The two North Mainland-based theatre groups, Splinters Youth Theatre and Ronas Drama Group, both have big birthdays this year. Splinters is 30 and Ronas has reached its half century. Both groups put on plays at Sullom hall last night. Here, ROSALIND GRIFFITHS looks back at their histories.
Ronas Drama Group celebrates its 50th year in 2010, but its origins stretch back further than that.
There were various clubs and groups performing concerts or entertainments such as music or singing in the post-war era in Northmavine, with the Hillswick-based St Magnus Community Club putting on plays. Under the tutelege of then travelling drama teacher at Urafirth, the late Jenny Gilbertson (later known as a traveller and film-maker), and local GP Dr Gilchrist, the club entered the very first Drama Festival in 1948 – and won with the play The Bishop’s Candlesticks.
Some years later a suggestion that all the groups should join forces was accepted, and Ronas Drama Group was born in 1960. The first meeting of the merged group took place in Ollaberry hall in the winter of that year.
The new group was very active in an era when people were more likely to make their own entertainment. Both Jenny Gilbertson and Dr Gilchrist, a very keen member who had been involved from the beginning, acted and produced.
The group put on two, sometimes three, plays a year – now it is down to one – with the first Drama Festival entry under their new banner being in 1961. More than 70 plays have been produced since then.
President of Ronas Drama Group is Chrissie Manson from Urafirth, whose involvement with drama stretches back to 1955. Chrissie started by acting, but when Jenny Gilbertson moved to the South Mainland she asked Chrissie to try producing. This she did – and has been producing ever since, most recently this year’s entry at the Drama Festival Ruby’s Comeback. The group believes in supporting the festival, she said, and has entered most years with “minor successes and major flops”.
This was echoed by secretary and treasurer Willie Robertson, a member since 1970, who acts and also writes plays. “We’ve won some prizes over the years but generally speaking we come somewhere in the middle.”
Ronas Drama Group now has around 12 members, although numbers fluctuate, and would like more. Chrissie said: “We are always keen to welcome new members, definitely.” And, like Splinters, there are no auditions: “Anyone that comes along gets thrown in the deep end. And there’s always plenty to do backstage.”
Willie said the group would “absolutely” welcome new members. “There are no restrictions, it is open to anyone interested.” Talent is not a requirement: “The only thing that matters is to be keen.”
Keeping a drama group running in a remote area is not easy, he explained. “We meet in September and decide how many want parts and look for a suitable script. Rehearsing is difficult because we’re so scattered. Getting together, especially in the winter, is one of our main problems. We try to meet once a week but it never works out.”
Willie comes with his own plays roughly every second year and, again like Splinters, adapts the contents to fit the number of players. This year, for example, there were six on stage – the others would help in other ways such as in making sets.
Willie, in real life the Brae postman, does a fine line in traditional farce. Characters in the wrong place at the wrong time saying the wrong thing appeal to him, and delight the audience.
He said his plays are “elaborated” versions of the Shetland sketch that were once seen at concerts – he is upholding the tradition. “There are no very many doing comedy. And it keeps up the dialect.”
He has tried to write serious drama but somehow it always comes out humorous, he said. “It must be some kind of daftness.”
As is the case with Splinters, the group is run totally with voluntary effort, and the staging of its annual play at Sullom hall after the drama festival is virtually its only means of making money.
Early members of Ronas Drama Group have happy memories of their time in the group. Former Ollaberry teacher Lilias Johnson said: “It was thoroughly enjoyable. Acting a different person took you out of yourself, and you learned a lot, like how to project your voice.”
And Aggie Ratter from Ollaberry enjoyed it so much that she still goes to see all Ronas performances. “Rehearsals were a great meeting place and it was great fun.”
The experience of going on stage has always been challenging, of course, but was positively thrilling for 16-year-old Anna Irvine from Hillswick, who performed in The Bishop’s Candlesticks at the Garrison Theatre.
The play, based on an incident in Les Miserables, had Lollie Graham playing the convict who had come to steal the candlesticks, Dr Gilchrist as the bishop and Jenny Gilbertson as his sister. Dr Gilchrist took the whole enterprise so seriously he employed a locum while the play was going on.
Anna played the French maid, Marie. Rehearsals were done in her family’s sitting room with her mother making copious amounts of tea, and by the light of Tilley lamps as electricity had not reached Northmavine.
Anna was “excited, not nervous”, and the professional costumes (not home-made) and stage make-up “added to the feel of the thing”. She was amazed by the footlights, but in spite of the theatre’s electricity, she remembers it being “dreadfully cold”. “I was supposed to have bare feet but Dr Gilchrist insisted I wear shoes.”
And later, when rehearsals moved to Ollaberry hall it was so cold the cast had to rehearse with coats on.
You had to be dedicated in those days, she said, (and maybe you still do).