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Alan Wilkins - Offshore

Around the time Alan Wilkins decided he didn’t want to be an actor, he thought he’d get out of Glasgow and earn some money to fund the Teaching English As A Foreign Language course he planned to study. For the next three summers he worked in bars in small towns in North West Scotland that had once been thriving fishing communities. By the time Wilkins got there, however, other, less well-publicised industries had taken root.

One night, after-hours in someone’s cottage, the idea was to stay up and drink whisky. One of the party, however, confessed to being a rum drinker, whereupon the host took it upon himself to drive fifteen miles to pick up an optic with his guest’s beverage of choice. Somewhere along the way on his round trip the host decided it would be an even better idea if other substances were also on the menu.

This exposure to the black economy in Scotland’s depressed rural heartlands became the protracted inspiration for Offshore, Wilkins’ new play for the Birds Of Paradise company, which opens at the Citizens Theatre this week. What’s emerged from Wilkins’ imagination through a tale of making ends meet is an insight into country matters not always evident in the tourist guides.

“The starting point for me was those three seasons working in bars,” Wilkins says in Birds Of Paradise’s Glasgow office on a break from rehearsals. “It exposed me to how many jobs young people have to get in order to get by in small villages. I also became aware of how many people from different parts of the country move into areas like this, so the idea of locals in the traditional sense doesn’t really exist anymore. But it’s not just Australians or Poles who go there for seasonal work. These places are full of people like me. Out of all this I decided I wanted to make a play about transience, and about people passing through places which, from the outside don’t look like they’re hotbeds of sex, drugs and rock and roll, when actually they are. From that, it became about the choices people have to make, not to survive, but to some extent get by in the world.”

Such meaty material may not appear to be an obvious choice for Birds Of Paradise, who since 1995 have produced work with inclusive casts of professional disabled and none-disabled actors. Then again, while some other companies have made propaganda their raison d’etre, BOP, alongside Sounds Of Progress and Lung Ha’s, have quietly but steadily put integration on the agenda simply by doing it without feeling the need to hammer home their point. While disabled politics is a minefield, BOP’s Agent For Change initiative was a proactive drive to put disabled artists onto a mainstream stage. Earlier this year, BOP with Agent of Change hosted Changing: Roles, a major conference which looked at such issues. Wilkins, who has also written for Lung Ha’s, took part in a session with Offshore director Morven Gregor titled I Want A Six Foot Blonde.

“That was Morven’s title,” Wilkins says. “I’m not sure why it was called that because I didn’t want a six foot blonde, but what I suppose it was referring to was how things are cast. Because it’s quite different writing for a company like Birds of Paradise to writing for The Traverse. In a way, although it’s quite insecure writing for a company whose funding is insecure, I quite like working to a specific brief. With my first two plays, there was a relative luxury in terms of time. With something like this, you can go quite far down the line before you know that your play’s definitely going to go on, and that requires a lot of trust.

“Also, when you’re writing, all you know is that you’re going to be working with both disabled and non-disabled actors, and you’ve no idea how it’s going to be cast. Because I didn’t know who’d be playing who, that freed me up, and it also means that you see disability in a completely different way. It’s a completely different thing, for instance, from working with Lung Ha’s, which is different anyway, because that’s solely made up of people with learning disabilities, and where the joy of the thing comes from them being onstage. With Birds of Paradise, and with Offshore, the important thing isn’t the disabled factor, but that we’ve got the best professional actors for the job, regardless of whether they’re disabled or not disabled.”

Offshore is Wilkins’ first public outing since Carthage Must Be Destroyed, his ancient Rome set allegory on war, power and politics, wowed audiences at The Traverse in a production by Lorne Campbell. This was Wilkins’ uber-ambitious follow-up to his debut play, The Nest, which also premiered at The Traverse. If Wilkins appears to be returning to more domestic roots with Offshore, he sounds genuinely liberated by the experience, and is keen to stress the play’s prescience.

“If you want to get really topical about it,” he points out, “with the credit crunch, a lot of people are being forced to look at their personal economics in a way that the people in the play are as well. Also,” the late 30-something observes, “there’s something going on with my generation having mid-life crises earlier, and deciding what’s important in life for them.”

Beyond Offshore, Wilkins has already started work on Outwrite, a playwriting project with young offenders in Polmont. More immediately is a new production of Carthage Must Be Destroyed at the Theatre Royal in Bath. With Campbell directing again, this will form part of a mini season of Scottish work in Bath that opens next month with a revival of David Harrower’s Knives In Hens.

“It’s great getting Carthage on again,” says Wilkins, “and it’s a complete bonus to be having two plays on in the same calendar month. That’s exciting, but it’ll be tough as well seeing it with a new cast after the first one were so good. But I still feel I’m at a relatively early stage, and although it looks like I’m busy now, the offers haven’t exactly been flying in. I bumped into (Gagarin Way and Black Watch writer) Greg Burke recently, and he asked me if I’d written my disappointing follow-up play yet. It looks like I’ve still got that one to go, I’m afraid.”

Offshore, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Tue-Sat, then tours.

The Herald, September 23rd 2009



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