I was adopted at birth into a Scottish Borders culture – at the time isolated and just out of post-war rationing. My birth parents hailed from the Highlands and Cornwall, my adoptive parents both Borderers. I like to think my blood is Pictish outlander on one side and Cornish/Phoenician sailor on the other. At the age of 30 minutes I traveled from the exhausted but resigned arms of one mother to the uncertain but nonetheless loving hands of a new one. I am a bred-in-the-bone nomad of one sort or another.
My lovely adoptive Mum and Dad, building their family out of the dark days of the second world war, made sure that education and exploration was front and centre. She, a teacher and he, an artisan baker who had survived the hell of the war at sea were determined that I, my brother and my sister would live lives of hope and reconstruction. The energy of their generation, even in a tiny Scottish town, was a drive that gave all three of us a sense of the wide world, the desire to explore and the taste for the new. The security of our quiet town, with its rich history, gave us a strong sense of ground, out of which we eventually bounded like gazelles whenever we could.
My mother was a teacher, my father was what would now be called an Artisan Baker (though the reality of a small businessman post the election of Margaret Thatcher meant that he effectivley grubbed the earth to make a living). My mother developed her skills from Primary teaching to what was then called Special and Remedial Education (now Learning Support). She was an innovator, developing the notion of the integration of children with special educational and behavioural needs into the traditional Scottish Secondary School setting. Her work, followed by research undertaken with Dr Geoffrey D Broadhead at Moray House Edinburgh (now the School of Education University of Edinburgh), led to the setting up of a Post Grad Diploma in Learning Difficulties. After her death, we learned that her work with Broadhead had influenced US Federal policy on the integration of special needs students in secondary education, as a result of his subsequent academic career in the US. My brother, sister and myself grew up with pervasive ideas of egalitarianism, social justice and fairness. My brother is now a notable elected politician in the City of Edinburgh, currently heading up the City’s Arts, Culture and Communities initiatives. My sister is an experienced and innovating Speech and Language Therapist working with people with Learning Difficulties.
A month before my finals at St Andrews, where I studied Psychology, French, Economics and Ancient History, I received a British Council posting as an Assistant d’Anglais at a Collège d’Enseignement Secondaire (Section Bilingue) in Toulouse. Whilst tussling with the challenge of team-teaching English along with language, music, sports and art teachers, I somehow became entangled amongst musicians, puppeteers and actors. I had found the company of people who regarded the arts as a legitimate way of living and enjoying life, rather than something that was done in your spare time. The British Council has advised never to say ‘No’ to an invitations. And there were many.
Back home, and definitely not on a linear career path I started all sorts of acting and performance classes at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh. Following faltering steps as a semi-professional apprentice actor with Edinburgh Playwright’s Workshop, and Theatre PKF (both captained by the extraordinary George Byatt), I auditioned and won a place at the (now Royal) Welsh College of Music and Drama. From there, helped by a cash prize courtesy of HTV and funding from the then Scottish Arts Council, I went off to become a student of Mime and Gestural Theatre Master, Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
Paris for a theatre student in the early 1980s was a wonder. Free tickets to the theatre, amazing international friends and colleagues, and the run of this extraordinary byzantine city. I got everywhere! And the theatre I was allowed to experience has kept my eyes wide ever since.
Returning from Paris, I briefly returned to Edinburgh before skedaddling to London. As my sexuality was becoming clearer to me, the Scottish closet (Gay relationships only having become decriminalised in 1981 there) was not a thing that appealed to my newly liberated 26-year-old self in any way. A year later, a European tour with the anarcho-syndicalist Cambridge Experimental Theatre brought me into contact with the Kellertheater in Innsbruck, Austria. And my bond with any kind of traditional actor-path in the UK was loosened.
In Innsbruck in the mid-1990s, I directed three projects – The Human Voice (Cocteau), Salome (Wilde – the Austrian premiere of this work, surprisingly) and The Balcony(Genet). These productions were in part a celebration of the growing pride I felt in the maverick creative history of my gay ‘tribe’, and in part an exploration of a vision that was way too rangy perhaps for either my skills at the time or the theatre-in-the-cellar. Recently someone read me a quote: your reach should always exceed your grasp! Looking back, I realise I was saying something similar to this to audiences through my work.
Interspersed with my work in Austria (I also taught workshops at the University of Innsbruck), I returned to Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe brought me my first real acting job with the Yorkshire Actors Co, and this brought me into contact with mime artist and director David Glass – and off I went touring in mime and physical theatre. I cut directing and producing teeth on the Edinburgh Fringe at the turn of the 1990s, learning my craft in that rich artistic underground, winning two Fringe Firsts in my first year there (one as an actor, one as a director), and an Evening News Capital Award in my second. After getting hold of an Equity card courtesy of The Northumberland Theatre Co and a play about Mungo Park (who was born in my home town), a brief foray into more established forms of performance put me on some big stages, in tv and on film. However, this didn’t develop much farther than hopeful beginnings. I was much more attracted to the Interesting rather than the Necessary. I read Alexander Trocchi’s essay Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds and I was off on a different, un-straight path.
In Edinburgh, on the back of a Scottish Arts Council Artist Development Grant, I set up The Silent Foundation as a vehicle for exploring ideas and practices in theatre and performance that fascinated me. TSF explored gender identity, the ageing process, memory and the Land of Scotland and its layered history. At this time I was also Chair and Co-producer of The Scottish Mime Forum, a theatrical think-tank dedicated to developing the growing field of Physical and Experimental Theatre in Scotland. Amongst other events to promote non-traditional ways of making performance, we produced the only visit to Scotland of Odin Teatret, one of the seminal theatre companies of late 20th Century European theatre.
A chance meeting brought me to a three-year association with The Scottish Early Music Consort, working as an actor within an opera ensemble giving modern-world premieres of Baroque operas by Marazzoli and Rospigliosi. Later, played the Devil (Samiel) at summer Opera festival production of Der Freischutz at Schloss Zwingenberg on the Nekar river in Germany. During this production I also created a team from a local Youth Club which I trained to perform with me as my Familiars. Following this I was invited by a Finnish colleague from this production to direct her recital tour of Japan the following year and a short religious Cantata by Vivaldi, Laudate Pueri Dominum, in her home town of Varkaus. This began a long relationship with Finland, during which I taught at the Valammo International Opera Summerschool and performed in and movement-directed The Last Temptations by Joonas Kokkonen at the Nilsia Summer Festival over 3 consecutive years.
Concurrently, I worked as a freelance associate at Theatre Workshop Edinburgh, on a programme called Positive Futures. Funded by the European Union to explore the development of arts-inspired communication within and between marginalised communities in Edinburgh, I directed two participatory performance projects : a verbatim project (Biohazard) created by and with people living with HIV and AIDS, and Contracts a musical written by LGBT youth and co-developed with a team of professional mentors. Later I was commissioned to direct a community play about the connection between Edinburgh and the children of the Kindertransport.
These projects taught me the value of participation alone in bringing many of the benefits of such work. There is a physically charged satisfaction that occurs as participants explore the limits of their creative comfort and achieve more than they would have thought possible. All of In between these projects I also acted for TW in two rather bonkers and equally thought-provoking Christmas children’s shows.
During this time I was also working with a ground-breaking education project – the City of Edinburgh HIV, AIDS and Sexual Health Education Team delivering workshops in secondary schools on the highly sensitive issues of sexual health decision-making and knowledge-development around sexual health issues. This programme (now terminated) was, and still is, unique amongst education projects that foreground the empowerment of young people to deal with the minefield of their developing adulthood.
In 1997 I began to train as a practitioner of The Feldenkrais Method. I moved my base to London at the turn of the Millenium, and found that my skill combination of Mime, Gestural theatre, yoga, experimental theatre techniques and Feldenkrais were in demand at a range of London theatre schools. This was out of financial necessity at first, but in finding the necessary joy of the process, I finally realised that learning and teaching are collaborative, creative and never-ending processes. The great thing is that even though you know a lot, you can’t know it all. And if you are learning, there is no darkness ever. My association with London Contemporary Dance School, as external tutor in Feldenkrais lasted 12 years and allowed me to develop my skills in this ares in great detail.
During the four-year period of my Feldenkrais training in Berlin, I was exposed to and became involved with a very different culture of arts creation, reception and understanding. I spent two years, interleaved with my training, devising and performing with a small group of theatre practitioners and touring Germany and Austria.
Between 2003 and 2005, I completed an MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck University of London, graduating 1st class. My current working practice now centres around originating arts-based learning projects that will live on in the hearts, minds and bodies of the people I work with.
My roots as a Scottish Borderer coincide with those of three of the in-their-day maverick founders of Scottish poetry, story-writing and theatre, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and James Hogg. Through working with Northumberland Theatre Company, then with Rowan Tree Theatre at Bowhill near Selkirk, as an actor, then director and producer, I was given the chance to work with the language and expression of my childhood home. At the time I was bringing home important influences from my work in Germany and Finland, as well as from across different performing disciplines and participatory theatre processes. It grew to be crucial to me to fold my more nomadic experiences back into my identity as a Borderer. Exploring the tension between these two channels of my creative life brought me to a realisation that the Borders had always been a ‘troublesome’ place, in its history once being a region of ‘the debatable lands, and that the voices emerging from it had been of historical importance to the history of the whole country. Whether or note my voice is of use to Scotland is neither here nor there, but being identified as a Borderer had become a badge of honour for me.
In 2010 I rekindled my working relationship with my homeland of the Scottish Borders. For Rowan Tree Theatre Co in the Borders, I was engaged to develop and direct The Ragged Lion by Allan Massie, a one-man play about Sir Walter Scott, to be played by the great Scots actor Crawford Logan. This play toured successfully and ignited a fascination with the life, times and genius of Sir Walter Scott. Three years later I was commissioned by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch to adapt and direct Scott’s first dramatic poem which was performed at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose. A second commission to adapt and direct Waverley – or ’tis sixty years since by Scott, to coincide with its 200 anniversary followed. In 2014 I was invited to become the founding Director of The Young Walter Scott Prize, the companion prize to the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The research and development phase of YWSP uncovered the need for an education and outreach programme that would link creative writing skills, the Historical environment and the innate drive of young people to engage physically in exploring their world.
Both YWSP and IHUK promote the ideal of curiosity-developing exploration of history and historical processes. Since 2015, close to 1,000 young writers have taken up the challenge we offer. In the 2020 world of Covid19, IHUK is tasking young people to shine a historical eye on the events of the present day, proposing the kind of intellectual acrobatics that I feel Scott himself would have been thoroughly fascinated by.
Having been born into a post-war presbyterian ethic of working to make good, my work has crossed disciplinary borders, mixing my interest in music, writing, performing arts, political engagement, educational research, community theatre, social action and the development of personal resilience. Being a nomadic soul to boot has sent me on a glorious runaround tour, creating a world as I explore it, and loving the idea of sharing it.