Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Morna Pearson - The Artist Woman's New Play

“It's like a children's story,” says Morna Pearson as she makes her way 
up the steep metal stairs of the Traverse Theatre's Leith-based 
rehearsal room after observing through a window as a group of actors 
throw themselves into a dance routine, “but with dirty bits.”

Pearson is talking about her new play, The Artist Man and the Mother 
Woman, which opens at the Traverse next week, and it's the most direct 
she's likely to be on the subject. Such reticence is peculiarly at odds 
with Pearson's dramatic voice if her 2006 debut play, Distracted, is 
anything to go by. Set in a Morayshire caravan park occupied by 
dysfunctional transients, Distracted served up a wild and vivid form of 
Doric-accented surrealism which suggested great things for Pearson.

Distracted went on to win the prestigious Meyer-Whitworth new 
playwriting award in 2007, which saw Pearson following in the footsteps 
of David Harrower, Henry Adam and Conor McPherson. Given such acclaim 
and the subsequent attention received by the then 27-year-old from 
Elgin from major theatre companies, one might have expected a steady 
stream of works to have taken the world by storm. As it is, while there 
have been occasional sightings of Pearson, after five years, The artist 
Man and the mother Woman is somewhat remarkably Pearson's first 
full-length main stage play.

It's not that there haven't been sightings of Pearson. By the time she 
won the Meyer-Whitworth Award, Pearson had already seen a new short 
play, Elf Analysis, performed as part of the Oran Mor based A Play, A 
Pie and A Pint season. In 2011,  an adaptation of a piece by South 
American writer Rodolofo Santana, which translated as The Company Will 
Overlook A Moment of Madness, also appeared at Oran Mor in a season 
co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland. In 2011. Skin: Or 
How To Disappear, was one of the most accomplished pieces in a 
compendium of shorts presented by the women's writer based  Agent 160 
company last year. As well as two radio plays, Mcbeth's McPets and Side 
Effects, there were contributions too to Welcome To the Hotel 
Caledonia, the Traverse's multiple-authored election night 

While these were all tantalising glimpses into Pearson's fantastical 
mind, one wanted more. If The Artist Man and the Mother Woman proves as 
captivating as these, the first question that needs to be asked it what 
kept her so long. As it turns out, Pearson has been far from idle over 
the last decade. It's just that the rest of the world, one suspects, 
wasn't quite ready for her.

“It's gone quickly,” reflects Pearson in slightly dreamy tones. “I've 
done something pretty much every year, but I've always been down a lot 
of dead ends as well with commissions that never came to anything. If I 
had other skills I would've maybe have stopped writing, because when 
you get three commissions rejected in a row, it kind of makes you 
think. I've definitely learnt from that not to be commissioned on one 
sentence, but to write a first draft first. What might be a good idea 
might only end up being a ten minute play, so I wouldn't say yes to 
anything now unless I was confident I knew what the deal was.”

While she clearly lost confidence after such setbacks, Pearson 
maintains a quiet determination when she says of the rejected plays 
that “They're not in the bin. They've just been put aside for a while.”

Pearson's new play takes its title from a line in George Bernard Shaw's 
Man and Superman, which states that 'Of all human struggles there is 
none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist 
man and the mother woman.' Pearson uses this notion as a springboard to 
see what happens when a molly-coddled art teacher attempts to extract 
himself from the maternal bosom after discovering he works in one of 
the top ten sexiest professions.

“I always start with a character suggesting things in my head,” Pearson 
said, “and I had this character who'd led a sheltered life, but who 
wanted to get into the dating scene. Then I quickly realised that his 
mother was very important to his life so I started to focus on their 

This hits on a notion that most men with artistic sensibilities have 
been indulged by their mothers from an early age.

“Boys are definitely treated differently,” Pearson observes, “and I 
think if my character here had been a woman then she definitely 
wouldn't still be living at home. But most of the characters I come up 
with are a bit unwise.”

An early draft of The Artist Man and the Mother Woman was one of the 
plays originally  commissioned by another company, who'd passed on 
taking it to full production. It was only when the Traverse's incoming 
artistic director Orla O'Loughlin arrived at the theatre that things 
began to move forward.

“She'd heard of it's existence and asked to read it,” says Pearson, 
“and then she thought it would be good to have a reading of it in 
April. Part of that was about getting my confidence back, but I had 
enough distance from it to go back to it. A few weeks later the 
Traverse commissioned me, and I redrafted and redrafted it, so it's 
quite a different play now to how it was originally, even though it's 
gone back more to how it was in the original draft.”

Whatever happens with The Artist Man and the Mother Woman, it's 
unlikely to be another five years before a new play by Pearson appears. 
Already ongoing is Ailie and the Alien, a commission fir the National 
Theatre's 2013 NT Connections series of plays performed by youth 
theatres. As for her current play, while ostensibly a comedy, Pearson 
admits there is a dark thread running throughout.

“Some of the subject matter could be taken further,” she admits, “but 
you don't want to alienate an audience, so I hope we've got the balance 

The Artist Man and the Mother Woman, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 
October 30th-November 17th

The Herald, October 30th 2012


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