Art Talk with Robert Jack of National Theatre of Scotland's "Black Watch"
October 19, 2012
Robert Jack as "Sergeant" in the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch. Photo by Scott Suchman
"We can't just say, you know, 'Well, people should come see theater.' We have to make the best theater." --- Robert Jack
The National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch---a play by Gregory Burke about the participation of the legendary Scottish Black Watch regiment's in the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq---debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003. The multi-media theater piece is set both on the battlefield and in a bar where the former soldiers have gathered to talk to a journalist about their wartime experiences. Much of the text is taken from Burke's own interviews with Black Watch soldiers, and the dialogue, which is at once beautiful and brutal, heartbreaking and humorous, is punctuated with bursts of balletic movement, haunting military songs sung by the cast, and the plaintive sigh of bagpipes. As Steven Hoggett, the show's choreographer and associate director told the Washington Post in a recent interview, the creators of the show didn't expect Black Watch to flourish past the festival "so you might as well make the show of your lives, take every risk you want,.... We all had this attitude that we’d go all out and not worry about the consequence."
In the nine years since its debut, the play remains a powerful meditation on the soldier's life. Black Watch has continued to tour internationally despite the challenges of finding a performance space that can accomodate its unusual set-up and the physical demands the non-stop action places on the corps of actors. When the production was here in Washington, DC at the Shakespeare Theatre, the afternoon before the cast performed for an audience of U.S. military veterans, I spoke with Robert Jack who plays the dual roles of "Writer" and "Sergeant." Trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow, Jack's resume boasts an impressive list of credits in theater, television, and on radio, including Home: Caithness, Death of a Salesman, The Merchant of Venice, and The Seagull. Here are his thoughts on the artist's life, what it's like to be part of the Black Watch cast, and what gives Scottish theater its particular character.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
ROBERT JACK: That's a nice question, actually. I absolutely chose to do this. I did this straight from high school. When I was younger, I did lots of amateur dramatics and then in high school, did plays and did more amateur dramatics. And then, for me, it was a natural progression to go to drama school. It was a a bit of a no-brainer. I [thought] apparently you can do this as a career and so I went to drama school and came out three years later and realized then how difficult it was.
For me an artist’s life is about doing what creatively fulfills you. That's the start and stopping point for me because I think if you've got into this for money or fame, you are an idiot. And, I personally don't think about the arts like that. So it’s about fulfillment wherever that is, whatever you are pursuing at the time. For me, for the last ten years, it’s been [about] making interesting work, working with interesting people, and wanting theater to connect with people. I'm not sure how it is over here but certainly in Britain there's constant talk of theater audiences becoming smaller. When you see [theater] done, when it’s at its best, I think it’s an incredible art form and it’s something I love being involved in and trying to keep it alive.
NEA: You said you were involved in amateur dramatics to start. Is that your earliest memory of having an experience with the arts?
JACK: Maybe not my first experience but certainly one I remember very clearly is that when I was younger we used to go to a guy called---for whatever reason---the "Okie Dokie Man" who used to do these drama classes. And, because I was born in the northeast of Scotland, we did Macbeth…. Because I lived near Forres---Forres is obviously mentioned in the play--- we did a kind of tour along the east coast of places. And we went up on a hill and we read the witches scene on a hill. So I remember that and feeling very alive.
Then he took us to see a production of Woman in Black, which has been running forever in Britain. It’s a two-hander horror story, which I think they just turned into a film with Daniel Radcliffe. But the stage show---I was only about nine or 10---is the most terrifying thing I have ever seen. And I went to see it again when I was in drama school and I was equally terrified by it. And that's always fascinated me, not that I am a big horror film fan, but it’s a genre that's not done very often and being in a [theater] audience of 1,500 people all being terrified at the same time, there's something much more exciting than being in a cinema and that happening. So that was my first big, kind of [experience], it just felt electric.
NEA: The standard question is to ask who your influences are, but are there specific performances that have influenced you?
JACK: I look a lot at companies that work in Scotland. There's a theater company called Vanishing Point, and they have a number of shows and their work is very brave, very visual, also very story-based. They are a company that I … enjoy seeing because they are very experimental---whether the play works or not is not the be all and end all. [It's] the braveness of what they’ve tried to do. They've done plays in complete darkness, they have done plays without words, they have done plays where people are speaking but you can't hear what they are saying, and, you know, those kind of things I enjoy. I enjoy a kind of bravery and things that can only happen in a theater. There's things that cinema can do that theater can't do--- close ups and things like this. But then when you see [something] that can only exist in a theater happening, I just think it’s the most exciting kind of thing in the world.
I think a big one, not necessarily for my own performance, but as a performance I enjoyed, I went to see Fuerza Bruta, the Argentinean company…. I'm not entirely sure what was going on in the show, but for sheer spectacle---they had a massive paddling pool and hydraulics and rooms that disintegrated, and it’s not often you get to see something of that kind of scale work.
In the Scottish tradition of things, although I never saw a production of it, I think [an important work is] The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, which was a huge, seminal piece in Scotland that toured and became a hit. [It] was about the history of Scotland in 300 years, and it’s not similar to [Black Watch], but in the same way it relied on music and it used traditional Scottish ways. The whole play was based on the idea of a ceilidh [a traditional party] with a dance band and things like that. I think John [Tiffany, the director of Black Watch] talked in a few different places about the Scottish form of theater that is more than just a play; it is always bigger than the sum of its parts. I like that. I like the way that Scottish theater constantly just keeps shifting and they just use influences from everywhere that they can. Because if you can chuck them all on the stage, then why not?
NEA: Black Watch includes a significant amount of music and of dance. In that moment, for example, of the fight scene that turns into this whole choreographed piece. The marching in the finale was also very emotional, especially as it also became a kind of dancing. What do you think those elements brings to the storytelling?
JACK: The first time [Black Watch] was produced I saw it in Edinburgh at the [Edinburgh Fringe Festival] and I was very lucky to get a ticket. My flatmate at the time was a production manager on the show, and he came back to the flat and he said "Yea, I think I saw every critic in Scotland crying tonight so I would get your ticket now." So the next day I went and booked my ticket. For me, those moments, the songs and the movement sequences, I think it's about giving the audience space more than anything. I think it’s about giving them something that they understand and they can see, but not forcing them into making a decision about [what they’re seeing], or not imposing a view of it. And I remember that during the marching sequence when I was watching it, it was that build and that horrible thing that you know is coming and you can just feel it coming up, and, for me, I think it was about the space that they gave you with that music as well.… I think what this play does beautifully is it gives you these things and then maybe gives you a song or something where you can reflect on your own and for whatever reason, a lot of people are in the same place…. And the songs are beautiful and [Davey Anderson's] take on them is beautiful, very sparse. I think that’s what a lot of different countries do as well, but I think its something Scotland does very well, this kind of tinge of sadness even with happy songs. There's always a slight lament to it and I think that's what he's [done], made all these songs that were traditionally quite militaristic songs, he pulled out the sadness in them and the sadness of what these guys go through.
NEA: The sheer physicality of the show is amazing because when you are not on stage, you are clearly changing somewhere. How do you prepare for that, and how do you sustain it?
JACK: I think what we've discovered is everyone gets a slight rush of adrenalin when we finish the marching sequence [at the end of the show], the parade, and there is this kind of slightly heightened testosterone for whatever reason. You do leave a little bit kind of tingly, but also knackered, absolutely exhausted.
And the quick changes, I've never done as many quick changes as this. But the girls, Christina and Hannah, they are the wardrobe mistresses and they know it inside out. I had two weeks rehearsal and we came here and we teched the show. Literally, the first week I was just standing [there], and they knew when and where to take what off. That makes it very easy for someone like me and a few of the other guys that are coming into it. All those things are worked out, and [the crew] know where they are going and they know what goes where and it is very easy then for you to fit in and not panic with that. I think if everybody was doing it at the same time, trying to figure out what they were doing, it would just be chaos. But because there are maybe five or six of us that are new to it, their calmness kind of helps you just relax and go, “Ok, we know what we are doing.”
We had to do a lot of training too. It’s kind of infamous now in Scottish theater that with Black Watch, you do a two-hour workout every morning. I am not used to it, and I think quite a few people aren't used to it, but you have to do it, I think, to just be able to sustain that. Even with that we're still knackered when we reach the end. I think without [the daily exercise] we would just be puddles of men on stage when we finish.
NEA: In your case, since you’re playing two characters, a lot of times when you’re doing the costume change, you’re also doing a character change. How do you handle that as you don’t get to go off stage and have any mental space to transition?
JACK: I think it helps that the characters are so different. The first little while that you’re doing it you feel like, “I have no idea…I’m just going on, and I’ve got to try and say the first line and I’ve got to hope it’s the right character.” What helped was I did a show before this back in Glasgow… It's an Irish play called Stones in His Pockets [by Marie Jones] and it was me and another actor. We played eight characters each…. so sometimes you would be having conversations with yourself. So I think in a weird way that kind of helped for this…. But yeah, sometimes when you're just wanting to focus on getting in the right space, but you're going "But I need to get my shoes now, I’m going on!"---it's kind of terrifying as well.
NEA: One of the aspects that’s quite interesting about the script is that it's not anti-war, but it's also not pro-war. And it's not anti-military nor is it pro-military, which is really hard to do and really well done in this play. With that all being said, what do you want the audience to take away from the show?
JACK: I think at the heart of the entire piece is a group of friends, and I think it's seeing the human interactions that's more important for me…. We see only a tiny little bit of the political world that led to the invasion [of Iraq], and so I think the important thing is that people need to connect with them as humans rather than simply soldiers. People have their own ideas about whether they are pro-war or anti-war, and I think if you made a play that was boldly one or the other, the only people that are going to go and see that play are one group or the other. I think---like you said---what this play does beautifully is balances that. It says that, those two things aside, whether you are [for the war] or not, this was the real situation that a group of guys that love each other and look out for each other find themselves in…. And I think that's it: you can't know unless you were there. I think somebody says that in the play---he says it to me, so I must remember that line (laughter)---"You don’t understand but don't worry about it."
I've got a few friends that have been in earlier productions, and one of my friends Paul who played "Kenzie"---the new recruit guy---went to New York, he went everywhere, all over Australia, everywhere with it. I was like, “Where was your favorite place to play at?” And [he said] Glenrothes, which is where the Black Watch are from. He said it was just the most electrifying experience you could ever be in with actual guys from the Black Watch coming to see it. And yeah, of all the places he went in the world, that tiny wee town in Fife was his favorite place. He just said nothing compared to it…. I think a lot of the feedback from soldiers and stuff is about they feel that somebody's actually managed to say something a little bit about what they felt, and that's important.
NEA: We always like to ask artists what they see as the role of the artist in the community? And then conversely does the community have any responsibility to the artist?
JACK: It’s difficult because---is it about artistic freedom to say what you want to say, or are there times when you need to express something on behalf of the part of the community that maybe can't express it? As an actor, I think what I want is theater which is accessible to all and which the public wants to come to see as well. I think that's important as we can't just say, you know, "Well, people should come see theater." We have to make the best theater.
Black Watch was made for a three-week run at the Edinburgh festival. You can tell by the set and the way it's set up and how difficult it is for them to find venues it was never designed to tour. I think that's sometimes what's missing---shows are made to try and go tour, and you haven’t tested whether people want to come see the show, whether the show works. Because we're artists, of course we're going to make mistakes. No one wants to make a bad show, but sometimes, you will make a bad show. I think when we do make a good show that's when we have to be more savvy… about saying "right, well let's let everybody see it."
And for the communities, I think they have to feel that they have an investment in that. In Scotland, certainly, they pay our wages most of the time. I think there's a real issue in Scotland with people thinking that theater isn't for them, and I don’t know quite how to get over that. I think there's a number of things we can do…. It always amazes me that people say, “I don't like theater.” Well, why don't you like theater? “Well, I went to see a play and I didn't like it.” Well, if you go to see a film and it's rubbish, you don't come out going "I hate cinema." You go, "I didn't like that film." I think that's an issue for us to grapple with. I don't want to be a part of a dying art form. I've nothing against other art forms. We are somewhere in the middle: You have things like maybe opera and things like that which [have] very narrow audiences. I think they're just as important [as other disciplines], but it's going to take a real huge turnaround for them to increase and become popular, populist. Whereas I think theater is somewhere in the middle, and I think we've still got an opportunity to open back up to people and somehow make it [popular]. And that doesn't mean diluting it, that doesn't mean dumbing it down or anything. I think a show like Black Watch is proof that you can have a show that can connect with the man on the street and connect with intellectuals on the same subject with all the same words.
Black Watch will be touring in the U.S. through June 2013, making stops in Chicago (through October 21), Seattle, and San Francisco. Visit the website for more information.