Sunday, August 25, 2013

Performing in the Bloody Great Border Ballad Project

About half a million years ago, which is to say at the beginning of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, I chaired a very lovely event called “The Body Politic” at the Traverse.

It was organised by the Playwrights’ Studio ( and featured four extraordinary writers/performers whose work, like my whole life, explores the politics of the human body:

Claire Cunningham
Robert Softley Gale
Claire Dowie
Adura Onashile

I think it important at these events to give the audience the chance to explore the issues with each other. And just before pairing them off to take turns to listen and talk I spoke about how when I was living as a man I was taught to ignore my body, to use it as a tool, to ovverride its signals of distress, overcome its weaknesses and “be a real man”.

And how now, living as a woman, I find myself and my body exposed to a huge multi-national industry that employs all its massive resources and considerable skills to make me feel rubbish about myself.

All of which has been very forcefully brought home to me by watching a video of my performance in Northern Stage’s Bloody Great Border Ballad Project at the very end of the Fringe:

It’s a lovely project, I am so happy to have taken part in it, and I am sure it’s a lovely video too.

I simply cannot bear to watch it.

I hate the way I walk. I hate the way I stand. I hate my shape. Hate my dress, hate my hair. Hate the sight of myself.

So I stopped watching because I am very proud of what I did and don’t want to spoil it.

It is a sad world that puts so much skill and effort into making us dislike ourselves. And which also, to an extent, so often and so brilliantly succeeds.

When I first transitioned I know I didn’t feel this way.

I so enjoyed the fact that when I looked in the mirror I recognised myself. Properly recognised myself for the first time in my life.

And liked myself too.

And I know that when I lived as a man i could never have performed the way I did last night.
I was too divided against myself to be properly present on stage.

The way the project worked was that Aly Macrae wrote the first (very lovely) verse of the ballad, which was added to every night by a new guest balladeer.

I had to turn up last Thursday to see the show, with the ballad up to that point,, and then had the Friday to write my verse and prepare myself to rehearse it at 8 and then perform it at ten.

My bit of the rehearsal felt like the first readthrough of a new play. It’s a tricky moment: you know your fellow professionals are the first audience you have to win over. 

So there was a certain tension in the air. And yet I knew with perfect clarity what I was going to do. And I knew it would work.

And it did.

I felt completely at home; and I felt like I completely belonged.

As I did all those years ago when I was still a boy and went into a rehearsal room for the very first time. 

All those years ago before performing got all tangled up with my understanding that I would be so much happier if I could live as a girl.

Before it all got tangled up with the most hideous fear and the profoundest shame.

For many years, this fear and this shame completely blocked my capacity to perform and left me stranded and struggling with a profound isolation.

One aspect of this isolation was that it left me unable to sing. I hated my voice and could not use it. Not with other people around.

There was a lot of music in the show, and a lot of singing too which we rehearsed. In the past this was always a source of dread. But now I found myself joining it with a total unselfconscious pleasure. Loving it, in fact.

Perhaps even for the very first time.

That’s how I know something very profound has happened to me. 

So I post this to say thank you to Northern Stage, whose open-hearted generosity of spirit and whose artistic vision made it happen. Made something very special happen, not just for me, but for their audiences too.

And I post it also as an act of defiance: against all the acts of self hatred that so often the world makes us complicit in.

As an act of resistance.

As all my work is...

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