8 Feb 2013 in Dance & Drama, Shetland, Showcase

David Pollock investigates the National Theatre of Scotland’s Ignition project in Shetland

ALTHOUGH a large-scale theatrical project which attempts to use the length and breadth of the Shetlands as its stage and involves months of artistic interaction with the inhabitants of the islands seems like a celebratory venture, Ignition was borne of a deep tragedy within the community.

“THE project goes back five years ago, to the death of a young lad called Stuart Henderson in a road accident,” says John Haswell, arts development officer of Shetland Arts, who have teamed with the National Theatre of Scotland to bring Ignition to life. “Stuart was very much involved in the youth theatre which I ran, and his parents were very anxious afterwards that perhaps a piece of theatre could be created which would address road safety issues. I ummed and ahhed about it, because I wasn’t sure that a piece of issue-based theatre would have any sort of lasting impact.”

Ignition (image Simon Murphy)

Ignition (image Simon Murphy)

Keen to do something to honour Henderson, who was killed alongside his friend Marcus MacPherson in November 2007, Haswell kept the idea in mind, and the eventual pitch he took to – and had accepted by – the NTS was for a project which would attempt to examine our entire relationship with the automobile as a society.

“Like all rural areas Shetland is heavily dependent on the motorcar,” says Haswell, “and like all rural areas there’s an even greater sense of freedom amongst young people when they pass their test and get a car, because it allows them to become independent of their parents. But the other thing about Shetland is that its whole economic infrastructure is bound up with Sullom Voe oil terminal and the money it brings in, so we have an even more complex relationship with the oil industry, rather than just the car itself.”

It was after the project had been approved that theatremaker Wils Wilson (whose border ballad-cum-supernatural comedy The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, co-created with David Grieg, has become one of the organisation’s most enduring shows) came on board to help facilitate it, having previously worked on the Shetland leg of the NTS’ launch event, Home.

“I spent time thinking about what this project could do that any other couldn’t,” says Wilson. “It’s an exchange of information between people like myself, who are coming in with a certain set of skills, and the people of the island who are the real experts on the subject.” Haswell reiterates that the process of Ignition is “not imposed from outside, it’s very much gathered and generated from within Shetland.”

The White Wife hosting a Sunday tea in her campervan (photo Chloe Garrick)

The White Wife hosting a Sunday tea in her campervan (photo Chloe Garrick)

What followed was a series of community events and interventions geared towards collecting testimony from islanders about their stories of the road and relationship with it, most notably through what Wilson calls their “hitchhiker-in-residence” the White Wife, a creation of Manchester-based performance artist Lowri Evans.

Beginning in October last year and continuing until late February 2013, Evans has been riding around the island in cars, on buses and on ferries divining the text which will be used in the final performance at the end of March. There have also been or will be workshops, children’s events, parkour tours focusing on travel without roads and ‘Car Yarns’, a series of public storytelling and knitting events aimed at creating a full-size car out of wool (“mak’ing and yakking sessions,” Wilson calls them).

“When we think about cars, we wonder if they isolate us from one another,” says Wilson. “There we are, all driving round in our little metal boxes. We wanted to challenge that and break through it, so Lowri threw herself on the generosity of the islanders. Immediately, as a hitcher and a woman on her own, people are concerned for her safety, but as a driver a stranger getting into your car is also an interesting relationship. As a woman, do I pick up a hitcher? Already there are lots of interesting areas to explore. People took her to their house and made tea or to a special place they’d been to, and they told her very personal stories about journeys which had changed their lives. There’s something about travelling along in a car together which creates a kind of confessional environment.”

Knitted Car (photo Seth Hardwick)

Knitted Car (photo Seth Hardwick)

The stories gathered and texts cultivated will be merged into the fluid final performance, which is still in a state of flux, but which will be held across the island (in locations reached by car, naturally) and which will feature as many residents as want to get involved, be they the youth theatre, dance groups, parkour groups or those appearing on pre-recorded video inserts, particularly through choreographer Janice Parker’s work with care home residents with dementia. Composer Hugh Nankivill has also composed a new score for the piece, entitled The Road.

“We set ourselves a challenge to try and reach everyone on the islands,” says Wilson. “Other than that we had to be open and responsive to what we found. The car is our spark, but it leads you to places you weren’t expecting. Even asking ‘do you have a pet name for your car?’, the question quickly expands to become about how they live their lives or why they came to Shetland, for example. It’s widening out to become about people’s journeys through life and their relationships with the landscape around them.”

Is it possible to say their work so far has reached any conclusions? “It’s reinforced our utter and total dependency upon the car,” says Haswell, “and what a difficult relationship that is. I mean, we’re generating funny stories, tragic stories, we’re hearing about the financial impact, the environmental impact, that fact that the public transport network here is pretty poor, which puts us back into the car… . I suppose ultimately it’s showing us we’re totally dependent on the car, but that we know that can’t last for ever. We’re not going to change the world overnight, but it’s made us wonder where we might go from here.”

The final Ignition performances will take place around Shetland between Monday 25 and Saturday 30 March.

© David Pollock, 2013