Ignition hopes to be spark for Shetland theatre

The death of a young Shetlander in 2007 is the starting point for Ignition, an extraordinary project which aims to bring world class theatre to the island and provoke debate about its tricky relationship with the car.

The death of a young Shetlander in 2007 is the starting point for Ignition, an extraordinary project which aims to bring world class theatre to the island and provoke debate about its tricky relationship with the car.

A clear January night on the main street of Scalloway. A crowd straggles along the pavement, rubbing their hands and stamping their feet. The streetlights have been switched off, so the only light comes from a few windows. Anticipation crackles in the cold air.

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The procession comes round the corner to the sounds of a brass band, led by the “jarl” aboard a Viking galley, resplendent and bearded with goose feathers on his helmet and a caribou skin on his back. Viking henchmen keep pace, brandish their burning torches and shout ‘Aaargh!’ in the faces of delighted kids.

Behind the boat, row upon row of costumed Vikings give way to other forms of fancy dress: Elvis wigs, fairy costumes, workers from a local engineering firm in their overalls and hard hats. At the local boat club, the jarl gets out and the marchers throw their torches into the boat. Flames engulf the dragon head at the prow as it is eased into the water.

Scalloway’s Fire Festival, the local version of Up Helly Aa, is a community event in all senses. Those who aren’t participating turn out to watch, from families bundled up against the cold to young women in tiny mini skirts and tottering high heels. It’s exciting and well-run, and testament to the fact that we on the Scottish mainland have little to teach Shetlanders about the power of community theatre.

This spring in Shetland, one of the biggest projects ever mounted by the National Theatre of Scotland will come to fruition. Ignition, run by NTS’s Learn division, is unparalleled in scope and ambition, aiming to engage every one of the Shetland Islands’ 22,500 inhabitants in a discussion about our relationship with the car, and culminating in 10 days of community performances at the end of next month.

“We wanted to tell a story about oil because it’s so important to Scotland,” says Simon Sharkey, NTS associate director. “Shetland has Europe’s largest oil terminal at Sullom Voe. It only opened in 1981, and yet we’ve already taken more out of these oil fields than we’re going to get out of them. That lends itself to a really rich exploration of who we are and what we are, what we’re going to do in the future and what we’re responsible for.”

Since October, members of the Ignition team have been stimulating engagement with the project in unexpected ways. Performance artist Lowri Evans, dressed as the White Wife, an enigmatic figure from Shetland folklore, has been hitch-hiking the length and breadth of the islands in her long white dress, collecting stories from drivers. Local knitters have come together to knit a cover for a car.

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It doesn’t look much like theatre, yet, and that’s intentional. “We’re casting the net as widely as possible,” says Wils Wilson, the award-winning director behind the NTS’s hit The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, who will direct the performances in March. “You might have that sense that an arts project isn’t for you, but before you know it you’re involved in one because you’ve shared your story.”

Cleverly, they have let rumours spread – this is a small community after all – and people are intrigued. Now it’s time to move up a gear. An open day at Mareel, Lerwick’s new arts complex, opened last August at a cost of some £9 million, aims to bring Ignition to the forefront of people’s thinking, and start enlisting support in earnest for the productions which are just over two months away.

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There’s no doubt that Ignition is taking on live issues. Shetland’s relationship with the car is complex. As in any rural area, many people depend on their vehicles. And Shetland – despite the amount of crude oil which comes on shore here and is shipped away for processing at Grangemouth – has some of the highest fuel prices in the UK.

At the same time, oil has changed the face of Shetland. Since the opening of Sullom Voe, oil revenues have paid for the well-resourced leisure centres, the excellent roads, the thriving local arts programme. Recently, there have been local authority cuts here, but they have been more due to financial mismanagement (there was a public hearing in 2010) than a straightforward lack of resources.

From the little airport in Sumburgh, a broad autobahn of a road takes drivers to Lerwick in just over half an hour. In the villages along the way, prosperous bungalows and Scandinavian-style houses have taken over from the old crofts. Stocky Shetland ponies in the fields, their bums turned to the prevailing wind, seem part of an older landscape.

Sullom Voe itself is another 25 miles north, tucked into a fold in the land so that it is all but invisible. It is not marked on some of the tourist maps, and signs and security gates warn anyone from getting too close. Activity is evident nearby where the French oil company Total is investing £500 million in a new gas plant and pipeline.

It is widely known that the oil in easily accessible fields in the North Sea is declining. There is still oil in Scottish waters, particularly in the Atlantic, west of Shetland, but it is more difficult and expensive to extract. Gas is a possible way forward, but that too is finite. Shetland has ideal natural resources for renewables – the small wind farm near Scalloway is the most productive on-shore wind farm in the world – but the issue is deeply contested. Planning permission has been granted for a much larger wind farm but it is bitterly opposed.

The Open Day dawns clear and sunny. Saturday morning in Lerwick is sleepy; shops selling Fair Isle knitwear and Shetland Fudge have few customers. The doors are being unlocked at Harry’s Department Store (“In London, they have Harrods, in Shetland we have Harry’s!”) while High Level Music blares out something sad and country-and-western into the quiet street. Seals’ heads bob like buoys in the harbour.

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In the auditorium at Mareel, the team from NTS and Shetland Arts Trust have set up a racing track for radio-controlled cars and a bicycle-powered Scalextric set to help draw in passing cinema-goers (Mareel has Shetland’s only cinema). There is a walk-on map of the islands to which stories can be added, and even a “car confessional” for anyone whose story is “too embarrassing or illegal” to divulge in public. Later, a team of experts will take part in a symposium on The Future of the Car.

“We are looking for people to tell us their own stories,” says Wilson, blinking away jetlag – she came to Shetland directly from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Prudencia Hart is currently on tour. “What we haven’t done is write a script, or come with a finished product that we’re going to make. It’s an experiment, it’s a leap in the dark, but it feels right, and hopefully there will be honesty and a truth in it.”

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This approach comes partly from the fact that the spark for Ignition is not issue-based, it’s personal. When Stuart Henderson, a keen member of Shetland Youth Theatre, was killed in a car crash on Shetland in 2007, his family gave money to the organisation for a piece of work highlighting road safety. Stuart had helped backstage on many productions, including the NTS’s Home Shetland, the year before he died.

John Haswell, drama development officer with Shetland Arts Trust and associate director on Ignition, had to decide how best to use the money. “I have enough experience to know there is an awful lot of well-meaning issue-based theatre which doesn’t really do the job it’s supposed to do. It doesn’t really engage emotionally, so it doesn’t necessarily have an impact. I thought we should do something bigger and better, to incorporate the relevant messages, and to celebrate everything that Stuart was and everything he believed in – an amazing theatrical experience that emotionally engaged an audience, and had that wow factor which then stimulates thought about the issues behind it.”

With the support of Stuart’s family, he took his idea for a large-scale community performance about “our very complex relationship with the internal combustion engine – the good, the dangerous, the bad, the environmental, the financial,” to the National Theatre of Scotland, who secured funding of £167,000 from Creative Scotland’s Year of Creative Scotland Programme. He describes Stuart’s story as “the beating heart” of the project, a sentiment echoed by every Shetlander I spoke to.

Outside Mareel, in the teeth of a gale, Ignition’s designer, Becky Minto, and creative writing practitioner, Jacqui Clark, are sticking knitted squares on a Peugeot 107. The little black car has been covered with white tape to hold in place the knitting, produced over the winter months by Ignition’s Car Yarners, under Clark’s guidance. As the deadline looms – there is a photoshoot with the car in a few hours – tension clicks like knitting needles. “I feel a bit nervous,” says Clark. “It feels like my baby’s going to be unveiled. And it’s January and the sun is shining – how lucky are we?”

The knitted car cover, she says, has won a lot of people over. “The person who summed it up best for me was the lady from the wool brokers. I went in and said: ‘Hi, I’m looking for wool to knit a car’, and she leaned on the counter with her chin resting on her hand and said ‘Why?’ But when I talked about Ignition, and where it came from in terms of Stuart, and the process of hand-knitting a car, how it’s motherly, protective, and at the same time we’re talking about our journeys in cars and what they mean to us, she just went: ‘What a brilliant idea!’”

Marie Williamson joined the Car Yarners after stopping to give a lift to the White Wife one sunny day near the Whalsay turn-off. “I thought, what on earth? Have a newly married couple had a domestic, and her husband’s thrown her out? I thought I’d better stop and rescue her. I had a couple of hours free so I took her for a run. We had a lot of discussions about the car and everything else.”

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Williamson’s enthusiasm about the project is catching. “We’ve just had such a laugh,” she says, her hands deftly sewing together a couple of the last patches. “We’ve all told stories. I hope a lot of it’s going to get edited out, it’s not fit for human consumption! I just love the fact they are taking theatre out into the community in such a big way.”

“We have gone from the beginnings of life right through to the end, with the needles click-clicking,” says Clark, “We had stories shared about a woman who nearly gave birth to a baby in the back of her mum and dad’s brand new car, through to women who have been driven to their wedding in a car, or met their boyfriend and had a bit of a good time in the back of a car, right through to last journeys – following a loved one to their final resting place in a car.”

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Even as we talk, on a nearby sofa, Jacqui Diamond is knitting, an oasis of quiet around her. Her teenage son Rhys, a gifted musician and the drummer with a popular local band, was killed in a car crash in 2003. The diamond-shaped patch she is knitting will be attached to the passenger door, near to where Rhys was sitting when he died. Suddenly, the car cover idea looks a lot less like a gimmick, but something personal and profound.

In the auditorium, John Haswell reports steady footfall, while the radio-controlled cars whizz and screech in the background. Stories are being added to the walk-on map: “Picked up from a dance in Haroldswick by dad, wintry, slippery roads, went right off road, landed on top of dyke! No injuries.” Wilson reports seeing people slip quietly into the confessional booth when they think her back is turned.

Upstairs in an activity room, parkour coach Chris Grant is putting up a climbing frame, in anticipation of a workshop with “15 excited teenagers”. He has been working with young people in Shetland since early December and will be here for six months. “I love it. I lived across the road from Central Station in Glasgow, so it is quite a culture shock to move up here. But Lerwick lends itself surprisingly well to parkour, and you’ve got miles and miles of coastline with boulders the size of houses. This is the sort of place that a lot of people who do parkour would drive hundreds of miles to go.”

He, too, has been collecting car stories. “All the children have stories. I remember one 10-year-old girl telling us about seeing this VW hippie van, covered in pink flowers, with a big burly guy with a beard driving it. It was hilarious, the way she told it. I think it messed with every single perception she had of the world. For me that’s theatre. If we can find ways to frame those stories, I think it’s going to be pretty magical to watch.”

At this stage, the shape of the final performance is still on the drawing board. There is talk of hitch-hiking performers, theatre in or around cars. At one point, Wilson had all the driving members of the team in Mareel car park forming their cars into a circle with the headlights at the centre. Could a group of cars create a stage?

Over the next couple of weeks, the creative team will assemble in Shetland and begin shaping the material that has been collected. “We want to make world-class theatre,” says Simon Sharkey. “The same type of theatre we’re creating in Glasgow or New York or wherever. We’re offering a platform for debate about energy issues, but the most important thing is to reflect the stories back to people.”

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John Haswell believes the scale of the project will also help promote Shetland to the outside world. The islands are likely to be on the cultural agenda this year with the screening of Shetland on the BBC in the spring, a crime drama adapted from the bestselling novels of Ann Cleeves starring Douglas Henshall, and the anticipated release later this year of the Shetland-set film Between Weathers, starring Sharleen Spiteri.

“There’s almost a sense that we keep getting re-discovered, and long may that continue,” he says. “I think this project in particular goes beyond the normal tourist brochures. I think it’s important that people realise that Shetland is not a completely romanticised Brigadoon in the middle of the North Sea, there are people living and working and loving and dying, and having all the problems and joys that everyone else has.”

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By the time dusk is creeping across the harbour in Lerwick, the Peugeot is snugly cocooned in what looks like a cross between a woolly jumper and a tea cosy, with only the lights, number plates and door handles exposed. Looked at closely, you can make out the different patches, the dropped stitches of beginner knitters and the confident lacework of experts. Jacqui Clark and Becky Minto are rubbing their cold hands. “We’ve been at this nine hours,” says Becky, looking at her watch. “So that’s how long it takes to cover a car with wool.”

Back in the auditorium, the race track is packed away, the map folded up, and the Ignition team cluster round the stage sipping cava from plastic cups. Wilson toasts Ignition, and a successful day of “gentle, warm engagement”. But there is also a sense that the work of creating the performance is only just beginning.

John Haswell is thinking of Stuart Henderson, the young lad without whom none of this would be happening. “The real irony is that if Stuart was still alive, he would be here, loving every minute of this big crazy, manic project. He would be right at the core of it. That’s very poignant, but it’s also quite celebratory.”

Ignition will culminate in performances on Brae, Bigton and Yell, March 20-30, with a finale performance in an outdoor location in Brae on March 30. For more information see www.nationaltheatrescotland.com