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Songs about a road show real drive

A route through Shetland, and the impact it makes, has provided the inspiration for a musical workshop, as Julia Horton discovers

A route through Shetland, and the impact it makes, has provided the inspiration for a musical workshop, as Julia Horton discovers

It's not easy to see a clear link between Darth Vadar, puffins and an airport runway. Even less obvious is what any of them have to do with cars.

But all three are suggested by Sandwick Junior High students and their songs about the southern end of the main road through Shetland, where they live.

The musical workshop is part of an innovative community project called Ignition, led by the National Theatre of Scotland and Shetland Arts, which explores the islanders' bittersweet relationship with the automobile.

Project composer Hugh Nankivell, based in Devon, is visiting schools across the islands and asking students about the sights and sounds along their section of the route.

At Sandwick, the primary class informs him that the A970 crosses the runway at Sumburgh Airport, so everyone flying in or out must drive over the landing strip.

The S2 class is working on ideas for a song about the southernmost point of the road, which ends just beyond the airport. They talk about the wildlife out at sea and along the cliffs, such as orcas and tammy norries, the local dialect name for puffins.

Suddenly one boy, Jack Meadows, 13, adds: "You can see a rock near the lighthouse that looks like Darth Vadar!"

Shetland is renowned for its musical culture and the younger children bring instruments to work with Mr Nankivell on tunes to accompany their lyrics.

Fast forward a few months and both classes are now waiting expectantly to hear for the first time a CD of Ignition songs, which they helped to record at the Mareel arts centre in Lerwick.

Liam Jamieson, 9, seems particularly impressed. Asked what the recording studio was like, he says: "My mum is in a group and she has recorded there, so I've been in before but it is kind of scary. There are lots of computers."

Mr Nankivell adds: "The young people here are so talented - they play in so many bands and they are so open to new ideas and styles, which is fantastic, but they don't tend to do that much high-speed composition. I hope I demonstrated to them that you can write a song very quickly."

Both compositions form part of the final Ignition shows. The musical works sit side by side with an eclectic mix of other creative community workshops; from a knitted car to parkour performed on a Volvo estate car.

The audience gathers in a village hall to see and hear islanders' tales about their cars and memorable journeys before driving off to set locations, giving lifts to other spectators. An hour later everyone returns to the hall for a singalong and a chance to share their different experiences over tea and cake.

Several students perform set pieces in parked vehicles, which have been turned into sets for a section dubbed "Car theatre".

Arwen Raikes, 16, who goes to Brae High and wants to pursue a career in drama, is one of the cast of The Teenage Car, a comedy dramatisation of the endless backseat squabbling between siblings on long family car trips. Only two members of the audience can watch at a time from the front seat.

"I haven't done anything like this before," she says. "It's really cool to see what being in a proper production is like. It's also a really good opportunity to meet people like directors and writers and to have one-to-ones with West End professionals."

The difficulties of getting around the region, even with a car, are illustrated by the late arrival of Izzy Swanson, Shetland Islands Council drama education support officer.

"My local shop was out of diesel, so I had to make a half-hour detour," she explains apologetically.

On the benefits of Ignition, she says: "It's exciting for students to be working with different people and learning different things. I think it's very good for teachers to be pushed outside their comfort zone and it's good for students to see that too. It's also exciting for them to be in a piece of theatre that isn't in a theatre."

From tragedy to triumph

The car-themed arts project Ignition was inspired by the tragic death of 18-year-old Shetlander Stuart Henderson in a car crash in 2007.

Stuart loved the arts and the project aimed to bring some good from the accident.

At Brae High, about an hour north of Sandwick along the A970 through mainland Shetland, students discuss road safety during a game design workshop.

John Haswell, arts development officer at Shetland Arts and associate director of Ignition, asks the class to write their own driving hazard "risk and consequence" cards for The Game of the Road, which is played on a map of Shetland and based on the style of the classic board game Monopoly.

Ellie Ratter, 13, says: "It makes you think more about what the risks and consequences are, like 'Flooded road, move back two spaces'. If you took a risk, the consequence might be that you got away with it, or it might be that you ended up dead."

Other Ignition workshops included creative writing, where pupils imagined their dream cars, and parkour.

Isobel Morrice, principal teacher of music at Brae High, says: "It has been really good for building on interdepartmental work and reinforcing the principles of Curriculum for Excellence."


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