The man who watches the Watchers watch

He is not really a pagan master but for the purposes of a piece about the man directing Eastern Angles’ volunteer chorus it seems like a good description.

Alan Caig Wilson is the movement director and is working as director Ivan Cutting’s assistant on Bentwater Roads, the latest new production from the our premier touring company.

Alan is a thoughtful, friendly guy with a big personality and a restlessly creative mind.

It is an hour before the first gathering of the pagans – men and women of all ages enthused by the prospect of working with theatre professionals and not deterred by the prospect of unglamorous roles.

The former USAF airfield at Bentwaters is a vast and atmospheric site and this play is being performed in the Hush House, once used for engine testing but a space that lends itself to the evocative story of Bentwater Roads.

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Alan Caig Wilson speaks with a musical Scottish lilt, an accent he retains despite a career in the theatre has seen him work all over Europe and beyond.

He wasn’t one of those children who always wanted to be an actor. “I wanted to be a minister – a vicar, a lorry driver. My first love was the piano. I used to practise the piano by an open window, hoping I’d be discovered by someone. It didn’t happen – just the manageress in my father’s shop telling me to shut up.”

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“I was introduced as a sixth former to theatre but at that time in Scottish schools there was really no interest in that kind of thing… It just never entered my head that it could become a business for me.”

And so he came late – aged 27 – to a career in the theatre.

A psychology degree was followed by a stint teaching English in France. He describes his time there as “a landscape of emotional dreams”.

It was here his passion for the theatre grew and here that he failed to go to a mime workshop but promised himself that when he got back home to Edinburgh he would follow up this “theatre thing”.

“So I found myself sitting outside Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh in my mother’s car saying to myself: “Don’t go in; go in; don’t go in; go in. If you go in everything will change,’ and I was terrified.

“I went in through the door and the first two people I saw were friends from university and from that day to this I’ve done nothing else. I’ve had a living from theatrical things ever since.”

As for his childhood dream to play the piano: “That’s become the second string to my bow What happens in theatre is you develop your strengths.”

It sounds like the perfect outcome.

His first jobs were aimed at getting that precious actors’ union Equity card. When he started out there was the old Catch 22 that you couldn’t get a job without one and you couldn’t a card until you got a job.

“I ended up doing whatever I could to be in the theatre and joined a company from Cambridge called Cambridge Experimental Theatre. We toured Holland, Germany, Austria with a four-man Hamlet.” Alan corrects himself: “Two men; two women Hamlet.”

Making contacts on the continent he was to end up directing in a small theatre in Innsbruck, Austria, including works by Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet and Oscar Wilde.

He was somewhat in the tradition of the travelling player for the next decade or so. His work taking him from place to place and back again.

“Over a period of five or six years I was back and forth. I was teaching workshops and I was also in a movie.”

Is it one we would have heard of?

“No,” he replies without a second’s hesitation. “It’s the only movie I’ve ever done. It was called Tollgate and I think I was the author of a massive fight at the tollgate on the Brenner Pass.”

This was also working abroad, of course, and Alan says it was a great time to work outside the UK. You earned more because the currencies converted into more pounds.

“I worked back in Scotland but ended up in Germany being a performer in an opera – in a speaking role. I played the Devil in Der Freisch�tz by Weber.

“This is what started me working with community – I worked with a group of young kids from a children’s centre in Germany. I directed them. That was great fun.”

I ask him what year this was and he looks at me aghast before going through some hasty mental calculations. “I think this had to be about 1994.”

He laughs: “My CV is unfeasibly long – I did all these things and I often did several things at once. There are seven days in a week…” he points out.

“In that German job I met a Japanese opera singer who lives in Finland who invited me to direct an opera in Finland and then a concert tour in Japan. So I got the most fantastic break and that started a 10-year relationship with Finland.”

During this time he was working in three European capitals, sometimes commuting from Edinburgh to Helsinki to Berlin.

He has, I observe, more cultural references to draw on than most theatre professionals.

“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve not been lucky in wealth because I’m poor. I’m your classic starving artist… bit of a fat (he’s not) starving artist. But I made a choice and that was not to follow a straight path. It was to go where my interests take me.”

“Along the way I didn’t have a mortgage to pay, I don’t have dependants so I allowed myself to go and explore different things. I was able to say yes to Austria; yes to Finland.

Having said that Alan hopes he will stay in Ipswich for “a very long time”.

“I have a partner which is what brought me to this part of the world but I don’t consider myself nailed to the ground. We talk a lot about where we might go next.

“Previous to living in Ipswich I was 10 years in London and I found that such a wearing, soul-destroying experience. It wasn’t the kind of decision I had made previously… I got swallowed up.”

During this time Alan started teaching in drama schools. For a time a frantically busy five-day week comprised two days at the Oxford School of Drama, one at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, one at Guildford School of Acting and one at the London Contemporary Dance School.

“In the last three years I’ve worked with groups of children to make a science fiction film, a play based on computer games, a musical, an exhibition of light sculptures.

“The film came out of a group of children who needed to improve their writing, the light sculptures came out of a group of children who needed to improve their science.”

The projects were funded by Creative Partnerships which is supported by the Arts Council.

With a flavour of Alan’s huge and diverse body of work, we move to Bentwater Roads.

But first, rewind to 2003 when he first met Eastern Angles artistic director Ivan Cutting.

“At the ripe old age of 45 I decided I would go back to college and do a masters (degree) in theatre directing. I cycled past Birkbeck college one day and thought…” Alan drops his voice to a whisper: “‘I want to go there’.

“I was tired of living hand-to-mouth. I thought, ‘If I’m going to live hand-to-mouth I’m going to learn something.

“About six months later there was an advert in The Guardian for this course at Birkbeck, the first of its kind, funded by the Arts Council, and I applied. Ivan was on the selection panel and I was offered the first place – there were eight of us – on the first course.”

Over the two-year masters Ivan Cutting was “in and out, talking to us and giving us seminars. It is a fantastic course based on the idea that we trained with practitioners. I passed with distinction at the age of 47,” says Alan with quiet pride.

“The job I have now (on Bentwater Roads) was advertised through the network of this masters. I’m assistant director to Ivan and I’m dealing with all the movement on the show and part of my special responsibility is the chorus of ‘pagans’, as we call them.

“Over four or five weeks we will explore some of the ideas at the back of the play which are to do with the life of Suffolk – layers of knowledge and living.

“The scope of this play is so huge the idea is to create the image of people who have always been here.

“In Celtic – ancient British – mythology there is the spiritual idea of watchers; that we are watched.

“The Celts believed that when you die your spirit goes into a stone, a trees or a river and so wherever you go you are watched.

“The idea is they are still here with us. The watchers will be watching all the action”

The central character Charlie arrives in Suffolk in her bright yellow camper van believing she has no connection with the county. But she finds that the place known as “Bent Waters” is full of secrets spanning two millennia.

Alan describes the presence of the pagans as “other-worldly”.

“So these people are acting as a chorus – a lively chorus. It’s not a herd of cattle.

“One of the ideas we’re working with is that when people arrive on site at Bentwaters they’ll experience a group of people arriving.”

Finding an analogy Alan says it is like the scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when people arrive at the space ship landing site, appearing over the hills from all points of the compass and scrambling down to the centre.

“It’s the idea that there is something drawing everyone to this moment where all the stories come together in one – they all connect in one moment.

“I think it’s an excellent, well-constructed play.

“The chorus will be really important in building up the emotional intensity. They will be working hard, in character, in costume from the time people turn up – an hour before the performance.”

By now the pagan chorus has turned up at the Sir John Mills Theatre for its first get-together and Alan wastes no time in getting people on their feet, moving.

It looks like a good time for an interviewer to beat a tactical retreat.

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