Sunday, August 21, 2011

Briefly, I am a chair. Or: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

When I lived as a man, I always had this fear of chairing events. I could give lectures, take classes and everything - after a long and painful struggle - but chairing meetings? Chairing events? I assumed I couldn’t do this, somehow. I was still too shy and uncertain of myself to take it on.

So when I got asked to chair an event yesterday, I was pleased to be asked, but still somehow quite scared.

The event was one of a series organised by the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland ( around this year’s Made In Scotland programme at the Festival.

I chose “Intimate” as my theme, and on the panel were LJ Dodd of The Arches to talk about Adrian Howells “The Pleasure of Being” ( and Eilidh Macaskill of Fish and Game to talk about “Alma Mater” (

I was so moved by both the shows, I really enjoyed meeting the two panellists: but I still wasn’t at all clear how to handle the event.

Sometimes fear can be our friend. It meant I went the day before to see Linda McLean do the same job: to see if I could get some ideas.

She did it beautifully, of course, and one of the panellists was Lewis Hetherington ( who was one of my playwrighting students and whom I am so proud of.

It’s an obvious thing, but seeing the space and watching what happened in it and admiring Linda, as ever, made me want to handle the event completely differently.

When I started writing plays i would watch other people’s work in the same way - and generally be rude about it - and realise at the same time I didn’t want to write that way at all.

Part of my problem in those days was I couldn’t abide the conventional end on proscenium arch 19th century way of creating theatre. But then that was what almost everybody did; and that was how actors were trained to perform.

The fact I knew i couldn’t write that way seemed to prove to me thatI was no good as a writer and would never get anywhere.

And when I wrote my first play HOW LIKE AN ANGEL (1980) and wanted the action to take place among the audience and for the actor playing the charge nurse to hand out smarties to the audience as if it was their medication, it wasn’t put on for about 8 years.

When I wrote LUCY’S PLAY (1986) the very first stage direction said “The actors greet the audience”. The actors wouldn’t do it because it made them feel uncomfortable; and I felt stupid for asking them.

When I wrote LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE (1991) I wanted the play to start with Actor One looking at the audience and saying “The play begins.”

The actor refused to do it. But this time I did insist; and he had to be replaced. Leaving me feeling guilty and ill.

But this time, at least, I knew I was right to want to do things differently.

And things have really moved on.

So when I asked the dear, lovely, clever panellists to improvise a little skit with me to illustrate proscenium arch style acting, it was lovely to see them giggling at it and saying: “It’s so long we did this”.

And to discover that what used to be the unquestioned norm - hiding behind the invisible fourth wall and pretending the audience weren’t there - has now turned into something quite quaint and unusual.

Later on I got the audience to split off in pairs and look each other in the eyes. Savour each other’s presence.

It was kind of mad, of course, but I loved doing it. And I discovered that actually I really could do this chairing business after all.
the idea I couldn’t do it, which I held onto for so long, was just a wrong idea I had about myself.

So often we get ourselves wrong. We tell the wrong stories about ourselves.

These two very beautiful and intimate shows I have been so lucky to experience are a kind of incredibly powerful invitation to change the story.

To see the world with new eyes.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Adrian Howells’ "The Pleasure of Being"...

This is absolutely not a show you just go and see.

Adrian Howells promises to bathe you, just you, naked or in a swimming costume as you wish, in a scented bath with rose petals, wash you and dry you and wrap you in a fluffy bath robe and feed you chocolate and fruit.

As soon as i read about this, somehow, my heart leapt, and I knew I had to do this.

Tomorrow (Sat 20th I am due to be chairing a Playwrights’ Studio discussion on “Intimate Theatre”. So there’s an obvious connection. But I think i would have done it anyway.

I wanted to affirm myself, somehow. I wanted to be witnessed. And I want to be healed.

You make your appointment, and you have to go to a hotel room.

When I told someone I wanted to do it naked, they said “You’re very brave”. And i started to feel nervous.

I wanted to wear a dress. A nice black number I bought in New York in 2008 and have never quite had the nerve to wear. So I put it on. Saw my armpits needed shaving. Took it off. Shaved them. Put it on again. Didn’t like myself. Almost took it off again.

Did hair, make-up, ran to bus stop. Waiting for the bus, remembered my toe nails needed re-painting. Told myself not to be silly.

Got to the hotel room, everything was a bit delayed. The lovely front of room person told me people kept turning up and then discovered they needed the toilet. Fight or flight. Obviously I am not the only one to feel nervous.

The room is dimly lit, with candles, and very warm. There’s a place where you can get changed and put on your bath robe. When you’re ready, you knock on the bathroom door.

Adrian greets you, and you go in.

The water is lovely. As he starts to wash me, I start to cry.

It’s my mum. It’s losing my childhood, losing my mum, losing my partner. My children all growing up and leaving home. It’s that profound need to be touched.

I remind myself the point of this experience is pleasure, and try to focus on it. The lovely drops of warm water on my face. The tickly bits on the soles of my feet. Tense muscles slowly softening in the warm water.

Adrian is someone with a miraculous kind of safety to him. He has one of the safest presences I know. It’s that, and the huge intelligence and skill he has put into the structure of the experience that makes it possible just to be there. And also, in spite of the amazing difficulties I suddenly become aware of, and all the obstacles to living in the present moment, to actually take the intensest pleasure.

Afterwards he dries me. He leaves me for a moment to finish off, and then I go through to the bedroom. The invitation is to sit with him at the foot of the bed, and allow myself to be cradled.
I find it impossible. Impossible just to receive. I discover if I put my arm around him and give him a hug, then I can receive one from him too.

And I find myself wanting to explain: how much I hated my body in the past because it didn’t conform to who I knew myself to be. How I had to struggle with the surgeon’s assumption that I wanted him to completely remove my genitalia and construct me a vagina in a massively invasive way.

How angry the surgeon became when I told him I just wanted my testicles removed. “You’ll be back in a year” he said crossly.

Adrian said: "How wrong he was".

I started to tell Adrian about how a non-erect penis offers such amazing opportunities for giving and receiving pleasure; of how my scrotum and anus had become new areas of erotic delight; and how my focus for orgasm was shifting from the penis into the prostate and what a miracle this all was...

He said: “You have the form of a hermaphrodite” in a way that totally affirmed me.

Of course everyone who comes to him has massive issues with their body; we all do; everyone probably opens up to him at exactly that moment; and I am sure he manages to find exactly the right thing to say to us all.

There's something sacramental about all this. Something of the confessional. There's something about him of the celebrant.

Something very human about it all. In the simplest and profoundest way. He says: "When you allow me to nourish you, you also nourish me. It's win win".

Then I close my eyes again while he fed me bits of white chocolate and slices of tangerine.

Never tasted, never tasted anything half so good.

Going back out to the world I am intensely aware of its beauty. And in me I have the profoundest sense of well-being and of peace.


Friday, August 12, 2011

"Great Expectations" in the Big Society

Magistrate’s courts are sitting through the night to dispense a kind of assembly line justice. They need to: prison cells are full to overflowing.

The whole process has everything to do with politics: and very little to do wit justice.

I watched a news item about a woman pleading with the magistrate, maybe at 2am: saying that being remanded would mean her losing her job, and maybe her children, and maybe her home too.

She was remanded anyway.

It reminded me so strongly of the picture Jaggers paints of British society. In my version of Great Expectations it goes like this:

“I will put a case to you, Mr. Pip.
But understand that I make no admissions.
I put it to you Mr. Pip, that there was once a lawyer
No connection with anyone living or dead.
Who entered his profession with the highest of hopes
Because he wanted to do good in the world.
Remember that I make no admissions.
And this lawyer, Mr. Pip, with all his high hopes,
Entered into an atmosphere of evil.
Day after day, Mr. Pip, he went about his work and saw evil.
And all he saw of children, Pip, from the minute they were
From the minute they were brought into this evil world,
Was that they were brought there to be destroyed.
Day after day, Mr. Pip, he saw them being tried.
He saw them being tried at the criminal bar.
Day after day he saw them brought out to be whipped.
Brought out to be imprisoned, transported, neglected, cast out.
Qualified for nothing but the hangman.
Growing up for nothing but to be hanged.”

Pip has already witnessed wholesale injustice being meted out at the Old Bailey:

“In those days it was the custom
To devote a whole day of Court Sessions to the passing o
And to finish that day with the Sentence of Death.
On his day there were thirty-two to be sentenced
All crowded close together in a pen.
And a huge congregation had assembled to watch.
The Judge put on his Cap and confronted them,
The thirty-two who were doomed to die,
And he spoke of civic duty and the upholding of law.
He singled out my convict, who had so tried to help me,
As the one most signally, most rightfully
And most justly deserving to Die.
And then he turned to the others and sentenced them
One by one to be hung.
There were men, and there were women. Some were old,
And some were no older than children.
Some sat in stony silence and affected not to know.
Some tried to laugh. Some screamed. Some shivered.
Most wept.”

We have advanced some way since then in that we don’t conduct our war against the poor with the weapons of hanging or whipping or transportation for life.

But the war goes on. Here and in most of the world.

It's maybe our weapons have just become a little bit more sophisticated.

(There's a very beautiful account of how America has criminalised poverty here:

This is where we are going too. And the tentative steps we took in the past towards creating a just society and a better world are now very firmly in reverse.

As they have been for some time.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

I saw a transwoman in Waverley station today.

She was wearing a shabby anorak, baggy knee length shorts in a flowery pattern over brightly coloured tights.

My heart went out to her: everything about her appearance made so apparent her unhappiness with who she was and her difficulty in finding a way to express herself in her clothing.

Her face wore that closed, frightened expression I know so horribly well: that attempt to absent herself from the hostility I imagine her so often receiving.

I don’t want to judge her, or suggest ways she could adjust her look to appear more “feminine”.

Whatever our gender may happen to be, I want us to be able to aspire to more than mere invisibility.

I want us all to live in a culture where we can freely wear whatever best expresses us.

Where we can all walk in the street without fear.


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"The Cherry Orchard" opens tomorrow

Trying to get to grips this morning with the images of London burning. Of shops being looted. Of the fact that in certain parts of that city, and other cities in England, the authorities had completely lost control.

All these things we used to pride ourselves on never happening here.

It is of course connected with the other devastation that’s occurring throughout the world just now: not in the streets, but on stock market monitors.

Both these catastrophes have been foreseen; there have been endless warnings; they have all been ignored.

It seems frivolous in the midst of all this to be thinking of “The Cherry Orchard”. But in a strange way everything that is happening now happens in that play.

They, too, were warned of approaching catastrophe.

They, too, ignored the warnings.

Living through their experiences as I adapted the play, I was so struck by Chekhov’s compassion for his creations. By his complete ability to get under their skin. And then the extraordinary skill he used to bring this perception onto the stage.

The play opens tomorrow, in the beautiful garden of Duddingston manse.

The forecast is for torrential rain.

So we have had our warnings: and we, too, are ignoring them.

We carry on and hope for the best.

What else is there to do?

My “Losing Venice” opened at the Traverse in this festival in 1985.

In it I remember writing:

“The clouds gather. The storm is rising.
And it will come. Nothing can stop it.
We know. We laugh when we can;
We live, as we must.
Fear eats away our hearts. Will it spare us,
We wonder, will it spare or children?
Yet what can we do? Tear down our city?
Label the stones and move them, stone by stone,
Rebuild them on the higher ground?
All our energy is taken up with living.
Besides, is there any mountain high enough
to hide us,
Is there depth enough in any cave?

I doubt it. Crying is easy,
Laughter requires a little more strength.”

My younger daughter had just been born. I remember in the bar after the first night everyone wanted to give her a cuddle and she was passed around from arm to arm in a joyous celebration of the play’s success.

Now she’s grown up and is writing for a magazine. She lives in Brixton.

I fear for her; but like her sister, her courage and intelligence and human goodness give me courage and strength.

We need it.

The orchard is being chopped down.

The storm has come.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

eunuchs in the fringe

I tried to see a Fringe show yesterday. I failed.

I thought I was going to see “A Wondrous Flitting” at the Traverse. But when I got there,I discovered my ticket wasn’t for Wednesday. It was for Saturday.

But because this whole amazing event is a trade fair and huge aesthetic discussion forum and a gigantic job application and a family reunion all rolled into one, it didn’t really matter that I never got to see the show.

I almost didn’t see today’s either. Public transport doesn’t really function at this time of year so I gave up on my bus and walked up the Royal Mile in the rain past hundreds of drenched flier distributors, extinguished fire-eaters and forlorn street performers.

While I was waiting for my dear friend outside Napier’s - who was stuck in a bus elsewhere in the city - two young Spanish women asked me for directions for a shop that sells overalls, and I saw a very timid looking and exceptionally well behaved clan warrior with a pot belly hesitating a little fearfully, double-handed sword and all, about to cross the busy street before pressing the button for the green man at the crossing.

And then a duck did the same. I think it was an eider duck.

And then we saw Eunuchs in My Wardrobe.

They were in a horrid basement lecture theatre just off George Sq. Hard to imagine a less sympathetic space for this story of a mixed race boy growing up in Eastbourne and the way a boyhood memory of seeing hijras in Calcutta guided and inspired him to discover his true identity.

I hesitate to use the word “transgender” to describe them, because that imposes a male/female gender binary on them that does not do justice to the richness and beauty of their cultural history - which comes in bleak contrast to the squalor in which they are now so often forced to live.

The script was overwritten in a way that double dotted every i, double crossed every t, put them in bold, underlined them, and then rendered them in rhyming verse - sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse - and if I do exaggerate it is only to articulate the manic virtuosity of the text that could have left me very vexed... but in the end did absolutely nothing of the kind.

Perhaps because in an uncanny way it was telling so much of my story also; and certainly expressing so many of my own thoughts and ideas on gender, religion and sexuality.

I couldn’t find a writing credit, so I don’t know if Silas Carson wrote as well as performed it, but his performance is totally committed, remarkably skilled and suffused with beautiful compassion and grace.

It’s one of these Fringe shows you fear for, somehow: tucked away in its sterile basement, it could easily sink without trace.

I hope not. It communicates such enlightenment and such life affirming pride.

Eunuchs in My Wardrobe: Assembly 3, George Square, 13.15)

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