ANGUS MCPHEE - Weaver of Grass

ANGUS MCPHEE or MACPHEE was a crofter from Uist who spent almost 50 years in a Highland psychiatric hospital. During this time he chose not to speak - instead he wove a series of incredible costumes out of grass. These he hung on trees in the hospital grounds.

This blog follows the progress of HORSE + BAMBOO THEATRE as they develop and tour a show about Angus....

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ready to run

The punctuation (see previous blog) has been added. Tomorrow we'll run the whole and see how the page now reads. The past four days have been very, very useful - not only four technical days, adding sound, light and video cues, but also days in which we've run substantial parts of the show and found time to rework them when necessary. 

Tomorrow Debby Waldron from BBC Alba is arriving here to film for part of the day. We'll be able to dedicate a limited amount of time to this, and I also hope to go through the remaining job list, and start work on those (many) parts of the show that need detailed rehearsal work on them.

Alison painting a puppet head
We now have completed versions of Daniella Orsini's first two films, and the opening 45 seconds of her third and final animation. Work on puppets continues, mainly now painting (above), and I've a number of key props to complete. Other than that we're well positioned to use the last week to run in and get used to our show. A week tomorrow we have the first audience - a small group of friends who will, we hope, give us feedback before the last day or so of rehearsal and the start of the tour of Scotland.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Punctuating a show

The end of the third week of rehearsal. Two more to go.....

Yesterday afternoon we ran the whole piece for the first time. With sound; with lights. All very rough of course, but we managed. At the very least it enabled us to see the whole shape of the play more clearly. 

At this stage watching the show is like reading a page of a novel with all the punctuation missing, or in the wrong place. Plus some of the words jumbled up. Which means you get a general sense of what it's all about, but in a breathless, formless way. So now the job will be to put those punctuation marks in place; re-order things when necessary, and breathe sense and purpose into the narrative. 

Of course that's only part of the challenge, as there's also getting the cast used to working the technical side of things - the lights and sound and video controls which have now been moved backstage. As we do this the sound and light also become part of that exercise in punctuating -  part of helping us tell the story effectively.

Above we see Mairi Morrison (back to us) and Frances Merriman on set, and Mark Whitaker in marionette puppeteering position (lower photograph). 

Yesterday was also Helen Jackson's last day of working with Horse + Bamboo. Helen has been CEO of 5 years, and was the person who wrote the successful bids for the funding for 'Angus'. So, thank you Helen, and best wishes with the new job...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Angus on horseback

On Monday we did manage to work through to the end of the piece, and yesterday was a day of sorting back-stage so it was organised and practical. Today we'll try and stagger through the whole piece. This should be interesting. 

Above, some more film shots from the production - here Angus in happier times than in the previous images; this is where he leaves home on horseback to join the other Lovat Scouts on his wartime service. This film was made by Ellie Chaney

Saturday, 16 June 2012

A week of challenges

Two weeks into rehearsal. We're moving sequentially through the script and looking at things scene by scene. The goals are to find a way of telling each section clearly (remember this is almost entirely wordless), and to find the duration of each scene, or sub-scene, so that Loz can compose the score to precisely the same shape as the action. We finished on Friday having reached the penultimate scene. It would be good for us to be able to reach the end - or close to the end - on Monday. 

It's been a week when we've looked at some of the most challenging parts of the script - Angus's descent into schizophrenia; his treatment in Craig Dunain Mental Hospital; and how to represent his 50 years in the hospital and the development of his grass weaving. We've made great progress on this - particularly the interior hospital scenes - but it's clear that still more time and thought needs to be given to the weaving scenes. 

Film projections are used throughout to enable us to extend our visual language, and above are some shots from one of the films we're creating to use in the section that represents Angus's breakdown. The challenge being how to represent Angus's fragmented mind while retaining control of the material, so we keep the story accurate and in line with what we know about his history at this period of his life. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

A 4am list

The fifth day of rehearsal. We continue from the beginning of the show, and reach the end of the second scene comfortably. It's the time to bring Mairi Morrison, who had to miss two days last week, fully into the ensemble - and it's a treat to hear her singing, which somehow immediately brings us closer to the islands. 

The third scene is more complex, with puppetry and masks alternating in quick succession, and Loz is unsure about how to approach it musically. But we solve this issue and are able to take timings so that Loz can now go and work this into a soundtrack. As usual, finding the puppetry narrative is a rough and tumble affair with lots of laughter, but this stage of plotting always leaves me feeling anxious. Despite having done it for well over 30 years I still seem to find it hard to accept that we can't come up with a polished version without the need to go through the stumbling and messiness that rehearsal - over and over again - necessarily entails.

So predictably I have a sleepless night, worrying about how the scenes we haven't yet looked at will work. Loz is away for two days so we're taking the time out to catch up with making jobs and beginning to look at some details. At 4 in the morning I start making a list of the untried things to try out. One silver lining is getting up at first light and seeing a handsome dog-fox moving across the field in front of the house...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The first week

The first week of rehearsal is over. Already my dreams and middle-of-the-night worries are dominated by Angus. In fact it was a short 4-day week (courtesy of the Bank Holiday) plus Mairi, as agreed, had to arrive a day after everyone else, and she also needed to be in Glasgow on Friday, to sing for the Olympic torch. So hardly a full week by any count. 

Loz Kaye, our Musical Director, spent his time with Mairi when she arrived, working together sharing material and discussing how the combination of live and recorded music would work. As a result the rest of us spent most of our time looking at puppetry. This of course has its own disciplines and concerns, and we used the time working out stage positions and sequencing. It also, as usual, threw up a lot of new jobs - many of which are tweaks to existing puppets, but some of which require extensive work on making new objects. 

Also to be expected was discovering problems - as well as some quick successes. I looked at part of the scene set in Craig Dunain garden, where the painted stage garden begins to fill with Angus's woven pieces (made by Joanne B Kaar). The formal and flat surface of the staging screens are very different from the organic weavings, and it was always going to be difficult bringing these two worlds together in a satisfactory way.  This we struggled with without any real conclusion, and so it leaves us with at least one scene that needs new ideas bringing to it next week. 

On the plus side, we started working from the top of the show on Friday and got through the first (of seven) scenes and into the opening of the second. This all went very well indeed and we have a strong and very atmospheric opening. So, just the middle and the end to go....

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The first day of rehearsal... always a day of mixed emotions. The great thing is when performers who have worked together over many years, but who have perhaps not seen one another for a long time, re-meet and share their stories - telling of adventures and tribulations since the last meeting, and much else. Then there's the opportunity for everyone to discover the new set, the masks, the puppets, the props...all the new stuff of the new show, sitting there, full of potential.

But then things get down to business - starting by trying on costume, rejecting some things and laughingly accepting others. Quickly the stage gets full of discarded clothes, un-padded masks and possible props. In this unfamiliar space no-one knows where anything should go so everything deteriorates quickly into a formless mess. 

Still, yesterday we managed to find time to look at the main 'puppet' scene, which tells the story of Angus's growing up by using Alison's newly carved hand puppets - all as yet un-costumed and unpainted. We also saw a tantalising clip of projected film (wonderful) and heard occasional snatches of Loz's music (also wonderful). 

Today Mairi Morrison joins us and the group is complete. More puppets, more music....

Monday, 4 June 2012

A short break - and some thanks

Friday the Dragon got its wings. The weekend and today - a short holiday. Tomorrow rehearsals start... 

Thank you so much to everyone who has made a contribution to making for Angus - Weaver of Grass. So thank you Joanne, Alison, Christina, Vanessa, Mariana, Andre, Hannah, Amber, Lizzie, Jonny, Chris, Danielle, Daniella, Ellie.

Tomorrow we'll start putting it together into a shape.