Saturday, 14 August 2010

The first ever Summer Festival - a personal account by Gordon Walters.

Thank you to Gordon for giving up his time to right this and share his memories in such fantastic detail. When he left a kind comment on the fan page, I was curious if he had a lot of Summer Festival memories to share ... luckily, he did. Gordon now lives in London and sits as Judge - but it seems that his own Summer Festival experience has stayed with him to this day, like it will for all of you.

Hope you enjoy this, it's rather special.

In 1977 I was in my fifth year at Aberdeen Grammar School and had been a member of their dramatic society since my first year. By that time I was stage director and set designer. I do not recall how I became aware of SYT but the interview was quite galling for a 16 year old. It was before a panel of 3 and I made a presentation based on my design for “The Long and the short & the Tall” which included a model set that I still have.In addition there was some form of group activity that as a backstage person was somewhat alien!
A few weeks later I received a letter advising that I’d been selected to attend the summer school in Edinburgh. My attendance was sponsored by the Gulbenkein Trust and of course my own parents. It was made clear that money would not be an obstacle and various trusts and organisations were professionally lobbied to support the venture.The summer school extended for around 5 weeks during which time we were accommodated in some of the traditional halls of residence of Edinburgh University. 1977 was a beautiful summer and to be living within a glass quad was perfect.Most of us had our own rooms that were segregated with boys and girls on separate floors. There was a communal lounge and we ate meals in a dining room with pre allocated tables with a bizarre ritual involving a napkin. Every weekday morning we were collected by bus and transported to Moray house which was a theatre within the department of education. I would describe it as low tech but it was a labyrinth with a colourful caretaker come props maker in the basement blaring out opera music.Initially we were all together in workshop classes where we worked through improvisations and I learnt to tango. I recall it all being very collaborative with very few egos. There were a few boys who had acted on TV or had already established themselves but overall be we all just got one with it.After a couple of weeks the two productions were cast and we stage craft people went our own separate way. The two productions were “Just a Joust” ; a child oriented production designed as a matinee show. The other production was “Oh what a lovely peace” that was specifically written for the SYT and concerned the development and deployment of the atomic bomb. This was a strange theme in 1977, which although within the Cold War many assumed CND to be a 60’s anachronism.I was disappointed that we were not involved with the set design. We did however construct the set and many of the props. An essential component of the production was back projection of nuclear war imagery. This involved me watching hours of contemporary film and selecting frames to be projected at key times. Another part of the design required posters and I spent several days walking around Edinburgh locating and persuading companies to give posters that could be incorporated within the set.The public productions were held in the final week. There were many long hours of rehearsal as the script changed, parts developed and roles changed.Compared with my role at the Grammar School I was somewhat underutilised but was determined to get the most out of the experience. I made loads of suggestions and worked hard to maximise my involvement.1977 was another time. With no mobile phones, texting, internet or facebook we were indeed isolated from our friends and family. As such we formed a cohesive group. I did not consider myself an old looking 16 year old but anyway I was able to be served to keep within the group of older participants who formed the stage management cadre. As with most productions the performances grew tighter as the shows progressed until the final night. The final night was very special. The production was a clever mix of media for its time. Whilst our youth may have undermined the gravitas it underlined the poignancy of the subject.For me the two greatest moments were the singing of “We’ll have Manhattan” originally sung by Ella FitzGerald and incorporated to reflect the Manhattan Project itself and then the finale, which involved me waiting under stage and then during a blackout lighting and placing a menorah of joss sticks in silence.Afterwards we all left Moray House for the last time and headed back to the halls. We spent the remainder of the night and well into the morning making adolescent promises of undying commitment while signing copies of the play programmes and playing guitars, pianos. I have no doubt that any one of those 100 people had more talent than the wanabees that parade before us in tv talent shows. Yes everyone wanted to be famous, but more than that they wanted to succeed as an actor, singer, dancer, designer or such. We lived together for 5 special weeks in a very special Scottish summer. As we were collected by our parents and Jaguars, Bentleys and Morris Minors betrayed the equality enjoyed over those weeks we all knew that something special had happened and would be a part of us in the future.For me, I returned to Aberdeen and under the inspiration of the charismatic Annie Inglis became the youngest designer and stage director of the local amateur dramatic company. As I approach my 50th birthday after a life in commerce and now sitting as a Judge in England I have nothing but fond memories of my time in the SYT. I am delighted that it has gone from strength to strength and am confident that the current participants will look back in 2043 with the same smile on their lips as wonderful faces, falls and laughter return to their minds.

Gordon Walters.