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Elliot Roberts - Grain in the Blood

When Elliot Roberts saw writer and performer Rob Drummond's show, Bullet Catch, at the Arches in Glasgow, he never thought he would end up working as assistant director on a new play by the prolific writer and performer presented on the main-stage of the Traverse, the world-renowned Edinburgh-based new writing theatre. Three years on, however, and Roberts has been installed for the last few weeks on Traverse artistic director Orla O'Loughlin's production of Drummond's play, Grain in the Blood.

This co-production with the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, where it opens this week, finds Drummond putting a noirish thriller into a rural landscape where a prodigal's return home to an isolated community steeped in local folklore raises moral dilemmas about personal sacrifices made for a greater good.

For Roberts, his tenure on Grain in the Blood also marks a breakthrough for the young director and former dramaturgy student at the University of Glasgow enabled by a bursary initiated by the Saltire Society Trust. The £3,000 bursary has given Roberts the opportunity to work as assistant director of Grain in the Blood for a full nine weeks, and forms part of a wider programme of support which will see the Saltire Society supporting a variety of young artists in the early stages of their career with £50,000 worth of backing from the independent charity.

“It's the perfect opportunity for me to gain a bit of experience,” a quietly spoken and erudite Roberts says. “My background is equal parts directing and dramaturgy, which both come from the same impetus and skill-set, and which hopefully help writers tell their stories, and obviously the Traverse has a big reputation as a theatre that works exclusively with new writing, so experiencing the range of what goes on there has been really important.

“I've been working with the literary department, and getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of how that works, but there's so much I can learn as well from being in the rehearsal room, hopefully becoming more confident with the various processes, as well as learning first hand more about what makes the Traverse tick.”

The role of an assistant director covers many bases, and can, one suspects, be a hugely different experience depending on the personality of both the organisation and the artistic director an assistant is working under. Given that both O'Loughlin and the Traverse have a long history of collaborating with artists to nurture developing talent, however, Roberts' experience has been a fruitful and stimulating one.

“It's covered quite a lot of different things,” he says. “A lot of it has been about doing as much research about the world of the play as we can, and being able to answer questions about the background to the characters and what we do or don't know at any point in the play. It's also a very flexible and collaborative role, and I've been able to offer my eyes onto things when Orla might want a different perspective on things.”

Originally from Cambridge, Roberts was attracted to drama from an early age.

“I was drawn to the idea of telling stories,” he says, “but out of all the different ways of telling them, what appealed about theatre was the fact that it happens live and in the moment, and when it works, you feel witness to something special. When you're watching something like that, it's as much about what isn't said as what is, and where a perfectly realised silence can say as much as a perfectly pitched line. That's one of the great things about watching actors.”

Prior to moving to Glasgow, Roberts studied drama at Hull University.

“Hull is getting all the praise and attention I thought it should have been getting years ago,” Roberts says, referring to the city's forthcoming tenure as UK City of Culture 2017. “When I first went there I was told that there was a queue at 8.30 in the morning when the drama department opened, and that they had to chuck people out at 11 O' Clock when it shut, and that was the sort of place it was. That's the sort of place I wanted to be, where everyone was enthusiastic about what they did because they believed in it. It was the same in Glasgow, and it's the same at the Traverse as well, and that makes for a really intoxicating atmosphere. Otherwise, if you don't believe in something, what's the point?”

Roberts started coming to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, performing in a short play about Everyman one year, working as a technician the next, and doing a placement as a dramaturg with the Third Angel company the year after. He moved to Glasgow in 2013.

“It seemed like somewhere with a vibrant theatre scene,” he says, “and coming up allowed me to see a lot of Scottish work.”

Since graduating from the University of Glasgow in 2014, Roberts has worked as an assistant director on Ophelia at Oran Mor as part of A Play, A Pie and A Pint and other companies. Roberts is also a core member of the Glasgow-based Leylines Theatre company, and worked on their production of The Giant and her Daughter, which was staged at Govanhill Baths as part of the city's Southside Fringe, and as part of a special programme for Refugee Festival Scotland.

“Leylines isn't just about putting on new writing,” he says, “but is looking at storytelling skills in communities. The last thing we did was called Ley Night, and was an event where people sang songs or told stories in a way they might not have had the confidence to do before.”

Beyond Grain in the Blood, Roberts says he has no immediate plans, “though what I'm hoping the bursary will help me to do is expand on the work I've been doing at the Traverse, and as both a director to continue conversations with particular writers and directors and see where that leads. Again,I have a strong feeling that I only want to work on pieces I believe in.

In terms of theatre that might have had an influence on his own work, Roberts points to Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner, director Stewart Laing and writer Pamela Carter's meta-theatrical extravaganza disguised as a monologue produced by Laing's Untitled Projects company.

“I was hugely inspired by that,” says Roberts. “It was incredibly clever, with this huge amount of visual detail, but it was also very affecting.”

Grain in the Blood too appears to be leaving its mark.

“This is really quite a special offering from Rob,” says Roberts. “My first experience of Rob's work was seeing him do Bullet Catch, but this is so different. It's meticulously written, like watch machinery, with all these delicate components that make it tick, and if you removed one then the whole thing would fall apart. As a play it looks at this really tricky moral dilemma about what we would be prepared to sacrifice, and bringing all of these aspects of the play together in the way that Rob does is really striking. It's a real emotional tug of war of a piece. It has all these dramatic twists and turns in there, and it does them excellently.”

Grain in the Blood, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 19-29; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, November 1-12.
www.tron.co.uk
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, October 18th 2016

ends

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