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Knot Tied Theatre Interview – Mary: A Gig Theatre Show (Edinburgh Fringe)

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to review Rosamund Gravelle’s Tudor-era play ‘Three Queens’ at Barons Court Theatre, which focuses on Lady Jane Grey, Princess Elizabeth and Queen Mary on the eve of Lady Jane Grey’s execution. I was inspired by how the production uses artistic licence to reclaim the young queen’s voice, so when I heard that Katie Slater (Co-Producer/Director) and Rona Johnston (Writer/Performer) were focusing on Mary, Queen of Scots in their Edinburgh Fringe production and telling her story through a feminist lens, I knew I wanted to find out more about it.

Laura Coull, Alli Von Hirschberg, Rona Johnston, Jodie Kirkwood, Izzie Atkinson and Hester Irving in 'Mary: A Gig Theatre Show'
© Carla Watson

‘Mary: A Gig Theatre Show’ uses the emerging genre of gig theatre to ‘question the treatment and portrayal of women historically and today’, with Rona’s original music proving an ‘emotional response to the hardships Mary faced at the hands of men’. Through their newly formed theatre company ‘Knot Tied Theatre’, the creatives are combining an original score with theatrical storytelling for a week of the festival and as someone relatively new to the genre myself, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with them both about their plans for Mary and the 2024 Edinburgh Fringe.

Gig theatre remains a relatively new genre in the industry, what is it about this particular type of theatre that inspires you?

Katie: I’m always drawn to theatre where music is central to the storytelling. It has such a powerful effect on the audience. I hadn’t really been able to articulate why, then I read Richard Eyre (previous Artistic Director of the National Theatre) quoting Yip Harburg who sums it up perfectly “Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.”

So, in 2021/22 when I kept seeing the term gig theatre, I was excited by it and wanted to explore it. Both Rona and I are musicians as well as theatre makers, I’m a drummer and she is a singer-songwriter, and we both gig regularly around Edinburgh. So, we were keen to blend that experience with our theatre making. I’m inspired by the creativity and craft that using a band to tell a story requires and I love the informality of the experience for the audience. I’d say we encourage gig etiquette over theatre etiquette. The live music creates an electric atmosphere.

Rona: A lot of the gig theatre I’ve seen so far has leaned into the singer/songwriting genre, which fits with the kind of music I typically write – I find that it makes the performances feel very personal, particularly when the story is auto-biographical or inspired by a true story. I also love that the genre commands respect for the musicians or band, as they’re often up on stage as part of the show. Being able to see them, even including them in the story as we do in ‘Mary’, really highlights how integral they are and gives them a chance to shine.

Izzie Atkinson and Laura Coull in 'Mary: A Gig Theatre Show'
© Carla Watson

How did you come to the decision to create your own theatre company in ‘Knot Tied Theatre’?

Katie: Over several years we have ended up collaborating on a variety of projects; from musicals to new writing to Shakespeare (we did a mini gig theatre adaptation of Troilus and Cressida). So, it was about time to name our collaborations. Registering Mary for this year’s Fringe is really what prompted us to make our company official after a long time of making work together. I am in awe of Rona’s skills, so getting to work together is always wonderful.

Rona: Katie and I have always found it very easy to work together, we’re often on the same page and both just really want to put on a good show. We get big (maybe pipe) dreams about adapting random films into grand Broadway musicals, or plan the imminent transfer of whatever show we’re doing at that time to the West End – we have a lot of belief in each other’s talent, and it’s that mutual respect that makes the foundation of our company so strong.

What can you tell me about your process for creating a piece of gig theatre? How do you approach music and storytelling?

Katie: Mary started with a lot of post-it notes on the floor and a dream. We identified the questions we wanted to ask the audience, the atmosphere we wanted at certain points, beats in Mary’s life we wanted to highlight and the general journey of the show. From there Rona began writing music, she can write both beautiful music and spoken word at an astonishing speed, so it took shape quite quickly. It started as just the two of us where we had many “scrap” days of bringing Rona’s material into the rehearsal room to play around with it.

Rona: We’ve found that what works best for us is me writing the songs/spoken word sections, then bringing them to Katie to discuss ideas. As a director, Katie has a good eye for structure and figuring out what the intention of something is, so I come to her with the material and she moulds it into a story. Once we’re confident with what we’ve got, we develop it with the band and build the songs together – this is essential to how we do gig theatre, because it means we can utilise the talent of everyone in our cast and let them experiment with different ideas.

Katie: When it became a full band piece, we initially thought we’d need a Musical Director. However, casting actor-musicians who were happy to really collaborate and write their own parts for their instruments was a blessing. As would happen with most bands, the magic has then mainly happened in the rehearsal room, from jamming. There’s been no sheet music like there might have been if it were a musical.

Rona Johnston, Alli Von Hirschberg and Laura Coull in 'Mary: A Gig Theatre Show'
© Knot Tied Theatre

‘Mary: A Gig Theatre Show’ focuses on Mary, Queen of Scots and ‘questions the treatment and portrayal of women historically and today’. Rona, what was it about the historical figure that inspired you to write a piece of theatre about her?

Rona: I’ve always felt an attachment to female historical figures in general, but Mary in particular, as she was a young woman around my age when she was thrust into power. I find myself imagining how I would feel if I was in her position, and find it infuriating to think of all the injustices she faced at the hands of the men around her. This show, particularly the empathy it affords Elizabeth I and the relationship between her and Mary, feels in a way like a kind of justice to them after years of the ‘Mary vs. Elizabeth’ narrative; while they may very well have despised each other when they were alive, I like to think of ‘Mary: A Gig Theatre Show’ as a ‘what could’ve been’ if they hadn’t been pitted against each other by the power-hungry men at their feet.

What can audiences expect from the score?

Rona: I love lyrics with lots of imagery and metaphor, taking a situation and writing about the feelings associated with it, rather than describing the situation itself. A part of gig theatre for us is that the songs can stand on their own outside of the context of the show; for example, we use the love song about Lord Darnley to highlight Mary’s hesitance to let herself fall in love, instead of writing an ode to Darnley himself, which feels easier for audiences to relate to.

The band accompanies me during the songs, but they also provide the underscore for the entire show, building an amazing soundtrack to help the audience visualise what Mary’s going through. In terms of the general sound, it definitely fits in with the folk/rock genre: there are quiet, beautiful moments of reflection, but we also fully utilise our incredible band with some loud foot-tapping rock songs for the more intense moments in Mary’s life.

Katie, what can you tell me about the rehearsal process so far? What have been the greatest challenges with bringing to life the ‘Scottish Queen’s inner world’?

Katie: I was expecting the biggest challenge to be realising the songs as a full band, but actually the boundaries a song has like a pattern of chords, a structure to follow, and a clear idea of the sound, made this fairly easy. It has been shaping the underscore for Rona’s spoken word that was really quite difficult. There were so many choices to make and routes we could have taken, so this was hard, and it took time. It’s resulted in such a varied “soundtrack”, from Scottish jigs, to scatting, to dissonant harmonies, to rocky electric guitar, but I think it reflects how wild Mary’s journey was, and the cacophony of emotions that must have been going on in her inner world.

Getting the show up on its feet was also quite challenging, we don’t have enough money (maybe one day) to go wireless, so movement wise everyone is restricted in some way by microphone and instrument cabling. But, it’s been fun to get imaginative and consider how the instruments can create opportunity rather than seeing them as a restriction. And, it is genuinely such a joy and a privilege to regularly rehearse with such a talented group of female actor-musicians.

Jodie Kirkwood, Izzie Atkinson, Rona Johnston and Hester Irving in 'Mary: A Gig Theatre Show'
© Knot Tied Theatre

What can you tell me about the supporting characters?

Rona: We thought it was so fun that we had the right amount of band members to account for the ‘Four Marys’ that Mary Stuart often travelled with (excluding our Elizabeth, one of our two backing singers, who sings leitmotifs throughout the story). It’s part of what incorporates the band into the show, as they aren’t just watching what’s happening because they’re playing the music, they’re watching because they’re invested in the outcome of Mary’s life.

Katie:  Yes, I used to think I could just put musicians on a stage and that was that. But for the storytelling it’s really important to define who they are, if they are in character and if they are listening or not. Having the band be Mary Beaton/Darnley, Mary Seaton, Mary Livingston, Mary Fleming and Elizabeth has really helped to guide our staging throughout the show and shines a light on that little known piece of history too. So many adaptations of Mary’s life depict lengthy conversations and battle sequences between the men that affected her life. We wanted to focus solely on women, and show the impact the men had, rather than actually have a male presence in the production.

The show has been on quite a journey, starting as a gig theatre research project in 2022, followed by scratch presentations and one-night-only festival performances. What are you most looking forward to in staging the production at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Rona: I can’t wait to perform it to new audiences every night – the problem with one-night-only shows is that it feels like it’s over before it’s even begun! With this week-long run, we’re getting the chance to play around and try new things to see what works best for us and the audience, and there feels like less pressure because it’s not just for one night.

Katie: Mary has built up a wee fan base too, so it’s really lovely to now have people coming along for the third time and knowing the songs. We’ve been working away on the music recently too, so I’m excited to do the show with some of the little changes we have made.

Hester Irving, Laura Coull, Izzie Atkinson, Jodie Kirkwood, Rona Johnston and Alli Von Hirschberg in 'Mary: A Gig Theatre Show'
© Jason Fong

What drew you to theSpace @ Symposium Hall for the production’s Fringe debut?

Rona: We’ve got a lot of requirements in terms of staging and tech, being a full band who often switch instruments and move around on stage. theSpace were so accommodating about this and said they were happy to give us all the help we needed, which we were very grateful for! I’ve also seen shows at theSpace before and I think it’s a really cool venue with tons of diversity in terms of what’s put on there.

Katie: Although we have done the Fringe before, this is our first time bringing our own company, so we wanted to do quite an intimate Fringe whilst we find our feet. The Annexe @ Symposium Hall has just 55 seats (so we have limited tickets!) but a big enough stage for our band, which is a perfect balance for us. theSpace’s set hire fee also provides a lower risk approach to the Fringe for an emerging company like ourselves. And, they have a dedicated press office which has been really important to us as not every venue offers this support in connecting with the media. 

Catching Mary: A Gig Theatre Show at theSpaceUK

If you are interested in seeing Katie, Rona and the Knot Tied Theatre company in action at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, you can find them from 12 – 17 August at theSpace @ Symposium Hall – Annexe (Venue 43), with tickets available via the festival website. Performances start at 22:25, providing audiences with six opportunities to get to know the historical figure of Mary, Queen of Scots through the format of gig theatre. It was brilliant to be able to speak with the theatre makers about their creative process and the show itself.

Thanks for reading my blog today.

Love Kat xxxx



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