Friday, 25 March 2016

Circumnavigating Dramaturgy: Ian Stephen @ CCA

‘This pursuit of the optimal way-speed was, I came to realise, in keeping with all that Ian does. In action and speech, he is formidably exact. He exemplifies what Robert Lowell once called ‘the grace of accuracy’, and his poetry too, is distinguished by its precision. Minimalist but not gnomic, it extends his commitments both to exactitude and communication. There is no surfeit to it. His poems are short and taut as well-set sails. Poetry represents to him not a form of suggestive vagueness, but a medium which permits him to to speak in ways otherwise unavailable.’

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, Hamish Hamilton and Penguin, 2012-13

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Starting point was the chance to get immersed in the Morrison manuscript - transcriptions of oral stories –  held at Stornoway Public Library and the printed version in the National Library of Scotland  when I was 'Reader in Residence', Western Isles Libraries, in 2011. 

But I could not have imagined the journeys suggested without the experience of navigating  the waters described. I'm very fortunate to be able to have sailed often to St Kilda, once in my own sloop El Vigo, once in Song of the Whale with the Cape Farewell project and many times as professional crew on a charter yacht, which also took me to North Rona. I have  sailed to the Shiant Islands and to Sula Sgeir and Orkney in traditional Lewis open boats. 

I can relive aspects of these adventures as the stories unfold and see the spectacular geography in the mind's eye with the hope of sharing the experience.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
I knew Peter Urpeth first of all as a writer. Once he saw a short video I made and said, 'I could play to that.' That's when I learned he also had a career as a pianist, both in improvisation and in composing  to film. 

Our collaboration in poetry and piano combinations led to an appearance at the 'Without Borders' festival in the Czech Republic and at 'The Read Bed', Belladrum. It was natural to extend this relationship to storytelling with piano.

Christine happens to be my wife but we also have an ongoing collaboration as the artist known as Stephen Morrison. That 'artist' often makes visual and text-based work in response to voyages. We met when I took the Masters students in Art, Space and Nature (Edinburgh University) sailing, as a volunteer skipper with traditional Lewis vessels. 

Our voyages together in our own classic wooden sloop have taken us to residencies in Shetland and the Rathlin Sound Festival in Northern Ireland. We have also shared residencies in Saskatchewan and in Tasmania, though we didn't sail to either of these places.

How did you become interested in making performance?
Storytelling was in my family background, on both sides. My mother and her brothers were a major influence, passing on a tradition from my Lewis grandfather Murchadh Iain Fionnlagh Mac a Gobhan. I met Hamish Henderson and Stanley Robertson when I went to Aberdeen as a student. Both of these friends encouraged me to tell Lewis stories in public. 

I would go to the TMSA festivals, at Keith and Kinross but I also went with a group of performing poets to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as early as 1979.  Since then I've alternated between the lonely craft of making poems and prose and the stimulating act of performing poems or stories, often in combination with music or visual elements. My poetry has also been set to music by two different composers.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes. It was an open dialogue between three equal artists although in this case, the shape of the linked stories was already in place - 
given a form by the narrative which joins them. Rehearsals have been informal dialogues. The stories must remain improvised and not fixed as a script but the timing has to be secure. 

Certain elements cannot be missed (like way points in navigation). A slip on these would present problems for both Peter, on his variations, some based on melodies from Gaelic songs and Christine, who has edited and arranged the images. Both of these elements will further the narrative as well as build-in mood and detail. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I hope we will travel time together as well as move from land to sea and back. But I hope no-one gets seasick. It will be great if those who have not yet experienced the geography first-hand, gain a sense of it. Like a novel, the aim is to share a human experience that might not be physically possible for all the audience.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
I would say it's more about trust than strategies. Both between the performers and between us and the audience. The three of us hope to make something that is more than the sum of the three elements. If we are sensitive to each other's art then we can hope that the audience is fully engaged and so plays a part also. 

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
Yes. Although in this case contemporary elements are included – digital projection and electric piano – I hope that the storytelling has the same intimate ethos as that of my eloquent grandfather. 

Other questions that would bring out the role of the dramaturgy?
I would always ask myself a question as I attempt to splice strands of stories together: 
Will the process really result in something that is more than the individual elements?

My novel, A Book of Death and Fish has been described by Robert Macfarlane as 'stories within stories' as well as 'a celebration of the oral tradition' (Donald Smith). But I have to keep asking if the over-arching story can distort the character of the common currency of the stories within it. 

The dramaturgy is really nothing more than a sniffing and sensing for the shape that is already suggested by the timeless chosen stories. These are only slightly arranged, helped by music and image, to emphasise the route they describe, when placed together.

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