Quiet Defiance: the Influence of Margaret Tait
In 2018 the GMB Memorial Lecture was given by writer, actor and director Gerda Stevenson. Held in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness during the centenary celebration of Margaret Tait (1918-1999), it explored the multifaceted and distinctive creativity of this highly individual film maker and poet.
Gerda Stevenson first met Margaret Tait before the filming of Blue Black Permanent (1992) in Orkney and Edinburgh. It was the first feature film to be made by a Scottish woman and would be Tait’s only feature film. The director took her to her studio in the former Orquil Church in Rendall, which she named Ancona Films after the street in Rome where she had studied film-making at Centro Sperimentale di Photografia. The studio was filled with the accumulation of Tait’s work, stacks of tins containing reels of 16mm film, notebooks and pencils, paper, paint and brushes. Gerda took in her host’s directness and privacy, and, leaving the place with copies of Margaret Tait’s five books — three collections of poetry and two of short stories — her generosity and wish to share her work too.
“As I got to know Margaret, while we worked on Blue Black Permanent,” the actor would later write, “I discovered her great warmth, and her many contradictions. She was passionate and cool, mistrusting and giving, explicit in her judgement, yet loved ambiguity. Her humour was wicked — she loathed sentimentality and pretension, both of which abound in the film industry.”
Gerda also considered Tait’s impact on a younger generation of artists — among them Kate Davis, recipient of the Margaret Tait Award in 2016, which culminated in the world première of her commissioned film Charity at Glasgow Film Festival 2017. Davis had mentioned particularly poems from The Hen and the Bees (1960), entitled “Queen on a Pedestal”, and “The Queen and All the Children” as having informed this work.
“I did the voice over for [Charity], and Kate’s specific idea was that my voice should be in the character of Greta, the character I played in Blue Black Permanent. I couldn’t understand, initially, what Kate was getting at, but I think what she wanted was the tone of a woman who, like Greta, is absorbed in and conflicted by her domestic role as a new mother. I had to trust Kate, rather in the same way I had to trust Margaret – they are filmmakers with a vision that they don’t necessarily communicate verbally as directors to their actors — they achieve it by the act of demanding trust, and creating it . . .” Gerda Stevenson, 2018
The Lecture included readings from Margaret Tait’s poetry and prose, and excerpts from her films in the Pier Arts Centre Collection.
Gerda Stevenson is an actor, writer, director, and singer/songwriter. She trained at RADA and has worked on stage, tv, radio and film throughout Britain and abroad. Acting credits include Braveheart, the title role in Edward Morgan’s Phaedra, and a BAFTA Best Film Actress award for her role in Margaret Tait’s Blue Black Permanent.
She was Associate Director of Communicado Theatre Company for 12 years and founded Stellar Quines, Scotland’s leading women’s theatre company. She writes drama for radio and her stage play Federer versus Murray (shortlisted for the 2010 London Fringe Theatre Writing Award and runner-up for the Best Scottish Contribution to Drama on the Edinburgh Fringe, 2011), toured to New York in 2012, where it was published by the Salmagundi. Her libretto for Dee Isaacs’ opera, a contemporary re-telling of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was commissioned and produced by the University of Edinburgh in 2017.
Two poetry collections have been published, If This Were Real (Smokestack Books, 2013) and Quines: Poems in tribute to women of Scotland (Luath Press, 2018).