03 Aug On Rough Mix, Magnetic North’s Residency as a Lead Artist
A blog about being part of Rough Mix 26th June – 7th July 2023, at Summerhall, Edinburgh
Going to begin, and quite likely finish this blog, by saying how thoroughly glad I am that Magnetic North exists in the world.
For an arts organisation to be working as conscientiously as they do, with kindness, integrity and curiosity at the core of everything they do, seems to me to be a genuinely rare, and therefore all the more wonderful thing. Having just celebrated 21 years of developing and producing live theatre and supporting artists in Scotland across a multitude of disciplines and career stages, I sincerely hope that Magnetic North continues in ‘restless exploration’ for many more years to come. So please join me for a moment, before we go any further, in saying cheers to that.
Good. Thank you. Now then.
There are many adjectives to ascribe to the period between March 2020 and the end of the summer of 2021, but I’m going to make a start with ‘strange’. The strangest of times. Being optimistic, I’m probably just over half-way through my days on this earth, and I’ve lived through my own series of pretty seismic upheavals, become familiar with the feeling of new ground under my feet. But the spring of 2020 was something else.
One of the hallmarks of lockdown was that I, along with very many other people of course, was forced into stillness. And one of the things this resulted in was meeting, initially over zoom calls then more latterly in person, a lot more people who form what we might call the Scottish Theatre community – including Magnetic North’s Nick Bone.
Having returned to Scotland just over ten years ago, after moving away as a teenager, I was struggling to find a sense of community now I was home again. This was for a number of reasons, I think, many of them related to life on the road as an actor, the five years it took me to get divorced and all that entailed, swiftly followed by my father’s fairly sudden demise and subsequent death in 2018. All of these things, otherwise known I suppose as ‘life’, had a tendency to take up rather a lot of my attention, time and energy. Life will do that, huh?
Along with many other arts organisations over the course of lockdown, Magnetic North was offering to meet with makers and artists in whatever manner possible, to give space for conversation, to connect, to have a cup of tea and a chat. Timing meant that, in mine and Nick’s case, this could happen in person, in an Edinburgh café. Our conversation that day led me to make several applications for a number of opportunities with Magnetic North, as the pandemic wore on, the world changing with it, some of which came up ‘yes’, and some of which came up ‘not this one, thank you for applying, but (importantly) let’s keep talking’.
And I started to feel that I was becoming part of something, a community, one of the large number of actors, playwrights, choreographers, musicians, dancers, multidisciplinary artists who were connected in some way to this quietly, modestly incredible organisation. It’s hard to overstate how vital that is to someone like me, as I’m acutely aware I’m not alone in experiencing this. Freelance life can leave artists feeling isolated. Intense, short periods of deep connection and creativity, coupled with a peripatetic existence, can lead to a sense of a lack of belonging to anything more permanent, more reliably present. Lines, if one saw any in the first place, get blurred between blood family, chosen family, colleagues, friends. That’s certainly been my experience at least. And one of the gifts which Scottish companies like Magnetic North, Stellar Quines and Disaster Plan have given me over recent years, is a sense of community.
Over the two weeks of Rough Mix, that community grew. This inspired (and inspiring) residency was first dreamt up in 2006, bringing together a range of people from different art forms, each lead artist coming with an idea they are interested in exploring. I had the privilege of collaborating with eleven exceptionally talented, generous and fiercely intelligent people – none of whom, Nick aside, I had ever met before. There’s something of an elusive quality Magnetic North seems to engender in the spaces it creates: one of trust, vulnerability and openness. If I were describing a person, rather than an organisation, I’d say they “have no side” to them. I love that phrase. One of the highest compliments, to my mind, one can pay.
I was coming into this Rough Mix space, as one of four lead artists, with, on one level, exclusively visual material. To be precise, 228 digital photographs, each also reproduced as a 10×8 photograph, plus 13,500 seconds of video footage, gathered over 13 months of my life from 21st of September 2020, one month after the death of my mother, who was 2000 miles away, until 24th of September 2021, when I was about to open a remount of a show called Life Class, with theatre company Bodies in Flight, co-created with local senior social dancers and choral singers down in Preston. On another level, I was bringing to the residency intensely personal material, which also seemed to me to have a universality layered into it somehow, making it a good source from which to begin making a piece of live work of some sort. One of the things which became very clear to me over the course of the fortnight at Summerhall, was that – whatever this project might become – the live, breathing, ‘in-the-flesh’ element of it was essential.
And please believe me when I say I came to Rough Mix with no fixed ideas whatsoever about what the piece ought to be. I’m a firm believer in the notion that the form will emerge, over time. The content exists, in the visual material, as a starting point at least. The rest needs space and time and collaboration. Which is exactly what Rough Mix offers. Another firm belief I hold, is in the centrality of process. As a longstanding Associate Practitioner with imitating the dog, whose work has, for 25 years, explored the relationship between the digital and the live, the cinematic and the theatrical, the process we’ve created as a company is key to the success of the work. Similarly, making Opening Skinner’s Box with Improbable over the span of many months, the process which Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson have developed together over the years, held a strong presence in the space. I’m a big process fan.
So, I was somewhat taken aback when I found myself effectively processless. I’ve never made my own work before, which begged the question: what is my process over the next two weeks? It struck me that the only thing to do was to trust in Rough Mix. Embrace the process built over seventeen years of this residency’s existence. Hold a space which encourages us all to be fully responsive to the material, allowing for discovery, failure, and for accidents to happen. Learn from the process of the eleven other makers and artists around me, as together we unpacked and explored the seeds of four ideas brought into the space on day one. With no pressure or expectation to have produced a finished piece of performance by 6pm on day ten. Just an invitation to share.
In fact, in many ways, that sums it all up. Magnetic North excels at offering an invitation. And to be in a position to accept, and to be part of Rough Mix 2023, has meant the beginning of something genuinely exciting for me as an artist and theatre maker – living, working and being part of a community here in Scotland.
30th July 2023