Getting The Right Direction

22 Sep 2011 in Dance & Drama, Highland

JOHN BURNS updates Northings on progress – and the value of a good director – on his one-man show about Aleister Crowley

THE wheel turns a full circle when I bring my one-man show about Aleister Crowley, A Passion for Evil, back to the Little Theatre in Nairn on 30 September, the venue where it was first performed two years ago before heading for the Edinburgh Fringe.

It’s been quite a journey looking back over the last two years. I suppose it’s fair to say that both I and the play have changed in equal measure.  The experience of the Fringe, in 2010, and the subsequent development work we were offered by the Lowry in Salford has changed both me as an actor and the play almost beyond recognition.

John Burns

John Burns

When I first performed the play I had the terrifying feeling of walking out alone on to an empty stage to face an audience in a play that lasts fifty minutes.  That’s a very lonely experience.  Now it feels very different, not just because I have greater confidence but because now when I walk out as Crowley I am no longer alone.

I was lucky enough to work with an amazing director, Nigel Fairs, who brought the stage alive for me.  He taught me to see the other characters who were on stage with me but I’d never really seen before.  When Crowley is on stage now he is surrounded by people and places.  His father is there, and his mistress Leah Hirsig, his child Nuit is also on stage and there is even the mountain Kanchenjunga.

Sometimes it feels as through Crowley has to fight for space in his own life on stage.  One thing I never realised about a play, especially a one-man play, is just how much it can evolve and change.  For me it feels like it is growing and changing all the time.  When you are working with other cast members you can’t suddenly change how something is performed as that will affect their performance, but in a one-man show you have complete freedom.

While performing at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe I was approached by the Lowry’s Producer/Programmer, Porl Cooper.  Porl wanted to bring the play to the Salford theatre but was also keen to develop the piece through a scheme run by the Lowry where they offer support to developing performers through providing direction and an opportunity to refine work that is already in development.

One of the problems I constantly faced in trying to produce the play in the Highlands was the difficulty in finding someone to direct me. Most of the time I was having to work without direction and that is a bit like painting in the dark.  You can’t see what the audience sees.  The Lowry gave me the direction I needed and helped me to see the play in a new light and also to work on my own performance in a way that would have been impossible without Nigel’s help.

I got enormous support from Hi-Arts Work in Progress scheme which is managed by their Writing Development Officer, Peter Urpeth. The scheme helped me to take the script to the next level in preparing it for the Fringe.  Arts funding is tighter than ever these days but it would be fantastic for Highland Theatre companies if there were some way of bringing in directors to help Highland companies developed their work in the way I was able to do with the Lowry.

The drama has proved controversial, not, as might be expected, amongst church groups for his portrayal of the Victorian occultist, but amongst the many followers and devotees who still follow Crowley.

My play portrays Crowley’s devoutly Christian father as the central figure of his life.  The death of his father is the crucial incident which propels the man into an endless search enlightenment with no thought to the cost to himself or those around him.

The play has generally been well received by people who have studied the man and have a knowledge of him that extends beyond the ravings of the tabloid press and that is important to me.  Although I certainly wanted to give a balanced view of Crowley, and that has to include his many faults, I felt it important to say that here was someone who needed to be taken seriously and who genuinely and fearlessly strove for the truth.

I have the feeling that I still things to discover about myself as a performer, and Crowley as a character, in the journey I have undertaken with this performance.  I don’t think “Uncle Al”, as he is affectionately known by his students, has finished with me yet.

A Passion For Evil is at the Little Theatre, Nairn on 30 September 2011.

© John Burns, 2011