Monday, August 30, 2010

I remember my second singing teacher helped through my fear of the keyboard by encouraging me to improvise.

We would take a random object from her house - a vase, an ornament, a pot plant - and try to "give voice" to it.

However bizarre or starnge or odd it sounded.

She would join in, and we would toss sounds back and forth to each other in an amazing liberating way. A way that helped me understand, not just theoretically, but understand in my body, that I do have a singing voice and the sounds it makes can be beautiful and can communicate.

The best of these sessions always left me with a feeling that we had communicated, on an incredibly deep level...

and listening to Meredith Monk's SONGS OF ASCENSION for the second time this evening, it is as if she has taken this to a totally wonderful and hugely sophisticated and profound level.

It's worth noting, too, that what Bausch and Monk have in common is that they work with a stable core of collaborators. Our structures militate very strongly against this.

It's a great strength that theatre Alba possesses - outside the system.

There's no point lamenting this: what matters is to try to create such a stable structure for oneself and ones fellow artists.


Friday, August 27, 2010

I wish reviewers would drop all that crap about passing judgement and awarding ratings.

I wish they'd chuck out all that meaningless shit about stars.

Forget about being experts.

Forget about objectivity: and just write about what they've seen and how they felt about it and describe it, as if describing it to an absent lover.

As I am now.

I wasn't thinking about this as I cycled to the first show this morning, I was thinking about my GOD'S NEW FROCK and my JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN and how it might work to turn them into one two act play, with two performers not one, and an interval where the audience could buy ice creams and everything... my show was at ten, and I got there at ten to, expecting there to be a queue, but no the queue had gone, it had all been swallowed up by the theatre, which was full before I arrived, so I needed to go right down the front, and still they kept coming in.

The ushers started saying "Would everyone in the middle try and squeeze closer together", and it made me happy to hear them say that, because it reminded me, my LOSING VENICE, and everyone having to squeeze together to get in.

That was the nearest I got to understanding: I had achieved a success.

The show was by Daniel Kitson, I forget its title, he performed it on a stage of lightbulbs, all at different heights, and one would go on for each moment he was describing in the lives of two really rather ordinary people who only met, once, in the course of their ordinary lives, by accident, and just for a millisecond, and then they passed on without knowing.

There was a step-ladder on stage, too, that he climbed up on sometimes, and moved about, when he was describing a high up moment.

The moments were all over the place, though linked very precisely by time, and they formed an amazing pattern as he was telling them.

And it was just him, and the lightbulbs, and telling these two stories with simplicity and amazing observation, and good humour, and a kind of understated compassion that was very moving.

He could throw in the laughs, too, when it needed one, and it was a kind of celebration, the whole event, a kind of affirmation in its gentle, unassuming and amazingly skilled way.

Everyone loved it. Everyone.

An act of story telling. An affirming act.

And I thought I must stop feeling so isolated... and then as i was getting on the bike to leave I did that that did just that.

Something that utterly isolated me.

That was someone in another show just leaving that I wanted to talk to, only he was talking to somebody else, and the old shyness attacked me and somehow I couldn't go up to him.

I was on my bike, and I couldn't think how to get off it, and I started pedalling thinking, This is going to make you feel wretched, and I knew it would, but somehow that was not enough to stop me.

And then I got home, and I felt wretched.

Lonely, and as if all the stuffing had been knocked out of me.

And I couldn't focus on anything, there's a lot of letters i should be writing, but I couldn't, somehow.

There was the washing that needed bringing in.

And I couldn't somehow.

I thought: I must get out. I must get out of this house.

I went up to the Pleasance to a show that an old student of mine is involved in, someone I respect hugely, very talented.

A devised piece.

I'm devising a piece, I realise, I'm doing this thing too.

So I was curious to see how they did it.

She saw me going in and greeted me, and

... I wanted to love the show, but I didn't much.

I know she can do better, much better, as a writer and as a performer too, and i wanted to say to them:

Work harder. Tell us about the people.

The people you're writing the letters to.

Don't tell us about yourselves. Tell us about the people.

Work harder. Work harder.

I must be turning into a carmudgeon, I thought, as I left, and I'd been meaning to go and see if I could meet her in the bar, but the Pleasance is so big, and i find it a bit scary sometimes (an agoraphobic carmudgeon) and I couldn't bear just to be polite to her.

So I ran away.

Coward, i told myself, but at least when I got home I could bring in the washing.

By some superhuman effort, and cook and eat some supper, and change to go out to Pina Bausch.

My seat is way at the side way at the front of the stalls.

A terrible seat in some ways, but it's rather wonderful to be near the dancers, and sometimes they walk past, and I have a little shiver, I feel star-struck, even though I know they are human, and suffer from nerves and acne and fart like the rest of us.

But up on that stage they are gods.

They are gods and they are angels, and that is why a little shiver goes up my spine as i feel their presence go past me.

The show is called "Agua", water, and is inspired by Brazil.

I know that much, and buy a programme, and then discover I absolutely, but absolutely do not want to read it.

I used to be a dance critic once, and the effort of trying to find accessible words for what i experienced was so extreme.

That hasn't changed.

There were giant screens with huge images, that in one ways dwarfed the dancers: images of the jungle, of the carnival, of the rivers, of a raft sailing through the ocean.

It was as if the dancers had to be overwhelmingly present just to hold their own against these amazing images, the wonderful, often sensuous, often crazy, music.

A succession of moments, moments of the utmost vividness, moments of sensuality, of wit, of staggering beauty.

I don't even want to try to put it into words, because I know I can't...

There's often a moment in my plays when someone says "Long Live Freedom!" and i want a moment of freedom, of abandon, of joyful wild anarchy... like I felt it once in the tomato festival of Tarazona, Buenos dias, squelch, que tal?, squelch, and hitting everyone with tomatoes, and being hit by tomatoes, and processing down the main street, and all kinds of stuff being chucked down from balconies, and then going to the old bull ring and disappearing under the foam, the foam from the foam machines, and emerging, very white and foamy to the bars where everyone poured beer over each other until the early hours of the morning..
But I've never seen it so joyfully, so skillfully, so perfectly realised as at the end of this show, almost three hours into it, and the women doing somersaults in their wonderful silk dresses, opening up like flowers, and on the screen in the back this monstrous, amazing, enormous waterfall, and suddenly they've got bottles of water and they are spraying each other, spraying each other with the water, and this amazing beautiful Brazilian dancer who early on was wearing this amazing dress made of light, and now, drenched, in the midst of it all, dancing the sexiest dance that could ever be imagined...

and o my love, I wish you'd seen it,
I so want to share it with you,
and you too, you reading this,
share it with everyone.

Because we need this.

Now in the midst of darkness. Now.

We need this to help us resist.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tuesday morning, and I'm cycling to the office.

Up on the Bridges i see a fat man walking slowly toward me, huge, his belly so enormous it has overflowed from the waistband of his trousers and the flesh is protruding, with that kind of purplish tinge to it which indicates his condition is desperate because the circulation is just not functioning properly.

Still young. Walking, with difficulty, with an air of the intensest suffering.

And not far behind him another young man, wiry, drunk.

Drunk though it's barely midday.

With a ravaged kind of air about him, and being restrained by two others, his face glowing with exaltation and pride as he shouts at the top of his voice: "Skinny! Skinny!".

As if he is saying the cleverest, wittiest thing in the world.

Someone shouting at me "Come on! Come on!" in a mocking tone of voice as I cycle slowly up the hill towards the Grassmarket.

Three fat men in a pedal rickshaw laughing at the efforts of the young men trying to pedal them up the hill towards the lap-dancing bars, and a group of people laughing and nudging each other and pointing by the side of the road.

I'm thinking about all this this morning, pedalling along to the Traverse to see a play.
It is like the opposite of empathy, or empathy gone into reverse somehow so that instead of feeling for the sufferings of our fellow humans we distance ourselves, we project all our own vulnerability and failings onto them.
We dehumanise them.
We scapegoat them.
This must be what makes war possible, I imagine.

Many plays are like this: they present intense suffering, generally of people of a class or a nationality that differs from that of the target audience.
Who observe the suffering in a vicarious kind of way, and maybe feel upset or disgusted by it, but never allow it to get under their skin.

Instead they think: "At least I'm not like that" and feel better.

Something to do with all the hatred that got projected onto me with "Jesus Queen of Heaven"... in fact, of course, it's the basis of some traditional Christian belief. That Christ died for our sins. That he was the "Man of Sufferings" who took on all the suffering of the world.

And its the role that, as a transsexual, I found myself taking on then, as I so often done.
And so often still do.
As a kind of hate object. A receptacle for everyone's bad feelings about their gender or their sex.

It's a breakfast show at the Traverse and when I get to the door there's Nick Bone, who I know, runs a theatre Company, and I like, and we chat, and actually I tease him about him putting on weight though we both know that he is, in fact, as thin as a rake, or maybe a bone, his name is very appropriate somehow, and you go down and show your tickets, and then pick up a filled roll for your breakfast.

He takes his and goes across to a table where there's someone he knows from the Traverse, who's sitting with another young woman who I don't know and don't think he knows either but who turns out to be from the National theatre.

It's all perfectly friendly and nice, and I'm thinking: "In his shoes, I would never have done that", because I would have been too shy, I would have assumed I would have been out of place, i would have been intruding...

And I'm thinking about all these little encounters, and how they help build up a career.

The play we're all going to see is Linda Mclean's in the series "Impossible Things to do before breakfast", and I'm fond of her, too, and it's lovely to greet her. Nick's telling me about my "Every One", and he loved it, and I'm so proud of it, so upset I don't seem able to make it go anywhere else, and I'm telling Nick about my "Seagull" and reflecting on the fact that I have a genius these days for doing good things in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Because, after all, there's Linda, and someone from the National theatre is seeing her play, and it's on at the Traverse, and it's being filmed in high definition and broadcast all over the country. And there's me, with my "Seagull" being put on in the middle of nowhere, by a gifted company who somehow (just like me) can't get it together to even tell the press about what they're doing...

I can remember when this started, when I started being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was in the early nineties, it was partly to do with a new artistic director at the Traverse just not getting what I do at all, but it was also something to do with trying, in the teeth if the intensest difficulty, trying to write about being transsexual when really that was something you definitely did NOT write about...

And am I getting paranoid?

It's getting old, too. It's something about getting old. It's as if playwrights are really not supposed to stick around that long.

Because there's me, joking one minute with the Traverse person about having my bus pass, and then discovering I've lost my ticket the next. I have to empty my entire bag at the entrance to the auditorium because I've put it somewhere and I cannot remember where it is.

It's in my notebook.

The play starts. It's based on transcripts of interviews. People Linda interviewed on a residency in New York, and the actors sit, script in hand, and read these American voices in their Scottish accent, and each extract begins with the actor saying something like "P. 23, female". Or "T. A., 48, male", and sometimes its men reading the women's voices and sometimes it's the other way round.

And sometimes another actor will punctuate with a word to describe an intrusive New Yor noise, traffic, or aeroplane, or siren, or something, and after a while I note myself getting impatient with all this, partly because I want one of the voices to come back, I want to get to know them better. And because there is a structure to all this, I know there is, this must be going somewhere, but I can't see what it is or where and this bugs me.

And also because in all this succession of initials and males and females I suddenly realise I am longing for something like a "J. 60. Transsexual", and this is bringing up the old distress of feeling I don't belong, I don't belong to the human race.

But I'm thinking of my lover, and there are tears, tears pricking the backs of my eyes. I understand something is happening, I am connecting with this apparently disconnected series of snapshots, almost unbearably vivid snapshots, of my fellow human beings, all suffering in our different ways but going on, going on.

And it is about life and hope and faith, somehow, and celebrates us.

I'm glad I'm able to tell Linda how impressed I am with her being able to write a play in a foreign language, in American, and that really is impressive (I can't even write a play in Scots) but this wonderful ear she has has its roots in something else, something deeper: in compassion, in understanding, in empathy for feeling human beings.

For us all.

There's one other thing that happens. At the start its introduced by its director, Stewart Laing, and there's a real shock of recognition because the last time I worked with stewart was on my very first performed play, the "Romeo and Juliet" I did for TAG.

Way back.

In 1984.

And this has been in the play, too, what I try to tell him:

Look at us. Here we are. We've survived.


Monday, August 23, 2010

I was in the bath tonight when the doorbell rang.

I didn't much want to get out because it was nice and warm in the bath and i was enjoying the book I was reading (the new biography of Adam Smith).

I'm reading the biography of Adam Smith because I've just finished writing my play, THE TREE OF LIFE, which is about the Apprentice Pillar in Rosslynn Chapel, and I'm about to start my next play, THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, which is about the philosopher David Hume. Hume and Smith were close friends (I think in my play they might be lovers) and Smith developed a theory of sympathy between human beings as the basis of moral relationships that owes a great deal to Hume's idea about fellow feeling, and the two plays are connected somehow.

And I want them to be produced side by side, one at the Lyceum and one at the Traverse, though whether that will happen is another story. And not really my business.

Anyway I got out the bath, because people don't often ring my doorbell, and it was George.

George Tarbuck, who is an old old colleague and friend and who did the lighting for so many of my early Traverse plays and most recently for JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

And he has recently been to Mull,because he is doing the lighting for Mull Little Theatre's production of THE WEIR, and one of the actors is David Walshe, who was in my AN APPLE A DAY, and with whom I have been improvising a new play, with him and Susan Worsfold ( and George was coming round to do the lighting for it.

Because he loves the work. And I was just so touched by this.

Honoured, too, because George is one of the best lighting designers around.

He was talking about how he is building a school for theatre technicians, down at Black Light, building it with his bare hands, because he knows there is a need for it and no-one else is supplying it.

And about stories. About how humans have always told stories, and that after we have destroyed this civilisation, a we will, and after the survivors have started to get together, and build fires, one of the first things they will do is tell each other stories.

Because that is a fundamental human need.

And we drank to stories, and he was gone.

And when I came upstairs, and sat at this machine, just to check it and write to my lover before I went to bed, there was a message from Karl of appreciating what i wrote about "the author".

So I go to his website, being curious, and find to my amazement we share so many of the same ideals and aspirations and dreams...

So that suddenly there are these two unlooked for human encounters, and I feel my isolation is finally breaking down.

Maybe even a tide is turning.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

The last time I was at home during the Festival I can remember seeing many many shows and making a point of writing a blog each day about them.

The difference was that then i did not have a show of my own on, as now.

I'm very proud of my SEAGULL. Proud that it get laughs now, when it really didn't before, because I know that is what Chekhov wanted. Proud that it moves people to tears also sometimes. Proud of the way it has informed and released the actors, somehow, to give such good performances.

Furious that somehow the Company did not get it together to inform the press. (Long story, and a dull one) Proud that in spite of that, and with this an outdoor show put on in the middle of nowhere with next to no publicity, it still gets on average 30 or so a night.

And i try not to dwell on the fact it could a hundred and thirty. And I try not to get too involved in weather forecasts, or worry too much when clouds pass over, as they so frequently do, or when it starts to rain at 7.00. As it did last night, and 3 of my friends who tried to see it were rained off instead.

And then of course, as ever, there's a little bit of me on public display out there each night.

This is not an interesting story to tell, I can't help thinking, but it's one that somehow leaves little room for any others.

As a result I have seen none of the shows I intended to see, except for a lovely children's show called "The Quest for Excalibur" that my dear friend Clunie wrote and directed and that I greatly enjoyed.
That, and a show by a singer called Camille o'Sullivan that I would have enjoyed far more if she had just stuck to singing.

Until Friday, when I got to see 2 shows at the Traverse.

The first was by a young writer, really gifted at that kind of dialogue which expertly dissects how cruel people are to each other when their relationships have gone wrong. I don't enjoy this in the slightest, but it's highly prized, and she is very good at it. Also at teasing out the relationship between private discontent and much larger, wider, and public issues.
But the play quickly spiralled into melodrama and ended up in a total absurdity that saddened me, because the actors deserved a better script, and the writer, too, should never have been allowed to expose herself like this.

"Nineteenth century form", I was thinking. Yet another so-called contemporary play that actually somehow belongs to the 1890's.
And of course I love Chekhov, and I love that form, and I have done my best to respect it and bring out its strengths.
But I get tired of the way people keep using it, still.

As if Brecht had never existed, for instance. Why can't British theatre at least attempt to catch up with Brecht?

But in the evening, I saw "The Author" by Tim Crouch. And that was a different thing altogether.

It so did my heart could to see someone using words, and loving language, and loving what actors can do, to to create 21st century theatre.

One reason it gave me so much pleasure was that when i went in I knew nothing about it.

Another has to do with me: with the fact that when I went in in the morning I felt shy and excluded, as I used to do so often, right from the very beginning, even in 1985. My shyness used to be so intense it would paralyze me; and my sense that I was dull and depressing and bad company made it incredibly hard for me to talk to anyone at all.

It's odd how being out as a transsexual has cured that, somehow. And how when I went into the same theatre on Friday evening I felt instantly at home. Iain McWhirter was there, and I'm going to do some name-dropping now, and that mattered to me because he's been very ill, heart surgery, like me, and I went to see in the row immediately behind him so I can chat with him. And it was nice to see David Leddy, and Adrian Howells, who actually came across to say hello, and I found that very touching, and Lewis Hetherington, a lovely old student of mine, and I thought: I am not a nobody. I am somebody, and this thought gave me a certain pride, somehow, and a sense of happiness which i was all taken up with and so when the show actually started it took me completely by surprise.

They didn't change the lights, one of the performers started talking all of a sudden. Brilliant guy, obviously, because he'd made himself completely invisible somehow and I'd sat next to him without noticing.

So i became part of the show too, and what struck me was that whereas not so long ago i would have wanted to sink under the floorboards and would have curled up in the deepest embarrassment and shame I actually felt very much at ease in this rather bizarre situation.

So that was one source of my intense pleasure. It was like a marker of how much I have moved on. A visible, unmistakeable sign that it is possible to overcome fear and shyness and shame.

There were four performers, as it turned out, whose lives had all been changed by a play. The writer who had created it, the two actors who had performed it, and an audience member who had witnessed it.

The play was supposedly one of those horrible Royal Court graphically violent pieces about the most extreme human suffering that have given the place such a reputation and that I happen to think are immoral, irresponsible, and profoundly reactionary and which, I also think, damage everyone involved.

I have always felt utterly isolated in my concern about all this but to my delight it dawned on me that this was, in effect, what this show was about, that I am not alone in my concern about all this, that others, too, are involved in trying to find a new aesthetic: because what was gradually emerging was that the play had damaged everyone involved.

Audience, actors, and writer. The fiction of it was so vividly and skillfully sustained that when it became clear how this had affected the author approximately ten people walked out of the theatre.

As I get to this point I realise I now want to see the show again, which is almost certainly impossible, because I've a feeling the ending could be better, but I haven't a clue how, and I'd love to find out.

But the courage and the unflinching skill of it was breathtaking.

And, unlike almost anything else I see, it gave me courage and it gave me strength.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Just home from seeing the dress rehearsal of my version of THE SEAGULL.
It was as chaotic as dress rehearsals often are, and with the rain coming on and the midges biting and the cold setting in.
But out there on the edge of Duddingston Loch is quite amazingly perfect for the play.
With the slight slowly fading, the swallows and seagulls swooping down in the gathering darkness.
Chekhov's writing is so beautiful: so full of a kind of ruthless compassion no-one else can equal.
The cast perform it with such empathy and power; to music of huge tenderness and melancholy.
It made me laugh, and it made me cry.
And as I cycled home through the darkness, round the edge of Arthur's seat, my heart was singing.


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