Joyce McMillan: Powerful true stories at heart of NTS project

IT won’t be the most high-profile National Theatre of Scotland premiere of the season, when the cast and audience of To Begin assemble this afternoon at the Royal British Legion in Forres; for that, you’d have to look to a show like the current NTS smash hit Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, scheduled for three final triumphant Scottish performances in Musselburgh this weekend.

Wigtown Rehearsal 
(left-right)  Lewis Howden, Fletcher Mathers
Wigtown Rehearsal 
(left-right)  Lewis Howden, Fletcher Mathers
Wigtown Rehearsal (left-right) Lewis Howden, Fletcher Mathers

Yet like many other community-based projects masterminded by NTS Learn director Simon Sharkey – from last year’s huge Tin Forest project across Glasgow, back to the Elgin Macbeth in 2007 – To Begin seems set to delve deep into the underlying texture of Scottish life, and to reveal some rich and unexpected patterns there. Set in two communities at opposite corners of Scotland – Forres on Findhorn Bay in Moray, and Wigtown in Dumfries & Galloway – the project represents a first-ever collaboration between the NTS and the Scottish Book Trust, and is inspired by the Book Trust’s Journeys initiative, which invites people across Scotland to write a short story about a journey – literal or metaphorical – that they have made in their lives.

“The job of the organisations involved in the book trust is to collect stories and publish them, whereas ours is to collect stories and turn them into theatre,” says Simon Sharkey. “So this project seemed like a perfect fit. We’re producing a book based on the stories in the shows, and we’re really pleased that our performances in Wigtown will form part of this year’s Wigtown Book Festival.”

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The business of finding stories for a project like To Begin is always a complex one, though, not least because the best stories often take a while to emerge. The NTS team have been working in both communities since April, and although local schools in Forres and Wigtown will be involved – the Wigtown Primary School choir is part of next weekend’s Wigtown performances – Sharkey observes that many of the best stories have emerged from older people’s groups like The Smiddy in Wigtown and the Blue Room in Forres, a meeting-place for older men often with a Forces background, as Forres lies very close to the former air base at RAF Kinloss, as well as to the new age Findhorn Foundation on Findhorn Bay.

“Both communities contain these huge contrasts,” says Sharkey. “And we’ve been struck by how many of the people we talk to begin by saying that they’re not native Forresians or Wigtonians, even if they only come from a few miles away. To be honest, I’ve been absolutely humbled, and often very moved, by the epic quality of some of the stories we’ve heard, and by the peace and acceptance people often seem to have found in these relatively small communities.

“We’re only sorry that we can feature so few of the stories in the show; but we have a wonderful set by Claire Halleran inspired by the lovely green town square in the middle of Wigtown, terrific sound and music by Daniel Krass, and four great professional actors as our main storytellers – so we hope it will be a really well-made show, based on the classic six stages of a “hero jourmey”.

“And then at the end – and at some other moments too – the people whose stories we’re telling will also be on stage with the actors, emphasising the fact that the people who lived these stories are right with us in the room.

“I was struck, too, by something that was said about Forres by one of the Blue Room members. ‘This is a good place,’ he said, “for a traveller to end his journey.’ And I hope that’s not because there are no more journeys to come, but because in these two places we can make a space to sit down, hear people’s stories, and learn from them, before we move on.”

• To Begin... has two performances at the Royal British Legion, Forres, today, and four at the Parish Church Hall, Wigtown, 2-3 October,