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Play Resource Scotland

When playwright Andrew Dallmeyer was recently interviewed on these
pages to talk about Mull Theatre’s revival of Opium Eater, his 1984
piece about Thomas de Quincey, it became apparent that much of the
writer’s prolific output had disappeared from view. While Opium Eater
and other works such as The Boys in the Back Room have appeared, albeit
sporadically, in print, the majority of Dallmeyer’s seventy-something
back catalogue have not. Indeed, if you were to mention Dallmeyer to
young graduates of Scotland’s drama courses, it’s unlikely these movers
and shakers of future theatre will have even heard of them. While
Dallmeyer himself retains sole copies of the original manuscripts, he
pointed out, if fire were to break out at his home and the scripts were
to perish, that would be the end of them, as other copies, of they
still exist, would be nigh-on impossible to find.

This isn’t an unusual scenario in a theatre scene which, despite the
best efforts of both the Glasgow University housed Scottish Theatre
Archive and the National Library of Scotland’s curatorship of the
Traverse Theatre’s new writing archive, has a very short memory. While
works by the likes of David Greig and David Harrower are well tended by
agents and artistic directors alike as they become major players on the
world repertoire and well known to a new generation of drama school
graduates, the back catalogues of writers who came to prominence in the
1980s such as Jo Clifford, Chris Hannan and Peter Arnott aren’t quite
so well known.

These three writers are readily recognised by recent works such as
Clifford’s play, Every One, Hannan’s new take on The Three Musketeers
and the Princess of Spain and Arnott’s recent version of Neil M Gunn’s
novel, The Silver Darlings. How many producers, though, will be aware
of Clifford’s major international hit, Losing Venice, Arnott’s main
stage debut White Rose and the multiple tours of The Boxer Benny Lynch
and Hannan’s follow-up to the recently revived Elizabeth Gordon Quinn,
The Orphan’s Comedy?

Going back even further, for every John Byrne, Liz Lochead or Tom and
John McGrath, how many are even aware of the contributions made to
Scotland’s dramatic canon by Tom Gallacher, George Byatt, Edward Boyd
or Freddie Anderson, not to mention the lesser-known works of Men
Should Weep author Ena Lamont Stewart or Joe Corrie?

It is with this in mind that the wheels have been set in motion for the
creation of Play Resource Scotland, with the aim of providing an online
archive of some of the less sung works of Scottish theatre. Developed
in association with Playwrights Studio Scotland, the three year pilot
scheme is being steered by Louise Stephens, who, in her former role as
Literary Officer at the Traverse, understands the value of looking
after a script more than most. Also on board in the project is the
University of St Andrews, where research body the Institute for
Capitalising on Creativity has provided resources for Stephens to
pursue what could easily be a Sisyphean task.

“This is something the Playwrights Studio has wanted to do since the
organisation started,” Stephens explains. “The idea was that someone
should try and collate all the information that currently hangs out in
various places, so if as producer wanted to put the plays on they can
access information about cast sizes and all of that practical kind of
stuff. At the moment you have to be looking for something specific to
be able to find it, but with the Play Resource you will hopefully be
able to look at more general things, like plays with a cast of three
for instance. So the ambition is to provide a central place where
people can go to and find all the information they need. Once we’ve got
some kind of prototype up we can approach writers and other people for
more information. This is something known as snowball sampling, where
you ask one person for information, who sends you to someone else, and
so on. Because we’re dealing with something that’s in recent living
memory, that should hopefully cover a lot of bases, and make sure
you’re not missing out huge chunks of information. Obviously that gets
more difficult the further back that you go, so we’ll have to try and
find other ways of sourcing information.”

The first phase of the project will look back as far as 1985, which one
presumes to be a relatively easy time frame to research. The ultimate
aim of the Play Resource, however, is to go back as far as possible. In
an industry so focused on the future and with a high turnover of young
back-stage staff, however, maintaining such an enterprise is fraught
with practical difficulties.

“Things get lost between the cracks,” Stephens acknowledges, “and you
only hear about things at the moment through fairly random processes,
so hopefully the play Resource will provide something more systematic.
At the moment it will be about gathering information that only exists
in peoples heads and getting that onto a piece of paper or online. But
it’s early days yet. We want the project to be one that isn’t about
chronicling something dry and dusty, but which is about providing a
living theatre memory.”

Stephens points to two contemporary precedents for Play Resource
Scotland, both, interestingly enough, in countries that at various
points have been fuelled by notions of nationalism and independence.
CEAD (the Centre des Auteurs Dramatiques), the organisation founded
forty years ago to promote Quebecois drama, provides a database of
Quebec plays that are available in translation. The Irish Playography
is a self-explanatory and even more comprehensive resource. Both
websites provide a valuable archive of plays produced in each country
that includes cast lists of productions if not actual scripts.

“It’s interesting finding out what sort of archives theatre companies
keep themselves,” Stephens points out. “For example, Gerry Mulgrew got
in touch to say that he had the entire Communicado archive sitting in
boxes in his garage, so people understand there’s a value to what
they’re doing and that things should be kept, but sometimes that only
becomes clear in retrospect. So part of what this project about is at
least partially reawakening an awareness of that, so that if people put
on a play, they can get in touch with the National Library of Scotland
by themselves and give them a copy.”

What Play Resource Scotland categorically isn’t about is creating a
canon. This is especially the case in an era where dramatic forms are
increasingly crossing over into hybrids that defy easy categorisation.
Much of the recent work at the Arches would fall into this category,
with Nic Green’s feminist epic, Trilogy, a major case in point. Look
back to the early days of the Traverse, when works such as Vivienne C
Welburn’s long lost play, Johnny So Long, was being produced, and it’s
clear that the ephemeral nature of such forms has always made them hard
to archive. Play Resource Scotland, however, intends to capture plays
in that word’s broadest form.

“There are things out there that we probably don’t even know about that
we don’t want to miss,” Stephens maintains. “You don’t just want to
listen to the voices that are shouting the loudest.”

The Herald, December 14th 2010



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