Creativity - your right and privilege

18th February 2000 at 00:00
Scottish artists are at large thanks to the Creative Scotland awards.

Brian Hayward reports

The Scottish Arts Council chose Burns Night to announce the 14 winners of its new and coveted pound;25,000 Creative Scotland awards, aimed at artists with impressive records of work, ambitious to experiment and extend their range. The awards received masses of publicity, including rows over leading authors like A L Kennedy not knowing they could apply. What is less publicised is that thousands of school children will benefit from awards made to music, literature and drama projects.

Annie Wood is a young Scottish theatre director who has been artist in residence at the MacRobert Centre in Stirling for the past year, where she has catapulted herself into the forefront of children's theatre with productions like Red Balloon, now on Broadway, and Martha, going to this year's Toronto Festival.

Last summer Wood took her son to see the Walt Disney Beauty and the Beast in the West End, with surprising results. "It was supposed to be a treat for him, but it turned out to be a treat for me! It had all the qualities of good theatre - integrity, emotion, and fantastic spectacle. pound;60 for the tickets, and then all the merchandise ... But it was worth it." Driving back to Stratford, where her husband was with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she thought "Why can't I do that?" Half way up the M40 it was "Why shouldn't I do that?" Walt Disney Theatre Productions welcomed her suggestion that she should join them for a year as assistant director. She was surprised how small the London office was - "Every time I rang them, either the vice-president or the general manager picked up the phone". And she was relieved and pleased to find out that the Disney people had the same background as herself, in schools, small-scale touring and community work. Like her, they enjoyed working for children.

By the terms of the Creative Scotland award, Wood can delay starting her year until January 2001. For this she is grateful. Her second child was only two weeks old when the awards were announced and her next production, Tom McGrath's Frankenstein, for the MacRobert-based company Catherine Wheels, is already on the stocks.

The time-lag also gives her a chance to join Disney at a time and place of her choosing. She was offered a place with The Lion King, but she wants to join a project at planning stage and hopes to divide her time between London and New York. "I don't have to produce anything. I'm just going to learn about the magic, and the illusion, and then come back home and contribute something to theatre in Scotland." As MacRobert boss Liz Moran says, "Not to mention what Walt Disney will learn from her."

Janet Paisley is a writer who has worked for years with young children around Scotland. Last summer she led a sixth year studies seminar in Dunfermline on Scots Language and found that it had been boycotted by pupils from her home town of Falkirk, none of whom thought it relevant to their life and work. Her award-winning project is to write a collection of short stories set in and around a village modelled on Avonbridge, where she was brought up, about the typical and atypical people who live there, and the way their lives are affected by the locality. The stories will interrelate, with central characters in one story affecting the careers of the principals of other stories, cumulatively giving the reader a sense of the community.

Stories will be written in the local idiom Paisley grew up with, because she wants to take the stories to schools in Falkirk, and read and discuss them with the fifth and sixth year pupils, to show them that "literature can, and does, arise from their environment, from among people they know, whose stories they will recognise, and that their own tongue is a iterary language".

The award gives Paisley a chance to revisit the short story, which she has been forced to desert for the more "rewarding" outlets of telelvision and radio - very necessary while bringing up her six sons. She welcomes "the chance to play with the form" and although she has no idea in which direction the experiment may go, there is already a book in it. Canongate offered her a publishing contract as soon as they heard of the award, with the added accolade of saying that it was the first time the house had bought a book before a line had been written.

Kenneth Dempster is a composer who has been excited by the idea of children's opera from the age of 10, when he took part in Benjamin Britten's Noyes Fludde. Ten years later, working with Peter Maxwell Davies, he began to nourish the ambition to create one day "a good major children's opera", and the Creative Scotland award has given him opportunity.

His chosen topic grows from a commission last summer for a work for three flutes and guitar, which he called The St Kilda Parliament, inspired by the well-known photograph and postcard. Dempster's partner in the project will be poet Ron Butlin. Their collaboration began with shared teaching of "words to music" at Napier University.

These scenes may not be linked in a narrative sequence; the continuity will be in the music. In fact, Dempster is not so much interested in a plot-driven scenario as in the duality inherent in the photographs, on the one hand the history of the island people, their way of life and their decision to abandon their homes, and on the other the idea of the photograph and the interaction between photographer, subject and viewer. Interesting the children in this "viewer" role will be one of the tasks the two writers will take on when, a year from now, they visit 10 Borders schools.

Composer Sally Beamish is using her award to create a "bolt-on" to a commission she is already working on for the Henry Wood Proms in London in 2001. Her promised work for the BBC London Symphony Orchestra and BBC Chorus was first planned on the lines of Britten's War Requiem, with the difference that her chosen theme is environmental pollution.

Beamish hopes the work will in future years interest the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, but more immediately the "bolt-on" for the Scottish Arts Council is a text and video installation she wants to create to accompany the new composition, and being a "lass o' pairts", she intends to design most of the video images herself. At the same time, she will record and analyse the process of composition and create free-standing teaching materials to be available to music teachers in schools who want to teach composition, but feel inhibited by what they perceive as their own lack of musical creativity.

As a composer, artist and writer, creativity comes easy to Beamish. "Creativity - everyone has a right to do it!" is her credo, and her practice in schools and pre-school groups bears it out. Her first venture was in 1992 with the Strathclyde Concerto project with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Peter Maxwell Davies, writing and playing her part in schools "with Max's piece". Since then she has worked with her local primary school in Gartmore on such ventures as a musical Nativity, where the children improvised the weather effects, and a Millennium Song where the children added their own statements in between the song's verses. Her music and dance project with a Killearn pre-school group makes her rue the way our system emphasises early reading and writing skills, at a time when younger children can be doing something more valuable, like singing and dancing.

She prefers the Continental practice of formal school at age six. Until then? "Creativity!".

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