When Nicola McCartney arrived at Glasgow University from Northern Ireland in 1990, she walked into a ferment of creative energy greater than she could have anticipated, when she made what was, for her family, a rash decision to study theatre rather than law.
Not only was Glasgow in the middle of its year as European City of Culture, but one of the first fellow students she met was John Tiffany, now the director of world-renowned stage shows including Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, who immediately set about encouraging her to start making theatre, and to carry on making it.
And Tiffany also soon introduced her to Vicky Featherstone, who went on – with Tiffany as her associate – to become the founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.
“The great thing about John,” says McCartney, “was that although, like me, he came from a lower-middle-class background with no great history of theatre-making, he just wouldn’t consider stopping making theatre.
“While we were still at university, we founded our company LookOut; and when we graduated, instead of giving up and doing something sensible, he was the one who said, no, let’s go to the Fringe, let’s keep going. I remember us getting on the bus to go and talk to Karen Koren at the Gilded Balloon – we literally couldn’t really afford the train.”
It was a flying start that propelled McCartney to rapid recognition as one of Scotland’s leading young playwrights of the 1990s, winning acclaim for stage and television work that included her 1998 Traverse play Heritage, an intense and brilliant drama about two migrant families who find that Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide follows them into their new lives in early 20th century Canada.
Heritage is now about to be revived at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in what will be its first UK professional production since its world premiere 21 years ago, although it has been produced half-a-dozen times in the United States and Canada.
“That was really a very pleasant surprise, when Richard Baron said he’d like to stage a new Pitlochry production this summer,” says McCartney, “because I’d almost given up wondering why the play has never been produced again anywhere in Britain. In a sense, back in the 1990s, it was the play I never wanted to write; I really didn’t want to be identified as a writer about the Troubles.
“What happened, though, was that there were a couple of very serious incidents involving people my family knew in Northern Ireland that just made me terribly angry, and I was also angry to find so many people in Glasgow – and Edinburgh – still perpetuating this sectarian nonsense in Scotland, almost as if it was some kind of joke.
“So in the end, I had to write it; and I hoped the Canadian setting, and the fact that it was loosely based on real incidents that happened there in the early 20th century, would help people to get some distance from the situation, and see the absurdity and the tragedy of it.”
By the turn of the millennium, though, the strain of McCartney’s rapid success had begun to take its toll; she suffered a breakdown, and took a few years out from the writing business, largely giving up her television writing career – which had involved writing for The Bill -– and eventually becoming a full-time carer of young people with relational disorders for Glasgow City Council, an experience which, she says, “makes theatre seem easy”.
From her earliest days with LookOut, McCartney had had a strong interest in mentoring young and emerging writers and theatre makers.
She first became involved with the Traverse’s Class Act programme as early as 1997, encouraging school students in Scotland and across the world to create theatre inspired by their lives; and when she returned to the world of theatre in the late 2000s – eventually taking up a post as a teacher of playwriting at the University of Edinburgh in 2011 – her work became more collaborative in character, sometimes involving co-authorship with vulnerable people with whom she had worked in what’s known as “applied theatre”. It’s out of that strand of her work, with a young Kosovan refugee called Dritan Kastrati, that her new play, How Not To Drown, has emerged, co-written with Kastrati, who also appears in the show. It’s set to receive its world premiere at the Traverse during this year’s Fringe.
“This play deals with Dritan’s experience in the UK care system, as well as with his refugee journey from Kosovo,” says McCartney, who has in recent years also worked with women prisoners in the United States, and with young people from both sides of the civil conflict in Ukraine, on a Class Act project in Kiev, “and writing it has been a great experience – I do find this kind of work really rewarding. And yes,” she laughs, referring to Kieran Hurley’s brilliant recent play Mouthpiece, also back at the Traverse this August, about a middle-class woman writer and her vulnerable working-class subject, “when I saw Mouthpiece I did ask myself, is that playwright me?
“But I think the difference is that I know I’m not the only author of these works. Yes, I’m the one who can finish the text, and who has the technical know-how about how – for example – Dritan’s story meshes with the traditional structure of a tragic narrative.
“But it is quite a different thing from writing a story that you’ve made up yourself. That’s why the people whose stories you’re telling, through this work, always have to be credited as co-authors. Without me, there might be no play; but without them, there would be no story at all.” n
Heritage is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 25 July-26 September. How Not To Drown is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 30 July-25 August.