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....

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.