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Bringing the Community Together - Audio Theatre Production

Bessie Dunlop Audio Theatre Production
Bessie Dunlop the Witch o Dalry

Bessie Dunlop, the Witch of Dalry, is one of The Grey Hills' largest productions in terms of cast size, with just under 40 people participating. The play was written by playwright John Hodgart originally for a school performance when he was an English teacher in Garnock. He needed a production that included all the children to have a part in the play. Years later, the play was used for an adult reading club in Ardrossan. The idea came about for the production to be brought to life as an audio production recorded live at the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine, Ayrshire. We talk to John about the journey and find out more about Bessie and the true story of the Witch of Dalry.

How did you learn about the real life Bessie Dunlop and come to write about her? Bessie has been a part of my life for a long time. My two aunts filled two bottles of water from a spring in Monk Castle, which is mentioned in the story of when she first met her spirit, at my gran's house in Dalry. My mum's family name is Bessie, and people in the area would often refer to it as the name of the witch. Years later, another aunt had an old copy of a Victorian book of Ayrshire tales and legends by William Robertson, which included a chapter based on Bessie and her story. This information was derived from Sir Walter Scott's "Witchcraft and Demonology," where the details of her court case were found. Ten years later, as a teacher, I decided to create a play based on Ayrshire or Garnock Valley topics. This is when I started gathering more information and ideas for scenes and songs, eventually growing it into a drama production in 1977.

What made you pick Bessie?

The story is powerful and raises unanswered questions about what did and didn't happen and what lies behind the story. There were many children involved in the production, which is why there are so many characters taking part.

Why do you think Bessie is relevant today from all those years ago?

She was an extraordinary woman; she had a young family and was gifted as a "wise woman" herbalist. In all her attempts to help people, she always seemed willing to assist in any way she could. In many ways, she reminded me of my mum and my family. Even though she was a figure from years ago, she was a victim of ideology and insanity.

How did the community audio theatre production of the play come about?

The town of Dalry recently got a new bypass. The local community group, Bypass Arts, wanted to place a piece of artwork near the bypass to share the story of Bessie within the town. Bessie is a historical figure that unites the town, highlights existing places, and allows tourists to visit them. The group aimed to inform the town about its history and collaborated with John to bring this project to life.

Why did you want the production to become Audio Theatre?

It's been rewritten over the years as a teacher, and a new addition for recent years. Each time, I really wanted it to be a live show, but I didn't have any connection with performers. Like many, I was busy with family life. When I joined the adult reading club, it rekindled the love of seeing it performed. It's an Ayrshire story, a local, universal story of female suffering. A real production, and the cast size was always going to be an issue for the show. So, having it as an audio production meant that it was more accessible to a world audience. It could also be used for other things, such as a walking guide in Dalry where the play is being used with a digital map to listen to the production and visit locations within the play.

With a cast of 39 how did you organise the production?

We collaborated with Grey Hill to produce an audio production and hired four professional actors, leaving the rest of the cast as community members. It was challenging, as many people in the town are shy, but we managed to bring everyone together by working with various local groups, such as the Beith Drama Club. Mark Thompson directed the play, and the production was casted and supported by them, along with rehearsals in church halls and spaces across the town. The entire production was completed in six weeks. The biggest challenge was mastering the oldest Scots language, Ayrshire Scots, which is no longer in use. This language was spoken at the time the play is set in and is not commonly featured in theatre productions, with the exception of content by Robert Burns.

Audio Theatre Production - Bessie Dunlop author
John Hodgart

From a community perspective, it was a fantastic experience to bring people together to rehearse in church halls and pubs. By the second rehearsal, we all knew each other, and it was one of the few occasions that united the community to share this true story with the wider world. When we went to the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine to record the production, most of us were nervous. However, when we finished, the cast was buzzing and proud of their participation.

For John, many of the cast were former pupils, and teaching and supporting these individuals as they grappled with the text was a source of pride. Bringing something to life off the page so that it lives again was immensely enjoyable, and an experience that I won't forget.

What Happened after the recording?

The play was produced and distributed online via The Grey Hill and was sold internationally as part of the retail agreement with the organisation. In the UK, the play reached the top 10 audio dramas on Amazon, and it was the only independent production competing against the BBC and LATW. John took his play on tour to independent bookshops, holding discussions about the history of Bessie, and it was featured in local and national press. The play is available internationally and also through The Grey Hill's theatre partners, making it the perfect fit for theatre lovers.

The play features on the website Places that we know. A 31.5km trail allowing tourists to visit historic places from the play whilst listening to the production.

Bessie Dunlop Witch o Dalry is available via our theatre partners:


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