Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Queen Jesus in the Bakehouse with Sex, Chips and the Holy Ghost under the Tree of Knowledge

Over the weekend I was performing JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN in the Bakehouse, Gatehouse of Fleet.

Sharing a double bill with John Harrison - an extraordinary grand old man of the theatre. One of these people whose experience and lived knowledge of theatre history is just so incredibly precious.

We were performing in Chrys Salt’s kitchen. It’s a large room where the old bakery oven was, and where the bread was made.

There’s a platform on one corner, with a small lighting rig focused on it. And that’s where you stand to perform, in really close proximity to the 30 strong audience the room can hold.

The whole event has a wonderfully hospitable feel to it - upstairs in my room waiting to perform, I can hear Chrys and her partner Richard welcoming the audience like valued house guests.

It was a real pleasure to perform there - I felt relaxed, utterly at home on that very friendly stage.

Afterwards the audience fold up their chairs, stack them in the foyer, and in a miraculous kind of way the space turns back into kitchen, dining and sitting room, for a post performance supper that had a real air of celebration to it.

It felt like a real privilege to be performing there.

Yesterday I was back in Glasgow, going through the first draft of our SEX CHIPS AND THE HOLY GHOST. The three of us have been developing this piece for a while now - 3, or is it 4? - development weeks spread out over a couple of years. Our improvisations have been the basis of the first draft i wrote just before TREE OF KNOWLEDGE rehearsals started.

That’s what we were working through yesterday.

It’s basically the same process I always go through alone - I become all the characters, all the actors, director and audience as I go through it line by line.

Wonderful to be able to perform my part aloud, test it out with my fellow actor David Walshe, hear his response, and to have our work witnessed by Susan Worsfold’s expert eye.

Then back to TREE OF KNOWLEDGE rehearsals today... very aware of the intense demands the script is making of the actors and their beautiful creative response to it.

Thinking, bit dazed with tiredness, how it wasn’t that long ago that I became aware of my need to work far less in isolation, collaborate more, and perform more.

Wishes do come true, obviously....

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The "TREE" keeps growing

Rehearsals have moved into a new phase.

The actors are off the book - no longer rehearsing script in hand - and have been for days. The more the words get into their bodies, the more focused and precise their performances, the more the script becomes theirs.

And the less i have to do with it.

To be sure, there’s still some fine tuning to be done. I watch them sometimes struggling with difficulties, and feel guilty - I made them suffer this - but also try to watch very carefully to see if the difficulties come from faults in the writing.

In which case there's usually something I can do.

Or whether it’s just difficult.

In which case it will get easier.

I’m coming to appreciate that my words are actually very precise: each word of each line has its job to do, is a marker point or staging post in the emotional and intellectual journey.

Which means that until you don’t get on top of them, it all tends to be a bit of a nightmare.

I’m reminded of all this as i relearn the words of “Jesus” for performance on Saturday.

Meantime, as far as the “Tree” goes: ss the opening night gets closer, and everyone else gets more and more totally involved, the more I slowly detach.

That’s part of my value in the process: to get a little bit detached, to stand back, and really be able to see progress.

My time of intense, obsessive involvement is far behind: in January, when i was wrestling with the script and trying to make sense of the story.

It feels strange now to hand it over.

None of which stops me quite often crying.

We stopped this afternoon at a sad, sad moment, not so far from the end: I hope the story can recover, somehow, to leave us with more than a glimer of hope.

I’d hate just to spreading despair.

Monday, November 21, 2011

International Transgender Day of Remembrance

Yesterday was Transgender Remembrance Day. The names were read out in church - by straight, trans, and gay members of the congregation alike.

It was beautifully done: very simple, very poignant, very moving.

We were probably the only church in Scotland directly incorporating the ceremony into the main service. I felt proud to be there: it was about giving honour to the dead, but about honouring the living, too.

What wasn’t read out was the manner of death. There have been so many horrific and savage murders recently. Expressing a particularly vicious and malevolent kind of hatred.

Last Sunday I went to early communion at Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral.

The vast building towered over me as I made my way inside, and it struck me as a powerful symbol of patriarchal authority.

Once inside, I could find no-one anywhere, and no trace of the service. The huge space was deserted.

Eventually I found the service, in a tiny side chapel.

There were four of us there: us four the only traces of life in that huge stone vastness.

It strikes me that traditional forms of authority - whether religious or political - are a bit like that: vast and imposing on the outside, but hollow on the inside.

With their creativity sucked dry: without the ability to come up with the new solutions the situation demands.

Able only to block, or damage. Or kill and destroy.

As so many of our trans brothers and sisters have in the past year been so viciously destroyed.

I feel somehow involved in a life and death struggle with all this: and it frightens me.

But I have a sense history is on our side.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

the first audience

Last night was full of insomniac dreams.

I kept waking with huge images of the play in my head.

They were bigger than me, somehow, bigger than anything an individual could handle.

Something to do with seeing the club scene with music for the first time. Astonishing, powerful music.

There was a small group of individual sponsors in, too. Coming in to see the rehearsal.

They reminded me that this play, which engages us all so totally, is actually about reaching outwards, too.

Perhaps that’s another place this sense of gigantism came from.

I bought “The List” in the supermarket today. They list the play as an “intelligently written Christmas show”. As does Equity, which lists it as a panto.

Once upon a time I wanted to write a Christmas show. But that was to make money.

Ironic to find these listings making it appear as if that aim has been fulfilled - the writing of the Christmas show, at least (Never mind the money).

When writing a Christmas show was absolutely the last thing on my mind.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Back in rehearsals: and a memory

This is my second day back in TREE OF LIFE rehearsals.

It’s been an extraordinarily happy and productive day. Like all the others.

We’re now at the stage where we all know the play pretty well; and we can all co-operate on the business of making the changes that need to be made to make it better.

It’s such a joyful process.

I’m struck by the extraordinary change in me since I was last in Traverse rehearsals.

That was way back in 1992, or LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE.

I happen to think that’s one of my best plays; but I can remember before the readthrough had even begun one of the actors coming up to me in great agitation and saying:
“I can’t say this line”.

It was the first line in the play:
“The story begins”.

“What’s my motivation?” he asked.
“To tell a story"
“Where am I coming from?”
“Off stage”.

He hated that. He was completely stuck in realism, and wanted me to remove all the story-telling aspects of the play.

I refused. He left the cast.

Soon after that, another cast member left. “Too difficult” he said.

And soon after that, I came down with pneumonia.

I felt guilty about it all; it was all my fault, i kept thinking, for being such a difficult writer.

”I could not appreciate myself at all. Only years later did I begin to understand that it wasn’t me being “difficult”.

It was me breaking new ground.

As I am now.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Queen Jesus at the Tranny Hotel

The first thing that happened when I got to the Tranny Hotel (aka the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool) was that a film crew asked me if I’d mind them filming me when I checked in.

The truth was I did and I didn’t. I had that dishevelled slouchy air you have when you’ve been travelling on train for 3 hours and couldn’t pretend for even half a second to be ready for my close-up.

And how dull to be checking into a hotel.

How banal: it’s what I do when I get to a hotel.

Why film it?

In the end they couldn’t, because they hadn’t done the paperwork.

So they said they’d film me going up to my room instead.

So off I went up the stairs to the first floor, gammy knees and all. Up the wrong staircase. And then down again. Gammy knees and all.

Into the lift, get lost in the hotel corridors, and eventually into the room.

It was beautiful.

But like the film crew, at first it didn’t actually make me feel good about myself.

All the little props I’d brought along seemed inadequate.

I felt ugly and dull.

The feeling intensified when I got to meet some of the other participants and performers, who all looked quite gorgeous. I couldn’t quite understand what place there was for a dowdy middle aged trans woman in the midst of it all.

When I got talking to an especially glamourous drag queen she told me how inadequate she felt too. “I feel a bit of a sham’, she kept saying. “I’m just a gay boy who likes wearing dresses”.

At which point I began to understand that we’ve all been made to feel like that, “not right”, as Mandy Romero put it in one of her lovely poems. And that the focus of my artistic activity was the same as the extraordinary and generous vision Mandy has for the project as a whole: to celebrate us and affirm our being in the world.

The next day I performed a new 30 minute version of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS, QUEEN OF HEAVEN - one I had never done before. I put on a dress I found in a charity shop, guessing vaguely that’s what Queen Jesus would probably wear, cleared the room of the hotel gubbins - the trouser press, the kettle, the tray of freeze dried instant coffee, the Visit Liverpool leaflets - and opened the curtains wide to let in the light and sunshine.

I did it four times and learnt so much. There’s a great power to performing in so intimate a space. People were moved to tears. I had a sense, giving my little gifts of bread and wine and blessing everyone afterwards, that somehow I had stumbled on a way of doing something very special.

Sometimes people were able to stay behind afterwards and talk. I remember one woman wiping away her tears and talking about how she’s recently come to understand just how many life choices had been made for her simply because of her gender.

And how damaging that had been.

That evening I went to eat in a veggie, alternative-y kind of place and saw this sign stuck to the mirror in the ladies:


Slowly I begin to understand that my struggle as a trans person to truly value who I am is not the isolated lonely and rather meaningless thing that for so many years I took it to be.

It’s as if it’s something at the sharp end of a fierce struggle to move on from patriarchy.

It’s about everyone’s struggle to find joy and solidarity in being human.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rehearsal day 4

It was an astonishing morning.

The first thing was a letter from my agent about a play of mine a producer is working hard to put on next year in london's west end. SoI dealt with it.

And then I was packing my costume and the prayer bell and tea lights and the sourdough rye bread I made especially for "The Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven".

And then I was on the bus to go down the road to the Traverse rehearsal room for "The Tree Of Knowledge".

I just missed the bus, as I often do, the 35's timetable being an interesting work of fiction, and was thinking: how extraordinary. How lucky. How has all this come about?

I feel I keep saying: "Rehearsals were extraordinary". But they were. Again.

We're working through the play and came to a scene where Hume says nothing. And this had worried me. I couldn't understand why he was so silent.

But then I understopd.

And then there's another scene... but I don't want to talk about it, because for whoever comes to see it I want it to be a surprise.

I really want people not to know what is going to happen next.

I want them to be taken on an extraordinary journey where one minute they are laughing and they are crying the next.

Or vice versa. And be thinking furiously at the same time.

I'm excited to be going to Liverpool. But I'll miss it tomorrow. Whether I keep up this diary depends on whether I can find a computer to type it on...

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Rehearsals day 3

This is the first day on the floor. That is the first day we stop working sitting round a table, reading and talking, and the actors start building their performances on the stage.

It’s always exciting: unpredictable because the script starts to come to life in ways I could never quite predict.

Everybody, including me, starts discovering things that none of us really knew ere there.

But this time, strangely enough it's also quite predictable in the sense that I always knew that once it starts to become embodied the script will on the whole always work.

And when it doesn’t, it’s easy to change it.

I feel extraordinarily relaxed about it all.

Even though i was very aware at the first readthrough that, as usual, none of us have ever experienced a play quite like this before and we’re going to have to be able to explore and experiment to find the theatre language to do justice to it.

In the middle of everything else I’m trying to prepare to perform half an hour’s worth of “The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven”, four times to an audience of 10 this coming Saturday, in Room 179 of the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool

The photos I’ve been sent of the space make it clear it’s very lovely. But it’s hard to get a clear sense of where to put the audience. Or where to put me. Or light me.

I have a feeling I should be worried.

But another, strangely stronger, feeling that when I get there I will know what to do.

I'm not sure where this strange sense of calm is coming from. But I'm not complaining.


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Rehearsal: day 2

Early on in the play, a character says:
And do we? Know ourselves?

Let us use dialogue to discover!

That’s in a way what we’re doing just now. Or at least I am.

Reading the play to each other, pausing to reflect upon it, and ask questions on what it’s about.

Everyone asks me, reasonably enough, and I always answer. Or at least try to.

But actually the truth is that their guess is (almost) as good as mine.

I used to feel guilty about that. I used to think it was one of the many things about me that made me a bad writer.

But not any more. That's just part of the process.

Because when I start to write a speech I hardly ever know how it’s going to end. The character does.

Nor do I really know what’s going to happen next. The characters do...

And now the actors are reading it, I listen to it in some amazement.

When I was a university student, and basically trying to avoid being a writer, I loved investigating other people’s work. (This being easier and generally less painful than creating my own).

I would look at the work and try to elucidate what the writer’s intention was.

But if my experience is anything to go by, there is no conscious intention. At least not in the sense that I was investigating it.

The only conscious intention that I’m aware of is the attempt to try to create something that works well on stage.

Perhaps the authors I studied were cleverer than me.

Perhaps it’s just arrogant of me to say I doubt it.

But I strongly suspect that in one sense all I was doing for those years of study was wasting my time.

At least on the conscious level. Unconsciously, I think I was doing something else altogether.

I must have been trying to discover a voice of my own.


Monday, November 07, 2011

readthrough of "Tree Of Knowledge"

nov 7th 2011

Writing plays, as I've always tended to do it, is a solitary kind of thing to do.

Once the theatre's commissioned me, I'm generally on my own. (I'm starting to find this quite an oppressive and unhealthy state of affairs, and I'm trying to change it. But that's another story...)

That's how it was for this play, at least. I read the books I could understand, about Hume and Adam Smith and Edinburgh and the Enlightenment, and I heard the stories about domestic abuse... But after that it was up to me to try to feel and imagine it all.

Try to imagine the set, too. Which, as usual, I couldn't. I tend just to hear the words in my imagination, and feel the feelings that go with the words. But I never have any vision of how they'll be staged.

This time, I didn't pretend otherwise. So the first stage directions just says:


And then I added, even more unhelpfully:


- just because I get cross with all the plays that look as if they really might as well be on televisions.

Then it gets worse. The dialogue makes it clear that sometimes we're in David Hume's new town house, that he was so proud of, and sometimes in Eve's Glenrothes new town house, that she was so proud of too.

And then sometimes there's a stage direction that says:


The great thing about the first day of rehearsal is that I meet up with the people who somehow have to make all this happen.

So there's the designer, Ali Maclaurin, with her beautiful model, and Tim Reid, who's doing the projections - and there's suddenly back projections to think of, and front projections, and where they're all going to go, and I'm face to face, yet again, with all the difficulties i cause other people.

Witht he fact that a stage direction, that can only take half a minte to write, can cause hours and hours of serious head scratching.

But I generally know the stage direction is right. And collective the head scratching is just part of a wider creative effort.

I also get the strong sense that what’s going to emerge from all this will be something very special.


Sunday, November 06, 2011


It's a solemn kind of occasion, going into rehearsal.

I never quite know what's going to happen. I want my contributions to be supportive and helpful, if they can be. Because life is so short and there's quite enough suffering in it without adding more.

It makes me blush to think how terrible I was when I first began. I didn't know what to do. But then no-one had told me. There was really no information about it at all. So I sat in the rehearsal room - which actually was the stage of the old Traverse, on the set of Chris Hannan's "Elizabeth Gordon Quinn" - sat there not knowing what to do and feeling miserable.

I hated the sound of my play, and consequently spent a lot of time with my head in my hands. Which the actors took to mean that I hated what they were doing.

Which I didn't.

And then if they ever asked me what such a such a line was for, I'd say "I don't know".

Because I didn't.

None of this was very helpful. Afterwards I learnt to glue a smile onto my face, even if it was false, and even when I didn't know what a line was doing somewhere, I'd always make something up.

Because that made everyone feel better. Including me.

But generally there's no need to fake a smile these days. I love working with actors; and I learn so much.

And directors, too, I add hastily, and designers and stage managers and musicians and lighting designers and everyone involved.

My words are about to transform. Can't wait to see what happens.

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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Tree of Knowledge cast announced

There's always this amazing moment when the play, that has really only had a kind of imaginary existence until this moment, starts to take on flesh and blood.

I love it. It makes me so excited: because I can never "see" characters in my imagination.

I can only hear them. And hear them speaking in very definite tones of voice, to be sure: but I never want these tones of voice to be duplicated by the actors.

Because the mainly wonderful part of theatre making is that I create a script, using all my sensibility and skill, and give it to the actors, and the director, and the lighting designer, the set designer, the costume designer, the sound designer, the stage manager - all these amazing gifted people. And they apply all their sensibilities and all their skills and if we manage to work well together they just enrich the script immeasurably.

And always in ways I never anticipated.

And then the audience come along and do the same...

The actors are:

Gerry Mulgrew, as Hume, who is so alive and full of life's joys in his presence and who I wanted to work with for years and years.

Joanna Tope, as Eve, who was in one of my radio plays, and I can't remember which, or who she played, or anything about it except she was wonderful. When she came for the audition what she did was so beautiful she made me cry. The part is incredibly difficult and makes great demands. She was equal to all of them.

Neil McKinven, as Adam Smith, is someone I have worked with before, in Celestina I think. That was certainly, for all kinds of reasons, one of the unhappiest rehearsal processes I have ever been involved in. Mainly, it has to be said, because my wonderful partner Susie had suffered a stroke just before it started; and then was diagnosed with a brain tumour just before the show opened. In the midst of all this, it was lovely to work with Neil.

I know they are three incredibly gifted artists. I can't wait to work with them.

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