Often, these projects sit on a foundation of an individual’s particular passion for their chosen creative field but end up providing more benefit to the broader community than was ever expected.
In this interview, we’re chatting with Taylor Dyson and Calum Kelly of Elfie Picket Theatre. Elfie Picket is a Dundee-based theatre company, whose work focuses on using Scots language, poetry, and music to share bold and vibrant stories that explore Scotland’s socio-political issues. Both of them are writers, whilst Taylor is also an actor and Calum, a director. Here, we talk about the development of Elfie Picket, the importance of telling Dundonian stories, and what drives them to make theatre that’s welcoming and accessible to everyone in the community.
Creative Dundee: How did Elfie Picket Theatre come into being?
Taylor Dyson: Well, we both studied Acting at Dundee and Angus College and then went on to do a BA in Glasgow and did Masters degrees; you [indicates to Calum] did yours in Playwriting and I did mine in Theatre and Performance Practice. I’m from Dundee originally, and in 2019 I wrote a one woman show called ANE CITY, which Calum directed and dramatured. We decided to take it to Prague Fringe but to do that we had to come up with a theatre company to do it under. I guess it was initially out of necessity but then it spiralled into “Oh, this is what we want to do and make”. We’ve got very similar priorities.
CD: When you first started, did you have any idea about how to run a theatre company?
Calum Kelly: Not really, I mean, it was all very loose at the beginning. ANE CITY was just me and Taylor and I think we kind of work together well anyway but we aren’t legally a company and to be honest, it’s not been necessary to be a company. In fact, it seems like it’d be more paperwork than it’s worth. We might move in that direction but we’ve not got any urgent plans to. But after ANE CITY we did another play which I wrote called The Union and the Crown which got accepted as part of Assembly Roxy’s “Season of Protest” and to make that happen it was basically us approaching a bunch of other graduates and saying “Oh do you guys want to be in our play? We’ve got a venue”. We managed to save up to pay for a rehearsal room and not including any amount of money we spent, we just split whatever we made around everyone. We don’t work that way now, but we were graduates and everyone was really keen to be part of it.
CD: The show you’re currently working on is Dolly Parton Saved My Life—a play about grief, family, women and complex relationships that’s inspired by the music of Dolly Parton, and the relationship working class women of Scotland have with American country and western. How has your process of putting together a show evolved since ANE CITY?
TD: So we’ve worked with most of the people on the cast a few times, it’s either people we’ve studied with or we know, and we’ve done open calls in the past. They’re all from Dundee and that was important; to have people that were from the area instead of getting people in and having it feel like they’re imitating these characters. There’s a line between caricature and feeling the heart of these women.
CK: And you roped the cast into that script from an early stage. Before you even considered making it a full-blown thing, you considered the cast that would be playing them and incorporated that into the characters. I think because we came from studying with other people, you end up chatting about projects and being like “Oh we’ve got this idea” so before you even consider writing something, you’re aware of who’s around you.
TD: Practically too, it’s good to have people who are based here so they’re flexible, but there’s also not that much freelance acting work in Dundee so it’s always nice to be like, let’s do something here.
CD: It sounds like a lot of work for two people to do, especially when you’re often writing, directing and acting in the play too.
CK: There’s definitely a kind of chaotic element to it, because it literally is just the two of us. Dolly’s been the first project we’ve had funding for, up until now we’ve just been working and then taking some time off to put on shows. So when we got the funding we did have a chat about getting someone else to help us, but all the stuff we don’t want to do is admin work, and it’s not a consistent job.
TD: It’s also hard because I’ve been so passionate about it and I’ve been the one to be like “Right, I’m going to go to all these community centres and get everything together”, to then get someone else in to deal with it would feel really weird to me.
CD: Tell me a bit about your recent tour of the show around community centres—what made you interested in incorporating that into your plan?
TD: I think it’s about making theatre more accessible. It’s a really tricky industry to get into, but also as an audience member, it can be quite difficult to see it as something for you if you’re not exposed to it. I know the people in my family wouldn’t necessarily go to the theatre, so it was important to us to take it into spaces they’re more likely to go to.
CK: I grew up in Skye and didn’t know much about theatre at all until I decided to study acting. When I was 16/17, there wasn’t a world to step into to do theatre or see other people doing theatre that reflects you—I probably didn’t consider it until I was about 20.
TD: Yeah, I think in theatre, as an actor you have all these lights dividing you and you don’t get to speak to the audience so it sometimes feels like you don’t really know what the point of it was. We wanted to connect with people. So with Dolly, we’ve had social events afterward where people can actually chat to people and discuss things in the play, but we also have Dolly bingo and some karaoke too. It’s just a chance to have some fun and be able to connect, especially after COVID. I think it’s about showing people that theatre isn’t just like a Shakespeare or a Chekov play. We were really inspired by 7:84 [a Scottish, left-wing agitprop theatre group], and they made us realise that you can make something different. We were like “Oh, we can do that, and we can make work about things we actually want to talk about”.
CD: So much of what you’ve written has been inspired by Dundee; you both studied here and then moved to Glasgow before returning. Why is it important to you to make work about the city? What drew you back?
TD: I’m really passionate about making Dundonian work that features Dundonian working class people and the language, because you just don’t really see it, especially not in a contemporary way. We decided to move back to Dundee because ANE CITY was about being from Dundee and we were like “We should go back and make some smaller scale theatre happen there, like Fringe work”. It felt like there was a kind of gap in the market for it.
CK: It’s funny though, I think if we hadn’t left to do a very practical BA and our Masters and if we hadn’t done shows not in Dundee—like the Edinburgh Fringe and other open calls, and again at the Assembly Roxy in Edinburgh—we wouldn’t have any experience up until our first ever event in Dundee, which was last year. You know what I mean? Our first show here was in 2019 and we did shows until the February/March of 2020 pretty consistently but we hadn’t performed in Dundee in that whole time because we didn’t have the opportunity to. I’m not saying it’s the responsibility of any institution in Dundee to offer us that, because there are so many other things to take care of, but we had to leave Dundee to learn what we know now to come back here and do this work.
TD: Yeah I think it can be really hard to get started, because there’s not really any small scale theatre happening here. Things are starting to happen, the Dundee Fringe is brilliant and gave us the opportunity to test out a new show, and having that kind of support of being able to go there and trial work was great. But being able to do that more would be really good.
CD: What can be done to help support you and other emerging theatre makers flourish in the city?
CK: I think it’s hard because there’s just not the same infrastructure here as other places. There’s not a little venue to go and try stuff out at to make small-scale theatre possible. I think we’ve got these really romanticised visions in our heads about it all.
TD: Yeah we’re like “Oh we’ll have our own space one day and it’ll be really great and there’ll be loads of theatre and cool things happening in it”. There are just so many empty buildings in Dundee! But in terms of right now, it’s impossible sometimes to find rehearsal space, logistical things like that.
CK: Yeah pretty much any room in Dundee is charging £25 an hour to be in and if you’re a theatre company who needs like 35/40 hours a week, it’s not feasible. Even if you’re doing something funded, the funders would say no to that use of your money. When you’re applying to Creative Scotland you kind of end up having a quarter of your budget going to just the rehearsal room, which doesn’t seem right that that room is making so much money.
TD: I think a lot of it does come down to space and support.
CD: How much of a barrier do you think not having that infrastructure puts up against other people getting involved and trying new things here like you are?
TD: It’s difficult, I think especially when you don’t have money and stuff like that, it feels a bit like “How do you ever do that? How do you not work and only do theatre?” but then I guess you just find ways to be like, “Well I guess we’ll just do rehearsed readings for pals” like we did, and it builds up. I think, speaking about us personally, we got to that point now of realising we can’t keep working all the time and funding things ourselves, we’ve got to pick and choose the things we spend our time and money on and not go in all guns blazing. But it’s also trying to value your own work enough to realise, “No, we can ask for some money for this” you know what I mean?
CK: We now can make sure everyone gets paid and we also get paid, and make sure we’re not asking for favours from the people we work with anymore. But it’s hard when you’re just starting—I know people here that want to try stuff but they can’t without risking a lot of their own money which they may or may not have. There are actors we know who do want to go more into the production side of theatre who just won’t be able to do that. And I’m sure there are loads who we haven’t met who’d love to do that too. I think if we weren’t a theatre company and I was just a writer/director and Taylor was just a writer/actor, it’d be really hard to justify living here right now because there wouldn’t be very many job opportunities at all, or not enough consistent ones.
TD: It’s even like having the time to be like “I’m going to write a play!”. It’s impossible when you’re working like 60 hours a week. But I think it is changing; Dundee and Angus college have just set up a BA in Theatre here and there’s been a lot of discussion about staying in Dundee. Stuff’s starting to happen. There were a lot of students getting involved in the Fringe this year which wasn’t the case last year, it’s good to see people who are just graduating putting things on. It’s like “Oh maybe there’s going to be more theatre people then!”
CK: Well that’s a huge thing, if the Fringe is successful, that’s a very big selling point of living in the city, you know?
TD: Even not as a performer, it was amazing just being able to walk into town and go and see some shows. Just going to see a bit of theatre or some comedy or some music and it was really cool to have that opportunity in Dundee.
CK: Yeah we basically went almost every night, it was actually really fun, having it on your doorstep.
TD: It would also be brilliant to feel like there’s more of a community of people in theatre here. I feel like it’s really starting to feel like that after COVID, you know people now and you see people but having more of that community feeling would be great.
CD: I know you’ll just be coming down off your Dolly Parton run high, but what plans are in the future for Elfie Picket Theatre?
TD: We’re really wanting to do a rural tour around Scotland—whether we do that with Dolly or another play, we don’t know yet. We also really want to bring back The Union and the Crown because it only had its little four-day run and next year is a big year for that kind of thing with the proposed independence referendum, so it has to happen next year.
CK: To be honest, we’ve got a few things that are maybe going to materialise and if they do, great, but if not we’re just going to keep on doing what we’re doing anyway, you know? I think we want to build on the idea behind the literal mechanics of this Dolly project. Even just like taking the show aside, I think we never want to lose that aspect of taking things to these community spaces around Dundee.
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