Joyce McMillan: The Play Pieces, made in the Highlands
If you live in the Central Belt of Scotland, you're probably not used to thinking of the Scottish Highlands as a thriving centre of theatrical creativity.
There’s a great tradition of touring in and to the Highlands and Islands, of course; but work actually created north of the Highland Line has traditionally been thin on the ground, and outside the panto season, the map of Scotland’s big producing theatres traditionally stops at Pitlochry.
Down at the creative grass roots, though, that pattern could be about to change; and one of the strongest signs of a cultural shift in progress is the growing success of Lindsay Brown’s Inverness-based lunchtime theatre initiative Play Pieces, first launched in 2011, and now going from strength to strength. Lindsay Brown grew up in Ullapool, was inspired to try for a career in theatre by a visit from Stellar Quines’s The Clearing back in the 1990s, graduated from Glasgow University’s theatre course in 2003, worked at the Tron Theatre, and then returned north to work for the festival association Fèis Ros.
She was determined, though, to try to support new theatre-making in the Highlands; and encouraged by her university friend Susannah Armitage – now chief producer at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in Glasgow – she began to think about how a similar formula might work in and around Inverness, where there’s now a theatre course at the local college, and a range of small shoestring companies with whom she wanted to work. She sent out a call for plays, selected six for the first season, and using personal funding from the social entrepreneurship fund Firstport, launched the once-monthly Saturday lunchtime event in the spring of 2011, at the Ironworks music venue in Inverness.
“With hindsight, I don’t really know how we did it,” says Brown. “We literally had a 15-minute get-in after a children’s session on Saturday morning, lights, pies, everything. But I was determined to get the project out of a conventional theatre setting, since that seemed to be one of the keys to Play, Pie And Pint’s success, and the idea was even more successful than I hoped; there seemed to be real demand for it, both from theatre-makers and from audiences, and in 2013 we won two years of Creative Scotland funding, this time performing each show in both Inverness and Elgin.”
And despite the end of that Creative Scotland funding in spring 2015, Brown is now expanding the initiative further. The six plays in the 2016-2017 Play Pieces season – with a deadline for submissions of 21 March – will be performed in Inverness, Elgin, Aviemore and Dingwall, and on Skye, between September and March; and Brown is full of hopes and plans for the future. “I’m so proud of some of the work we’ve produced,” she says, “like Emma Anderson’s lovely romantic comedy The Gamekeeper, from last spring, which is about to go on tour. We’re not often talking about perfection, of course. This is about people taking first steps into playwriting, having a first chance to see their work in front of an audience; and a vital part of it is the post-show discussion, where the audience really become part of the development process.
“Yet of the 18 plays we’ve presented so far, seven have gone on to have a further life, and I definitely feel there’s something happening here. We now have a great board for the Play Pieces company, we’re putting together funding from a range of local and national sources, and in the end – well, I’d really like us to become a Traverse of the north. We love the places where we’re performing now – the Phoenix Pub in Inverness, the Drouthy Cobbler in Elgin. But to have a building of our own, a Traverse-like space where people could create this new work, and show it, and talk about it in the bar afterwards – that would be my dream.”
• The Play Pieces season 2016-17 opens on 6 September. The deadline for submissions is 21 March, www.playpieces.co.uk