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Hands across the water: Serious Play brings Scottish performer to Valley in new exchange program

  • Acclaimed Scottish musician Mairi Campbell brings her one-woman theatrical show, “Pulse,” to the Shea Theater in Turners Fall Friday and Saturday. Photo by Julia Fayngruen 

  • Acclaimed Scottish musician Mairi Campbell brings her one-woman theatrical show, “Pulse,” to the Shea Theater in Turners Fall Friday and Saturday.

  • Acclaimed Scottish musician Mairi Campbell brings her one-woman theatrical show, “Pulse,” to the Shea Theater in Turners Fall Friday and Saturday.  Photo courtesy of Sheryl Stoodley

  • Serious Play has brought Scottish musician Mairi Campbell here to perform her one-woman show, “Pulse,” which combines music, storytelling and movement. Photo courtesy of Sheryl Stoodley



Staff writer
Thursday, November 30, 2017

A few years ago, Amherst guitarist John Sheldon developed a stage piece, “The Red Guitar,” that incorporated elements of music, comedy and memoir, all as a means of telling a story about how he first developed as a player and the era, the 1960s, in which it happened.

In the summer 0f 2016, Sheldon worked with Serious Play, the Valley theater ensemble, to bring his show to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, the world’s biggest arts festival — and “The Red Guitar” earned some glowing reviews there.

Sheldon and Serious Play Director Sheryl Stoodley also made some key connections to other performers at the Fringe — and now they’re bringing one of them to the Valley to stage a one-person performance that’s something of a Scottish version of “The Red Guitar.”

Mairi Campbell is an acclaimed viola and fiddle player and singer who’s known for her fresh interpretations of traditional Scottish music. She’s also the creator of “Pulse,” a one-woman show that combines storytelling, live and recorded music, movement and a bit of animation to showcase her journey from a classical music background to immersion in folk.

Campbell, who brings her show Friday and Saturday to the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, also plans to spend some time in Sheldon’s Amherst studio playing music with him. And she’ll be part of a talk on Sunday at the Northampton Community Arts Trust at 33 Hawley Street on the intersection of music and theater.

It’s all part of what Stoodley calls “Perspectives Through Performance,” a new initiative that Serious Play has developed that’s designed to promote regular exchanges between the group and other artists at the Fringe Festival, a venue Stoodley has visited several times over the years.

“We had such a good experience at the Fringe that we wanted to see if we could bring some of that energy and variety back here,” she said.

Earlier this fall, for instance, Serious Play did a staged reading in Northampton of “Love and Information,” a play by British playwright Caryl Churchill that was also performed at the Fringe Festival.

Stoodley notes that Sheldon has been invited to return to the Fringe Festival next summer to perform for a month, up from the two-week run he had in 2016.

While she, Sheldon and Doty were in Edinburgh that summer, Stoodley said, they met the director of Campbell’s “Pulse” show and were invited to see it. Not only were they all knocked out by the performance, she said, but they were struck by its similarities to “The Red Guitar.”

“It was so alike, the way [Campbell] integrated all these different storytelling elements,” Stoodley said. “And the way she talked about discovering the kind of music that was really important to her — that’s a big part of John’s story, too.”

Campbell came to see one of Sheldon’s performances of “The Red Guitar” and was impressed, Stoodley said, and ever since then she’s been trying to find a way to bring the Scot to the Valley. “And now we’re finally done it,” she said.

Finding her way

Campbell, who was born in Edinburgh in 1965, initially studied classical viola, including at a conservatory in London, and later spent several years playing with a string orchestra in Great Britain.

But she was increasingly drawn to folk music, particularly after a 1991 trip to Cape Breton Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, which saw an influx of Scottish settlement in the 19th century. 

“She had played in an orchestra but she wanted to do more,” said Stoodley. “The trip to Cape Breton Island was kind of a turning point for her, and it’s an important part of her show.”

Campbell has since gone on to play both as a soloist and with a number of other folk groups, including The Cast, a duo she formed with her husband, David Francis, and she’s taught music and step dancing.

In addition, she has won a number of Scottish music awards such as Scots Singer of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year; she’s been credited in particular with making the viola a key part of Scottish traditional music.

“Pulse,” which debuted in 2015, has also been well received. Stoodley says the show uses just a few props — a chair, a music stand, and a tripod, from which hangs a stone pendulum — and is driven by Campbell’s energy, stories and movement.

One review from Campbell’s performance at the Fringe Festival noted that while her musicianship is a given, “her apparently effortless acting and stage presence may come as a surprise. Singing ... and movement are used to great effect, in a stamping, keening, but thoroughly likeable persona to counterbalance the virtuosic music and low-key projections.”

Reviewers at Fringe also said the show has its share of humor, whether it’s Campbell’s tale of how she drove her sister crazy with her new obsession with step dancing, or the way she uses her instruments to strange effect at time, like turning her bow into a telephone.

Stoodley says she and her husband will be hosting Campbell in their Leeds home for part of her week-long stay; she’ll also spend time with a friend of Stoodley’s who’s close to downtown Northampton. The two might be giving Campbell a tour of the bright lights of the city, or perhaps she’ll explore the city on her own.

“She’s pretty independent,” said Stoodley. “But we’re happy to have her here, whatever she’d like to do.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Serious Play presents Mairi Campbell’s “Pulse” Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. More information can be found at sheatheater.org; tickets are also available at brownpapertickets.com.

Campbell will join guitarist John Sheldon and Sheryl Stoodley and Robin Doty of Serious Play Sunday at 3 p.m. at the third floor studio at Northampton’s Community Arts Trust, 33 Hawley Street, for a discussion of music and theater. Free (donations welcome), but seating is limited; call (413) 588-7439 to reserve.