Friday, 13 May 2016

Scots Dramaturgy: Ishbel McFarlane on Hoolets and Languages

Ishbel McFarlane in association with Feral presents
O is for Hoolet

**WINNER The Arches and Traverse Theatre’s Platform 18: New Directions Award 2014
A passionate, interactive one-woman show about the Scots language using stories, memories, interviews and attitudes to challenge expectations and prejudices around minority languages
Scottish Tour: 22nd April – 11th June 2016

“A passionate call to arms for the study and preservation of minority languages.” ★★★★ The Times

Language is personal. Nothing gets closer to our hearts. And yet, by its own nature, it's always social. Who owns it? Who appoints it? Who governs it and why?

In this lively and detailed performance, Ishbel McFarlane portrays several historic Scottish figures and linguistic experts from Liz Lochead to Robert Burns. Audience members, prompted by a televisual bingo caller, read prompt cards addressing those famous alter egos and McFarlane at various stages and ages in her life. The revelations and stories challenge how we view the Scots language, and the ways in which it is taught and subdued to question the way forward for minority languages.

What was the inspiration for this performance?
I was brought up speaking Scots, but wasn't allowed to speak it at
playgroup or nursery, so I rejected it wholeheartedly. Even by the time I was six or seven, I was conscious of this thing that I had had but had lost. I remember telling my best friend that I spoke another language but then being unable to translate the words she asked me to as part of her test to see if I was lying. I was annoyed and embarrassed and sad even then. I kept thinking about Scots, using English and, often, being a real dick about language (it's amazing how many of us are dicks about language). 

When I was 19 I found a recording of my mum singing a Scots song when she was a teenager, in the archive at the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, and I was overcome with joy at the discovery. She was not joyful, though. She had felt ashamed of not being able to sing 'right' at the folk festival. She didn't know how to perform her own culture. This stayed with me and raised its head many times over the next years. In 2014 I did a wee show with Stellar Quines where I wrote Scots for the first time, and the process of doing that convinced me that it was time to try and tie down my thoughts on my experience of the Scots language into a show. 

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
When I first did the show I worked with Vanessa Coffey, a friend who I had worked with on the Stellar Quines show. She was my core dramaturg and was completely vital to the form that we devised for the performance - a question and answer, with the audience reading the questions and me playing different people (including myself) to answer them. I need to talk to think, and with Vanessa I felt like I had great ideas, but I couldn't have them when she wasn't there. 

She has a skill for asking good questions, and reflecting back at me what I was saying in an insightful way. So when it started it was just me and Vanessa. After winning the Platform 18 award, I was able to gather people together for my first ever team. I chose people who I really admired and had long wanted to work with - Ros Sydney was my mentor for the Platform 18 run, helping me with performance, and Gareth Nicholls is doing some consulting directing on the tour this year. One of the great bits of advice I've had is from Oliver Emanuel who always says 'use people who are slightly ahead of you, and make them make your piece better.'

How did you become interested in making performance?
My mum is an English and drama teacher, and put me into poetry reciting competitions from the age of six. I then went on to do speech making and debating (this is an accurate picture of how cool I was at school). That was such a strong training ground for me - I feel the influence of it all the time. 

I learned and performed poems several times a year from the age of six until I was at university. It meant that I didn't have much experience of performing in plays by the time I left school (you couldn't do drama as a subject at my school), but I was so comfortable talking directly to an audience. I find whenever I make performance, I always do that; even if I am a character, me and the audience are all in the same place together. I also find that when I get cast in other people's plays, they want me to do the same thing. I don't know if it's a niche or a comfort zone.

The other aspect of my training before uni was church drama. We
were really involved in the church in Kinross when I was growing up and there was often drama as part of worship. Once a year, at the Family Week summer camp, there was a daily drama for the 200 kids that came along. My parents always performed in that and I thought it was the most coolest thing ever. 

When I was 16 the church asked me to write the drama, so I wrote five, fifteen minute plays taking us through the life of Joseph (he of the coat). People putting their trust in me like that gave me the confidence to feel like I could do anything if I wanted. That what I had to say mattered. I think we minimise the power of am dram, or community groups when we add up our skills. We shouldn't. 

After school, I went to Edinburgh University and drowned myself in Bedlam Theatre, where the students do everything from the books, to running the cafe, to rigging the lights, to performing. I directed there, I performed, I was on the committee, I ran a new writing festival. It was a safe place to make work, and it was So. Much. Fun. 

We didn't tend to make anything edgy - I didn't really encounter live art until coming to Glasgow to study the Masters at the RSAMD. My practice was then totally molded by the kind of work that the Arches made. My work was probably always going to be at the 'conventional' end of the Arches bracket, but I found a place to learn there. 

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yeah. I start with an idea which I want to learn about, that I think is interesting. I talk about it to everyone - particularly my other half and my dad. Talking lets me work out what I think about the thing. I then read and research - usually in a library because I used to be an academic and I feel at home there. I'm better at being an academic theatre maker than I was at being a theatrical academic, there. I read all day and make notes and have to be able to talk through what I've learned. 

I do that for maybe a week solid. I want to feel like I have a handle on the thing. Once I feel like that, I usually write in a splurge - though I am often not writing, so much as collecting. I do most of the forming and adapting before I write, and, so far, I've never made huge shifts in content or form once the thing is down to start. I tend to always try to do it on my own and then find I'm much better if there is someone else to help.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I have long accepted that I like the audience to learn stuff. I hope they will experience that sensation of having learned. It's such a pleasurable thing, I would love to make a show about that. It's very mainstream popular now - think about the popularity of QI or podcasts like 99 percent invisible. 

Anyway. I also hope they will feel connected to the story, the issues, apply them to their own lives - whether it is directly about Scots, or another minoritised language or culture. I also want the audience to leave talking about the things the show discusses. I want them to leave wanting to share their own experiences with each other and other people. Ultimately I would love people to see their prejudices and maybe begin to change their behaviour. But rather than aim for that, I go for conversation, because that's what 

I also want them to laugh

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
There is audience participation. Of various kinds. It was important to me that this was as safe and as unthreatening as possible. I don't mind if an audience member's heart rate increases when it comes to their time to voluntarily contribute, but I have some points to make and things to explain that I think are vitally important. The audience need to feel relaxed enough to think about those things and not just be scared. I am not interested in earning the trust of the audience in order to break it. 

I earn their trust and try to deserve it. A large part of the participation is there so that I can do a one woman show about an inherently social phenomenon. But it is also there so that the audience feel like they have already been talking about this thing, so that they will continue to do that when they leave. Audience members often chat with me after the show, tell me about their childhood, or their granny's use of Scots, or the way they are with their kids. 

I think that the fact that they have been talking to me all night, at one point with free question directly to me from an audience member, makes that conversation easier to have. 

I did briefly toy with the idea that all the questions could be free, but I decided that I wanted to control the arc of the show more closely than that would allow. Although there's no 'plot', I feel that the show has quite a carefully ordered-by-post-its dramaturgy. 

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

Recently I have started describing it as non-narrative, text-based. But I do use narrative, and I often use storytelling. I like to use characters other than my own. I like to talk as myself. I am also in an educative tradition. 

Ishbel McFarlane is a performer, writer and director based in Glasgow, from Kinross-shire. She trained at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Her work centres around social justice, history, place and language. For two years she worked with ScotRail on poetry shows on Scotland's trains, including Even in Edinburgh/Glasgow for the Fringe 2011 (★★★★★ Three Weeks). She directed The Translator's Dilemma, which was selected to represent Scotland in theaterszene europa 2012 in Cologne.

She collaborated with Amy Conway and Edd Crawley on an immersive piece about the experience of deaf-blindness and being a carer, I-HAPPY-I-GOOD, which performed at Arches Live 2013 and the Southside Fringe 2014 (★★★★ The Scotsman/The Herald). In 2014 she also collaborated with Vanessa Coffey making Newhaven Fishwives for the Stellar Quines show Untaught to Shine, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Feral are producers Jill Smith and Kathryn Boyle. They support artists making cross artform work and champion makers who explore new performance languages through their work.  They feel passionately about platforming art in unusual locations and “found” spaces that celebrate the urban canvas of Glasgow.  Both are former programmers of The Arches and have led on the delivery of some of Glasgow’s leading experimental festivals and one-off events including Behaviour and Arches LIVE.  They are currently working on projects with artists such as Al Seed, Nic Green, Company of Wolves and Sita Pieraccini

Devised and performed by Ishbel McFarlane                       
Dramaturg Gareth Nicholls 
Stage Manager Sarah Wilson  Producers Jill Smith & Kathryn Boyle (Feral) 
Set Design Lisa Sangster         Lighting Design Martin McCulloch

Touring dates

23 April                          Platform - Outskirts Festival
                                       The Bridge, 1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow,                                              G34 9JW
6.45pm | £10/£7.50 (Festival Pass)
Box office: 0141 276 9670?

30 April                          An Cridhe
Arinagour, Isle of Coll, Argyll, PA78 6SY
7.30pm | £10
Box office: 01879 230000

5 May                            MacArts Centre
Bridge Street, Galashiels, TD1 1SP
7.30pm | £9/£7
Box office: 01896 756852

6 May                            Eyemouth Hippodrome
Harbour Road, Eyemouth, TD14 5HS
7.30pm | £8/£6
Box office: 01890 750099

11 May                          Kinross Parish Church
10 Station Road, Kinross, KY13 8TG
7.30pm | 01577 862570

12 May                        The Lemon Tree
5 West North Street, Aberdeen, AB24 5AT
7pm | £12/£5
Box office: 01224 641122

14 May                        Macphail Centre
Mill Street, Ullapool, IV26 2UN
7.30pm | £8/6 (£2 for under 18s)  
Box office: 01854 613336

15 May                        The Mill Theatre
Millbank Rd, Thurso, Caithness
7.30pm | £8/£6
Box office: 01847 893572

18 May                        Drouthy Cobblers
48A High Street, Elgin, Moray, IV30 1BU
7.30pm | £10
Box office: 01343 596000

1 June                         The Gaiety
Carrick St, Ayr, KA7 1NU
7.30pm | £12/£10/£8 (full-time students)
Box office: 01292 288235

10 June                      Tynron Village Hall
                                    Main Street, Tynron, Dumfries & Galloway
                                    7.30pm | £9/£7 (conc U18s)
                                    Box office: 01387 253 383
                       Local Ticket outlet: Watsons Grocers, Moniaive

11 June                      Swallow Theatre
                                   Mosspark Whithorn, Whithorn, Newton Stewart,                                              Wigtownshire DG8 8DR
                                   7.30pm | £10
                                   Box office: 01988 850368

                                   Local Ticket Outlet: Swallow Theatre
Isabel McFarlane said: "Most of the world are essentially Scots speakers, people brought up using a language which is considered 'lesser' than the 'real' language of state. I want to encourage conversations about Scots language, and minoritised cultures. Why is it we put language varieties into a hierarchy? Why do we think a 'language' is better than a 'dialect'? Why do people who would never discriminate against someone for the colour of their skin, openly discriminate based on their word-choice? I love to talk, and, delightfully for me, talking is a vital part of the solution. The way we talk and the way we hear is the heart of the matter. This is a universal issue. I've had people come up to me after shows to tell me that everything I said applied directly to their experience of northern France, or urban Boston. We think we're in a unique situation, but we're really not. Most of the world are essentially Scots speakers, people brought up using a language which is considered 'lesser' than the 'real' language of state." 

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