Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dear Scotland...

It must be a long time since I was in rehearsal as a writer. I'd forgotten the pleasure of it.

What happens is that I put so much into the words I write. Every bit of sensibility. Every ounce of skill.

It's never enough, of course. The words lie dead on the page.

But give them to a good actor (Sally Reid), working with a good director (Catrin Evans), and this magic happens.

Because they bring all their skill and their sensibilities too, and they breathe life into it.

And then suddenly the thing has a shape and a depth of feeling I sort of hoped it might have, and didn't know for sure.

Maybe I liked this process particularly because it is only a five minute monologue, and so the whole thing is manageable in the way a full length play never quite has the time to become.

It's still complicated enough seeing past the actor's uncertainties as she grapples with the unfamiliar text; and trying to see past my own self doubts and insecurities as I listen to an all too familiar one.

When I read it aloud early this week it came out at six minutes twenty seconds; when Sally read it yesterday it was the same.

But the piece is supposed to be five minutes: and looking at the schedule for the promenade performances round the National Portrait Gallery I could see that is, exactly, how long it needs to be.

Cutting one minute twenty seconds out of a five minute performance is one of those crazy challenges writing for radio has taught me to relish.

It's like pruning away extraneous foliage from a bush that's grown too shaggy: and what pleasure in seeing the structure's clear lines emerging from it.

I have a strange old-fashioned belief in the power of words. Especially spoken words. I believe they can do good in the world; I know they can do harm. So I worry a bit each time I see actors learning my lines; I hope they'll be OK.

Sally has to perform the piece ten times on the evenings audiences do Route A round the Gallery; I feel responsible for the experience she has.

But I've a feeling she'll be fine. And the audience, too.

I wrote the piece sitting in front of the picture in the gallery, and letting the subject speak to me. A lovely thing to do, in front of so beautiful a picture. A lovely thing watching Sally perform in front of even a small reproduction was to suddenly understand how important the interaction will be between her and the picture; and I can see, suddenly, how good an experience that could be for the audience to witness too.

It's a multiple portrait, and it's not altogether clear at first who the subject is. I hadn't quite intended this, but I loved the moment in rehearsal yesterday where it suddenly does become clear. And that's the main reason I don't want to tell you who it is quite yet.

But I'm aware, as I write this, that it truly is a love letter to Scotland, of a kind that, had she lived, my late partner Sue Innes would have loved to write.

And I hope that reality imitates art, and the wish at the end comes true.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Feeling happy in The Albemarle Sketchbook

This is me onstage in the Courtyard Theatre of The West Yorkshire Playhouse last Sunday.

I’m with the rest of the cast of Chris Goode’s “The Albemarle Sketchbook” and we’ve just done our first run on stage. I’m feeling happy, I think we all are, because the run has gone well and we’re going to perform the show in a couple of hours and we know it’s going to be something special.

And it was.

I’m wearing a print frock of a kind I wouldn’t normally wear because I’m playing Chris’s mother. And it’s good we’re all feeling happy because this is a show about happiness. It’s inspired by a happy dream Chris once had and it’s a lovely, tender, thoughtful piece of work that in its own very special and quiet kind of way is profoundly revolutionary.

I feel especially happy because, without being rude to all the lovely studio theatres I’ve performed in, this is a real grown up theatre and this is the first time I’ve performed on a grown-up stage.

And that makes me happy because so many years ago I discovered theatre by acting in plays, and playing women’s parts, and I loved it. I felt I completely belonged and I didn’t feel shy and frightened any more.

And that was when I finally understood about all the feelings of strangeness and not belonging to my own body and wanting to play with girl’s toys and wanting to wear girl’s clothes and knew I wanted to be a girl.

And knew that was utterly impossible, because we’re talking fifty years ago and all I knew about men in women’s clothes were the dames in the pantomime, and how ridiculous they were, and the young man in “Psycho” and how sick and evil he was, and I felt I must be sick and evil and ridiculous all at once and knew I couldn’t tell anybody and the only thing I could do was try my very best to be normal.

And that didn’t work out very well, it never does, and I did want to keep on acting but when I went for boy’s parts I was stiff and shy and embarrassed and completely hopeless and that is why I have spent most of my adult life absolutely convinced that acting and performing were things I absolutely could not do and they were completely not for me.

But theatre obviously was. There was something absolutely compelling about it; because even though theatre had become a place of terror and shame I was totally drawn to it, in spite of myself, and it became the subject of my Phd and eventually, 15 years later, by a serious of outrageous accidents, writing for it became my profession.

And even though looking back on it it seems clear that becoming a playwright was probably not my true path, in a way, but a response to blockage, I am so proud I did it and so proud of what I achieved.

Working in theatre has been so important to my learning to accept and value myself as a transwoman and all along the way re-discovering myself as a performer has been incredibly important to my transition. 

It’s no coincidence that the first show that really made me visible as a performer, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN was the first show that happened after my surgery.

And then the whole process went a stage further last October when Chris Goode asked me to take part in the development process for his “Albemarle” and I remember being quite nervous about it, because although I’ve taken part in quite a few development processes as a writer I’d never done so as a performer and had no idea, really, as to whether or not I could.

But I could, and ever since then seem to have been performing more and more. And it still amazes me, somehow, that I can do it.

A month ago I was playing the lead in a film, “High Heels Aren’t Compulsory”, by Lock Up Your Daughters productions, and I remember the last morning I had to walk down a corridor towards a door with my name on it, Caroline. I was playing a post transition transwoman academic turning up for work and this was me seeing my female name on my office door for the very first time.

I remember waiting for them to say “Action!” and not knowing quite what I would do, but knowing when the moment came I would find my spot and be absolutely in it and do it. Whatever it was.

And I did, and was amazed I could, and felt a bit of a fraud when the lovely director told me it was so good for them to be working with someone as experienced as me. Because really I’ve hardly any experience at all.

I feel a bit absurd saying it, but it’s as if finding my spot, finding the place I need to stand for the camera, is about finding my place in life also.

And I’m glad it’s happened so strongly in Chris Goode’s “Albemarle” because this is all about healing. Healing from a deep wound; and his beautiful work, among so many other things, is about healing also.

And there I am on stage and feeling completely at home there.

Because I am at home.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Dear Adrian...

dear Adrian 

It was my daughter told me that you’d gone.

She phoned because she was upset and she knew I would be too.

Because like everyone who ever came in contact with you she was deeply touched by you.  By your artistry and tenderness. You gave her strength and comfort in a hard dark time.

She was working as an usher on your “Audience with Adrienne”; and, like any usher I’ve ever known, was completely merciless about a show that was incompetent or overblown.

But she loved yours. She said it was so beautiful and I had to see it.

So I did. I was still in a very early stage of starting to live as a woman then, and was terrified. Your show helped so much. In those days I wasn’t at all confident about talking in public, but your show made it safe for me.

Like all your work, it was open and courageous and so incredibly generous and performed with such apparently artless artistry.

And then I remember the beautiful garden you made for me in Gilmorehill. Well I know it wasn’t really for me, it was for everybody but I felt absolutely there was something special about it just for me because you could do that. You gave me a plant on the way out, which died, because I really am rubbish with plants, but you planted something deep in my soul.

They were so tender, the seeds of self acceptance and forgiveness that you gave me, and they are still growing.

I’ll never forget that wonderful bath you gave me in a hotel room once. I can’t remember what the show was called, but I know you gave me the chance to be naked, which i took, and I hope I told you what an incredibly liberating experience it was. To have my androgynous body so comforted and soothed, so completely accepted, was so incredibly profound.

You did that, my dear. You did so much to set so many people free.

And I remember the show you did about weddings, and I feared for you then, but so loved you for doing it, because you opened up so tender so vulnerable a place, in me and in you too. And somehow helped me heal it.

I know it’s silly of me to be talking to you as if you were still alive, my dear, but I just so loved talking to you, and didn’t talk enough. And anyway in my heart you are still alive somehow. 

You see when Katie phoned me I was on my way to the station to have a meeting in Glasgow about bringing an old play of mine back to life. Those of us who the world didn’t fully allow to be ourselves have a hard time when we try to value our own work, as you knew, and in spite of everything I still have a lot of trouble valuing mine. 

But I know you are such an important part of the long long process that gives me the strength and the courage to value this one. And I want to tell you that.

You see you have gone, my dear. You and your gentle loving beautiful present self. And I am so sad and sorry.

But your work lives on.


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