From Story Catching to Story Telling

Artistic director Jamie Harper on how he’s directing Derry~Londonderry’s stories in The Return of Colmcille

I grew up in Limavady and spent some of my formative teenage years in Derry. I now live in London but I’ve always had a strong urge to get involved in the cultural life of Northern Ireland, so when the opportunity came up to work with Walk the Plank on

The Return of Colmcille, I knew I had to go for it. I thought back to my days as a teenage rocker laying down some tracks at the Nerve Centre and making my first forays into drama at the Verbal Arts Centre and these memories got me really fired up to come back to Derry after almost 15 years and make some exciting and beautiful theatre.

The work process started in January this year which various meetings that gave everyone involved an overview of the project. As soon as I walked into the first production meeting with 20-odd people in attendance I started to realise the massive scale of the project. We saw lots of design drawings of huge ships, aeroplanes and monster but in the midst of all the technical razzle-dazzle my first question was: ‘What do all these images mean?’ Basically, ‘What’s the story?’

This is where the writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, comes in. Frank explained the overall concept of the show as follows: Imagine if Colmcille came back to Derry 1500 years after the left. What stories of the last 1000+ years would he want to hear? In answer to his own question, Frank identified about 12 big iconic stories that he felt were most interesting – things like the Flight of the Earls, Amelia Earhart’s arrival or Dopey Dick, the killer whale in the Foyle. Inevitably, the siege of Derry and Bloody Sunday came up pretty quickly and questions were asked about whether we should tell these stories as well, but we made the decision early on that we wanted to tell lesser-known stories rather than covering things that people already know a lot about.

So working from this idea of Colmcille returning to catch up on the best bits that he’s missed, we had the idea that our audience could move through the city and discover these stories on his behalf, in various locations around town. I think Derry is full of beautiful and surprising places and I got very excited by the prospect of a promenade adventure through the streets!

But although we had some broad themes and images, we still had to work out what would actually happen at the various performance sites and, specifically, what stories we would tell. At this point, we started working with the Verbal Arts Centre to help us research lots of mini-stories around our major themes. So, for example, if you think of Amelia Earhart as an unexpected arrival, let’s look for other mini-stories of unexpected arrivals like the airline pilot who landed at Ballykelly Airforce based instead of City of Derry Airport.

Our researchers, Darran Anderson, Amanda Doherty and Arthur McGarrigle became known as ‘story catchers’ for their intrepid voyages of discovery throughout Derry and the surrounding areas. Each of them had different interests and different ways of approaching the job. Arthur is very interested in aviation and war-time history, so we got some first-hand accounts of WW2 from him; Amanda is an actor and she went looking for ‘characters’ who told their individual personal stories, while Darran is very interested in the uniqueness of specific places around the city.

A rich mix of material landed in my inbox and I then had to start working out how to piece it together into a set of coherent and entertaining performances. What I didn’t want to do was sit down and write a script - firstly, because I’m a director, not a writer, but more importantly because I wanted the cast of actors to have a creative stake in the work.

The way I normally make a piece of theatre when there’s no script is to take some material like a newspaper article or even a photograph and get the actors to do some improvisations around it. Improvisation can be an intimidating thing for less experienced performers but I’ve been lucky that the cast on this project have been willing to go with the flow and see what happens.

By working in this way, my hope is that the people involved have a greater sense of investment in the final product because they’ve played a key role in making it. And, if they have a sense of pride in what they’ve done I also hope that this will translate into a strong and energised performance that the audience can enjoy.

The Return of Colmcille is in Derry~Londonderry on June 7 – 8. View the programme of events.