Martin Travers had always wanted to write a punk play. Although he was still a toddler when the Sex Pistols were causing outraged headlines in the tabloids of the ‘filth and the fury’ variety, Travers’ two elder brothers were punks, turning the world day-glo with anarchic abandon.
Being commissioned to write what turned out to be Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles?, then, was a dream come true for Travers, and resulted in a play set in 1978, a not so golden era of high unemployment and political unrest amongst an entire generation of disaffected youth. Up step local heroes The Jaggy Nettles, a band whose fifteen minutes of infamy might already be up.
Such a set-up is perfect material for the debut production from the newly founded Citizens Theatre WAC Ensemble – it stands for We Are Citizens - a radical new venture that introduces the first professional theatre company for actors aged between eighteen and twenty-six years-old with experience of the care system. Both the play and the company stem from the Citizens Theatre being awarded funding in 2018 from the Life Changes Trust, the independent charity set up to empower thousands of young people with care experience enough to take charge of their own lives on their own terms. Which, all things considered, sounds pretty punk.
“It’s one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on,” says Travers, who has been involved with the WAC Ensemble project since he was contacted by Dr Louise Hill of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection (CELCIS) at the University of Strathclyde. Established in 2011to provide a holistic approach to supporting the well-being of children and young people, CELCIS is one of the driving forces behind the project, working with the Citz alongside other agencies including Glasgow City Council’s Art in the City body.
“I met Louise, and she said, wouldn’t it be great if there was a care experience based theatre company, and I loved the idea,” says Travers. “It seemed really left-field, especially as it’s about not wanting people’s care experience to define them. What I love about it is it’s so ambitious. It isn’t just a tiny project, but is much more long-term. The idea is that in five years, the company will still have a nest at the Citz, but will produce their own work independently. If we can be involved in something like that, we can be part of something brilliant.”
Again, Travers has channelled a punk ethic into the broader idea of the company as much as he has with the play.
“When you’re writing a play, you might have certain performers in mind, so the idea with this was to get to know the group, and find out what they’re good at, and what makes them tick. Guy Hollands who is directing the play suggested very early on that we should take them out of the now, and setting it in the punk era felt right. That whole world then felt really exciting and anti-authoritarian, and adults found it really scary that young people had so much self-expression. I wanted to write a play about outsiders, and a coming of age story, and that felt right as well, because young people with care experience can sometimes be misunderstood and mis-labelled, and I felt there was a parallel there with the punks.”
For research, Travers, Hollands and the ensemble watched films, including Bill Forsyth’s DIY debut feature, That Sinking Feeling, as well as Grant McPhee’s documentary excavation of Scotland’s original punk and post-punk scene, Big Gold Dream.
“The great thing about now is that there’s so much stuff about that era around. If we’d tried to do something like this ten years ago we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles? will be Hollands’ final project at the Citz after twenty successful years with the company, including the last eight as associate director of the Citizens Learning team. His swan-song production features a cast of ten, with six actors with care experience appearing alongside two student performers, with acting mentors and seasoned professionals Martin Docherty and Helen McAlpine also onstage. Actor and original first-generation punk Tam Dean Burn will also appear in audio form in a show that isn’t so much a calling card for the WAC Ensemble as a gauntlet being thrown down.
“We spoke to everyone in the group and asked what they wanted the play to be about, and they didn’t want it to be about care experience. There might be a subtle tip of the hat in there, but it’s not explicit, and they might do a play about care experience at some point, but not yet. Whatever they do needs to stand on its own as a great night out, and that’s how they’ll survive as a company. We’ve got a group of people in the ensemble who are really talented, and we’ve got A-Team support, and they don’t want to be defined by their care experience, but as actors and artists in their own right.”
In this sense, Travers is treating his own experience on Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles? as punk as its subject.
“The great thing about writing for an ensemble is that they trust you, and that puts a lot of pressure on you,” he says. “But getting to know the group enough for them to create a character and for me to be able to chisel it into place is a luxury you don’t have very often, and I just want the play to be machine-gun funny. When you’re growing up, the banter between people can be vicious, but it’s also really funny. I hope it’s one of those plays that go straight to people’s hearts. It’s in the Brian Cox Studio, so only so many people are going to be able to see it. It’s a bit like when people saw The Clash for the first time and it became legendary. It could become a cult classic.”
Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles? runs at the Brian Cox Studio, Scottish Youth Theatre, Glasgow, February 12-15.
The Herald, January 30th 2020