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netribution > features > interview with Alison Peebles > page one
Alison Peebles has added to a distinguished career acting and directing on the stage, and appearing in film and TV from Psychos to Braveheart with a new role as a film director. Her recent films Nan and Tangerine, made under the auspices of Scottish Screen’s Newfoundland and "Tartan Shorts" have only whetted her appetite for more.
Morna Findlay met her over a modern Glasgow breakfast of oatcakes and croissants.
| by morna findlay |
| photos courtesy of communicado & v.amp|
| in edinburgh |
Did you originally want to direct as well as an act?
My life’s been a bit more random than that. I never thought of acting at all. I went to art school for four years and when I thought about the future, all I knew was that I didn’t want to teach: I just didn’t have the skills for it. Then suddenly, in my final year, all my friends were applying to teacher training college and I thought, "What on earth am I going to do?"
Now I never went to the theatre, but a classmate of mine often did and she told me about a course in stage management and design at the RSAMD. I applied and I got in.
But even then I didn’t make the jump to acting. Nobody I knew had anything to do with that kind of life.

So you began as a stage designer?

Despite my early training as an artist, I found myself doing more stage management than stage design. As I saw more of what goes on in the theatre and watched the actors I began to feel that stage management wasn’t enough for me.

How did you begin to act?
I joined Theatre Workshop in the 70’s. This was a multi-arts team. It was in the early days of Scottish street theatre. We’d do events, community shows etc. I began to do a bit of performing and I got a taste for it. But I said to myself "I’m an artist! I’m an artist!" and so I left to become a community artist in Cumbria at the Brewery Arts Centre.

They imported a small theatre company who I began to work with and my underlying wish to perform became increasingly strong. I did begin to perform with them and loved it. I felt that I ought to resign my position as community artist and when I did, they offered me a job as an actor instead!

What was the name of this company?
Pocket Theatre. I was with them for three years and I got the best training any actor could have. We were doing small-scale touring productions – new plays, classics, devised shows – all out of the back of a van. You couldn’t do it now.

You formed your own company after that?
Yes I formed Communicado with Gerry Mulgrew and Robert Pickavance, whom I had worked with at Theatre workshop and Pocket. Again we used to tour all over Scotland, to packed halls – Ullapool, Achiltibuie, places like that.
[The first production we did was The House with the Green Shutters

In those days, you could only get one TV channel in the highlands and people were keen for more entertainment, more choice. Since TV hit the highlands in the 1980’s the audience for touring theatre has almost gone: although companies like 7:84 still tour.

Did you begin to direct with Communicado?
I realise now that as an actor I was always directing within the company. I was always aware of the production as a whole and not just my part in it. In a company like Communicado, the director (Gerry Mulgrew) has the vision but the process of developing the play is very collaborative.
This isn’t the case with Rep of course, where the actor is a hired hand. You work with a director and actors who you may not know. Then you’re just hired to do your job and you get on with it. That used to frustrate me. I like to work collaboratively.

And now you have your own company – v.amp?
I set up v.amp to do the Tramway show (Burning Bright by John Steinbeck). I worked with the designer and I brought in the team including 2 Aerial Artists. It was a very visual show but what you get out of the show depends on the people you work with.

What precipitated your move into film?

Did I say earlier that my career has never been planned?
I was getting frustrated with the roles I was being offered: if you don’t hit the Big Time by a certain age, you find yourself down the food chain. It’s all finance.

How did you get started?

I wrote a couple of short films and put them in for Scottish Screen’s Tartan Shorts but didn’t get short-listed. But I was invited to attend Scottish Screen’s Opening Shots programme for new writers. That encouraged me to keep going. Producer Julie Fraser, whom I met at Opening Shots, introduced me to a new writer – Colin – and we hit it off creatively.

Colin and I had a script short-listed for Cineworks and then our film Nan was selected for the Newfoundland Scheme.

Nan has been described as "a tenderly truthful but totally unsentimental piece about a young mother dying of cancer who extracts a promise from her husband that he will contact her estranged mother to help look after their two young sons.I remember the wig Una MacLean wore in Nan.
(Laughs) Una is a fantastic actress and she’s slowly getting more recognised. Because she does comedy, she’s been put into this box labelled "variety and panto" but she was a dramatic actress before that.

Was she in Communicado’s Ines de Castro with you?
Yes, she was the nurse. As an actress she is always moving and truthful. She surprised a new generation who had written her off with that.

Back to the wig – and where did you get her cardies?
(Laughs) That mohair one? Out of Oxfam I think! When I asked her to do the part I warned her there’s nothing glamorous about this role at all. And she just went for it!

Of the Newfoundland films, I thought Nan was the most cinematic.
It had very little dialogue. We tell the story visually through the characters. I look at a film script with a director’s eye.
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