It’s been one of the mysteries of Scottish theatre life: the lack of a year-round professional producing theatre company based in Aberdeen. Of Scotland’s four largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh famously tend to dominate Scotland’s cultural scene, with several theatre companies based in each; and Dundee has a mighty tradition of professional drama, based on its acclaimed Rep Theatre.
Yet although plenty of theatre happens in Aberdeen, both at the beautiful His Majesty’s Theatre and elsewhere, the city has somehow never been able – outside the Christmas season, and despite many attempts over the years – to sustain a locally-based company producing a steady stream of professional shows; which is why it’s exciting to see two young Aberdeen-based theatre-makers now setting out to change that situation, working on the inevitable shoestring, but with impressive determination and flair.
“For various reasons, we both found ourselves back in Aberdeen, after going away to train and work elsewhere,” says Cameron Mowat, who trained at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh in the early 2000s before working extensively as an actor in Scottish theatre, radio and film. “And Lesley Rose of Aberdeen Performing Arts – who’s been a real mentor to us – put us together because she knew that we both really wanted to start producing some work. So we met in a pub – of course – and just took it from there.”
Mowat’s partner in setting up what they’ve called 10ft Tall Theatre is Adam Coutts, who graduated from Rose Bruford College in London just five years ago, and won acting credits at Shakespeare’s Globe and with Paines Plough before returning to Scotland.
“I suppose a recurring idea for us was that artists from this area shouldn’t feel that they have to go elsewhere to advance their career, or do the work they want to do,” says Coutts. “But in order to change that, we felt we really had to connect with an audience here. So we did a lot of research, going out into the streets, and asking people what was their perception of theatre and culture in Aberdeen, whether they ever went to the theatre, and if not, what stopped them from going.
“And what we found was that people still have this perception that theatre is quite formal, and that you have to sit in the dark for a long time feeling bored. So we set out to do something about that; and we were really lucky, at that stage, to get support not only from Aberdeen Performing Arts and the Lottery, but from the Brewdog pub at Castlegate – because they just got what we were trying to do, and offered us their downstairs space, Underdog.”
“Yeah, we liked that,” says Mowat, with a dash of dark irony. “We’re artists, and Scottish, so underdog is good!”
The company’s first production, staged at Underdog last November, was an evening of plays from Michael Frayn’s Chekhov Shorts – “fast Chekhov” shows that succeeded in smashing through most of those negative stereotypes, offering three brisk 20 minute farces done in vigorous Aberdeen style, in a pub space where people felt free to have a drink and a good laugh; and over a few late-autumn weekends, they built up a strong word-of-mouth reputation, playing to increasingly packed and delighted audiences.
“The more extended run is something we thought we would try,” says Coutts, “because we noticed that when shows come to Aberdeen, they’re often not on for long enough for people to hear about them. People said we were crazy, and there just wouldn’t be enough audience; but it worked.”
10ft Tall are therefore trying the same strategy again with their next show, a revival of Oliver Emanuel’s early play Videotape, first seen at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in 2008, which will open at Underdog on 14 June, and play there for a fortnight before a short north-east tour. Videotape is a brief, powerful urban drama about a young man whose girlfriend seems increasingly distant, as she moves elusively through the streets; and Mowat says Emanuel – currently receiving widespread praise as writer of the National Theatre of Scotland and Perth Theatre’s The 306 - was delighted when he heard that the company wanted to perform it. “He let us have the play free of charge,” says Mowat, “because, he said, it can only be good for him, and for everyone else in Scottish theatre, if Aberdeen really begins to be a producing centre, creating work here.”
For this new show, the 10ft Tall team have also assembled an impressive company of young artists, including actors Hannah Donaldson and Mark Wood, and video and sound designer Jamie Wardrop; they say there is no problem in finding artists delighted to work in Aberdeen, so long as the opportunities are there. And they have plenty of future plans, too, including a children’s storytelling show, and continuing work with the group of writers involved in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Granite project in Aberdeen, last year.
“We feel that this is an important time for Aberdeen,” says Mowat. “It’s as if the whole city has been forced out of its comfort zone by the decline in the oil industry, and we need to find other things to do, imagine other ways to be – and the arts have a huge role to play in that.” And why is the company called 10ft Tall? “Well, its a line from an old Jefferson Airplane song. But it’s about how a really good theatre experience can elevate you above the everyday, and let you see the world in a different light. You’re looking down on it all, from a different angle; and we think people need that, as much now as they ever did.”
Videotape is at Underdog, Aberdeen, 14-25 June, and on tour until 2 July, www.10fttalltheatre.com