Quick & Dirty / Untaught to Shine

Through this project Stellar Quines will commission five emerging female theatre practitioners, or teams of practitioners, to create ten minute theatre performance pieces inspired by the women’s stories in the collections of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. These performances will be performed site-specific in the Gallery in May.


For some time now I have been frustrated by my own apathy. Feeling enfranchised but powerless, I can often be heard exclaiming, ‘But what can I do?’ at the end of frustrated rants.

So there was something about Caroline Norton that inspired me. Her portrait hangs in the Out of the Shadow exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

In 1855 Norton wrote a letter to Queen Victoria. She was already a renowned as a social reformer having campaigned for increased custody rights for mothers after her husband had forbidden her from seeing her own children. The campaign led to a law introducing custody rights for mothers in 1839.

Norton’s letter to the queen highlighted the hypocrisy of a female married woman being monarch of a country where married women were legally non-existent. Despite being estranged from her abusive husband, Norton had no legal power to divorce him and all her earnings and possessions were legally his property.

Norton’s letter, and accompanying long-running campaign, had influence. In 1857, women were given the right to divorce their husbands, and in 1870 women were given the right to keep their earnings. As a woman, Norton was not allowed to vote and she had very little legal status, but she worked hard to ensure she wasn’t powerless.  She did not entertain apathy.

So Norton’s action has prompted me to act. I have launched a project called ‘from her to her’ – a living archive of letters written from women to women.  My performance for Untaught to Shine is an extension of this new project. A chance to celebrate Norton’s activism, to celebrate the plethora of excellent female role models past and present, to prompt, challenge and laud women with influence. It is a call to action, a farewell to apathy.

To find out more about ‘from her to her’, and to contribute a letter to the project, please visit 





A project which is women-focussed, promoting women on stage and women’s stories. A project which allows me to be writer and performer. A project which lets me collaborate closely with one of my closest creative buddies. A project which allows me to use my neologism collabormates with impunity and not a little pride (shut up, haters). A project which is based in a gallery and involves the use of archives and art historical research. A project using, quite casually, Scots. That is what this project is.

‘Surely,’ you cry, ‘this is too representative of Ishbel’s deepest concerns and passions to be a real project – it must be science fiction.’ No, I tell you, it is not.


After that enormous set-up, I think that Untaught to Shine might forever be called ART FACT somewhere in my heart.

A couple of years ago, when Stellar Quines sent out a questionnaire on women in Scottish theatre, I filled it out with a hooray in my heart. I’d say that about 23% of my conversations over the last four years have been about women on stage and film, whether we value women’s stories. It’s a real joy, then, to be involved in part of the outcome of the research that Stellar Quines commissioned back in 2010. I am working in partnership with Vanessa Coffey on a 10 minute piece for Untaught to Shine.

Vanessa and I trained together at that Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and have worked together a couple of times since then. We’ve had great fun putting together our idea for our slot. We decided to focus on a calotype of two fishwives by Hill and Adamson, those renowned early pioneers of photography in Scotland. The men took dozens of images of the fishing community in Newhaven. The fisherfolk there were regarded not only as distinctively picturesque, but they were seen as a model of utopian, working village life, in stark contrast to the privations and degredations of life in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

What particularly interested Vanessa and me about the women was the tradition of ‘chumming’, which they seemed to fall into. In Newhaven, from young childhood, two members of the same sex would pair off as partners for life. The first woman to marry would have the other as her bridesmaid, they worked beside each other, and they would walk the long way to Edinburgh together (carrying a hundredweight of fish on their backs – that’s eight stone – attached by a strap across their forehead). They chummed for company and for safety. They would support each other in times of joy and need. We wanted to explore that powerful model of female friendship and see how it compares to modern working women’s relationships.

Though we trained together in acting, Vanessa’s work since we graduated has focussed on the physical, with her own company merging verbatim theatre and dance, while my work has been more with words and poetry. It’s nice to feel, as we discuss female support historically and in our lives, that we are chumming each other with our different skills to make something neither of us could do alone. And that’s ART FACT.

Stellar Quines in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland is pleased to announce, Untaught to Shine, a new project for emerging theatre practitioners.

Untaught to Shine has been created by Stellar Quines in response to the findings of Calm Down Dear the company’s recent research into gender inequality in Scottish theatre.  This research identified a need for more opportunities for emerging female theatre practitioners.

Working in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland, Stellar Quines will place five practitioners (or teams of practitioners) into the Scottish National Portrait Gallery where they will create new pieces of theatre inspired by the women’s stories within the collection. This includes the exhibition Out of the Shadow which represents women from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries who were unusual in their achievements at a time when most enjoyed few rights and freedoms – women who, like Isabella Ewing who features in this exhibition, were ‘untaught to shine’.

The aim of the project is for participants to achieve a short piece of high profile, site-specific theatre, self-produced from page to stage quickly and with maximum impact.

Join Stellar Quines for a journey around the gallery to experience all of the Untaught to Shine performances on Thursday 8 & Friday 9 May at 7.30pm. Alternatively look out for individual pop up performances between 2pm and 3pm on Friday 9 May. Details on how to book tickets will be available shortly.

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