By Mark Fisher
"It’s like clothes shopping; you might find something special hidden"
Scotland on Sunday
Grid Iron theatre company are doing a show in Norway this year. They just need to decide whether it’ll be on an oil rig or a football pitch. Mark Fisher joins them on a bizarre tourist trip
Were standing outside Tungenes lighthouse on the rocky Norwegian coast as a ferry glides along the fjord out of Stavanger, heading for Newcastle or perhaps Bergen. On a chilly December morning, something has changed in the mood of Ben Harrison and Judith Doherty, the artistic directors of Edinburgh’s Grid Iron theatre company. Neither has spoken, but both have become more alert, focusing on the square tower and the keeper’s house, wandering over to the cairn near the water’s edge, taking in the the scene from all perspectives.
Harrison pokes his head into a crumbling air-raid shelter then takes out his movie camera to film the lighthouse exteriors. The buildings, now used as a museum and arts centre, are closed for the winter and we can’t get inside, but something about the location, with its spectacular views out to the islands and mountains, has caught their imagination. "It sounds a bit 1970s, but what we generally say to each other is: ’I can feel the love,’" says Doherty later. "It’s fairly instantaneous."
Hanging around atmospheric Norwegian lighthouses looking for the love is not a normal thing for theatre directors to do, but Grid Iron is not a normal theatre company. These are the people who have performed in the haunted Mary King’s Close, in children’s playgrounds and in a branch of Debenhams after closing time. Recently they staged a show for children in the woods of Edinburgh’s Cammo Estate and, audaciously, once gave a performance beyond the check-in desks and baggage carousels of Edinburgh International Airport. You will not find Grid Iron doing a drawing-room comedy in your local rep.
When Harrison and Doherty get a commission, as they have from Stavanger 2008, one of this year’s two European cities of culture, their concern is less to find a play than finding a place to perform. That’s why they’re spending two days on the world’s weirdest tourist itinerary, checking out football pitches, military bases and oil rigs on the off-chance that one of them will resonate in the way they want.
All they have to go on is a sense of adventure and a two-page document written by Harrison outlining the broad ideas of a show called Tryst. It mentions rivers, secret assignations and fishermen and includes a handful of watery quotes from writers Alexander Trocchi, William Wordsworth and William Golding. If Harrison was Prince Charming, this synopsis would be his slipper – he has the whole of the Stavanger region to find a foot that fits. "You’re coming to the space with a particular project in mind, but you’ve got to be open to the possibility that the space might give you a stronger idea," he says.
There are times when the search is fruitless, but no trip is wasted, they say, because every place they see, every person they meet gives new insight into the culture. Earlier in the day, for example, we’ve called in to Utstein Kloster, a charming 13th century monastery on the island of Mosterøy 30 minutes north of Stavanger. Although Harrison’s ears prick up when someone mentions a hidden dungeon, it’s clear from the start this is not the location they’re looking for. "It’s really beautiful, but it’s a bit churchy," says Doherty. "When a space is about one thing, if our show isn’t about that thing, we’d be trying to shoe-horn it in. Seldom can there be any irony about putting something very different to what the place suggests. But it’s a bit like clothes shopping: you might find something special hidden." And Harrison adds: "That’s why we always open every door."
All the same, simply visiting Utstein gives them an insight into the country’s religious make-up. It is the only monastery to have survived from pre-reformation days in a strongly Protestant culture, a detail that could prove influential when Harrison comes to devise the play with his mixed company of Scots and Norwegian actors in October. "It’s all more research," he says.
What they’re looking for is a building sympathetic to the kind of story they want to tell. The monastery might work for a religious show and the football stadium they saw yesterday would be perfect for a play about athletics, just as Edinburgh Airport was right for Roam with its commentary on refugees, business travellers and holidaymakers. If the National Theatre of Scotland is ever thinking of taking Black Watch to Norway, it would do well to check out the army barracks we see later in the morning, but for Tryst, a show about the life-giving and lethal power of water, none of these places is right.
There are practical considerations too. They had a wonderful boat trip an hour up the Lysefjord to an abandoned turbine hall, but the cost and time it would take to get the audience there would be extortionate. There’d also been talk of using an oil rig, but even if they could get the audience aboard, it was only going to be available for two days while it was moored in the harbour. "At the same time as we’re thinking about how the building looks, we’re also thinking about how people are going to get there, where they will park and what the toilet facilities are," says Doherty. "All that dull but important stuff costs money."
For all these reasons, the Tungenes lighthouse looks promising, but it’s only their second favourite option. The site they’ve fallen in love with is closer to the centre of town on a tiny island no bigger than the wooden boat-building yard it supports. Known as Engoyholmen, this maritime cultural centre dates from the 1840s and the only way to get there is across the water. Surrounded by yachts and rowing boats, it consists of a pair of adjoining yellow sheds and a warren of rooms on two floors with a fishing net drying area outside.
Not only is it bursting with theatrical potential, but the staff are thrilled by the idea of hosting a play. They’ve even offered to bring over a boatshed they’ve been building on a neighbouring island if it would suit Grid Iron’s needs. "Imagine someone moving a house for you," says Doherty delighted by their reception.
"The advantage is that it’s right in the centre and there’s a short journey towards it which can focus the audience’s minds," says Harrison. "It sounds pretentious, but a place can have soul. This one has it because of the wood. It has character and history. It’s a working space so it has ongoing history. You can already begin to imagine an audience there."
Doherty adds: "Generally what happens during a site visit is that it either becomes more and more possible and exciting or less and less. Things are revealed like the fact that the great men who run Engoyholmen have a ferry and so they could ferry people from Stavanger harbour. Also every one of the spaces has two ways in or out which means we can do a loop."
Contracts have yet to be signed and if Engoyholmen falls through, it won’t be the first time the company has had to change its plans. Doherty spent six months talking to estate agents about using a deserted New Town flat for Those Eyes That Mouth in the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe only to lose the venue four weeks into rehearsal when a neighbour complained. "But because we got front page of The Scotsman, by 10:30am the next day we’d seen two new spaces and by 4pm we had one," she says. "When you do find somewhere perfect that far in advance, you have to be aware how quickly things can change."
The negotiations will continue in Norway and they’ll be back with their technical manager before long. The company’s track record suggests Tryst will be one of the highlights of the mouth-watering Stavanger 2008 programme. Put together by Mary Miller, former music editor of The Scotsman, the line-up knocks spots off Liverpool’s rival programme with residencies from South Africa’s Handspring Puppets, Lithuania’s Oskarus Korsunovas Theatre, Israel’s Inbal Pinto Dance and Belgium’s Muziektheater Transparant, as well as visits from several Scottish artists including Dalziel + Scullion and Kate Downie.
"We’re trying to build international partnerships," says Miller. "For example, we’ve got an American aerial dance company, Project Bandaloop, who are doing a big show near Stavanger, jumping off huge cliffs, with live musicians on the water below. And we’re doing a show with DansDesign, a Norwegian dance company, performed in a snow gully with extreme skiers and snowboarders, and projections on an ice over-hang. The audience will have to go up the ski lift on their skis to the event."
Meanwhile, Harrison and Doherty have strategic challenges closer to home as they collaborate with Dundee Rep on Yarn, a devised play to be staged in Verdant Works, the city’s museum of weaving history. "It’s not a play about the jute industry, but doing this show in a place where the cloth is spun is relevant," says Harrison. "It will be about weaving stories together."
And if anyone knows about cutting their coats according to their cloth, it’s the yarn-spinners of Grid Iron.