The Starfais initiative proves that drama in the Highlands is very much alive, says Judy Mackie
On Monday June 1, for one night only, the curtain at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, will rise on an epic performance. Epic in the sense that The Bull Raiders brings to glorious life the blood-curdling adventures of ancient Celtic hero Cuchulainn, his fellow clansmen and their foes, albeit against a futuristic backdrop.
Epic, also, in that bringing the production to Eden Court has involved a mammoth effort by dozens of young people and their adult supporters, who have struggled against the odds to create a unique performance which proves that drama in the Highlands - despite its thinness in the school curriculum - is very much alive.
The behind-the-scenes story begins with Starfais ("gathering of stars") - an annual initiative run by Eden Court Theatre and Scottish Youth Theatre as part of a four-year drama in education programme run by the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust. The programme funds five drama development workers throughout the Highlands, and Starfais aims to use them to stimulate an interest in drama among young people in the region.
"With only one full-time and one part-time drama teacher covering the entire Highland area, the programme is helping to address what we have identified as a very obvious need," says Eden Court's education officer, Sonia Rose.
The Bull Raiders is the most ambitious Starfais project yet. A saga inspired by Ulster folklore, it comprises five episodes, each of which has been developed as a stand-alone play by Inverness Scottish Youth Theatre, Nairn Youth Theatre, Onich Youth Theatre, Golspie High School and Plockton Youth Theatre, and performed in their local areas during April and May.
The project was spearheaded last September by the Inverness group who, together with west coast playwright Edwin Stiven and Eden Court's drama artist-in-residence John Batty, improvised an initial script which established basic ground rules governing costume, set and music, so the component parts would integrate more easily into the final production. Each group was then given free rein to develop their own interpretation of their particular tale. "The strong universal themes of the tales - good versus evil, birth, death, marriage, celebration, war, hardship - offered something for everyone and instantly appealed to the young people involved," says John Batty. "Not wanting a 'Celtic twilight' type of production, we looked at how these themes could apply to anyone at any time, and decided that a post-holocaust setting, with its opportunities for re-inventing society and re-examining social roles, would be an exciting and appropriate backdrop."
The groups were assisted by Scottish Youth Theatre and Eden Court, which organised workshops in stage fighting and music. As well as providing useful practice in stage skills, these enabled members of the cast to get to know each other before the final performance.
Held during the winter months, they presented a considerable challenge to those attending from remote areas of the Highlands. Christine Mitchell, a French teacher who also takes theatre arts classes at Golspie High School, says: "Members of our group come from a wide catchment area, taking in Helmsdale, Lairg, Brora, Embo and even Kinlochbervie, on the west coast. Organising the transport to Inverness was quite an operation. It was well worth the effort, though, as the workshops gave us valuable advice and practical experience we would otherwise not have had access to."
The Nairn and Inverness groups chose to join forces and staged their episodes, Dog Man and The Light of Foresight, at Nairn Community Centre, in early April.
The stark, dimly lit set was illuminated by passionate performances from the young cast, who, dressed in rags and scraps of fur, relived the ancient tales of bloodlust, greed, bravery and honour through monologue, chorus, music and mime.
Each of the five episodes was hailed a local success, and by early May the race was on to integrate them into a harmonious whole for the big night at Eden Court Theatre Among the major obstacles for writer, director, stage crew, drama development workers and young people alike, were the short timescale (each group had only a week to rehearse their revised parts), the Standard and Higher grade exams, and the challenges of staging a saga involving a large cast with several duplicated characters.
John Batty is confident the audience will find The Bull Raiders an entertaining experience. But for all those involved in bringing the drama to the stage, the saga behind the saga has been just as important as the end product. It is, Batty says, all part of the Starfais philosophy.