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Returning to Walden

Walden Pond in the 19th century

On 4th July 1845, shortly before his 27th birthday, Henry David Thoreau began to live in a hut he had built next to a lake in Walden Woods, on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. For the next two years and two months he attempted to live entirely by his own resources. Walden, his account of his ‘experiment in simple living’, is one of the most extraordinary and unclassifiable - as well as one of the most well-known but least-read - books ever written. 

I first came across it in 2006 when I was browsing at a charity book sale in Edinburgh. I came across a Penguin edition of the book from the 1940s with a lovely woodcut design on the front. The man selling it apologised that it was £2, explaining that this was because it was old. When I read it, I began to develop the idea of adapting it for performance. I asked Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc (who work collectively as Sans façon) to work with me - we had met at Cove Park, a residency centre in Argyll and Bute, and were looking for a project to collaborate on.  Over the next two years we developed the ideas for the production, always trying to reflect Thoreau’s quest to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”  

The production premiered in 2008 as a site-responsive performance at Stills in Edinburgh. The following year, we adapted it to tour by creating a specially-made oval bench made from American pine. This both created a performance space and seated a 40-strong audience. 

WaldenSet

(above: the bench in Gilmorehill Theatre, Glasgow in 2009)

I started thinking about the production again in 2022 when I saw Fruitmarket’s new space, the Warehouse, and felt it was an ideal place for the production. In preparation for reviving it 7 years since it was last performed, I began to think again about the background to the book. I knew about Thoreau’s relatively privileged background - his family had made money from its pencil-manufacturing business - and degree from Harvard. This privilege allowed him to spend two years living in the woods without having to worry too much about making ends meet. He was aware of this and knew that less-advantaged people generally went unnoticed by others from his background and class. Elise Lemire, in her book Black Walden - published since our original production - suggests that, because of the history of Walden Woods as a home to the disadvantaged, he was consciously siding with those less fortunate than he. His thinking was deeply influenced by Hinduism – he refers to the Bhagavad Gita in Walden - and Buddhism, and by Chinese philosophy. This was unusual for someone of his background in the 1840s, but Thoreau was quietly radical, and his writing on Civil Disobedience (a phrase he coined) was hugely influential on many activists, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, throughout the 20th century.

In coming back to Walden, we want both to celebrate Thoreau’s legacy - his radicalism and influence – but also to explore his paradoxes. He acknowledges the history of the land he occupied in the book, writing of “disturbing the ashes of unchronicled nations who lived under these heavens long before we did” when he digs the soil, but, despite being an active abolitionist, he barely mentions the community of around 15 formerly-enslaved people who had lived in the same woods within living memory.  

After reading Black Walden, I felt it was important to amplify the voices that are less present in Walden. The result of this was an open-call for artists who identified as being from the Global Majority to propose a response to Walden. The resulting project by Harvey Dimond takes its title from Thoreau’s description of slavery as having “so many keen and subtle masters”.  In his installation, Harvey will explore the subject of Black Ecologies in relation to Walden, and it will be exhibited alongside my adaptation at the Fruitmarket. 

I also decided to take a broader view of who the performer might be. When we developed the play, we always felt that the actor was not "playing Thoreau", but was someone speaking his words. The most important thing to me was that the actor was of a similar age to Thoreau (27-29 during his stay), but that otherwise what they really needed was a connection to the text and its themes. After an open call, I met a wonderful group of actors who all brought something unique to the text when they read it. I am delighted to be working with Shakara Rose Carter on the play, and am looking forward to starting work with her next week. We have already fascinating conversations about the book and about Thoreau and talked about the strong connections we both feel to the work.   

Book tickets

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Artist Development Opportunities in Scotland - Sector Meeting

Artist Development Opportunities in Scotland - Sector Meeting Space/Time 2018. Photo: Eoin Carey.

2.30pm-4.30pm, Monday 6 March
Main Hall, Summerhall or online
Tea, coffee and biscuits provided
Access or travel support available upon request

 

Magnetic North and Summerhall invite you to a meeting for organisations, collectives, and individuals who offer artist development opportunities in Scotland. The purpose of the gathering will be to come together and share planning, thinking and best practice across sectors and artforms. Artist development is a broad term which can be applied to any programmes, projects, or roles which give space for artists to develop their practice, focus on new work, or generate ideas.

We recognise that we are living through a very difficult time for the arts in Scotland - a time of funding cuts, rising costs, and lower audience numbers - and that we are still collectively and individually adjusting to and processing the effects of the pandemic and politics of the last few years. 

In this context, how can we continue to support artists, and freelancers, to the best of our abilities? How can we effectively make connections between all of our initiatives? How can we be aware of what each other is doing, work together, and support each other?

Magnetic North is a small independent theatre company that offers cross/multi-artform artist development and support opportunities, and as such we will be speaking from that perspective - but the invitation is open to anyone who might find this conversation relevant - organisations, collectives or individuals of any scale and from any art form who offer opportunities to artists - either by invite or open call. 

Summerhall – “One of the world’s great arts venues.” (Mark Cousins, The Guardian 2014) – is a venue for diverse programmes of visual and performing arts. It is a place for all kinds of events, parties, workshops, festivals, weddings and meetings. It is home to a varied community of creative artists and businesses, including a pub, café, brewery and distillery.

To RSVP please send an email with the subject line Artist Development Meeting to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with a note of whether you’d like to join in person at Summerhall or online. 

We want this gathering to be as open and inclusive as possible - so if you have any access requirements which you would like us to be aware of please let us know in your email.

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Opportunity: Artistic Assistant on 'Walden'

Walden-Pond-pic A 19th century photograph of Walden Pond

We are recruiting an Artistic Assistant to work for four weeks on a project at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh next month. The role will support the creative team for the revival of our production Walden, written and directed by Artistic Director Nicholas Bone, and the accompanying installation so many keen and subtle masters by Harvey Dimond.  

Full details are available here. The closing date is 10am on Monday 20th February.

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Recruiting: Artist Employee

We are recruiting for a new role of Artist Employee. The job is offered flexibly, as either a contract of employment or freelance, for the equivalent of 2 days a week (40% FTE) for one year. This can be worked flexibly according to the applicant’s pre-existing commitments or practice (for example four months full time, in designated windows throughout the year, or two days a week for a year), working flexibly according to a work plan that will be developed between the selected individual and the company.

Recruitment Pack

Applications are now closed.

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Artist News & Opportunities November 2022

Artist News & Opportunities November 2022 Walden Pond in Walden Pond State Reservation.

With the frost finally here, pour a mug of something warm and catch up on our artist announcements and opportunities to apply for as we head into winter:

Announcing the first artist selected for Coast to Coast

Magnetic North in partnership with Julian Forrester, and supported by the Craignish Trust, have selected artist Amy Beeston to develop an international collaboration focused around coasts, water and the impact of climate change.

Our goal for the collaborative project is to bring together three artists - one Scotland-based, two international - who can offer original insights into the impact of climate change on coasts and coastal waters. The three artists will then develop new work from the starting points uncovered through this project. 

Amy Beeston is an Orkney-based sound artist and audio researcher working within an ecological context, with a background in interdisciplinary, collaborative work across the arts and sciences. 

CALL OUT: Walden

In March 2023, we are reviving our adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden for performances in the Warehouse at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh.

We are casting for an actor with a playing age of late 20s/early 30s and of any gender or ethnicity to perform in this one-person show, which is designed to be performed in the round in non-theatre spaces.

Applications closed on 12 December 2022.

CALL OUT: SPACE / TIME artists’ residency

Space / Time is part of our Artist Development programme and is aimed at experienced artists. Over a hundred artists have taken part in the retreats since the first one in 2012. It is a group creative retreat for five experienced artists from any art form that asks the question “How can you continue to thrive as an artist?” 

The residency is led by Nicholas Bone and Alice McGrath. Participants are paid a fee of £550, unless they are employed by a Regularly Funded Organisation and are undertaking the retreat as part of their work for that organisation. This time around, the residency will take place at Cromarty Arts from 20-24 February 2023.

Applications closed on 19 December 2022.

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