MARY Miller used to be the Scotsman newspaper's music editor. After that she ran the Northlands Festival in Caithness, then the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut.
Now she's in charge of Stavanger 2008, a less boisterous companion
for Liverpool as one of this year's twoEuropean Cities of Culture. It's in that capacity that she invited Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company to Norway to create Tryst, a play performed on a tiny island in the fjord that forms Stavanger's harbour
"Last night there were real fisticuffs with people trying to get tickets," says the Wick-born director in her city centre office. "It was a very still night and you could hear the heartbeat from that old boat as it approached and there was an amazing feeling of something about to happen."
A couple of hours later I'm standing on the waterfront at Skagenkaien, one of the world's prettiest harbours, flanked by wood-fronted restaurants and converted warehouses. Dusk is falling. As theatrical entrances go, I've never seen better. True to Miller's description, we hear the steady chug-chug of an unseen ferryboat and catch fragments of a mouth organ melody carried on the evening air. At the last minute, the Hundvaag 1 swings into view, a 40-seater ferry little bigger than a tugboat. Silhouetted on deck are Grid Iron's director Ben Harrison and producer Judith Doherty.
The second great entrance of the night comes when we're on board. We're making the brief journey over to Engoyholmen, the island home of a boat-building yard dating back to the 1830s, when the sound of banging interrupts Conrad Ivitsky Molleson's mouth organ melodies. The noise is coming from inside one of the benches and, when the passenger stands up, out comes David Ireland, playing a bushy-bearded fisherman with a tale about being left high and dry on a desert island. It's a classic Grid Iron moment when fact and fiction blur.
The boatyard is a pioneering social resource that takes on disaffected teenagers and trains them in the art of boat-building. Director Ketil Thu says he will do all he can to keep in place Becky Minto's beautiful wave installation of glittering rocks hanging from the wooden beams in the boatyard long after the Scottish company has left.
"Site-specific theatre is not a known thing here," says Miller. "In Stavanger it would never have occurred to people to have something in Engoyholmen. There's an honesty and openness to Grid Iron's work, an approach to collaboration which is not the way that art is presented here."
Tryst is the major event of the North Sea Project. Emphasising the connections between the coastlines of Norway and the UK, this strand of the Stavanger 2008 programme has initiated exchanges between artists, poets and musicians, in many cases leading to further commissions. Still to come are Nina Nsheim and Maritha Nielsen appearing at the Scottish Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh and an exhibition by Scottish and Norwegian artists from November 6 in Stavanger.
"There is a shared history," says Edinburgh curator Angela Wrapson. "By the 1600s, Scotland had chopped down its forests and Scottish sea captains used to sail to the northern part of the Stavanger region to buy timber. John Knox's house in Edinburgh is framed with Norwegian timber."
Drawing on watery writing by Oscar Wilde, William Golding and Alexander Trocchi, Harrison's script for Tryst splashes against the boat yard like the tide itself.
"Boats are in the foreground," says Harrison. "We go to the island by boat. It's a place where boats are made and boats are hanging in the spaces. It allows us to compare the beauty of the structure of a boat with the difficult mess of human relationships. It would be lovely to bring it back to Scotland and reimagine it, because, of course, Scotland lives by the sea as well." v
• Tryst, Stavanger, until October 25; Scottish Storytelling Festival, Edinburgh, October 24-November 2 www.stavanger-web.com/stavanger2008 www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk