I’m a theatre director and I graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I’ve been two years out in the world now. I went to school in the borders and didn’t have any contact with theatre at all, except maybe going to the Lyceum once on a school trip. I found it quite boring. I think it was Julius Caesar and everyone was in suits and it had a big shiny wall and that’s all I can really remember. I didn’t enjoy it.
I went to Edinburgh University and I wanted to try one new society so I went to the archery club but I wasn’t particularly good at it. My first friend at Uni said that he was going to go down to the Edinburgh University Theatre Company, to do their open day for new students and suggested I come along.
I didn’t enjoy it at first. It was an old church, the Bedlam, and to begin with I found it quite exclusionary and quite cliquey. I found it hard to make friends in that context.
Eventually it started to take, and by third year I was in about 12 plays and I performed in the Fringe.
I really enjoyed that but I ended up directing. A friend and I were just chatting about what we would direct if we could direct something. I was talking about Streetcar Named Desire and he ended up coercing me into pitching it to the society as their main term show and it got accepted. I’d studied it at school actually. My English teachers were good but there was no drama course. It was taught very much as a piece of literature rather than as a play. The imagination of the theatre was never talked about.
So I ended up doing Streetcar Named Desire and I did The Glass Menagerie as well, another Tennesee Williams, one of the best plays ever written. Then I directed the Winter’s Tale for the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company.
By this stage, I’m feeling really, really comfortable with theatre and really wanting to be a director. I’d stopped acting all together. I felt like I was much more at ease as a director and I enjoyed working with actors.
I felt as if I was able to provide them with the right environment and I was finding myself completely stimulated by directing. I think I was fine at acting but I wasn’t doing it in an honest way. When you see real actors working, there is something about how they go about their business which I just would never do.
Once I directed Streetcar, once I got the frame and was able to tell a story the way I wanted to, that was it. The audiences and the people I worked with felt like it was a good experience seeing my work and at this stage I was dead set on going to drama school.
I was going to see work that other people were doing, but Edinburgh is quite quiet during the year. During the Fringe I saw things and I was going to the Lyceum but there was something very distant about the actual professional theatre scene. I don’t think it interacts with the student theatre scene in a good way.
I went on Fringe Binges and I was seeing a lot of work by other students as well. But, there was just something, a very strong physical feeling about wanting to make theatre as a director.
I found my passion by a strange path, literally not having any exposure to theatre as a youngster. I mean I was studying literature at school but my Mum’s a nurse. She’s not a theatre-goer. My Dad’s no longer with us. My sister is a police officer actually now. It’s not like we are a theatre going family at all. I think they’re surprised that that’s what I’ve ended up doing, and they worry. It’s not like working in a publishing house and making a steady salary, a good salary, as I was doing.
There’s always going to be a bit of worry about security. I think there is a big difference between generations, and what’s available to people in my generation versus what was available to the previous one, things like owning your own home. That nowadays is unlikely for someone earning a £24,000 a year salary and actually I’d rather spend the time doing what I’d like to do.
I got a first in English Literature and I applied to do a post-graduate law conversion. That was unreal. £16,000 for two years. It was never feasible. Actually I was only going to do that law conversion so I could keep making student theatre, which is crazy.
At this stage, I thought I could just keep doing the student theatre because there were things I wanted to direct, rather than just go out and find a way to do it professionally. Because it was the only context I had ever known and it was still quite new. I didn’t know the Scottish theatre landscape in terms of a professional realm and I oddly didn’t reach out for it. It was just too far away.
Having given up on the law I then applied for LAMDA in London. Some friends who I had directed as actors, were going there and I learned about the directors course, and it seemed what I wanted to do. It was the only one I applied for that year. Again, partly because I was prone to just dipping my toe in the water rather than just going for it.
There was still something holding me back. It still didn’t feel realistic. Partly because it was £11,000 fees and you had to live in London and they offered no bursary programme or no help at all. All they told me was that I would have to write letters to famous alumni and see if they would sponsor me. Begging letters basically. I got into LAMDA but I couldn’t afford it. There was no way.
I wasn’t confident. I wasn’t going at it full-tilt. I wasn’t pursuing it in that driven passionate way that I might have. I maybe hadn’t quite accepted yet that this was definitely what I wanted to do. I was still looking for something respectable, still wrestling a little bit with it.
So I had just finished University, I was doing a lot of reading and doing a lot of focusing on getting that slightly wider understanding. And I was working at White Stuff, the clothing shop on George Street, and in due course, I ended up getting a job in academic publishing: as an internship at Routledge in Oxford. I guess it shows where my head was at, I was still looking for back-ups rather than committing. Halfway through they offered me a 6 month contract and halfway through that I was offered a full time job as an assistant editor at Routledge which I took.
This is the bit in the story where the protagonist is lost in the woods and has made a bad choice. So I took the job and was working as assistant editor at Routledge which was a great job, but it was a bit dry though. I felt like I was facilitating creativity and not finding anyway to be creative myself and I was a bit isolated I think as well.
My friend Robin had gone to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He got in touch and said there was a course there and explained the ins and outs of it to me with particular focus on how the directors were given a heck of a lot of responsibility. It was an MA, so a Masters in classic and contemporary texts and, in brackets, directing, because there were actors on the course as well. So I quietly applied for this course as well as LAMDA again because I thought why not and I got into both again.
"I was just blown away by how much it was and it was genuinely that moment where all of a sudden it went from being an impossible thing to - I was actually going to go. There was no doubt at that point that I would go and do this. That was an amazing day and an amazing feeling."
I didn’t tell my mum, as far as she was concerned I was doing this job in Oxford, the salary was £25,000 a year so it was a stable job. And because it wasn’t a realistic thing to be doing and the idea of getting the fees together seemed fairly impossible. But the conservatoire told me that they had a bursary scheme that was fairly easy to apply for and I got £6,000.
The fees were £11,000. All of a sudden that seemed far more doable even though it’s still £5,000 short, but it started to become a bit more realistic and they sent me a list of further possibilities and on that list was the Dewar Arts Award.
A lot of the other funding options were quite niche, they were very specific in who you had to be, but the Dewar Arts Awards was quite open so I got a couple of people to write references, including one of my actor friends, who was at LAMDA. The process was really quite easy, well, as easy as it ever is when you have to write about yourself in that way which can sometimes feel a bit tricky. And I got it!
It was a great moment because I was at work at Routledge and my phone was going and it was Will, this actor who had been my reference. and he told me that I’d received £5,000.
At no point did I think that that much would be on offer and I never stated an amount. I assumed that if I did get this it might be £500, or a £1000, something to help towards this total I needed to make up. I stated very clearly that it was going to be for fees and that was all I was going to use it for but I didn’t state how much it would need to be.
I was just blown away by how much it was and it was genuinely that moment where all of a sudden it went from being an impossible thing to – I was actually going to go. There was no doubt at that point that I would go and do this. That was an amazing day and an amazing feeling.
It was much easier to break it to Mum when I told her I had £11,000 in my pocket and I could go and do it. And you know, she understood that I wasn’t settled down in Oxford. She understood that it wasn’t forever down there.
In terms of a single mindedness or a real determination to pursue directing, it was from that point that it became a reality. That was when I became a director. That was when the door was fully opened to be able to go and do this and study it.
Scotland is tremendous in that you get your undergrad paid for, but you go to university and change markedly ,or you find something like I did with the theatre. But to go on and do a masters is not open to lots of people. The law thing was £16,000; £11,000 for a theatre masters – I mean essentially I’m from a single parent family. Mum’s a nurse. That’s not a well-paid job despite the fact that it should be. It’s just not possible for folk. That’s why the leadership in Scottish theatre has been dominated by certain kinds of people. I think it’s been an issue in Scottish Theatre.
That’s partly why Dewar matters, to be able to intervene. Dewar was the big difference for me and I’ve spoken about this with another awardee who I’m really good friends with, Debbie Hannan, who is also a theatre director and did the same course as I did. She also received the award to pay for her fee and both of us are now making our way and doing well and making a living out of theatre. But that first hurdle is so hard and it does make a big difference to have studied it rather than just turning up with no credentials.
I wrote a report at the end of the year and since I’ve left the Conservatoire, just in terms of social media, the Dewar Awards have been very good at promoting my work or congratulating me if I’ve had a success. That’s also a very tangible way I’ve felt supported. And that makes a big difference.
My practice changed totally at the Conservatoire and the type of work I made transformed totally as well. I moved in a completely different direction. I became a theatre maker. On the MA I got a distinction. I made a lot of connections on the course which became jobs. The day that the course finished I started my first professional job as assistant director to Ewan Downie with Company of Wolves who are a physical theatre company, which is something I never would have dreamt of. That was a big revolution in my practice at the Conservatoire working with Ewan. He had spent a decade in Poland working with a company called Song of the Goat.
I’ve also worked a lot with Andy Arnold at the Tron, again as an assistant director. I’ve kind of balanced working as an assistant director, continuing to work with people who I respect and admire, with making my own work and directing things freelance as well. I assisted Andy Arnold on Samuel Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ which starred Karen Dunbar.
I am always taking what I can from each experience from other theatre makers and putting that into my own work and bringing that to bear on my own work, modifying that so that it’s part of my practice. I also see assisting as active, contributing. It’s by no means observing. It’s very much being an active voice in the room and heavily influencing what happens. So I’ve worked with Andy twice and he’s offered me a lot of work through the Tron.
And Lanark with the Citizens at Edinburgh International Festival was big. It was obviously one of my biggest experiences to date. I got a Federation of Scottish Theatre bursary. That show was huge because of the scale and ambition of it, because of you know everybody was working and contributing as hard as possible towards making that production work.
With Lanark, at times, I felt I never could have imagined I would have that much responsibility over something that big at that stage in my career. And there was a bit of anxiety related to that but it was a credit to Graham Eatough and David Greig how much they respected me, and opened up their process to me, and invited me in as an equal and a collaborator. I was grateful for that. I hadn’t been out of drama school for even a year. I’d only been out of drama school for ten months and at times I felt the weight of it.
My own company is called Blood of the Young and I lead it. We made a show called Golden Arm Theatre Project which was a collaboration between our theatre company and a band called Golden Arm. And we managed to convince four writers to write pieces, each one of them was a response to a song.
We performed that at The Tron and at The Traverse. It was a piece of gig theatre and we made that self-funded but we sold out across both venues and we increased the capacity several times at The Traverse to meet the demand. That was lovely because it was our first show and we got really good reviews.
About a month ago we got £68,000 from Creative Scotland. It’s our first ever funding application and we got it. And you know we couldn’t have done it without The Tron. We needed an experienced partner.
I feel ready. I’m really happy with my progress now that I’m at the 2 year mark of being out the course. This is two years since finishing and I feel like I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve directed a lot of shows too as a freelance director but getting the funding feels like a big step and the new show is going to tour Scotland.
I think the big thing is about bravery or confidence. I don’t know which one. Even getting the funding, I don’t feel like I need to make a show that is a statement of who we are straight away. We should be able to take a risk with it.
This is a show for which there is no script, which is really exciting and I’m glad that as a company we can show that starting a company and applying for funding, you can do it. It’s possible. Again, it was another thing that felt a bit impossible really. The whole idea of getting funding felt like a really difficult process to go through and now we’ve done it.
It’s tough but I feel so lucky as someone who has worked out what it is I want to do and what it is I feel absolutely passionate about. This is a really wanky statement but it was given to me by a producer who really liked our work. It’s a manifesto by an American company and it says “we measure success not in how rich we are but how rich the hours in our day are” and I think that it’s how rich the hours in the days are and that’s properly how I feel when I’m making a piece of theatre.