McLuckie's Line: A Love Letter to Scottish Theatre
The Skinny talks to playwright Martin Travers and actor Martin Docherty about the upcoming premiere of their one-man show McLuckie’s Line, acting, and the class divide in Scottish theatre
In 2015, the Scottish actor Brian Cox was interviewed in The Stage, and lamented the lack of opportunities for working class actors available today, saying: “For someone like me, starting now would have been virtually impossible.” In 2015, the Scottish actor Martin Docherty and the Scottish playwright Martin Travers read the article, and decided to act.
“Reading the Brian Cox interview galvanised us,” begins Travers. “When we read it, we knew we had to write and put on McLuckie's Line to give working class actors and acting a voice again. But like all good plays we knew it had to be entertaining – it’s funny, we've made sure of that. Will there be working class actors, playwrights and directors in five years? If things keep going the way they are going I really doubt it.”
For Docherty, who like Cox and Travers comes from a working-class background, the interview was a stark reminder of how the industry had changed since he finished his (then fully-funded) Acting Diploma at the RSAMD (now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in 1997.
“I realised how difficult it had become, and I think, more importantly, the working class get slightly marginalised. The business is the business, there’s no rules, anything can happen for any reason, that’s how it is.”
Their piece, McLuckie’s Line, a self-funded one man show, follows actor Lawrence McLuckie (played by Docherty) as he sits alone in a hospital corridor. A compulsive gambler recently diagnosed with cancer, he starts talking about his life as an actor, while awaiting a phone call from his agent, in what Docherty explains is a love letter to acting.
“It was basically the actor is becoming a bit of an endangered species, and becoming more and more marginalised, I think. I’ve been working for 21 years since I graduated, Martin has been in it a lot longer, so yeah, it’s a bit of an homage to say that Scottish actors and Scottish acting are fantastic.”
“Audiences love actors,” continues Travers, “That's why they go to theatre. Of course, the story is really important, and the direction and theatre design play a massive part in the experience people get but really they go to see actors' blood, sweat, laughter and tears. I'm sure most people think actors are paid well, but generally they aren't.”
In the story, the blood, sweat and tears flow from McLuckie’s monologue as his memories and emotions start to catch up with him. Dealing with his diagnosis, and the prospect of losing his career, opens the floodgates and unleashes stories and feelings he had long kept locked away.
“Men bottle everything up – it comes out in anger or depression or physical illness. McLuckie is at the end of his tether mentally and physically – that makes for great drama; a character people will care about,” explains Travers.
For an hour, this play reveals the reality of an actor’s working life, from the ups and downs, to the heartbreaks and the successes, McLuckie’s past, present and future all have one common theme: uncertainty, something with which every actor is familiar.
“Actors are lucky if they work six months of the year,” explains Travers. “The play opens up the world of an actor as he struggles with himself and coping with not working. This will ring true to every actor who ever acted. I'm not sure how much audiences realise the mental strength and grind that goes into giving a brilliant performance night after night.”
“So, the play is a love letter in the sense that is sings actors' praises – not just for their time on stage but the sacrifices they make in their lives to keep acting. Actors are brilliant – I'm in awe of them.”
The acting business, as Docherty explains, is by nature sporadic, with the number of opportunities available often depending on location. After graduating in 1997, Docherty secured an agent and moved to London for six years, where, as he puts it, he became a “very good barman” but “not a particularly successful actor.
“In London, you’ve got generated business, but here it tends to be sporadic… not like feast and famine, it’s like peaks and troughs, but I’ve been doing this for 21 years, I’m sort of used to it,” he explains.
If the unpredictability of work is difficult, the rate of pay is often less than expected, and many actors and other theatre creatives often get by on very little. “Most theatre actors can make about £15,000 in a good year,” continues Travers. “Most playwrights make a lot less than that and freelance directors scrape by on the breadline. It’s our cultural responsibility to allow them to make more work – to learn how to get better at what they do. To entertain better. To connect with people on a deeper level. I think audiences deserve that. The fear is that theatre becomes a middle class play thing like it was before the 1960s.”
Travers’ fear of theatre becoming more elitist and less inclusive is something that both men have noticed over time. A class divide has emerged in Scottish theatre audiences and actors, where the working class have been marginalised and not as well represented as they were before. For Travers, a lack of funding and an unwillingness to support newer work in some venues has led to programmers choosing more well-known, ‘safer’ work.
“I think after the crash and all the funding cuts venues (especially council-run venues) are frightened to put work on stages that isn't easily pigeon-holed. Tribute acts, songs from musicals and Glesga comedies seem to be programmed more and more. I think there is a place for all of these shows but new plays, even new plays that are funny but with a darkness in them like McLuckie's Line, aren't given the support,” explains Travers.
“It’s not that audiences won't enjoy them – they don't seem to get the chance to any more. In the 1970s to early 2000s there was more choice. More touring work with a bit more meaning – a bit more bite." This desire to have more choice in theatre shows will not only benefit the actors, by giving them more diverse roles, but also help make the theatre more accessible to those that might not normally choose to go.
“What we’re trying to do,” begins Docherty, “is get people that go to the Pavilion to come and see our little theatre show. People that would go to the Pavilion widens up the audience. So, that’s kind of what our aim was, as well as, put on a good play.”
This inclusivity is something that Travers is keen to highlight. “The most rewarding part has been feeling we have given every working-class actor a voice on stage that lets the world know that if we don't start looking after them properly we'll lose them from the craft."
McLuckie’s Line, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 25-28 Apr
£1 from every ticket will be donated to MacMillan Cancer Support