Early Days: Reflections on the Performance of a Referendum

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This short film extends the enquiry of the essay that we wrote for the Electoral Theatre issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, reflecting on theatre and performance that responded to the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014. We consider this to have been a hugely progressive, creative, and formative period in Scottish politics and in identifying some of the ways in which the independence referendum was ‘played out’, we hope to have captured something of the spirit of the debate in Scotland. In this essay, we referred to the arts policy consultant Christine Hamilton’s discussion of the tendency for Scottish theatre makers to support independence.1 Keen to consider this issue further, in December 2014 we visited Hamilton’s home in Glasgow and asked her about political allegiances, civic agency and artistic activism. Our conversation with Hamilton and with many of the practitioners who made work in response to the referendum conveyed that at this cultural moment the role of the artist was one of an active citizen, a dissonant voice, a rebel and a facilitator of debate and dialogue. A picture emerged of a passionate and vocal community of artists, activists and audiences, engaging with political issues with a force and fury that was galvanised by the independence debate.

Over the course of the next month, we interviewed several Scottish theatre and performance makers who had made work that considered issues of national identity and self determination in the lead up to the referendum. We wanted to speak directly to some of the artists we had referred to in the essay, and to find out what inspired, angered and concerned them, and what motivated them to engage creatively with the referendum. We talked to writers, actors, directors, devisors, activists, novelists and poets. Most of them, but not all, were highly politicised, active citizens of Scotland with a clear position on independence. Others identified more neutrally as cultural commentators unavoidably responding to a major social and political event. Ideas and opinions converged and diverged at various points during our discussions, and there were many different political and artistic perspectives offered. We have attempted to edit the hours of dialogue that we recorded into a short film that encapsulates the range of approaches and responses that emerged, and begins to answer some of the questions that we raised in the essay.

The film supports Hamilton’s observations, as the majority of our interviewees were passionate supporters of Scottish independence. However, it also makes clear that there is no such thing as a concordant Scottish theatre community, and that the brief period of coalescence around the referendum has now passed into political history. As Gerry Hassan points out, continuing to separate the Scottish electorate into Yes and No camps inevitably means that ‘other questions about democracy, the environment, sustainable economic growth, and how we run public services are lost in this divide, as is any real space for radical progressive politics’.2 Months after the referendum was decisively concluded, the theatre makers who we talked to recognise the importance of looking forward and moving on.

– Laura Bissell and David Overend, February 2015

 

For this film, we interviewed Davey Anderson, Victoria Bianchi, Alan Bissett, Rob Drummond, Catrin Evans, Christine Hamilton, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair and Julia Taudevin. Filming and editing was by Callum Baird, and equipment was provided by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. We extend our thanks to all the contributors to this project.

 

Dr Laura Bissell is a Lecturer in Contemporary Performance Practice at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Laura is a visiting Lecturer on the MRes in Creative Practices programme at Glasgow School of Art and has taught on the Transart Institute MFA in Berlin. Laura is Associate Editor of Theatre, Dance and Performance Training and is on the board of A Moment’s Peace Theatre Company. Laura’s research interests include: contemporary performance practices; technology and performance; feminist performance; and performance and journeys.

Dr David Overend is an award-winning director and researcher in contemporary theatre and performance. His research is interdisciplinary and he has recently published articles on the relationship between performance and mobility. In 2014, David directed a play about the Scottish independence debate for the National Theatre of Great Britain (Wallace by Rob Drummond). David is a lecturer in contemporary theatre and performance at the University of the West of Scotland.

 

Notes:

  1. Christine Hamilton, ‘Yes or no, that is the answer’, Arts Professional. 7 July 2014. <http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/276/article/yes-or-no-answer> [accessed 21 December 2014].
  2. Gerry Hassan, ‘Message to the Messengers: What do we do after Yes?’, Gerry Hassan: Writing, Research, Policy and Ideas. 8 December 2014 <http://www.gerryhassan.com/blog/message-to-the-messengers-what-do-we-do-after-yes/> [accessed 21 December 2014].
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