Surprise twist in tale for Judy as she celebrates MBE for services to theatre

Judy Steel who has been awarded a MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours.
Judy Steel who has been awarded a MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

WRITER, director, producer, costumier: all are descriptions of Judy Steel, theatre group and festival founder – and now an MBE.

For the woman whose name crops up in many of the region’s creative enterprises, and has done for the last 30 years, was awarded the honour for her services to theatre in the Borders in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

“I’m absolutely flabbergasted. My first reaction was I don’t really deserve this, there are lots of people who are more worthy. But it’s very nice, once I got used to it.”

It all started with shows in Kirkhope village hall in Ettrickbridge. And it led to the founding of an award-winning theatre company, a youth theatre – and a large wardrobe of costumes.

“There had been an initiative from someone in the village to do a production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, but it fizzled out. I took it up and did the costumes, and then, because I had had a lot of youngsters involved, I thought it would be good to do something simply for them.

“The Scottish Youth Theatre at that time was sending down workshop leaders so they got really good drama workshops over the winter and we did shows, one involving the whole community and one for the youngsters.

“I just got more involved and I went on the board of the Traverse (Theatre in Edinburgh) and that got me interested in new writing.

“Also I was keen to see performances in the villages: that was very much what the Borders Festival (of Ballads and Legends which she started) was about – taking theatre to village halls, and that was how Rowan Tree was started up.

“Also I had a foster son who was keen to act and he went to the Scottish Youth Theatre. I saw a different kind of theatre. I had never been interested in amateur dramatics but it’s different, the whole youth and community theatre was beginning around then at the end of the 70s and early 80s.

“We had some fantastic people who came down to do workshops, such as Mark Saunders who is now a lecturer at RSAMD.”

Judy started the Borders Festivals of Ballads and Legends in the second half of the 1980s, commissioning and doing productions involving a mix of community and professional performers. The first one was built around James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd on whom she is an expert. She ran the next three biennial festivals.

Judy is also one of the founders of the Border Youth Theatre (BYT), which grew out of the festivals at a time when co-founder John Haswell, renowned for his work in theatre for young people in Scotland, was living in the Borders. The festivals were also responsible for the birth of Rowan Tree Theatre Company which Judy co-founded after a show booked for the first Borders Festival of Ballads and Legends dropped out at the last minute

And in the 1990s, Judy came up with the idea and went on to start, with others, Shakespeare at Traquair.

That it and the companies are still going strong gives her particular joy.

“That’s what I’m really proud of, actually. Maybe I saw a gap and an opportunity, and helped to get things going. If they are worth keeping going they shouldn’t depend on the person who was there at the beginning. They have to their own energy.”

Looking back over the decades of theatrical involvement, she says: “It’s allowed me to work with a lot of very creative and inspiring people over the years. I think we have produced work that audiences have enjoyed and, particularly the Rowan Tree over the last few years, we have been doing work to a really high professional standard.”

Rowan Tree’s The Lasses O, won a CATS (Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland) award in 2009 for the best use of music and sound.

Asked for favourites, Judy said: “One was a site-specific production which I collaborated on 20 years ago when we were renovating Aikwood – Maister Michael. It was before site-specific productions became the fashion and it was a mixture of professional and community cast, and it was just all rather magical.”

Of the touring shows, she plumps for Rowan Tree’s The Journey of Jeannie Deans, which she wrote.

“I think it worked well. It was very ambitious to do a treatment of the Heart of Midlothian that cut it down to three actors and a musician.” She lists three highlights over the last 30 years in local theatre: The Journey of Jeannie Deans being performed in the Scottish Parliament, the CATS award for The Lasses O and “going into another village hall and transforming it into a theatre for a night and bringing really good performances to small places”.

She’s gradually weaning herself off various commitments, recently leaving the board of Rowan Tree Theatre Company, though she did do the costumes for BYT’s Peter Pan last year, “which was great, a great challenge”.

“I really feel it’s time I retired. I’m letting myself shake down a bit and see what happens.”