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....

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Last minute wobble

Just five working days to go and I receive a message from one of the new performers who has joined our Angus team asking for a 'chat'. Slightly ominous I thought, but perhaps nothing...a last minute question about their accommodation arrangement or a 'would it be possible to attend a best friend's wedding and leave early one day during rehearsal?' type of enquiry.

But in the event it was a request to pull-out of the tour completely as they had been offered something 'too good to refuse' for a series on BBC Alba. I said, of course, this was totally unreasonable and would leave us with a number of serious problems. She went back to the TV company and asked if there was room to manoeuvre - there wasn't. 

For anyone at all familiar with working in theatre this kind of situation is surprisingly rare, but when it does happen it always causes a major crisis. Actors in a touring team are chosen for how well they are expected to get on with one another as well as for their acting abilities, but after an initial hair-tearing and table-thumping by the director on the whole it is usually possible to replace one actor with another - there are, after all, a lot of unemployed actors out there. Five working days is a bit of an extreme time-frame however, and when one is looking for a particular skill set, puppetry skills for example, it gets considerably harder. But when looking for a fluent Gaelic-speaker and singer with acting skills it becomes really difficult. Then there's the fact that you are looking for someone who just happens to have a totally free timetable for the next three months - and starting on Monday! Help!

It's hard to avoid feeling bitter about these things too. All that effort into setting up auditions in Glasgow, and asking Mairi and Loz to travel to be part of the selection process. The keen performers who are rejected - and then it turns out to be all to no avail. But there's not much to be achieved by feeling angry - on the whole actors and theatre companies are very honourable and honest about such things, even if and when they're offered something better. Best to get on the phone and email and start looking for a replacement. 

This we did, and with help from Loz (our Music Director who needed to be part of selecting a singer) and Mairi, who somehow seemed to alert half of Scotland to our mini-crisis. Within twelve hours people were contacting me, and within 23 hours I was offering the role to someone else. In fact to MJ (Melissa) Deans.

Melissa accepted the offer enthusiastically. We had in fact auditioned her in May, and we had been impressed then, although not chosen her because although a fluent Gaelic speaker she wasn't from the islands - rather from Cumbernauld, who had been educated at Gaelic medium school. But she now joins a very relieved company and the Angus touring group that now consists of Mark, Jonny, Jordanna - and Melissa!

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Marram weaving on Anglesey

Last week I took a break in Anglesey, before we put the Angus - Weaver of Grass set up (next week) and finish any repairs that are needed before rehearsals start (the week after). 

In the museum at Llangefni (Oriel Ynys Mônthere were several references to grass-weaving, particularly of marram-grass, just as with Angus MacPhee. The weaving of mats in marram-grass was apparently an important cottage industry here, especially in the Newborough (Niwbwrch) area in the south-west of the island, with its large dune system (which included a vast rabbit warren) and where there's still a Marram Grass Cafe. 

This picture above is of Ellen Williams, of Newborough, weaving marram grass, taken from the Casglu'r Tlysau (Gathering the Jewels) Archive. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Repairs and renewals

Repairs and repainting have started on the 'Angus' show. Mainly simple repairs like the one above on Angus's geldings ears (!) which get battered somewhat when transporting the show, and repainting of the colourful screens used in the 'garden' scene. 

There are a few bigger jobs too - making a new mask for the Gardener character, for example. I had made a mask to fit a male actor but in the event the role was played by Frances, and to me it always looked too big. This year it will be Jordanna who plays that part, so I'm using this week to make a new, slightly smaller mask. 

There are also changes to be made to one of the animations - an extra 25 seconds of film, which Christina will be working on between now and the start of rehearsals - Monday 5th August. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Narrator

Angus's house in 2012
I spent the afternoon and evening looking at the film of last year's tour of Angus - Weaver of Grass, and reviewing the relatively small number of changes I want to make to the show. Most of these are, in essence, technical and a few more are things I would have altered in 2012 had there been time to re-rehearse. In fact the biggest job in rehearsal later this summer will be introducing the two new members of the cast. 

As part of today's work I rewrote the script to make certain it was as up-to-date as possible for the two new performers - Debbie and Jordanna. I'll be sending a copy out soon to the cast. In the script, which is unlike most theatre scripts in that it describes visual, musical and technical transformations and narratives rather than dialogue, the performers are named by their parts - Angus himself of course, or Peggy his sister for example. But the narrator, who speaks and sings in Gaelic and English, is named as themselves. Last year it was Mairi Morrison, who did such a wonderful job. But in updating the script all reference to Mairi were expunged and replaced by Debbie's name. The 2013 Angus has well and truly started.