She’s known to Scottish audiences for her role as PC Jane Mackay in Bafta-winning BBC series Scot Squad.
Now, instead of putting baddies behind bars, her latest creative venture has seen Fife actress Ashley Smith jumping through hoops – in more ways than one.
Cailleach, launched Wednesday September 1, is a film from Mull Theatre and Sonder Circus – a fledgling aerial arts company started by Ashley along with two fellow creatives.
And the premiere is a small miracle, as the film has been two years (and several thousand miles) in the making.
“Scot Squad is the only television thing I’ve ever done – my whole professional career for the last 14 years has actually been theatre,” Ashley, 36, explains, when asked what inspired her latest project.
“For about the last nine years I’ve trained on and off as a hobby aerialist. And in the summer of 2019, I was training as a place called Aerial Edge in Glasgow, where the co-founders of Sonder Circus, Laura Jamieson and Joanna Vymeris, were also training.
“They were keen to put some text into their aerial performance and see how that might work. And I’d been looking for ways, for some time, to try and combine theatre skills with my love of circus.
“That’s really where the project started.”
Artists brought the Cailleach to life
Deciding they would focus on Scottish myths and folklore, the trio developed ideas in their own time, snatching hours here and there when they could find space to practice together.
“It was important to us not to just tell a story and have some circus as part of it, but we were keen to have a story which felt like the circus would enhance it, and that it made sense to tell it in this way,” Ashley says.
The Cailleach, though she has many interpretations throughout Scottish and Irish legends, is most often an ancient goddess of winter and storms.
“Other folk stories tend to have a lovely beginning, middle and end, and they tend to have some kind of moral tale to tell. But the Cailleach’s ones didn’t,” says Ashley.
In some of the myths, the Cailleach, she is seen as one face of a two-faced being, with the other being the goddess Bride, of summer and fertility.
But in other tellings, the Cailleach and Bride battle for control over the seasons each year, and this was the story Ashley and her fellow Sonder Circus founders settled on for their first performance as a small company.
“The story of two fighting goddesses definitely makes sense as one to be told off the ground!” notes Ashley.
“We had Joanna represent Bride and Lauren represent the Cailleach. And it’s a year in the life of these goddesses, how they battle it out for control over the landscape and the seasons.”
Story spanned from Mull to New Zealand
But Bride and the Cailleach’s battle wasn’t the only one that the Sonder Circus founders had to fight.
Initially conceived as a live circus theatre piece, performed first to a sold-out audience at Aerial Edge and then brought in as entertainment to an aerial arts convention, the Cailleach was set to become Sonder Circus’ first touring performance.
But their Creative Scotland development funding came in just two days before national lockdown in 2020 – and the next several months saw Ashley stuck in Glasgow, Joanna locked down in London and Lauren stranded in New Zealand where she had gone on holiday.
Separated by distance, time zones and restrictions, the trio had to find an alternative use for the cash.
“Doing a film meant we could all film in our separate locations, but hopefully have some coherence across the landscapes,” Ashley explains.
She then worked to find a landscape in Scotland which could blend in with Lauren’s temporary home of Aotearoa in New Zealand, and settled on the Isle of Mull, which had a similar look and feel despite being halfway across the world.
But her solution was thwarted when, after arranging filming for January 2021, another lockdown was imposed in December.
Sonder Circus honoured the contracts of those they had hired – “it was the right thing to do” – but this left them with barely any money left from what was a tiny development budget to begin with.
Luckily, the fledgling company was given a boost by Mull Theatre.
Getting film off the ground was real circus
“Mull Theatre came and saved the day!” Ashley laughs, audibly grateful.
“They offered to give us the extra money we needed to make the film if they could come on board with co-producing it.
“And that was fantastic because it meant we had a well-established organisation to partner ourselves with, and it gave us a director (Beth Morton) as well.”
Beth Morton, associate director at Mull Theatre, welcomed the project, saying: “Cailleach has been such an exciting piece to create on many different levels.
“To partner and collaborate with Sonder Circus has been wonderful. And making work that fuses circus with theatre and film to tell such an inspirational story has been a special journey.
“The process has seen many challenges, with filming taking place in both Mull and New Zealand as well as what were quite physical rehearsals having to happen online, all in addition to setbacks to filming schedules due to the pandemic.
“However, the dedication of the entire team has been the driving force behind the work.”
Success in the air?
Now that their inaugural performance is out in the world for all to see after so many setbacks, what does Ashley think is next for Sonder Circus?
“It’s so hard to know, as with many things at the minute, what’s in store,” she muses, referring of course to the state of wider uncertainty which still lingers across the arts and entertainment industry in the wake of the pandemic.
“We have this film now and it’ll be screened over the next ten days. And we hope to then look at putting it into some film festivals.
“We still have a real affection for the live version of it, which is what we always wanted to make and to be able to tour across Scotland, so it may be that we revisit that idea at some point.
“But we would definitely like to create more pieces together and look for new opportunities and other stories which feel like they would suit being in the air.”
Cailleach is screening via Mull Theatre Online until Saturday September 11.