Magnetic North Blog
On 4th July 1845, shortly before his 27th birthday, Henry David Thoreau began to live in a hut he had built next to a lake in Walden Woods, on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. For the next two years and two months he attempted to live entirely by his own resources. Walden, his account of his ‘experiment in simple living’, is one of the most extraordinary and unclassifiable - as well as one of the most well-known but least-read - books ever written.
I first came across it in 2006 when I was browsing at a charity book sale in Edinburgh. I came across a Penguin edition of the book from the 1940s with a lovely woodcut design on the front. The man selling it apologised that it was £2, explaining that this was because it was old. When I read it, I began to develop the idea of adapting it for performance. I asked Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc (who work collectively as Sans façon) to work with me - we had met at Cove Park, a residency centre in Argyll and Bute, and were looking for a project to collaborate on. Over the next two years we developed the ideas for the production, always trying to reflect Thoreau’s quest to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
The production premiered in 2008 as a site-responsive performance at Stills in Edinburgh. The following year, we adapted it to tour by creating a specially-made oval bench made from American pine. This both created a performance space and seated a 40-strong audience.
(above: the bench in Gilmorehill Theatre, Glasgow in 2009)
I started thinking about the production again in 2022 when I saw Fruitmarket’s new space, the Warehouse, and felt it was an ideal place for the production. In preparation for reviving it 7 years since it was last performed, I began to think again about the background to the book. I knew about Thoreau’s relatively privileged background - his family had made money from its pencil-manufacturing business - and degree from Harvard. This privilege allowed him to spend two years living in the woods without having to worry too much about making ends meet. He was aware of this and knew that less-advantaged people generally went unnoticed by others from his background and class. Elise Lemire, in her book Black Walden - published since our original production - suggests that, because of the history of Walden Woods as a home to the disadvantaged, he was consciously siding with those less fortunate than he. His thinking was deeply influenced by Hinduism – he refers to the Bhagavad Gita in Walden - and Buddhism, and by Chinese philosophy. This was unusual for someone of his background in the 1840s, but Thoreau was quietly radical, and his writing on Civil Disobedience (a phrase he coined) was hugely influential on many activists, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, throughout the 20th century.
In coming back to Walden, we want both to celebrate Thoreau’s legacy - his radicalism and influence – but also to explore his paradoxes. He acknowledges the history of the land he occupied in the book, writing of “disturbing the ashes of unchronicled nations who lived under these heavens long before we did” when he digs the soil, but, despite being an active abolitionist, he barely mentions the community of around 15 formerly-enslaved people who had lived in the same woods within living memory.
After reading Black Walden, I felt it was important to amplify the voices that are less present in Walden. The result of this was an open-call for artists who identified as being from the Global Majority to propose a response to Walden. The resulting project by Harvey Dimond takes its title from Thoreau’s description of slavery as having “so many keen and subtle masters”. In his installation, Harvey will explore the subject of Black Ecologies in relation to Walden, and it will be exhibited alongside my adaptation at the Fruitmarket.
I also decided to take a broader view of who the performer might be. When we developed the play, we always felt that the actor was not "playing Thoreau", but was someone speaking his words. The most important thing to me was that the actor was of a similar age to Thoreau (27-29 during his stay), but that otherwise what they really needed was a connection to the text and its themes. After an open call, I met a wonderful group of actors who all brought something unique to the text when they read it. I am delighted to be working with Shakara Rose Carter on the play, and am looking forward to starting work with her next week. We have already fascinating conversations about the book and about Thoreau and talked about the strong connections we both feel to the work.
We are recruiting an Artistic Assistant to work for four weeks on a project at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh next month. The role will support the creative team for the revival of our production Walden, written and directed by Artistic Director Nicholas Bone, and the accompanying installation so many keen and subtle masters by Harvey Dimond.
Full details are available here. The closing date is 10am on Monday 20th February.
With the frost finally here, pour a mug of something warm and catch up on our artist announcements and opportunities to apply for as we head into winter:
Announcing the first artist selected for Coast to Coast
Magnetic North in partnership with Julian Forrester, and supported by the Craignish Trust, have selected artist Amy Beeston to develop an international collaboration focused around coasts, water and the impact of climate change.
Our goal for the collaborative project is to bring together three artists - one Scotland-based, two international - who can offer original insights into the impact of climate change on coasts and coastal waters. The three artists will then develop new work from the starting points uncovered through this project.
Amy Beeston is an Orkney-based sound artist and audio researcher working within an ecological context, with a background in interdisciplinary, collaborative work across the arts and sciences.
CALL OUT: Walden
In March 2023, we are reviving our adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden for performances in the Warehouse at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh.
We are casting for an actor with a playing age of late 20s/early 30s and of any gender or ethnicity to perform in this one-person show, which is designed to be performed in the round in non-theatre spaces.
Applications closed on 12 December 2022.
CALL OUT: SPACE / TIME artists’ residency
Space / Time is part of our Artist Development programme and is aimed at experienced artists. Over a hundred artists have taken part in the retreats since the first one in 2012. It is a group creative retreat for five experienced artists from any art form that asks the question “How can you continue to thrive as an artist?”
The residency is led by Nicholas Bone and Alice McGrath. Participants are paid a fee of £550, unless they are employed by a Regularly Funded Organisation and are undertaking the retreat as part of their work for that organisation. This time around, the residency will take place at Cromarty Arts from 20-24 February 2023.
Applications closed on 19 December 2022.
Life feels a bit like a never-ending disaster movie at the moment, so we wanted to spread some good news for a change by sharing a few updates and artist opportunities which are now open for applications.
CALL OUT: SPACE / TIME Artists’ Residency
Space / Time is part of our Artist Development programme and is a group creative retreat for five experienced artists that asks the question “How can you continue to thrive as an artist?”. The residency combines facilitated dialogue – built around a series of self-generated questions – with time for individual reflection. The next residency will take place online from 7-11 November 2022.
Applications closed on 26 September 2022.
CALL OUT: Coast to Coast
Magnetic North in partnership with Julian Forrester, and supported by the Craignish Trust, are looking for an artist to develop the first stage of an international collaboration that is focused on coasts, water, and the impact of climate change.
Applications closed: 12pm on 3 October 2022.
CALL OUT: Walden
We are seeking proposals from artists who identify as being part of the Global Majority for an artistic response to Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. The resulting work will be shared alongside Magnetic North’s own adaptation during performances at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in March 2023.
Applications closed: 12pm on 10 October 2022.
NEWS: Lost in Music cast announcement and Scottish tour
Lost in Music is a gig-theatre show inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: the story of a talented musical couple’s journey to hell and back, told using the voices of young musicians. The cast for our 2022 Scottish tour are: Robin Campbell, Xenia Garden, Alex Neilson and Jill O'Sullivan. Lost in Music is touring Scotland from 16 September - 7 October. Tickets are on sale now.
NEWS: Introducing Our Seed Fund Artists
Earlier this year we received an award from Creative Scotland’s Recovery Fund to support independent artists through a Seed Fund which will give four grants of £4,500 each. We’re thrilled to announce the recipients:
Lauren will use the seed fund to develop research in response to the undervaluing of care which has negatively impacted single mothers. The grant will allow her to facilitate workshops with other artists who are, or have been, single mothers. The workshops will lead to the development of a visual manifesto through the production of sculptural objects, discussion, performances and text.
Amy Conway / Melanie Jordan
In their project Blood Moon, a wolf makes the agonising transformation into a human woman each month under the light of the full moon. Inspired by the “wild woman archetype”, a belief in the need for the re-wilding of our psychological landscapes, and the menstrual cycle; Amy and Melanie seek to challenge preconceptions about both wolves and the human menstruator.
For black history month, ButhoTheWarrior will commission people who contribute to the music scene in Glasgow to make radio shows for their Clyde residency. They will also collaborate with DJs to play at a party which will be streamed on their YouTube page.
Emma Jayne Park
Content Warning: suicide, death.
Preparing to Die is an autobiographical work told from the perspective of someone who is preparing to die by suicide - but only once their affairs and belongings are arranged in a way to make the aftermath of their death as simple as possible. The seed fund will be used for further devising and written work and to prepare the piece for the next stage of development.
We're now well into Walden rehearsals - well, three days in actually - and it feels like getting to know an old friend all over again. This is now the fourth time I've rehearsed the play, but each time I discover new things. It's also interesting working with a new actor as this inevitably brings out new aspects of both the character and the text. Cameron (the new actor) has new questions, and this leads me to finding new things as well, and one of the great things about doing a one person show is that you can afford to spend more time talking - Walden is so much about ideas that you really need to thrash about a bit to get to the grist of it, and to find the charactersitics of this stage version of Thoreau. You have more time because you don't have to worry so much about the actual staging - a lot of which is, crudely speaking, avoiding actors standing in front of each other. It's more complex than that, of course, but you're usually trying to create focus on particular parts of the stage - with only one actor you don't need to worry because the audience don't have anyone else to look at instead. Having said that, as Walden is peformed in the round, the audience can look at each other, and this also presents a challenge for rehearsing with a new actor. The style of the production means that the audience are a very active part of the performance - another character in a way - which means that until you actually perform it with an audience, the actor has little ideas of how this other character is going to behave and react to him. Cameron is having to do a lot of imagining other people looking at him, making eye contact (or not), reacting to his quips with them etc, and I imagine this is probably quite hard.
It's great having the set back up again - it still has that wonderful cedar aroma after a year in storage and I love walking through the rehearsal room door in the morning and meeting the smell.