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.


I thought you were a wonderful chair. Learning situations usually give me anxiety or my mind wanders - but I felt safe and engaged... Plus I've been trying to write less 19th-Century-like & I took it as a good omen that it was one of the first things mentioned (I wasn't expecting it).
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