few days on tour. But everyone got down to business and did, for one last time, the big job of unloading and setting up the show.

Theatre shows are organic things, and 'Angus' is no different to any other in this respect. The last time we did the show at the Boo it was the Preview, before it went off on its epic tour. Now it has returned, and the comparison with Joanne B Kaar's wonderful replica weavings seems apt. It, and they, have gained a real patina and character, now possessing a rich lived-in quality. But it (and Joanne's weavings) are also fraying slightly at a few of the seams; small holes are appearing from the physical battering - objects strewn and pushed around the stage; hasty changes backstage and discarded puppets thrown in piles - that they get at every performance. If the tour was to continue this would be the time to allow a few days of rest and repairs, a little rehearsal and some sea-air....but in reality it's actually the final show and, importantly, the magic is still coming through and the audience are left transformed. 

So my congratulations and thanks to a really exceptional cast - Mark, Mel, Jordanna and Jonny, and let's all hope that Angus gets another outing another day.

Sunday, 20 October 2013


The 2013 tour of Scotland with Angus - Weaver of Grass has just ended, and the company are now heading south for shows in Oxford and London.

"Exceptional piece of theatre!! Well worth watching - thought-provoking all the way through" 17.10.13

I've spent just a couple of weeks with the tour, spread over two months, so I've only experienced a small part of life on the road with the show. But everywhere I went, at least, I was astonished by the warmth of the audiences and the positive reactions to, and interest in, our show. The audiences were usually large - we've often commented that arriving at a hall stuck seemingly on its own in a remote location, with hardly a dwelling in site, it's hard at first to picture where an audience would come from, let alone have one. Then, 30 minutes before the show is advertised one or two people arrive, and these are followed by strings of cars arriving from all directions and, with 5 minutes to go, the hall has miraculously filled to capacity. 

"Totally stunning, with a richness that depicted an extraordinary life, an amazing gift, while at the same time revealing the pain of mental illness. It was also a story of a sister's love and of coming home - wonderful - breathtaking." 18.10.13

The performing team have been unfailingly impressive too. Remaining cheerful even when confronted by those moment-to-moment problems that inevitably emerge when you're trying to fit a large and complex show into a new space every few days. Touring is tough - long days and nights; unable to get home for weeks on end; surviving on a diet of macaroni cheese pies and sweeties, and so it's good to see a group making the best of it. 

"All produced in a manner, with a reflectiveness, worthy of its subject, much to ponder and much from which to take heart." 18.10.13

Thanks also to Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig for the support they've given us and their faith in 'Angus', and to the promoters and venues throughout Scotland that have welcomed the show to their spaces. My impression is that they were seldom left disappointed. 

"Poignant, beautiful and very emotive. A fantastic production." 18.10.13

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

New Scotland

Angus - Weaver of Grass prepares for its three final 2013 shows in Scotland; these happen to be in Paisley (presented by Weaving Musical Threads, in association with the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival and The Royal National Mod).

Meanwhile Esther Ferry-Kennington, our wonderful Producer, is in Nova Scotia at the Celtic Colours Festival, discussing the possibility of the show crossing the Atlantic.

Seems an odd place, where Truro is 60 or 70 miles north of Halifax, which is 100 miles north of Liverpool...still the hospitality, she tells me, is wonderful - and there's lots of interest in the idea! Exciting stuff.

Nova Scotia of course has plenty of connections with Scotland (the clue is in the name) and the Gaelic language/cultural connections are very strong...

So who know - maybe next year? But for now get on over to Paisley Arts Centre at 7.30pm this coming Thursday or Friday, and 2.00pm on Saturday for your last chance to catch Angus - Weaver of Grass, before it crosses the border and heads to London, via Oxford.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The gentle weaver

I'm just back from a short trip to Inverness - meaning two days and one night. The reason was to join Karrie Marshall (founder of Creativity in Care and author of the recently published Puppetry in Dementia Care: Connecting Through Creativity and Joy) in a guided walk round the grounds of what remains of Craig Dunain Hospital, where Angus MacPhee spent 50 years of his life, and where he began his weaving with grass.The walk was part of SMHAFF (Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival). Karrie had been involved at the very beginning of this 'Angus - Weaver of Grass' adventure because soon after I had decided that I wanted to create a show about Angus MacPhee she met with our Producer and (then) CEO Helen, who were looking at the feasibility of a tour, and showed them Craig Dunain and gave them an introduction to Angus's life there. 

Yesterday, we met at the duckpond...

...which Karrie said was one of the favourite places for the inmates/patients. I could see why. The hospital was set in 200 acres of grounds, but the pond was in a part not too far from the main building so people could easily walk to it. Craig Dunain was self-sufficient in many ways, with its own piggeries, cow herds and farms. It was on one of these, Kinmylies Farm, that Angus worked and showed his prowess at working with animals.

Here's Karrie arriving...

We met at 6pm - I had arrived early, but it soon turned out that 5 of us in total were joining Karrie on the walk. It had also turned very cold and by the end Karrie's hands were too cold to hand out the inevitable feed-back forms we were asked to complete. 

Karrie started by giving us a brief introduction to the history of asylums and the care system in Scotland, and of Craig Dunain in particular. Which, at the moment, looks like this:

A small part of the site has been made into smart housing, and there's a housing estate on part of the grounds, but the paraphernalia of flags and site offices that was there when I last visited 18 months ago had gone - all victims, I imagine, of the recession. 

After seeing the ruins of the old hospital we went back into the woods, and it was now too dark for much more photography. We passed the pet cemetery, and walked to the old paupers cemetery, which is now gradually returning back to nature...

Karrie showed us photographs of hospital life and, teeth chattering, we conversed sharing memories and stories, and talked of Angus. How people remembered him as a gentle giant, a man who seemed content - in his own way, how in the early days he worked wearing the woven grass clothes of his own manufacture, how he was able to collect potatoes even wearing heavy grass mittens, and how these kept him warm, while the other inmates - like us - probably just shivered. 

The hour passed quickly and then Karrie gave me a lift back into Inverness and so to my hotel, to eat, warm up, and enjoy a few drams. A very special and worthwhile visit in memory of Angus MacPhee, the gentle weaver; something I'll remember for a long time.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A break...

Above, the 'man of grass' image from Angus - Weaver of Grass, with Mel Deans and Jordanna O'Neill. 

Yesterday's return shows (we played there at the Festival Fringe) at Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre are over, and Mark, Mel, Jonny and Jordanna - the four members of the touring team - now have a few days well deserved break. These last shows were part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival (SMHAFF) and our next few shows too, starting at Eden Court One Touch Centre in Inverness on Saturday12th will also be part of the festival.

Mark Whitaker messaged me to say that the matinee show yesterday was almost full, and the evening show was sold out. He also mentioned that, briefly, the mains supply to our backstage computer got knocked and disconnected during the evening show. Given this controls our sound and video it can have a pretty big impact on the performance - still Mark said that they (the cast) 'covered well' and all was quickly back under control. Something to try to avoid, certainly, but I do have sympathy as I've seen the size of the backstage area at the SSC - less than one metre width to change and move about in, and given that the performers are sometimes moving about backstage wearing masks and suits of woven grass, it's so easy to catch a cable or one of the other hazards lurking behind the set. Mark went on to say the feedback was excellent, and I've now just read the Comments Book and I'm amazed, delighted and humbled by what people are saying about the show. 

Worth pointing out too that 17th-19th October, Thursday to Saturday, will be the last opportunity to see our show this year in Scotland, when we're at Paisley Art Centre and there's a jamboree of events centred around Angus MacPhee - Joanne B  Kaar, Roger Hutchinson are involved with workshops, book signings, and more including a showing of Nick Higgins film 'Hidden Gifts'. Sounds like an amazing end to our Scottish tour; click the link to find out more from the Weaving Musical Threads site - Angus in Paisley, which also includes information about additional venues for Angus-related events.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Comments on 'Angus - Weaver of Grass'

Photo:Tim Bradley

A small selection from our Comments Book since my last blog:


"What a powerful and moving production. I must learn Gaelic before I die. Thanks for coming to Angus."

"This was an amazing and touching story and the way it was performed was beautiful. Five stars!"

"Mesmerising performance, the singing both mellifluous and beautifully haunting. Thank you for such an intimate portrayal of an intriguing man."


"Fantastic. The best thing I've seen in a long, long time."

"A beautiful story brought to life - a brilliant performance - very powerfully told."

"Wonderful. Beautifully portrayed. You brought tears to my eyes again. *****."

"Beautiful and inventive - I love the puppetry. Can't imagine a better way to tell a story. Thank you for a unique experience."


"Spectacularly conveys the dreadful feelings Angus must have felt after leaving S. Uist. BRILLIANT performance interpretation."

"Amazing emotional and compelling journey. Fantastic use of different media beautifully combined. Loved the singing especially."

"What a story and what a performance. The cast and crew are to be congratulated on telling the story so well and involving the audience in the whole experience. Moran Taing!"

"This was proper theatre - what an experience. Visually stunning."

Sunday, 22 September 2013

An eventful trip

I've just returned from visiting the Horse + Bamboo touring company - Mark, Jonny, Mel and Jordanna - on Deeside; partly to see the company and partly to film the show.

Banchory - Woodend Barn

First stop was at a really beautiful and well run art centre, Woodend Barn, at Banchory – close to Aberdeen. Here we had a great turn out, the 120 seater almost full and a very, very enthusiastic reception.

Some of the comments:

Wow! Lost for words...moved to tears. Thank you”

Exquisite theatre + art + music. Thank you for a stunning piece of art and a real tribute to the human spirit.”

One of the most interesting theatrical performances I have ever seen”.

Braemar Village Hall

Then, after a drive to Inverness to the opening of the Scottish Mental Health Art and Film Festival at Eden Court I drove back through the Cairngorms to Braemar and the tiny but characterful village hall. Here we were welcomed by a small and mysterious group of very talented musicians greeting the audience as they arrived by playing in the foyer. Again, there was a great reception for the show:

You took me on a journey into the life of Angus. An amazing story, brilliantly told, evocative, emotional, educational – a tear was shed, a wonderful performance – thank you – a visual picnic and feast.”

Magical. Brilliantly conceived and performed. Very moving – thanks.”

The road to Glenshee

Then through Glenshee to Perth and the Weaver of Grass exhibition in the Museum and Art Gallery. One of the things this year is how much is happening related to Angus MacPhee. In Inverness there are guided walks of the places he worked (on Wednesday 9th October at 1pm and 6pm, with Karrie Marshall at the site of Craig Dunain, the mental hospital where Angus lived for 50 years); a reading of poetry by Chrys Salt and a talk by Roger Hutchinson, author of 'The Silent Weaver'. Saturday 12th October is 'Angus McPhee day' – a celebration of creativity, and alongside these activities our friend Joanne B Kaar will be running a grass weaving workshop, and our show will be playing at Eden Court Theatre at 7pm.

From the exhibition in Perth Art Gallery and Museum

The Perth exhibition is very impressive, and it also features the film of Joanne demonstrating how Angus made his weavings. The gallery includes great examples of Angus' work collected by Joyce Laing, including several that I hadn't seen before. It's overwhelming and very pleasing to see so much interest now in Angus and his work. Posters and flyers of the exhibitions, our show, and these various Angus-related events and activities are to be found all over the country. How much has changed in just one year. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

MJ and WA

Thanks to all of the organisers, including Anna NicGuaire, of our memorable trip to Islay for forwarding some of the comments and reviews they have collected from our visit, including the great photograph above of Mel (MJ) Deans with the puppet rapidly gaining a reputation as Wee Angus

Some of the comments:

“It was a really spellbinding amalgam of mask theatre, puppetry, physical theatre, storytelling, music and multi-media...a memorable piece of work”

“Funny, desperate, moving; oh, my heart. Wonderful”

“Bha sin àlainn a-raoir...wonderful, sensitive, visual treat...go see”

“Great theatre company...great production”

“The puppet 'Wee Angus'...quite stole the show, reflecting the skill of the puppet designers and makers...The large audience in Bowmore Hall, many visibly moved at the emotional end, thoroughly applauded the performance.”

“...the play was wonderful, and the reaction since has been great.”

Monday, 9 September 2013

Two Joyces

The Angus tour continues on the mainland, and tonight it's the first of our BLAS Festival shows - at Fortrose Community Centre. The Festival celebrates Gaelic language and culture in 9 days of a packed programme of events including music, dance, film, food, literature - and Angus - Weaver of Grass. For more information visit the BLAS site by clicking here, and our own itinerary can be found in the column on the right of this blog.

The last couple of days we've been in Perth, taking our place in the series of events celebrating Angus MacPhee and Art Brut (also known as Outside Art or Art Extraordinary). Our shows, at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, have been very well received, with some glowing comments posted on Facebook. The events were opened by Joyce Laing with a talk about Angus MacPhee and his place among outsider artists. Joyce, of course, was the woman who discovered Angus working on his grass-weavings at Craig Dunain hospital.

Those of you who have seen our show will know that in the current version we've bought the character of Joyce Laing into the action. Joyce isn't mentioned by name but anyone who knows anything of Angus' story would recognise her part in our telling of it. So in Perth the two Joyces finally met (proof above). Joyce Laing and Mel Deans who plays the masked representation of her 1970s self!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A short trip to the Islands

The first glimpse of Muck
Our Horse + Bamboo tour arrived on the Isle of Muck last Wednesday, and I was fortunate enough to accompany them. The island, with a population somewhere between 30 and 40, is tiny - just a mile wide; two miles long. It is notable for being self-sufficient in power, with large solar panels and several wind-generators that provide all their needs - and which did a thoroughly decent job of providing us power for Angus - Weaver of Grass

Mark drives our van, while Jonny, Jordanna and Mel walk to the Community Hall.

28 people turned out for the show - almost 80% of the population! Despite having no blackout the show worked well. It started in close to broad daylight (the hall has large roof lights) but night drew in just as the story gets darker - so the contrast from the light of Angus' early years to his later travails and the long period of incarceration in Craig Dunain was echoed by the changing and dimming light in the hall. 

The show was very well received - everyone staying around for tea and cakes, and to chat with myself and the cast. What a hospitable community! We were fed and watered, and then provided with lovely rooms for the overnight stay, before being waved off from the quayside the next morning. An amazing visit!

Arriving on Islay, Port Askaig.

Then on to Islay, after returning to Mallaig and a drive south. 'Angus' was on at the Bowmore Hall, where 80 people turned up - the arts committee were overjoyed by the size of the audience, and a good few of them were Gaelic speakers. The response at the end was electric - and just about everyone stayed behind to chat, look at the masks and puppets, buy copies of The Silent Weaver book by Roger Hutchinson (which we sell after the show along with Nick Higgin's film Hidden Gifts about Angus). Comments in the book were full of delight and astonishment at our production. So all in all a wonderful trip, and a reminder of the powerful impact that theatre can have on audiences. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Off to Muck

A few days to recover, mend the caisean-uchd, the van, and the horse masks, and tomorrow we're off to Mallaig ready for the ferry to Muck on Thursday morning, followed by a quick sprint down to another ferry, this time to Islay.

I've found time between jobs to read the Comments Book from Edinburgh, and it's full of glowing comments including:

"A story of beauty, sanity and one man's truth. Courageous, weaving through life itself. Stunning production in its vast sway of talents."

[From Liz Lochhead]:
"The most beautiful, moving, magical & amazing show about Art & extraordinary, ordinary life."

"Second time and it's even more profound"

"Beautiful singing"

....and so on!

Soon we'll be back in Glasgow - at Partick Gaelic School on Wednesday 4th September, and then on Thursday 5th there's a special event at Perth Museum & Art Gallery relating to their exhibition 'Weaver of Grass' about Angus MacPhee, which obviously relates to our show there on the 6th and 7th September, and finally to say that our  old friend Joanne B Kaar is running a special grass weaving workshop at Perth a month later - on the 7th October.

Worth saying that tickets for the Glasgow Partick Gaelic School performance can be bought directly from our website shop - click here.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

A key turns in the door

The show that really excited me most in Edinburgh was the Peter Doig exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery. I don't much distinguish between theatre, performance or visual art exhibitions. Doig's work I had seen before in reproduction and the odd single painting, but not en masse as in this exhibition.

Peter Doig: Jetty

Walking through the exhibition I had to consider my expectations of what painting was about; what constitutes pure painting; what place does narrative and commentary (of a kind) play in the visual arts. Thinking about the experience of Doig's show, and reading the catalogue afterwards I felt a key turn in the door.

Angus, from Angus - Weaver of Grass

When creating Angus – Weaver of Grass I struggled with the facts of Angus MacPhee's life, and it's setting (at the beginning) in the (to me) exotic place of South Uist. How to represent the place; how to represent the culture of the place; how to do this without lapsing into stereotypes. Then how to do the same for Angus's wartime experience and his decline into a madness, and then the half-century spent in Craig Dunain hospital. Doig's paintings do the same – whether it's painting the Canada he grew up in, or Trinidad where he now lives. The exhibition is titled after Robert Louis Stevenson's words: 

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”.

Doig's paintings constantly show him wrestling with memory and place through the medium of paint. As a result they frequently have an awkward quality, and it takes effort and time to enjoy this. I feel the same way about aspects of Angus – Weaver of Grass, such as the move into a self-conscious archaism with the Knight and the Dragon, and the mish-mash of movement, film and imagery in the war-time descent to illness scene.

Peter Doig: Young Bean Farmer

A few people have commented on their frustration on the continually changing way that we tell the story of Angus, and I compare this with the way that Doig continually struggles to keep his canvases alive and rich with meaning. I consider a 'good' performance of the play is when the audience are alert to the happenings and stories and ideas on stage but don't think too much about the way we achieve them – rather they feel them, enjoy and sense them, in the way I eventually felt myself drawn into Dog's paintings.  

Friday, 23 August 2013

A short visit to Edinburgh

Edinburgh from the Grassmarket

Back from a brief visit to Edinburgh to see Angus - Weaver of Grass at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, at Netherbow on the Royal Mile. The city on the first day was incredibly hot and sultry, and on the next it had an odd and persistent mist hanging in the air, somehow making the castle even more the looming presence over the city.  

After the wonderful opening last Friday at the Boo (see previous post) I approached the Edinburgh show with some nervousness. The Storytelling Centre is in most ways the perfect venue - central, well-appointed, and with a genuinely welcoming feel to the whole place. But we know from last year (when we also performed Angus at this venue) that the stage is very, very cramped for our particular show. The performers have less than a metre backstage to change in, squeeze by one another on the way to coming on-stage, plus store the many props, masks, puppets and costumes. The depth of the stage also means that our projectors have to be placed 60 or 70 centimetres nearer to the set than we need, so they are both more oblique to the stage screens, and the image projected is smaller, so it doesn't properly cover the stage. The third issue is that we can't use our own lights and sound because of the same lack of space and, alongside necessarily restricted time to set up, the focusing of the house lights and balancing of sound can create serious problems for such a visual show. 

For me, the director, the first show I saw was spoiled by just these problems. The cast did really well, but the technical issues meant the piece only partially worked - it 'fired on three cylinders' I told the performers afterwards. It's worth saying that the audience appeared to appreciate it as much as ever, and this was born out by the writings left in the Comments Book left in the lobby of the ST Centre.

Our set in the Netherbow Theatre, Scottish Storytelling Centre

After the show there was time to give notes and feedback to the performers, and we planned that I arrive during the next day's setting up period and that we tried to find time (difficult with just a short changeover) to look again at the sound settings. This we did - finding just 25 minutes to alter various settings. 

The show that followed was wonderful. I'm so impressed by Jonny, Jordanna, Mark and Mel - taking all this in their stride with good humour, and then delivering an immaculate 75 minute performance! 

One comment left for us:

"I never cried watching a show before, and I never felt life so close to me" 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

We open...

Jonny and Mel

The first show of the 2013 tour opened at our own small theatre the Boo last night. A full house. A magnificent performance. Great to see so many friends, old and new, there too.

It was a relief, of course, to see that 'Angus' still has the power to move and exhilarate an audience. There were tears, wonder and joy in equal measure. The anxiety we all felt a week before rehearsals were due to begin is long behind us, and with Jordanna, Mark, MJ and Jonny we have a really superb team of performers. 

Mark and Jordanna

Watching the performance from our balcony last night I also thought about the contributions of so many others - the great animations by Christina Eddowes, Daniella Orsini and Ellie Chaney. The unique grass weavings by Joanne B Kaar, and the work done by Mairi Morrison and Fran Merriman to form the shape of the original production. Not forgetting Alison Duddle's puppets and the tremendous music and sound score by Loz Kaye.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Three days away

Mel (MJ Deans) in the foreground, with Jordanna O'Neill and Mark Whitaker and (glimpsed through the doorway) Jonny Quick, backstage during today's rehearsal. 

Today we ran the show for the third time. Loz has tweaked some of the music and sound, and MJ is now doing all of the narration and singing without her prompt sheet. It's working well - in particular the narrative tone is beginning to develop, and as Jordanna begins to familiarise herself with her masked roles, their characters are beginning to feel more three-dimensional.

At this stage many of the problems are simply the logistics of remembering which screen to move at what time and to where, or finding the right places to stop for a split second and make quick eye-contact with the audience. But these things are beginning to come - before long we'll need an audience. My guess is that it will be on Friday; three days away.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

A first run

Mel Deans sits at my desk and colour-codes the updated technical cue sheet from Angus - Weaver of Grass. In the foreground a card from Frances Merriman, unable to take part this year, wishing us all luck with the production. 

On Friday afternoon we ran the whole show for the first time. After just five days of rehearsal. Mel and Jordanna O'Neill, our other new cast member, have really done amazing work. Not only do they have to remember their roles, but all the technical cues (the performers also operate lights, sound, and video) and the choreography of moving screens and puppets around the stage. In Mel Dean's case there's also all the mainly unaccompanied Gaelic songs and the narrations to learn. 

The run was good too. Plenty to do next week but it's a relief to take a weekend break feeling this confident about the new production and the cast. Of course Jonny (Quick) and Mark (Whitaker) remain from the 2012 production and they've also done an great job of helping Mel and Jordanna find their way into the show.

I'm told that we still have tickets left for the preview/opening show of the 2013 tour. This is at the Boo, in Waterfoot. So if you want to be there, right at the start, it's next Friday August 16th, at 7.30pm. Go to our on-line shop and snaffle yourself a ticket. It's to be found at .

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A week on

It's just the second day of rehearsal and already the mini-crisis last week has been put well behind us. 

Monday there were the usual introductions and a meeting with Esther to deal with the logistics of the tour, the sorting of contracts, and suchlike. Today we started looking at the show in earnest, with Loz having a one-to-one afternoon singing session with Mel (MJ Deans).

Above there's Mark with Jordanna rehearsing the suitcase puppet story of Angus's childhood, and Mel learning her lines (or more likely the accompanying song). The eagle-eyed among you will spot that Jordanna has two fingers strapped up, following an incident during an Edinburgh Ghost Walk (please don't ask). Despite this progress is good; we've covered the first two scenes (of seven) pretty thoroughly and, yes, the two new performers are doing brilliantly. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Last minute wobble

Just five working days to go and I receive a message from one of the new performers who has joined our Angus team asking for a 'chat'. Slightly ominous I thought, but perhaps nothing...a last minute question about their accommodation arrangement or a 'would it be possible to attend a best friend's wedding and leave early one day during rehearsal?' type of enquiry.

But in the event it was a request to pull-out of the tour completely as they had been offered something 'too good to refuse' for a series on BBC Alba. I said, of course, this was totally unreasonable and would leave us with a number of serious problems. She went back to the TV company and asked if there was room to manoeuvre - there wasn't. 

For anyone at all familiar with working in theatre this kind of situation is surprisingly rare, but when it does happen it always causes a major crisis. Actors in a touring team are chosen for how well they are expected to get on with one another as well as for their acting abilities, but after an initial hair-tearing and table-thumping by the director on the whole it is usually possible to replace one actor with another - there are, after all, a lot of unemployed actors out there. Five working days is a bit of an extreme time-frame however, and when one is looking for a particular skill set, puppetry skills for example, it gets considerably harder. But when looking for a fluent Gaelic-speaker and singer with acting skills it becomes really difficult. Then there's the fact that you are looking for someone who just happens to have a totally free timetable for the next three months - and starting on Monday! Help!

It's hard to avoid feeling bitter about these things too. All that effort into setting up auditions in Glasgow, and asking Mairi and Loz to travel to be part of the selection process. The keen performers who are rejected - and then it turns out to be all to no avail. But there's not much to be achieved by feeling angry - on the whole actors and theatre companies are very honourable and honest about such things, even if and when they're offered something better. Best to get on the phone and email and start looking for a replacement. 

This we did, and with help from Loz (our Music Director who needed to be part of selecting a singer) and Mairi, who somehow seemed to alert half of Scotland to our mini-crisis. Within twelve hours people were contacting me, and within 23 hours I was offering the role to someone else. In fact to MJ (Melissa) Deans.

Melissa accepted the offer enthusiastically. We had in fact auditioned her in May, and we had been impressed then, although not chosen her because although a fluent Gaelic speaker she wasn't from the islands - rather from Cumbernauld, who had been educated at Gaelic medium school. But she now joins a very relieved company and the Angus touring group that now consists of Mark, Jonny, Jordanna - and Melissa!

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Marram weaving on Anglesey

Last week I took a break in Anglesey, before we put the Angus - Weaver of Grass set up (next week) and finish any repairs that are needed before rehearsals start (the week after). 

In the museum at Llangefni (Oriel Ynys Mônthere were several references to grass-weaving, particularly of marram-grass, just as with Angus MacPhee. The weaving of mats in marram-grass was apparently an important cottage industry here, especially in the Newborough (Niwbwrch) area in the south-west of the island, with its large dune system (which included a vast rabbit warren) and where there's still a Marram Grass Cafe. 

This picture above is of Ellen Williams, of Newborough, weaving marram grass, taken from the Casglu'r Tlysau (Gathering the Jewels) Archive. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Repairs and renewals

Repairs and repainting have started on the 'Angus' show. Mainly simple repairs like the one above on Angus's geldings ears (!) which get battered somewhat when transporting the show, and repainting of the colourful screens used in the 'garden' scene. 

There are a few bigger jobs too - making a new mask for the Gardener character, for example. I had made a mask to fit a male actor but in the event the role was played by Frances, and to me it always looked too big. This year it will be Jordanna who plays that part, so I'm using this week to make a new, slightly smaller mask. 

There are also changes to be made to one of the animations - an extra 25 seconds of film, which Christina will be working on between now and the start of rehearsals - Monday 5th August. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Narrator

Angus's house in 2012
I spent the afternoon and evening looking at the film of last year's tour of Angus - Weaver of Grass, and reviewing the relatively small number of changes I want to make to the show. Most of these are, in essence, technical and a few more are things I would have altered in 2012 had there been time to re-rehearse. In fact the biggest job in rehearsal later this summer will be introducing the two new members of the cast. 

As part of today's work I rewrote the script to make certain it was as up-to-date as possible for the two new performers - Debbie and Jordanna. I'll be sending a copy out soon to the cast. In the script, which is unlike most theatre scripts in that it describes visual, musical and technical transformations and narratives rather than dialogue, the performers are named by their parts - Angus himself of course, or Peggy his sister for example. But the narrator, who speaks and sings in Gaelic and English, is named as themselves. Last year it was Mairi Morrison, who did such a wonderful job. But in updating the script all reference to Mairi were expunged and replaced by Debbie's name. The 2013 Angus has well and truly started.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Too much!

Esther has put together a great tour for 2013 - it's now on our website on the Angus page as well as on the righthand column here. But yesterday we discovered a problem - this itinerary means that the cast, the English members anyway, don't get to go home for 9 weeks. Travelling back home simply isn't do-able within the available time. So Esther, already up to her neck in Arts Council reporting deadlines, as well as moving house, Alison and I got together and had an emergency meeting in the H+B kitchen. 

The result? Two shows needing to be cancelled I'm afraid, plus closing down the opportunity for an additional show or two in the existing short 'gaps' in the tour. But, this is a small price to pay for a happier company. 

It brings it home how hard it is to produce, manage and book a tour. These days everything needs to break even financially, if not actually make a surplus - the cast need to get paid and are anxious that there aren't periods of unemployment. But at the same time sensible breaks to see partners, and to recover from the very hard work of touring, are essential. Then there's the need to put together an itinerary that is sensibly sequential in a geographic way, especially in a country like Scotland where distances between venues are often long. Altogether a big ask, and Esther does it brilliantly. 

In the meantime a reminder of Angus himself. A lovely photograph of rope-making on South Uist in the early 20th century, by Margaret Fay Shaw; courtesy of the Highland Folk Museum.

Homemade rope was usually made from heather but sometimes long grasses were used, as in this photograph. A special tool, known as a corthsagan, was used to twist the grasses together, and it's variations on this process that Angus MacPhee took to new levels of creativity during his 50 years in Craig Dunain hospital.

Monday, 17 June 2013

BLAS Festival

Angus MacPhee with Joyce Laing. Photo: Time Neat
Well, it's Angus - Weaver of Grass time once more! The BLAS Festival have now uploaded their website, full of exciting events, at , and tickets are for sale for this through their site. Its a great opportunity to see and hear some of the best Gaelic singers around and, of course, catch up with our show in the Highland Region. 

Esther will be putting, on our own website, a more-or-less complete itinerary for our 2013 tour any time now - look out for this at going to ITINERARY on the right hand column. 

Tickets are also on-sale for the Edinburgh Fringe shows, again at the wonderful Scottish Storytelling Centre. Go to 

All of this activity brings it home - work on freshening up the masks, set and puppets for the show starts here very, very soon.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


We can finally announce that we've asked Debbie McKay to join the Angus team for the tour this year. Debbie will replace Mairi Morrison in the role of the narrator. Esther is busy writing the contract at this very moment, (and I've discovered Debbie's Facebook page and sneaked the above photo from it). 

Debbie is originally from Lewis, and now lives in Inverness where she works as Gaelic Drama Worker with Feisean Nan Gaidheal - a Gaelic organisation who take Gaelic Theatre in Education to schools. She is currently touring with Daibhidh Walker in Seonaidh a' Mhonaidh (John of the Moors) as part of Scotland's Year of Nature.

So Debbie now completes our 2013 touring group, along with Jordanna O'Neill (below), Jonny Quick and Mark Whitaker