Julia Interviews The Creator of ‘The Chess Game’

–          So to start us off Ian, how did you begin writing musicals?

I am a music teacher and I was always interested in composition, musical composition, so it was something that I did. When I went to school I just tended to write things for children at school and that’s how ‘The Chess Game’ came about.

–          When and how did you become involved with FCT?

That was in 1985 and I had done a series of programs for the BBC which Dougie Shearer heard so he phoned me up and I came across and they decided that they would do ‘The Chess Game’, having heard it on the radio.

–          Why did you decide to write ‘The Chess Game’?

I like doing music that has a message; you have to feel something about what you do. At the time a lot of popular music – and I really like pop music – seemed very vapid and empty, so this was an excuse to do something that seemed a bit more serious. I just thought of a musical based around a game of chess.

–          Can you describe what ‘The Chess Game’ is about and talk us through the symbols you decided to use to represent different people in society?

It is an allegory, in other words, the black pieces and the white pieces are representative of any two sides in any war. So, for example, the rebels in Libya and Colonel Gaddafi’s soldiers. The whole point of the chess game is that it shows how – I hope in a reasonably simple way – how battles are formed and the end result of them all. It really annoys me that all the people who start the battles are usually there at the end and all the other people, the civilians, end up dead. That is something I feel strongly about. I see the Pawns in ‘The Chess Game’ as being the citizens.

–          Are any of the characters in the musical based on real people? Did you have anyone in mind when you were creating?

No actually, quite often the characters are almost like stage caricatures. Like the French vamp as the Black Queen, at that time, there was an upper class so the two Rooks, Bob and Bertie, struck me to be from somewhere a bit posh. The Knights are just the media. They weren’t given any strong media characters but nowadays we are more aware of people in the media so they could have been given different characters. But the way they speak – in that strange way – is to represent the media.  

–           Pawns 1 & 2 are really the heroes in the musical and they set out to question the war that forms before them. Do you think that is the way people in today’s society should behave?

 I think it is the right way. You should always question authority, so to me that is what they are doing. They are questioning authority. They are kind of like Romeo and Juliet type characters.

–          The impression I get from ‘The Chess Game’ is that to begin with it appears to be guidance on how people should constantly question the reasons and motives of people in power and that that’s the correct way to behave – but then the twist is that even the Pawns who do ask questions and believe that everyone’s voice should be heard end up being sent to Hell and the whole journey starts again. Was there meant to be this confusion – and what kind of message were you trying to get across by writing it this way?

The point of it was to leave Pawn 3 alone. In other words, her character comes to the fore. She is the only person with a clear conscience – she has never, ever done anyone any harm. But Pawn 1 & 2 still plan to do other people harm, even though they are the rebels, they are human, so they end up in Hell. It is just part of the story.

–          In the musical the Knights are a symbol for the media, and as someone who hopes to pursue a career in journalism I’d personally like to ask you if you think that the world would be better off without media?

Not at all, no individual people in the media, just the powers who get a hold of it. For example television stations in different countries are always the first target to suffer during war. The television station can be used to spout forth your ideas and tell everybody what’s happening. The media has a huge part to play, so I just thought of how a game of chess is laid out. The Bishops were obvious, the Rooks as well, and that left the Knights to be the media.  

–          Are you a religious person at all?


–          I wanted to ask that question because in the musical the bishops are portrayed as being fraudsters. So I wondered if there was a particular reason behind that?

Simply because I am terribly aware of religion. For example when I was growing up you would read about religion, like the Beatles going off to India to the Maharishi. I don’t have anything against religion, nothing at all, but it is the way people exploit and manipulate it. So, the likes of the Hell Fire Preachers that you see in the States, who use television channels to take money off people. It is quite brutal. Then there is the huge rift with Al-Qaeda just now, and it doesn’t portray Muslims the way they really are. People abuse religion to manipulate certain other people. Likewise the same thing has happened with George W. Bush – Christians are manipulated as well.

–          Which chess piece do you consider yourself to be most like?

A Pawn. Probably the least important Pawn. Simply because that is what I am – I am just an average Joe.

–          The music in the show is very well written and adventurous and there are so many different styles, what is your favourite song? Why?

I don’t really have a favourite song. I think at the time I was quite pleased with ‘It’s Very Hard’ a nice, straightforward song.

–          What influenced you in terms of music for the show?

Well, just the music I listened to at the time. So one of the things that influenced me, a little bit, is probably Bob Marley. There is a wee bit of reggae in it and it is not even anything like Bob Marley – just that it is an off-beat, hits the 2nd beat and the 4th beat of the bar. Bach inspired me; the show starts with a fugue – which is a stupid thing to do for a show because it is quite difficult to perform. So really, the pop music of the day and Bach.

–          What advice would you give someone who wanted to write a musical?

Just do it. I didn’t have any hardships really, but I suppose I was earning anyway. I think you should just get out there and write. It is like anything else if you don’t practise it, you’ll lose it. So you’ve got to keep writing. Now I am retired I will write more I hope.

–          Do you believe that ‘The Chess Game’ is a good representation of life?

Well, I hope so.

–          Lastly, just a silly question that I would love to know the answer to, why did you make the vampy, Black Queen French? Have you had some bad experiences in France?

A ‘vamp’ to me is a French lady. The Black Queen has got a little bit of sexual allure about her. There is something French in that. She is going round the male Pawns, alluring them, so I think a French accent was most appropriate. I couldn’t think of another one that would work as well.

Let Me Introduce ‘The Chess Game’ …

Hello there, everyone! I am Julia Carstairs (pictured below – eek!) – a devoted FCTer – and I will be giving you all the behind-the-scenes gossip from ‘The Chess Game’ rehearsals. I will keep you posted with the latest FCT updates….but I’ll also be giving you a personal insight to our jolly cast! Hopefully I will manage some interviews – I am especially keen to interview Ian Macdonald and find out what inspired him to write ‘The Chess Game’. There are many levels to this show so it would be great to develop a better understanding of the reasons behind the characters and plot, and from who better than the creator!

Rehearsals have been going very well – we have learnt almost all of the songs in Act 1, and Kirsty Shaw has choreographed a wonderfully quirky piece of movement for one of the numbers. Ian said he was ‘impressed’ with how quickly the cast had picked up the music (GREAT RESULT!) – and I can personally tell you that a few of the songs are actually very tricky! Some of these notes I didn’t even know existed! The cast are having great fun developing their characters – and I’ll tell you there is a wonderful mix of characters to behold – French Queens, Yogi Bishops and Oh-So-Posh Knights!

The biggest challenge for the cast will be understanding the darker messages involved in the production and portraying them effectively. The musical has a lot to offer intellectually and raises several potent and serious questions about today’s society – a lot of the more jazzy songs are full of tongue-in-cheek subtext so the cast will have to develop their sense of irony. We will be helped along the way with the brilliant direction of Vic Laing and this show will be one that is NOT to be missed!

Photograph-time came upon us last weekend, and as you can see the results were mostly hilarious! Posing with a chess piece – in a creative way – is decidedly difficult! Two of my favourite snaps came from the lead pawns; Hayley Scott

and Liam Thomson (below).

So if you are planning on seeing a show in this years Fringe – make it FCT’s ‘The Chess Game’! It will be excellent, thought-provoking and memorable!

Haha…that was so biased…but oh well… (expect a lot of this from me – I am a big FCT geek!)



Julia (Black Queen)

The Chess Game in full fling

Rehearsals are well under way for the latest FCT extravaganza.  It will be our 33rd consecutive Festival Fringe production (our 64th producton in total) and is a newly updated reprise of the show we put on in 1985.

It was written by our great friend Ian MacDonald who returns to MD the show which will be directed by Vic Laing; who will need a big break in September after staging Annie and The Chess Game back to back. (Oh yes, and he has a day job too!)

Kirsty Shaw is helping out with choreography along with Paddy Hornig; so two more past cast members make their production/direction team debuts.

Katy Barry is assisting Ian with Vocal Coaching.

Ian was a big favourite with FCT audiences when he wrote a trio of fantastic shows (The Chess Game in 1985, Chances in 1986 and Angel in 1987).

The Chess Game is a fast moving musical show with several very stirring numbers.  Who can forget Maya Stewart’s rendition of I hear the Bell Toll as the Silly Pawn in 2009’s 30th anniversary show, Ya Beauty.

It uses Chess as an allegory for the world we live in today, with each piece representing different power brokers in today’s society; the military, the church, the media and the monarchy with the poor old pawns merely the footsoldiers and the victims of poor (even corrupt, and certainly self interested) decision making by the powers that be.

Or are they….?