It’s been a while coming. It seems like people have been spending the last three years asking “When are you doing your own solo show?”* The answer was complex, and to do with a whole imposter syndrome thing, so let’s skate past that, please. And the fact was: I’d had a great idea for a solo show about six years ago, having developed a 15-minute piece with Apples & Snakes, commissioned by them as a scratch piece for a night of them, to kick-off writing a longer thing. The only problem was that, every time I approached it (to write, to rewrite, to learn anew for a different outing, etc.), I would have horrendous nightmares. Like: screaming myself awake nightmares. Since the premise was about a person who was having repeated nightmares that seemed to be precognitive images of a post-apocalyptic future, based on my own experience of increasingly detailed zombie apocalypse nightmares, I suppose it wasn’t too surprising, but still.
So, for the sake of my mental health (and that of those around me, especially those needing to sleep near me!), that project was reluctantly shoved to the back of my brain (though it would nudge me every so often, especially when people asked that question).
And then, about 18 months ago, out of the line “I was born in soft waters, but hard ones shaped me” (which - as I recall - came to me as I was walking home along the river) was born The Selkie - A Song of Many Waters. Suddenly, here was a story I wanted to write that energised me and didn’t give me horrible dreams!
The Selkie is, like every first solo show ever written by every spoken word artist ever, I suspect, somewhat autobiographical. However, everything is couched in the language of myth and fairytale. The central character is a selkie, her mother is a mermaid, her father a demi-dragon, her friends and lovers various mythological and earthly creatures. They inhabit a landscape which speaks to them, and every adult has their own familiar spirit, a being with which they have as good, bad, and aware/ oblivious a relationship as we variously have with that voice that talks to us out of the dark.
Selkies are, in the folk stories I read so voraciously as a child, the Scottish (particularly Orcadian/ Hebridean) equivalent of merfolk, or the Russian/ Middle Eastern swan maidens and Welsh salmon beings. They also turned up in one of my favourite young adult novels of all time: Susan Cooper’s Seaward, which I first read at a very impressionable age. Most of those who do know the legend (and there are fewer people in that category than I’d imagined when I first embarked on this!), tend to only know the tragic version where the woman has her skin stolen by a mortal, who keeps it by him until either: a) everyone dies of bitter old age, but the children continue the line - perhaps unknowing - with webbed toes, etc., or b) the selkie finally finds her stolen, hidden skin, and escapes back to the ocean (sometimes she keeps up a relationship with her children; either way, her husband loses her).
I wanted to explore what it would mean to be a selkie without a skin who doesn’t know explicitly that something is missing - a magical creature who struggles to access their powers in the wrong environment, off-kilter wherever they set their feet - and also how you choose to return to the ocean, and the positive and negative applications of that. I also ended up exploring the repeated patterns of relationships, and what it takes to change fate (and how what looks like a change can actually just be the old pattern in a different coat). And hiraeth came up too.
And after tentatively performing the 70%-finished 90+ minutes version to dramaturge and storyteller-extraordinaire Red Phoenix in November 2015, her amazing feedback meant that I finally had the impetus to finish the blimmin thing, and then start hacking chunks out of it so that it would fit into the standard slightly-less-than-an-hour that’s required for Fringe shows in general.
I’ve also engaged the services of an extraordinarily talented visual artist, Sa’adiah Khan, who is creating a series of beautiful images to accompany it.
|The initial, cover image of The Selkie by Sa’adi|
The final version will take several forms:
1. A 57-minute show which comprises poetry, storytelling, music (both live-performed and as a constant soundscape backing track), and projected visuals of Sa’adi’s illustrations.
2. A 90+ minute album of the whole show but including all the bits I had to hack out (mostly extra, illustrative poems)
3. A book of the longer version, complete with Sa’adi’s illustrations.
The show is already booked to run 21-27 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, and so far only eight other people have heard the finished** version. Tonight I’ll be performing a “scratch” (i.e. "be kind, you’re seeing a version we haven’t learned, where we occasionally have to stop and say ‘and here’s where there would be music/ costume change/ trapeze - imagining that? Nice...’”) version of the piece in conjunction with extraordinary storyteller-poet-type Hel Robin Gurney at The Poetry Café in That London. Shockingly, not only will this be the first public performance of The Selkie, but also my first visit to The Poetry Café.
Landmarks all round... :)
See you on the flipside (unless I see you at The Poetry Café later!).
* I’m well-known (for a given value of well-known that is: in the UK spoken word scene) as someone who promotes other people, and is a good show host, and gives other people opportunities, but not as someone who is Doing That Solo Artist Thing on a bigger scale.
** everything is relative - I’ve already tinkered with the thing since they heard it on Sunday, trying to incorporate one particular piece of feedback those lovely people unanimously gave.