Sandy Nelson never meant to be a comedian, even if he did spend fourteen years on the stand-up circuit. Nelson started out as an actor, working with David MacLennan's politically minded musical theatre troupe, Wildcat. Only when acting work dried up in what he wryly refers to as his “dish-washing years,” did Nelson throw his hat in the comedy ring.
Today, however, things have come full circle, and Nelson has finally quit stand-up to embark on a variety of theatre projects that has seen him back working with MacLennan as a regular at Oran Mor's A Play, A Pie and A Pint season of lunchtime plays. Nelson's latest work as both writer and actor is an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which forms part of this summer's Classic Cuts season of pared down favourites. While Iain Robertson will play Petruchio, Nelson himself will play Baptista in Rosie Kellagher's production of Nelson's second stab at a Classic Cut.
“Last year I adapted Pygmalion,” Nelson says as he explains the process of getting full length plays down to just under an hour. “Most plays have several storylines running through them, and the trick is to pick one and stick to it. You look at the highs and lows of the arc of the story, and you try to knit all the pieces together, so it looks like a through story.
For The Taming of the Shrew, which is ostensibly a romantic comedy in which Petruchio attempts to court headstrong Katherina, Nelson found a few surprises that take things beyond surface laughter.
“One thing I discovered is exactly how dark it is,” he says. “At times it's really quite brutal, and is quite scary in parts.”
Nelson first collaborated with Kellagher on Lie Down Comic,an Oran Mor production that featured Nelson as a natural fir for the stand-up comedian the play revolved around. With the play originally set in London, the pair adapted the comedian's routines for a Glasgow demotic, and the pair have collaborated since.
Nelson began writing plays about five years ago after becoming disillusioned with the stand-up scene.
“I felt fraudulent,” he says, “but my experience working with Wildcat really informed a lot of what I do, and when I had my first play produced, I knew that was where I wanted to be.”
Beyond The Taming of the Shrew, Nelson is reviving Bite The Bullet, a play which also began its life at Oran Mor, or the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Written and performed with fellow actor/musician Keith Warwick, Bite The Bullet tells the story about two middle-aged musicians who reform their not entirely successful band two decades after scoring a hit in Japan.
“Keith and I realised we were both forty-something dads with a rock and roll history,” Nelson says, “so we came up with this great story about two musicians who almost made it, but didn't.”
Alan Chadwick on these pages described Bite the Bullet, which tours the Highlands after its Edinburgh run, as 'an entertaining cross between The Commitments and Tutti Frutti.'
Inbetween writing and performing, Nelson is also artistic director of The Purple Poncho Players, a mixed ability sketch troupe who form the theatrical wing of the Glasgow Disability Alliance. This is a pressure group, which, instead of campaigning at events with corporate-looking power point presentations, opted for something more creative.
“George Drennan, who's the musical director of the company, first approached me,” Nelson says, “They knew they wanted to bring some kind of element of performance to the campaign, so now we workshop and devise sketches which we present at hustings and conferences to make them a bit more interesting.”
So successful have The Purple Poncho Players proved that their next gig will be in August playing to the Commonwealth Committee who will oversee activities throughout Glasgow's Commonwealth games year.
With all this central belt activity, it's perhaps a surprise to discover that Glasgow-born Nelson lives in Moray, where he recently moved from Shetland. While this necessitates a great deal of travel, this is something Nelson is used to from his cross-country tours of the stand-up circuit. When he is home, Nelson is part of a fertile artistic community which exists in spite of Moray Council's recent one hundred per cent cut in arts funding.
Nelson's most recent outing was a one-off performance of a new play, The Gospel Inquiry, at the Spectrum Theatre in Inverness. Inspired by both the Leveson Inquiry and the Bible, Nelson put Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the dock to explain the inconsistencies and inventions in each of their conflicting accounts of Jesus.
“I was really surprised nobody complained about it,” says Nelson. “Each of the four explain what they made up in the Bible and why they did it, but Jesus is defended throughout.”
In this way, The Gospel Inquiry is categorically not an anti religion play.
“When I was younger I used to argue with Christians,” Nelson recalls, “but now I can see that a lot of the more militant and outspoken atheists are as annoying and as blinkered as some of the Christians they attack. Although atheism isn't a belief system, it has become a movement, and a lot of them have the same hectoring tone as the sort of people who tried to tell me to be a good Christian when I was younger.”
Living among what he describes as “a small but perfectly formed artistic community” with his silversmith wife, Nelson is nothing if not prolific. While hoping to restage The Gospel Inquiry, he is currently at work on what he calls “a proper bona fide post austerity musical, in which a teacher, a nurse and a soldier join forces for a big crime caper. I'm also writing a sex comedy about performance poets. So there's always something. My big joke that I say to myself is that I'm just writing a Wildcat show.”
The Taming of The Shrew, Oran Mor, Glasgow, June 24th-29th; Bite The Bullet, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, August 16th-25th.
Sandy Nelson – Beyond Laughter
Sandy Nelson's career began as an actor, appearing with Wildcat in the early 1990s.
In 1997, Nelson began doing stand-up, with his love of music leading him to satirise the era's music scene and the pop stars behind them. He took two shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Bedroom Popstar and Stand Up – The Musical.
On television, Nelson appeared in Still game, Rab C Nesbitt, The Book Group, Velvet Soup and Live Floor Show.
On film, Nelson also appeared in Braveheart, as John Wallace, and as William Burke in Burke and Hare – The Musical
Nelson's first stage play, Metrosexual, was produced in 2007, followed by The Glimmering Nymph in 2008.
This year, Nelson's latest works, The Gospel Inquiry and Bite The Bullet appear.
The Herald, June 18th 2013