Sean Scanlan: The Stuff of Life
At drama school, one of the key lessons we learnt was to form your own ideas and theatrical tastes you had to watch and engage with as many forms of theatre as you could.
It was on one of my many student trips to the theatre that I visited the Donmar Warehouse to see The Life of Stuff by Simon Donald. This was before the Donmar became the star-laden hothouse that attracted Gwyneth Palthrow and Nicole Kidman and way before the time when the Donmar’s artistic director, Sam Mendes, was to helm the latest Bond movie.
This particular play was set in a gangland Scotland and featured the sort of cast (Douglas Henshall, Forbes Masson, Stuart McQuarrie and Mabel Aitken) that many a director would give their right teeth for now.
This show was the first time I saw Sean Scanlan on stage. He had a gift for language, was totally “grounded” and possessed a real hutzpah that made him a compelling and exciting performer.
On leaving drama school, I marked out Sean as someone I wanted to direct, and subsequent engagement with his high quality work only fuelled this ambition further. However, touring theatre is not always attractive for performers and my first few attempts at luring Sean onto a “Rapture” stage were politely and warmly declined.
In a recent interview with Joyce McMillan, she wrote that Rapture had a “self-imposed distance from the creative centre of a Scottish theatre scene often driven by the energy of current writers and the pursuit of ever newer kinds of new work.”
It struck me as odd at the time that creativity, and indeed the creative centre, was associated with new work and current writers. Indeed, the fact that Joyce and her fellow critics have awarded ‘Best Production’ in their yearly CATS awards over the last two years to productions of plays by Beckett and Brecht does suggest that the ‘new’ does not always equate to overall quality.
I would suggest that perhaps there is no such thing as the ‘new’ or ‘original’ and, also conversely, that all creative work is ‘original’. For example, the acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has openly admitted to the films that have influenced his brand of original filmmaking. Also Shakespeare, one of this country’s legendary playwrights, was often influenced by stories and indeed other playwrights of the time when writing his plays. Both Tarantino and Shakespeare are seen as innovators, yet were they really original?
Conversely, when you read Hamlet, on the page it is ‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet’, yet when you direct or act in the play it becomes ‘original’ –that is because it becomes ‘your Hamlet’. It is infused with your creative DNA, your artistic decisions and your imaginative impulse. It is now new, original, creative and yours! Perhaps we should substitute the word ‘new’ or ‘original’ with ‘authentic’; authentic to you and your creative impulse, whether you are you or Tarantino or Shakespeare.
There is often a pressure in the Scottish Theatre scene to be heralded as ‘innovative’, ‘new’, ‘original’, etc. Theatre companies see that critics and funding bodies get excited about a sense of innovation, of daring to be different, of new writing and supposedly fresh ideas. As a result, they sometimes throw the innovation and the politically correct box ticking ‘kitchen sink’ at their project in an attempt to tick the funders’ box and tickle the critics’ pallet.
This, I feel, is actually counter-productive to being genuinely creative and authentic. Time and again audiences delight in seeing a director marry his or her genuine and authentic artistic impulse to an existing classic text than to a one who gets themselves tied up in site-specific, multi-art form, devised, new work knots.
So let’s all aim to be authentic and true to our own artistic selves. There ensues the true creative centre—the creative centre that exists in all of us.
In the classic Scottish play The Steamie the characters compare the experience of the community gathering on the green to dry their washing to the prospect of having your own washing machines in your own house. The young character is looking forward to having her own machine – as she would never have to leave her house, whilst the others lament the passing of the idea of “community”, illustrated by everyone gathering on the green.
To me theatre and in particular touring theatre is essential to create and nurture that sense of community and its sense of community that we desperately need in this increasingly fractured world. We live in a world where arguably people spend more time on their phones than engaging directly with each other, and in a world where people feel isolated and that they have no one to relate to or engage with.
Theatre brings together a community, even just for one evening. It places complete strangers under one roof and compels them to engage, not just with each other but with the two hours traffic of the stage. It encourages them to see themselves not as individuals but as part of a bigger picture –it compels them to empathise with the emotional journey of the characters they are watching.
Taking theatre out beyond the main cities into smaller towns and villages encourages people to engage who may have been put off by the distance to or the ticket prices of the main city venues. In our next tour with Democracy you will see the same show whether you are going to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow or the Theatre Royal in Dumfries. You should have the same experience in The Kings in Edinburgh or The Village Theatre in East Kilbride --- in a sense we are ‘Democratising’ Theatre.
There is a view that touring theatre has lost its political heft and its energy since the days of the lauded 80’s and 90’s theatre companies: Wildcat, 7:84, Borderline etc. However touring theatre, I feel, is more needed now then ever, partly for the reasons above. It’s just that now, in the “Nachos and Netflix” culture, we have to work much harder to draw people away from their laptops and into the theatre.
The days of the ‘out of the back of the van, rough and ready, two planks and a passion theatre’ perhaps have given way to a theatre that has to be sophisticated but accessible, nuanced but entertaining, challenging but satisfying, intellectual but unpretentious. When people can stream the latest high quality drama to their phones or binge on box sets of classic series –we have to offer them something they wont get on their laptop; Theatre that is not just the same high quality drama they can receive on their phone, but that it has the one crucial ‘ingredient’ that a million downloads won’t have –its live and its happening now in front of them. That energy and rapture of live performance can be intoxicating and creates a sense of a community coming together and sharing the same life affirming experience.