Master Class with Dolina MacLennan – The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil
On Thursday of our magical week in Glenelg, we had the pleasure of being absolutely blown away by our new friends and inspirations, Dolina MacLennan, and Catherine Robins. Dolina is an original cast member of The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil – a groundbreaking ceilidh style play after which Pepperdine Scotland and Peter Arnott previously modeled their Fringe First Award winning piece, Why Do You Stand There In The Rain.
Cheviot was put on by 7:84 Theatre Company. The numbers in their company’s name stand for the fact that, at the time, 7% of Scotland’s population owned 84% of the country’s wealth, similar to the recent outcry against the “top 1%” in America. Dolina explained the situation to us by saying that there are hundreds of thousands of acres in Scotland owned by one person.
The play was written about the effects of the Highland Clearances – the situation in the Scottish Highlands where people were forced off of their land and away from their homes to make way for sheep. Scottish International, a popular magazine in Scotland, knew John McGrath and when he was writing Cheviot, he asked if they knew any Gaelic singers. It turned out that they did, and that’s where Dolina made her entrance into the process! She was in her 30’s, and came from a little village that had about 25 houses. She had built herself quite a reputation during the late 1950’s as a folk singer as well as a Gaelic speaker in Edinburgh, where there was a sort of “folk song revival,” as Dolina called it. When John McGrath asked Dolina to join the company, she told us she replied “What company?!” But she joined on anyway, and her adventure began. The 7:84 company had no stage management team – They did everything for themselves as a company. Even the research was divvied up among them. The show was blocked out into 8 parts, and each person was asked to research one or more topics that they were knowledgable in. Then they brought it all back three days later and wrote their play.
It was to premiere at the Scottish International Weekend Conference which was entitled “What Kind of Scotland” that year. The only problem was they had not written the play at this point, and they were told to read the play to an assembled crowd that very same evening. By some miracle though, it was finished. When it was read to the crowd, Dolina remembers that there was nothing but stunned silence, followed by applause for fourteen minutes straight. Despite this immediate success, they decided that they were never finished writing and growing because, Dolina says, “it never belonged to us.”
Something that was shocking to me was that the people in the play were actual names of the folks involved in the original Highland Clearances and some people were downright offended that they were not mentioned! There was an incident, however, where a woman stood up during a performance and put a curse on one of the actors playing someone who had done horrible things to the people of their Highlands. Despite this, Cheviot had quite a following. People who couldn’t get into the sold out performances would follow the company to their next location, and once, people stuck their heads into every window all the way around the hall so they could watch the legendary play that touched so many people’s hearts. Even those who could not understand Dolina’s Gaelic songs said they understood what they meant.
|The Company, at the Glenelg Village Hall with Dolina and Christine|
Although we had the incredible opportunity of meeting a woman who was so connected to her own people’s history, this was not the case country-wide. Children were not taught about the Highland Clearances in school, and it is rare to hear of them being taught about to this day. Dolina said the children learn more about the industrial revolution of middle England than their own history. What’s more, speaking non-English languages was often forbidden – and not just with Gaelic in the Highlands. Dolina spoke of visiting a community in Wales where if children spoke Welsh they were given a knotted rope round their neck, and the person wearing it last during the day got a beating. This turned into the entire school day being consumed by children trying to pawn it off on their friends so they were not the ones beat come the end of school.
Dolina had a few words of wisdom for our company as well. 7:84 always kept Cheviot rough, which Dolina said was essential. For example, once in the news at 1 PM, the company heard a news story about the “Lord of the Oil” and immediately began creating a piece about it for their show where the US oil companies and Westminster government were shown puppeteering the “Lord of the Oil” and singing a silly song. This was in the play that night. Something else that was really stressed to us was the idea of creating a community with your audience. 7:84 did this right away by contacting every village with a town hall through the ‘elder’ of the village, and that made everyone feel like the company was doing this show special for them. Over everything, communication with their audience was key, and she suggested it would probably be the same for our piece. Something that really stuck out to me was when Dolina said “Turn the audience into your community.” She said that if you are to ignore your audience when you’re trying to get a message across, it suggests arrogance. We were told that standing ovations are near impossible to get in Scotland, so what 7:84 would do was pick out an audience member who “looked alright” and tell them to stand at the end of the performance. Dolina said that the entire audience would then follow suit, and this was hugely impactful.
Although the play was incredible and the impact was widespread and important, Dolina still was tired, just like we all are. She told us the biggest struggle was just keeping going. If The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil can do what they did with less than what we’ve been given, our company can surely keep going as well, despite the jet lag and the midgies! Catherine’s words of wisdom to us captured this idea perfectly. She said, “If nothing else, you should see now that it’s all possible.”