Interview: Allie Butler

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

Considering the snobbery with which many people and media outlets in England discuss the concept of Scottish independence, it’s unsurprising that many of our neighbours in the north are looking for a way out. Some want the chance to redefine their national identity as a separate entity rather than in relation to the UK. Some want to reassert their cultural heritage on the world stage. Some just want to be rid of David Cameron. Whilst Scotland wrangles with these thoughts, however, England remains largely silent. But why does it all matter anyway?

“There’s something really satisfying, isn’t there, about identifying with and feeling part of a tribe, and having that represented; it’s like listening to a song that you know the words to.” Director Allie Butler is chatting to me after a day rehearsing Gill Kirk’s Passion in Scotland, which her company, Tidy Carnage, is bringing down to the Vault Festival in London next month. It’s a one-woman show which takes place during a series of raves (perfect for the tunnels underneath Waterloo station), but due to its “Scottishness”, Butler has been thinking a lot about how it will be received in London.

“It’s a common joke that people in Glasgow like a drink and a bit of a party, but it is absolutely true! So it’s funny because making it up here we have references and knowledge of that culture and we think, is that actually going to translate to London?” She and the team have been working hard to ensure it has “universal” appeal, but similarly want to give a flavour of its birthplace. Last year, the company took a show called dream//life to the Bike Shed in Exeter, and found they could tailor jokes in the show based on the local feel. Though the cultures of England and Scotland are “roughly similar”, Butler concedes that sense of humour can be a sticking point.

Passion, however, has the “great leveller” of music at its heart, with a live DJ creating an aural space for the audience to inhabit. It’s therefore the second show to come out of Scotland in recent years which focuses on rave culture; Kieran Hurley’s Beats used a similar entry point for its narrative. Interestingly, Butler began working on this show before Hurley’s even existed, but inevitably the two will be compared to one another. “I do wonder if it’s something that particularly comes out of Scotland,” she wonders. “Glasgow has quite a (if this is the right word) vicious culture of music and dance and drug-taking.” Butler is from the east of Scotland, but lived in London for nearly a decade and upon returning “was really taken by how much it’s part of the consciousness”.

She admits that part of the reason for asserting this Scottish identity is so that the company has a strong marketing rhetoric, but its usefulness goes far beyond this. By priming its audience to view the work through the lens of ‘the Other’, Tidy Carnage hopes to spark a debate about how Scotland and England view one another: “Do we count as the exotic? That sounds crazy because we’re only 500 miles away, but are we the other? Are we something different?” This rudimentary self-orientalising, Butler hopes, will cause the piece to ask questions about identity. “For us it’s interesting to go ‘Are we different?’. If we show you this thing do you go ‘Oh my God, what is that?’ or do you go ‘Yeah, well it’s like that down here –you just have a different voice!’”

I suggest that what Passion may do, therefore, is ask audiences to consider how their lens of perception alters the reaction to a show. “Yeah, that’s a nice way of putting it,” Butler concedes. “And the character happens to be gay so that’s a whole other thing we’ve ended up having conversations about. If you go ‘I want to apply this lens to it, and read this like a lesbian show,’ then you totally can. Or you go: ‘I want to put on a different pair of glasses and read it as this Glaswegian thing’.” By allowing many layers of lenses to be built up, then, the show can be at once both specific and universal.

One of the main difficulties with Scottish independence is that the population won’t ever get to try it out, as it were, before voting, meaning the pitfalls and advantages can’t be discovered until after the event. Similarly, Butler and her team have to make decisions in the present which may or may not pay off in the future, putting them (and theatre-makers in general) in a position of unknowability. She uses Black Watch as an example of a show which speaks to regional, sexual and professional identities whilst being simultaneously universal in its appeal, asking why “localism and regional issues shouldn’t be the lens through which we view something larger”. This, she admits, is the dream: “all we can do is aim for something as great as that, and keep trying for it.” As with Scottish independence, however, the nature of the thing will only become apparent once the plunge has been taken.

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