EDINBURGH 2019: BWW Interview: Fearless Players Discuss Their Fringe Shows
Shonagh Murray and Lydia Davidson formed Fearless Players after graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2018. They premiered Armour: A Herstory of the Scottish Bard at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The company returned to the 2019 festival with Armour and a second show, Burns: A Lost Legacy. Shonagh and Lydia spoke to BroadwayWorld about writing Scottish-flavoured musicals and the importance of promoting women in theatre:
Tell us about your two musicals, Armour and Burns.
Shonagh: We've brought Armour: A Herstory of the Scottish Bard and Burns: A Lost Legacy to the Fringe this year. Armour follows the story of Jean Armour, Robert Burns's wife, and Nancy Maclehose, Robert Burns' mistress, and what happens when they meet for tea after he died.
We're shown the story through the eyes of his granddaughter, Sarah. She then leads us into Burns: A Lost Legacy, which is all about how her life has always had a bit of weight on it because of the legacy that she carries. She's always felt that pressure to carry on the legacy of her grandfather, even to the detriment of her relationships with her current family.
Burns is a slightly darker tale than Armour, but I feel quite a lot of people can connect to the idea of wanting to be remembered and wanting to maintain your family history.
How did Fearless Players come about and what are your aims as a company?
Lydia: Basically, we set ourselves up together as Fearless Players straight after leaving the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. We wanted to see more theatre by women, about women, that's for everyone.
We just wanted to make the kind of theatre we enjoy seeing. That's really our aim, and our only strict rule is that at least 50% of our creative team must be women. So far, we've had 100%, which is great! We've developed and performed these two shows, and we also did a one-woman cabaret, which was a little bit different.
Since they both deal with the women associated with the Scottish Bard, did Burns and Armour come about around the same time?
Shonagh: In my mind, Armour was originally going to be a one-woman show: just Jean sitting on a rocking chair, talking. Then I read a book about her that shed new light on her in a way that made her seem a wee bit more like a modern leading lady.
I think history has always forbidden this, in a way. Nancy has always been written as the leading lady and not Jean. When I suggested this, Lydia said, "That sounds like a great idea! Let's make a show."
When we got to the second last week of the Fringe last year, I started to write music for Burns. The more we were performing Armour, the more I was interested in the granddaughter's story.
In Armour, we end the show with a monologue by Sarah based on where she ends up later down the line, but it felt like a cliffhanger because the audience doesn't know where she is: why is she is living in Australia? Why did she come back? So that opened the door into Burns.
Do you think the two shows should be seen in a certain order? Armour then Burns, or vice versa?
Shonagh: I'm really not settled on what order you should see them. There's an overlap between them because Burns is in some ways a prequel and a sequel to Armour. Armour is a bit in the present and a bit in the past while Burns is in the present and then goes into the future.
I think if you see Armour first and then see Burns, that does make chronological sense, but I also like the idea of seeing Burns and having questions about Sarah's past. Then when you see Armour, certain moments land more significantly - e.g. you suddenly meet the granny Sarah was talking about. I don't know which order I prefer. I think people should mix it up.
Lydia: I think they can both stand alone as separate shows, but they also enrich each other.
Shonagh: Our initial idea with the two shows was that they should be able to stand alone, but one idea we've been mulling over is if we toured the shows, Armour is Act I of a longer show, with Burns forming Act II. We're currently gathering feedback from the audience as to whether the two shows should stand alone or should go in this order!
Do you have a particular favourite Burns song or poem that's in the show?
Lydia: Mine has to be "Ae Fond Kiss". I think it's because after playing Nancy, I have a real soft spot for her and her story. I feel like she probably really held on to that one.
Shonagh: I'm really cliché and I have a real soft spot for "Auld Lang Syne" - I think it's a funny one. When I talk about "Auld Lang Syne" or bring it up in conversation, folk often say "I never know what that song's about". That's the butt of a joke in Burns where even the author's own granddaughter doesn't know what it means.
It's one of those songs where I think the music and the lyrics work seamlessly together. Think about how many people around the world know the words to "Auld Land Syne and, while they don't know exactly what it means, they do know it's about parting and friendship. I really love that. It transcends languages.
Shonagh, as the composer and writer of Burns and Armour, how did you decide when to use Burns' music and when to write your own?
Shonagh: I actually thought of Rab's music almost as if it was intruding. So rather than it naturally fitting into the story of Armour, it very much hangs over Jean and it haunts Nancy.
I suppose it doesn't do that to the same extent regarding Sarah. She's saved, in a way, by being a descendant. That's why the songs she has in Burns are connected to her granny or the family legacy in general.
With Nancy and Jean, on the other hand, it felt very much like they would cling to the songs he wrote about them. When writing for them, though, it was very important to me that they had their own voice and their own interpretation of what they thought was being sung to them.
While I like to think in some ways his music was seamlessly woven into the score, I want it to be jarring - as if Rab is constantly haunting them and they just can't get over that.
Lydia, you also act in Armour and Burns. Of the women you play in the two shows, who is your favourite and why?
Lydia: It's so hard to pick. It probably has to be Nancy because I just love her story and I love that you see a different side to her in Armour. You do see a little bit of that typical mistress narrative, but you also see some of her other motives. She's just trying to protect her children, her own legacy.
I also have a really soft spot for Beth, the maid! She's so sweet. She just loves Sarah so much and I just love that Sarah had that relationship growing up. I think that it's really nice you see she had all these really sweet relationships when she was a child in Armour and then you see what happened to her in Burns as a result.
Why do you think it's important to elevate women of history through theatre?
Lydia: As women today, we have a lot of freedoms and liberties. We can do far more than women could ever do throughout history and yet, we're still not equal. We still have a job to do.
It's really nice to recognise the women who paved the way for us to have those freedoms and those liberties; who have allowed us to stand on a stage which we weren't always able to do and tell their stories. History is rich with women who need talking about.
I think It's really important to acknowledge that history has been told by men. It's vital we pull out those women and tell their stories, especially through the lens of another woman. In our shows Armour and Burns, we have Shonagh's voice telling the stories of those women.
Telling their stories this way is so different from how we've typically met them throughout history. It's really nice to frame them as actual people with a story, not just people who are part of "his"-story.
Shonagh: I also think it's about there being two sides to every story. We dip into history and try to tell stories that haven't been told before. Those stories are only able to be told because there's perhaps another side of it that hasn't been told.
All this means we can go back and tell it from, say, the women's perspective. You can go back to pretty much every male figure in history and there'll be a woman who had a completely different view of that figure - quite often they were harmed by them in some way.
Having at least 50% women on your creative team also changes the perspective and the story of what you're going to be telling anyway. It's important to think about all the different ways stories that already exist can be told through different interpretations by different people.
What's next for Fearless Players after the Fringe?
Shonagh: Right now, our thoughts are with Armour and Burns and the possibility of touring them after the Fringe. I think getting both shows around Scotland would be absolutely fab.
Regarding new work, I think we're shattered! We'll finish the Fringe, take a breath and then work out our next steps. I'm very aware that I've written a lot of Scottish-themed stuff and that's good - it's a little niche that I can tap into when I need it, but I also wonder what other things we can create as a company. More collaborative things potentially.
Lydia: It's exciting not to know exactly what's coming next. Last year at the end of the Fringe we had a plan to develop Burns, but it's nice to think that we don't quite know what's next for us.
Shonagh: I think the only thing we can say for certain is that this is not going to turn into a trilogy!
Lydia: We have been asked about that! I think we should do a five-parter about the maids - Beth, Agnes, everyone!
Do you have any Fringe show recommendations?
Shonagh: Definitely Islander: A New Musical, which features Bethany [Tennick], who is in our show Burns. Bless her heart, she does Islander every morning and then comes every other day to do Burns with us. Finn Anderson, who wrote it, is a pal of ours and he is really wonderful.
And just because they're in the same venue as us, Gusset Grippers is the show for all womenkind. It's brilliant. It's really fantastic. It's not theatre, but it's educational comedy at its best.
Lydia: There's also Turadh, a harp-fiddle duo who are on our new EP.
Why should people come to see Armour, Burns or both?
Lydia: It'll make you laugh, and it'll make you cry. We can testify it has reduced grown men to tears! If you're looking for a moving piece of theatre come and see us.
Shonagh: I forget about the laughs. Armour gets quite a lot of laughs and Burns is just as funny. I thought it was going to be a heavier show but there seem to be some funny bits that we didn't write as jokes!
Armour taps into those family relationships that everyone has. I think it's a really good trip down memory lane for everyone because regardless of when it was set in history you can recognise yourself and the family members in it. It tells a really good story of those relationships that can really hang over you and how self-empowerment can help you through the other side.
Burns, on the other hand, has an overarching theme of wanting to be remembered. The idea of forgetting what someone's laugh sounds like a few years after they've passed is quite a poignant thing to put into an hour slot at the Fringe. I think there are quite a lot of themes in both shows that can hit people where it emotionally hurts!
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic