Tuesday, 5 August 2014

John McCann - Spoiling

When the forthcoming Scottish Independence Referendum was first mooted
several years ago, John McCann wondered why no-one was talking about
it. If such a potentially epoch-changing decision had been announced in
the playwright's native Northern Ireland, he figured, there would have
been what he describes as an explosion of a response. As it was, in
Scotland, where McCann now lives in Dundee, McCann was “gobsmacked at
the silence.”

For anyone caught in the crossfire of social media slanging matches
between assorted flag-wavers from both the Yes and No camps that erupt
with increasing force as the day of the referendum gets nearer,
McCann's observation of an apparent silence might sound odd. Coming
from Northern Ireland, however, where the volatility of political
debate makes Scotland look positively kitten-like by comparison, you
can see his point.

“Even before anything would've been announced,” says McCann, “in
Northern Ireland it would've been on all the front pages, and people
would be being really vocal about it. So it's been quite a learning
experience for me in terms of discovering the differences between
politics in Northern Ireland and politics here. Only now do I realise
that I was looking at things through my Northern Ireland goggles.”

Out of all this, McCann wrote Spoiling, one of the Traverse Theatre's
flagship Edinburgh Festival Fringe productions, which imagines a future
Foreign Minister of a newly independent Scotland who is about to give a
speech about the country's relationship with the former UK. The trouble
is, she doesn't agree with the script she's been given, and in an act
of personal independence that may have bigger political ramifications,
prepares to go seriously off-message.

“I remember when Barack Obama was elected, says McCann, “and his entire
campaign was swept along by hope. When he was elected, Jesse Jackson
was in tears, and we thought the world had changed, but it hadn't. So I
became interested in that gap between optimism and expectation, and the
political reality, which is that nothing will really happen for quite a
while, and there are maybe things which have been promised, which are
suddenly very difficult to achieve. That no-man's-land really
interested me. I also realise now that, in a way, I was writing the
play as an act of decompression from leaving Northern Ireland and
coming to Scotland.”

McCann moved from Belfast to Dundee six years ago, and since then has
worked in mental health. Spoiling was developed during McCann's time as
one of the Traverse 50, Scotland's new writing theatre's year-long
initiative to develop a fresh set of voices for the stage. This year's
Traverse programme shares the first fruits of the project, with six
plays by Traverse 50 graduates forming the theatre's early morning
programme of Breakfast Plays. It was Spoiling, however, that seemed
ready for a full production directed by the theatre's artistic
director, Orla O'Loughlin.

“It was an idea I'd had eighteen months before the Traverse 50,” McCann
says, “but that whole year  being part of it helped me to come to terms
with what it was I was wanting to explore. It was great to be taken
under the Traverse's wing, and let's face it, the Traverse has some
mighty wings.”

Despite a year's mentoring, McCann is far from a theatre rookie.
Spoiling is actually McCann's second professionally produced play,
following on from The Cleanroom, which was produced earlier this year
by the Belfast-based Tinderbox Theatre Company. McCann has a long
association with Tinderbox after working with them for ten years
developing scripts with community groups across the city.

Prior to that, McCann studied drama at Birmingham University and worked
in community drama. He first worked with Tinderbox on Convictions, a
site-specific show presented in Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast
during a period of unrest in the city. Other projects with Tinderbox
included Vote Vote Vote, which was performed in the council chamber of
Belfast City Hall, “one of the most divisive spaces in Northern
Ireland,” as McCann puts it.

“I used to hate projects where you were parachuted into places,” he
says, “but Tinderbox would do things that allowed me to become embedded
in communities for a couple of years.

Prior to the Traverse 50, McCann had already taken part in a writing
workshop at the Traverse led by playwright Zinnie Harris.  A short
piece that developed out of that received a reading by the Stellar
Quines company in Edinburgh, as well as one in Belfast. McCann also
sent various shorts to be performed as part of Words, Words, Words, the
Traverse's regular night of script-in-hand scratch performances of new

McCann is the latest in an increasing line of Irish artists working
extensively in Scottish theatre. Tinderbox itself has been instrumental
in this with True North, a triple bill of new plays by writers from
Northern Ireland featuring work by McCann, fellow Traverse 50 graduate
and stalwart of Edinburgh's Village Pub Theatre, Colin Bell, and David
Ireland, who has worked frequently in Scotland as both an actor and

In Ireland, meanwhile, McCann's colleagues at Tinderbox included former
associate director of Dundee Rep, Michael Duke, who is now artistic
director of Tinderbox. McCann has also worked on projects with Anna
Newell, another former associate director of Dundee Rep who is now
resident in Belfast.  Newell will be opening a play for young people
penned by McCann in Belfast shortly after Spoiling's Edinburgh run.

McCann won't be drawn on what he thinks might happen on September 18th,
nor what he would like the result to be. Either way, it will be what
happens afterwards that counts.

“The play isn’t a Yes/No play,” he says, “and it is and isn't a
referendum play. What lies at the heart of it is something else, and
that seems to be about the characters wanting to do the right thing
under pressure.

“For me, Spoiling is more about me decompressing from Northern Ireland
and acclimatising here. It's also back to the Obama hope stuff compared
to political reality, and resisting the temptation to be carried along
on an optimistic wave. That will just come crashing in on you, and
you'll find yourself  stranded on a wee island, and it's not the island
you thought you were going to be on. That's not about being Yes or No.
That's a universal thing.”

Spoiling, Traverse Theatre, July 30-Aug 24, various times

The Herald, August 4th 2014


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