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.
Splinters, the drama group which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is a household name in Shetland and its fame has spread far beyond these shores.
The group, started by husband and wife team Mick and Di Newbold at Mossbank Primary School, had only eight upper primary members at first and became, as far as they knew, the only school-based theatre group in Shetland. But it has grown and developed over the years to become a troupe of more than 40 which now encompasses the whole of the North Mainland.
The original members are now in their early 40s, the youngest only seven years old, for Splinters has expanded not only its geographical reach but its age range in response to demand. And as well as bringing a bit of showbiz to Mossbank, Splinters has touched the lives not only of its participants but of many others, from family and friends to members of the public who just like to be entertained.
Not only that, the group has taken its plays south and is well-known on the circuit of the Scottish Community Drama Association.
It all started when the couple, originally from Coventry, moved to Mossbank for Mick’s job as a fireman at Sullom Voe. He came in 1979, Di and the family in 1980. That was the year Mossbank Primary School opened to accommodate the influx of oil workers’ children – there were 139 pupils – and Di became school secretary.
She said: “There was very little [in Mossbank] but lots of people started things – Brownies, Cubs, athletics. I had run a Brownie group south and Mick had written pantos for us.”
And so Splinters was born.
While Di ran the group Mick wrote the plays. The son of the former political editor of the Coventry Telegraph (then the Coventry Evening Telegraph), his literary talent enabled him to produce plays from fantasies to comedies or hard-hitting drama.
Best of all, the plays were, and still are, tailored to the available cast, rather that the other way round. Splinters’ philosophy has always been to welcome anyone who wanted to join – there are no auditions.
If members said they wanted a non-speaking part that was fine, if they wanted to say a lot, or a little, that was fine too. Plays would be crafted to suit everyone’s wishes.
By 1982 Splinters comprised 25 youngsters, including all secondary ages, and entered the Drama Festival for the first time. In 1984 the group expanded to include juniors from age seven, and 14 years ago the group moved its base to Brae, rehearsing at the hall on Sundays.
Di said: “We had incredible support from [Mossbank] head teachers Charlie Spence (who is still, after 30 years, the group’s chairman) and Wilma Goodlad. They supported us in everything we did and [later] the head teachers and staff at Brae bent over backwards. And the parents – immediately we said we were going to do something they would say ‘what do you want us to do?’”
The parents would, and still do, go on the door at country hall performances – these are usually sell-out successes and apart from plays and pantos could be musical afternoons with teas – a recent event when Splinters members entertained with Abba tunes (and their own words) was hugely popular.
Or the parents, and community members, bake or donate raffles – Mossbank woman Kath Manson (mother of first member Julia Odie, whose son Craig is now a member) has lost count of the intricately hand-crafted dolls she has donated as raffle prizes.
Members would tend to lessen their involvement with Splinters in their later teens, due to exams, and eventually leave when they went to college or university. But if they then returned to Shetland they often found their affection for Splinters was so deep-rooted they did not want to give it up.
Three years ago after a request from former member Pamela Smith (now Main), Splinters Adult Section (comprising returners who had been through the group’s ranks), became Splinters’ third branch. This is now a seven-strong team with one member, Graham Farmer, choosing to concentrate on backstage work, another skill which can be learned from Splinters. Graham is now the Newbolds’ “right-hand man” and stage-managed all three plays at the Drama Festival.
Splinters wins prizes year after year at this festival, but that would not have happened without the dedication of its founders. The group is totally self-supporting, apart from a recent development package from Shetland Arts, and is self-sufficient in creating its own costumes, scenery and props. Mick has made a set of wooden steps which come out year after year, painted different colours, to make an interesting variation of levels on stage, and the couple run up clothes on a treadle sewing machine.
In addition they scour the bargain rails in Primark, finding random gems such as white leggings for 50p, teddy-girl shoes and a fringed dress with a 1920s “flapper” look. All are stored in the couple’s 30-ft by 20-ft shed in Bressay, where they now live.
And equally Splinters would not have become so firmly established without the dedication of the children, who have to make a commitment to come to rehearsals every week to avoid letting their peers down. Di said: “Every link in the chain is important. It’s a discipline, learning in a veiled way. They need discipline on stage.”
The educational aspect is evident in the group having to gel. “It is instilled from the word go ‘you are a team’, they know that and see that and work together.”
The drama group is also a means of self-development. Some youngsters have been shy to the point of tears about going on stage and end up with major parts. Di said: “We are looking for children with no confidence. We don’t just want their performance, but the achievement of saying ‘I can do this’. We are trying to lay those foundations. We have never ever said ‘you’re not going to manage’ – this is the joy of having Mick [writing], we can give them something they can achieve, not something difficult which could make them think they’d failed.”
And they soon blossom – the youngest Splinters members performed four roles (as a wall, a train, a helicopter and flock of birds) with gusto in their play at the Drama Festival.
As part of being a team children are encouraged to work with those from other schools – and not to always expect big parts.
But where do the parts come from? Mick has been known to jump out of bed in the middle of the night with an idea, or a phrase, that has to be jotted down. (He writes his plays by hand, to be transferred later to a word processor.) One play, about Shetland ponies, came from a suggestion from the couple’s grandchildren. “The ponies ended up going to heaven and were very happy,” he said. And characters as diverse as a 400-year-old man or a 1920s prisoner have emerged from his imagination.
Other ideas come from Splinters members, who are all encouraged to have their say.
Over the years Splinters’ teenage members have tackled serious issues such as eating disorders, drugs, drink and teenage pregnancy – themes that work especially well in a small, tight group.
Mick said: “Sometimes we re-hash things, but they are totally different with a different cast. And they still have to act their socks off.”
Splinters now boasts a strong boys’ section in the youth group (and a total 11 through all sections). They have learned to conquer their inhibitions: “Put a dress on them and there’s no stopping them.”
And this section has really enjoyed rocking and rolling and dressing in 1960s gear for Drama Festival entry My Angel. Di said: “They were amazed I knew how to backcomb.”
The love of theatre instilled by Splinters over the years has led to several members going on to drama school. George Smith and Catriona Leask, both from Mossbank, and Lizzie Lucas, formerly of Mossbank and Brae, have all now finished, while Keith Williamson from Vidlin has just been accepted. But those who do not want to make acting their career have found their skills invaluable for interviews. “Think of it as a performance,” they are told.
For the Newbolds, working and thinking about Splinters never stops. Mick started scripting the Christmas panto Aladdin in February, but, he said: “Each year [working with Splinters] gets better.”
The group will celebrate its 30 years with a “teas with entertainment” party at Brae hall on 16th May.
Meanwhile Mick has another reason to celebrate – five of his plays have just been published by Jasper Publishing.