There is a longstanding question of when you can actually call yourself a New Yorker. Do you have to be born in New York City to do so? Can you earn your New Yorker identity over time? If so, how many years until you are a New Yorker? One friend argued it was seven years because that’s how long cell-regeneration takes so you are a wholly new person after seven years. Or is being a New Yorker a state of mind? If you steal a taxi cab out from underneath someone or getting into a fight on the subway, does that qualify? I’ve always enjoyed the question and people’s responses to it because there is no simple answer. The complexity of the identity itself comes through in the constructed rules people make-up to define it.
The American artists, The TEAM, collaborated with the Scottish artists of the National Theatre of Scotland to create their new play with music called Anything That Gives Off Light which delves into this challenge of nailing down cultural identities in a world of slippery definitions, evolving histories and changing times.
For this show they focused on the question, “What does it mean to be Scottish?”—probing a concept that is no less complicated than that of labeling a New Yorker. From mythologizing questionable heroes to figuring out where the Scottish ending of stories lies to debating whether they are underdogs or losers, Anything That Gives Off Light toys with all shades of the Scottish and Scot-“ish” identity.
Brian (Brian Ferguson) has been working in London for a long time and did not come home to Scotland for the funeral of his Gran. Ian (Martin Donaghy), a close friend of Brian’s from childhood, had spent a lot of time with Gran and in Brian’s absence, gave her eulogy. Now that Brian has returned for a visit he and Ian agree to scatter Gran’s ashes and plan to head north to the Highlands. Together they set out to find the appropriate spot for the final resting place of this left-wing, politically active Scottish grandmother. Along for the ride is “Red” (Jessica Almasy) an American woman they meet in a bar who is on a quest of discovery of her own.
Using music and mostly their imaginations, they try to explain the meaning of the Scottish places they visit to Red and to do so they recreate scenes from the past—The Battle of Culloden, the Clearances, even the contemporary flight of many Scots elsewhere. They dig into Scottish failures, collective acts of Scottish forgetting, and the economic theories that have come to define their lives and institutions.
Ian and Brian fight their way through Scottish history and their own personal journeys to find there is no one narrative or one singular concept of Scottishness. For every proposed idea of something Scottish, an argument can be made for it being a construct that was never completely true—for instance, the appropriation of Highland culture is now considered Scottish, but would not have been so for their Lowland ancestors.
With song, soil, whisky and historic reenactments this trio sing, dance, and argue their way across time and space, with imagined jaunts to America included. Red shares her history of Appalachian hollers (and their Scottish ancestors) who faced economic hard times but also a deep connection to the land.
As someone who lives far from where she grew up which is even further from where her ancestors came from, I felt a kinship with the push and pull of what a cultural home means to these characters and the creative ways the show tries to demonstrate it.
With rousing fiddle-heavy tunes by The Bengsons, themes of being lost, getting lost and leaving are a frequent refrain (“I’m lost, lost. Every border I cross. I’m all fucked up”). Everything is tinged with a bit of sadness, frustration, and dreams of grandeur tempered by failures. But it is the gauzy dream-world of their storytelling where we can zip from West Virginia to Scotland that makes this adventure magical and messy. The labyrinthine format of the show is a fitting way to explore as complex a morass as identity. Nothing is fixed. Ideas morph with time and so too must our storytelling.
Anything That Gives Off Light let me ponder my place in Scotland. It was a comforting antidote to my growing homesickness late in the festival. There is solace in a story about a character trying to find his place to fit into, but realising that place is always changing shape. There can be no perfect puzzle piece for identity. When I am in Edinburgh, to others I am an American writing largely about British theatre in a place far from home. But I see myself as someone who has lived in New York City for twenty-two years and once stole a taxi cab out from under another person. A New Yorker, I think.