NxNE: Symon MacIntyre of Vision Mechanics

21 Oct 2011 in Aberdeen City & Shire, Dance & Drama, Highland, Outer Hebrides

SYMON MACINTYRE, the artistic director of Vision Mechanics, explains how he came to be staging a theatre show in a garden near you

NORTHINGS: Symon, before we talk about the new show, perhaps you could just explain the revised structure of your company, since many people will know you as Puppet Lab.

Symon MacIntyre

Symon MacIntyre

SYMON MACINTYRE: We used to be called Puppet Lab, and we did puppet shows, but lots of other things as well. I always had a feeling that puppetry was a good training ground for looking at how you work with space and objects – I did a lot of object theatre. Gradually I developed that sense of looking at spaces and seeing how they could be transformed and re-used with different ideas.

The Big Shop was a project like that, and I realised that to call it a puppet company was risking putting it in a box, both in terms of going for funding and in people’s awareness of what we were doing – there is always the idea that puppets are for children. I still love puppetry, and it is very much part of what we do, but I decided to set up Vision Mechanics to run alongside Puppet Lab so that I could do more experimental work and work for adults, and not confuse people.

So Vision Mechanics will concentrate more on projects like The Big Shop and Big Man Walking, and Puppet Lab will focus on our work for children and families, and our puppet work.

NORTHINGS: And who is involved in the company these days?

SYMON MACINTYRE: I control the artistic direction, and Kim Bersagel is the Creative Director, and does most of the design work. We have an administrator and a financial person, and that’s it, so artistically it is led by myself and Kim. We are based in Edinburgh, but I was brought up in Nairn, and I find myself doing a lot of work up here – there is something about the area that draws me back.

Big Man Walking

Big Man Walking

NORTHINGS: You have a track record of unconventional work like The Big Shop and Big Man Walking, but even by your standards the new show sounds unusual – so where did Dark Matter come from?

SYMON MACINTYRE: Well, I could say the outer edges of the universe, where “dark matter” exists – large unseen forces pull things into them which are often unable to escape, which was a notion that interested me.

I wanted to create a show which took theatre outside of theatre – I worry that audiences aren’t going into theatres, and I wanted to use a different kind of space, one that was familiar, but that we would change somehow, much as we did with the shops in The Big Shop.

The idea of doing a show in someone’s garden really excited me, and we put together the idea of a kind of ghost story-cum-murder mystery based in a garden. I don’t want to say too much about the story, because it is something you need to experience, but it does play with that idea of things being sucked in and unable to escape.

NORTHINGS: Was it conceived for North By North East, or was it a project you had in mind before that opportunity came around?

SYMON MACINTYRE: I conceived it with North by North East in mind. I’m not rich and I don’t have a wealthy patron, so I’m in the same position as any other artist working in this field – when a funding opportunity presents itself, you have a look and see if you have an idea that you want to do that will fit with it.

It has to be a fit, and it has to be a good idea – that is key. If the idea is right and you can excite people about it, you will get the funding. I love working in different spaces, and the thrust of this fund seemed to be to make different things happen. It is a bureaucratic process, of course, and one that you simply have to go through to get to the point where you can do your work.

Emma Anderson, the performer in Dark Matter

Emma Anderson, the performer in Dark Matter


NORTHINGS: So how is the show going to work?

SYMON MACINTYRE: It takes place outdoors in a garden at each of the locations, and we are limiting the audience to a maximum of 30 at each show, although we can do it two or three times a night if need be, since it runs for around 30 minutes.

NORTHINGS: Scotland is a challenging country for outdoor events, especially at this time of year.

SYMON MACINTYRE: Actually, the first challenge was to find the gardens. The way it worked with North By North East, and I think it was a good way of doing it, was that the ideas were sent out to the participating promoters around the country, and they came back with the show they would like.

Ten of them decided they would like to do Dark Matter, and that stretched from South Uist to Stornoway, then Ullapool and Plockton, and then right across through Drumnadrochit and Cromarty and Forres to Aberdeenshire.

It’s a nice arc across the top of the country, so then I had to go and find all the gardens. What I was looking for was a bit of shelter from the west winds – originally I wanted to do it in a September-October slot, but circumstances pushed it back a bit to October-November.

NORTHINGS: How big a worry is the weather?

SYMON MACINTYRE: It has the potential to be so, for both us and the audience, but everyone will be told to wrap up warmly, and in addition we will give them a big black cape to wear over their outdoor clothes, which are often quite brightly coloured these days, because we want to blend them into the space.

We hope it will be fairly warm and comfortable – obviously if it is sideways rain and gales we won’t be doing the show. We had quite a few wet days when we were doing the technical recce of the gardens, but we always felt we could have done the show.

Final rehearsals up in Nairn showed us that we needed to work harder to keep our performer warm, but we did a number of full runs through in some pretty fierce weather, so we have a good idea now how far we can go.

It’ll only run for half an hour or so. We’ll look after the audience, and every venue will have tea and coffee available before and after the show. I love that interchange of groups coming out and groups going in – that creates a little buzz, I feel.

NORTHNGS: How did you find the gardens?

SYMON MACINTYRE: We got a few recommendations, but people didn’t always grasp what we were after. We asked around in each of the locations, and went around and looked at lots of gardens, and we found some remarkable spaces in often unlikely places, like the gardens we are using in Uist and in Lewis.

At the other end there was the Findhorn community, and in between a range of gardens that were all very different, but I felt would work for what we needed. Each time we went to a place we had to re-block the show in our heads. It is a tense and dramatic story, and because the audience will all be wearing wireless headphones and hearing it through them, it sits in an aural landscape.

NORTHINGS: What will be in the headphones?

SYMON MACINTYRE: Everything – you will hear the performer in the headphones, which will eradicate that thing you sometimes get with outdoor productions when someone speaks and the wind catches it or whatever, and you don’t quite get it.

The headphones allow you to hear the voice of the performer very clearly, but we also have a remarkable sound designer, Tam Treanor, working on the show as well, and his soundscape will also be fed through the headphones.

Tam has worked a lot in the music industry. He’s just finished a degree in Edinburgh which involved creating a virtual space, and that was what I really wanted. Some of it will be pre-recorded, but he will be doing much of it live. Finding a place for control point for him in each venue has been a big problem, but I think we now have a viable indoor location just about everywhere.

The audio is very important in the show. The fact that it is at night will help us create the haunting, slightly disturbing feel we are after.

Emma Anderson

Emma Anderson

NORTHINGS: WE have mentioned the performer a few times now – I guess we should tell people who she is.

SYMON MACINTYRE: Indeed. She is Emma Anderson, who worked with me before when we did The Big Shop in Inverness, and has done a few smaller things with me since. I thought then she had a lot of potential – she has that energy on stage, and this is a tough show to do. I’m not denying that being stuck outside in the early winter in Scotland isn’t going to be easy, but she is young and keen and up for it.

She is also from Inverness, and is based up here. I didn’t want to be doing a show here and just import everybody from Edinburgh or Glasgow – I always feel that is a little bit of a con, and from working with Emma before I was confident she could do it.

NORTHINGS: And you have also turned to a locally-based writer for the script, Chris Lee of Wildbird.

SYMON MACINTYRE: Yes, and initially I wanted to use Graeme Rodger of Wildbird as well for visual projections, but as I thought about it, a realised that the projections I was envisioning weren’t going to work within the budget. We are using some very expensive LED lighting, but no projections. People’s houses aren’t really wired up for lots of stage lighting, and I didn’t want to bring in a noisy generator, but the LED lights run off much less power, and will be very effective.

NORTHINGS: So the lighting essentially takes the place of a stage set?

SYMON MACINTYRE: The garden itself is the set, and we won’t be carting in lots of stuff. We expect that the show itself will change a little each night depending on the particular garden we are in.

Dark Matter is on tour from 26 October 2011. See Vision Mechanics and North By North East websites for tour dates and information.

© Kenny Mathieson, 2011