Monday, August 22, 2016

A night with Theatre Alba. A night in the Secret Commonwealth...

It was 1982, I think.

Soon after I’d become a theatre reviewer.

The Scotsman had sent me off to a disused dance hall in Abbeyhill.

Sent me to an unknown venue to see an unknown play by an unknown author performed by an unknown theatre company.

I hadn't become a reviewer because I knew anything about theatre: I had become a reviewer because I knew so little.

I needed to learn.

And the lessons the play taught me have stayed with me ever since.

The play was “The Shepherd Beguiled” by Netta Blair Reid and the company was Theatre Alba.

The play tells the story of a 17th century minister in the Church Of Scotland in Aberfoyle, the Reverend Robert Kirk, whose grief at the loss of his wife opens him up to the existence of the supernatural world.

He wrote a book about it, “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies”, an extraordinary and beautiful book I’ve read in the National Library of Scotland. 

Reid made it the subject of her extraordinary play. It is a profoundly poetic exploration of grief, and a magical evocation of an unacknowledged spiritual world.

It helped me understand that it is possible, and  necessary, to write poetic plays in present-day Scotland. I remember walking up the long hill of London Road late that night in a state of exaltation and rapture. I loved it then and I love it still.

So it was profoundly moving to see the play again last night, 34 years later, performed by the same company, directed by the same director, and even with several members of the same cast. And all to the same beautiful and evocative music.

For Charles Nowolskielski, the director, inspires an extraordinary degree of love and of loyalty from his company.

I have worked for them myself and coming back to them last night was like coming back to a family.

Each festival they perform in the magical garden of Duddingston Kirk, beside the waters of the loch, and under the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.

It's a hard place to find, well off the map and completely off the critical radar.

You risk getting cold, you risk getting wet, and you almost certainly will be eaten by the midges.

But you will see something unique and important, work that no other company in Scotland is able, or even trying, to achieve.

See it in a magical place. Where magical things happen…

Monday, August 15, 2016

How a non-binary and trans Jesus came to be born

This picture was released by Glasgay! 7 years ago today.

I was hardly aware of it: I was in France at the time, on a writing fellowship. I’d just had my surgery.

I’d been turned down fro full gender reassignment surgery in 2007 because of my heart condition. I remember at the time being determined to live as I needed to anyway, in spite of all the abuse I was receiving on the street.

I’d been turned down by a surgeon in Thailand; I decided to get myself fit, put myself through the NHS system so that when I had the operation I would know that any necessary facilities would be close at hand.

So I went through all the humiliation of seeing the two psychiatrists and getting their approval, and when the referral to the surgeon finally came instead of feeling happy and excited I found myself feeling appalled.

I realised, very much to my dismay, that I neither wanted nor needed a surgically constructed vagina.

The female hormones I was taking were battling it out with the male hormones my body was producing. I realised I needed an end to the hormone warfare.

And the simplest way to achieve this was through an orchidectomy. Which is the polite word for castration.

And that’s what happened, 4 or 5 days before I was due to go to France.

The huge practical advantage of it was that I hardly had to wait; there was minimal risk of complications; and the recovery time was very quick.

Which is how it turned out. A week later I was able to ride a bike into the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau.

I wore no make-up, I’d probably hardly bothered to brush my hair. And I was wearing gender neutral clothes.

I passed through a village where a woman was working in her garden. She looked up at me, smiled, and said quite naturally, “Bonjour madame”.

And I knew something very profound had happened.

In the meantime my gifted friend Neil Montgomery ( had taken this beautiful picture.

I borrowed a white top and skirt from a dear friend and we took the photo in the basement garage.

Neil had brought lights, but he discovered that if I stood in front of the light that went on automatically every time a car came in he could get the effect he wanted.

So I would pose, and try to look loving and calm… and then the light would go out, and I’d have to wave my arms or jump up and down to get it on again, and often both.

But I must somehow have still managed to look calm and majestic and loving…

The photo caused a lot of offence, and probably contributed to the hostile demonstrations that happened when I opened the play.

But that’s not what I’d intended. I was just looking for an image that was obviously Jesus; and obviously trans.

Not easy, as it happens. Men can do it with a robe and a beard. But not a trans woman.

I didn’t want to hang on a cross, because the play does not focus on suffering. So we went for an image of a resurrected Queen Jesus with her stigmata, which Neil realised quite brilliantly.

And there she is, and I’m proud of her. A non binary Jesus, I think, as well as a trans one.

7 years ago is hardly any time at all. But it feels like a lifetime.

And the whole trans debate has moved on so radically in the meantime.

As I so fearfully and nervously performed the show in that tiny theatre, it never occurred to me that I would still be performing now.

That I would have taken the show to so many different places I’ve lost count of them, or that I would have taken the show to Brazil.

Or that a beautiful and gifted travesti actress would soon be giving the Brazilian premiere of the play in Portuguese.

When I performed in Belo Horizonte a viciously transphobic right wing government with links to evangelical churches had begun to claw back our (very limited) right to our real name.

And doing so in the name of Christ and the family.

So there was I, an openly trans father and grandmother performing a play about a trans Jesus which made it so clear that He would never support such loveless and antichristian prejudice.

Speaking the play’s words in that context made me profoundly aware of how much they matter. And I know Renata Carvalho will make them more urgent and immediate still.

And I also know that the pilgrimage of Queen Jesus has hardly begun.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thinking about what my work is about

I wrote this in 1991 as a programme note for the first production of my play “Light In The Village” in the Traverse Theatre:

“I think of a woman I met in a village. 6 hours east of Calcutta. She was the health worker. She showed me the one cranky hand pump which was the only source of drinking water for forty families. It was inadequate; but the other pump had been broken for a year and there was no-one able to repair it. There was no sanitation in the village. Its pond was fed by an open drain. The surface of the water was covered with slime. She told me it was the villagers' only other source of water. They had to use it to wash their clothes, to wash their cooking utensils, and to wash themselves. They used it for drinking, too; most knew they should boil it, but fuel was scarce.

There was no electricity. There was no school. The few students who attended school in the neighbouring village faced great difficulty: their labour was needed by their families. Also because there was no electricity, and therefore no light, they could not study at night.

There was no road. The village was reached by a deeply rutted track impassable in the rainy season.

Most of the villagers own no land; they work as day labourers for the local landlords, when there is work. Otherwise they scrape a living as best they can. The daily wage is around 17 rupees: 50 pence.

In December, it was harvest time. Everyone was out in the fields; only the older women and the children remain. After the harvest, the rats go out to the fields to feast on the left-over grains: the village boys were out hunting the rats. I saw them as I passed. If they catch one, they roast it this evening.

They need the protein: many children in the village suffer from deficiency.

The health worker and her colleagues explain that the women in the village want to improve the situation. They want to work: they want regular employment. They have skills. She shows me exquisite embroidery. But they cannot sell it. They cannot sell it in the village because everyone can do it, no-one values it or has any need to buy it. They cannot sell it outside the village because they are so cut off, communications are so bad, they have no means of finding anyone who will buy it.

Besides, their husbands treat them as chattels and are reluctant to allow them to engage in independent work. The Hindu wives suffer because their husbands often mistreat them to try to extract more dowry from their families; the Muslim wives suffer because their husbands have the right to remarry, as many as five wives at a time, and the right to divorce at will. A divorced wife is often destitute: rejected by husband and family, and left to fend for herself. Often with young children.

My guide distributes the few government health supplies. She inspects the young children of the village: to make sure their clothes are are washed, their hair is free of lice. To keep a check on their basic state of health. She runs classes for the children, and classes for the mothers, too. She wants her health centre to be a source of light in the village; and she wants it to be a source of inspiration to others. The government has sent her some women from Bihar so she can train them and they can do the same for their villages when they return.

She shows me her health centre. It is a tiny hut. The floor is made of mud. There is one child's desk and a scrap of blackboard in the corner. There is nothing else.

Everyone gathers round. The Bihari women speak. They tell me that they want to make things better, they want to do all they can, but it is very hard. They feel helpless and afraid. They are so very far from home. What advice can I give them?

What should I tell them?

Should I tell them that while their children suffer disease because they have not enough to eat ours are ill because they eat too much? Should I tell them that while their villages are trapped in poverty because they have no road, our towns and villages are being choked and poisoned because they have too many roads?

Should I tell them that we don't even care enough to give our own children decent schooling. That we have expended limitless millions to wage a war. A war not for justice, not for the world's children, but to try to safeguard the West's cheap oil supplies.

I want to have written something that would answer them. And that would speak also to our own overwhelming sense of helplessness and guilt.

But would not simply reflect anger or despair. Despair is a luxury we cannot afford; to spread it seems to me a kind of crime.

It is also an inaccurate response; there is injustice and cruelty in our world, but also courage, dedication, and a profoundly moving kind of solidarity. There is also, in India and in Bangladesh, an immensely ancient and yet vibrant culture that has much to teach us.

And I want the play to reflect and to celebrate the multi-racialism of our own society. I want to take the audience on a journey: a journey through laughter and anger and anger and grief. That will involve the audience on every level: theatrically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and sexually.

4 weeks rehearsal and 36 drafts later, I still don't know if I've succeeded. In the end that's not my business. But I want to dedicate it to those women. Those women in the empty room. The light of the village.”

My plan at the time was that “Light In The Village” would be the first of a series of five plays that would all be produced together in the year 2000.

They would be about the fact that we had to begin to understand that we all live in one world and that the divisions between rich and poor would destroy us unless we worked to lessen the inequalities and end the injustice.

It was a disastrous career move. I was trying to write about globalisation before anyone had heard of it. No-one seemed able to begin to understand the concept behind the five plays and I never had another commission for a new play in the Scottish theatre until “Every One” in 2010.

But now as I begin, finally, to revisit the whole idea when the divisions in the world are deeper than ever, I can see Iwas right.

And begin the process of making this project a reality.

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