Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lou Reed and Peterhead and me

It happened in Peterhead. In a bungalow. Maybe on Foreman drive. It must have been 1972.

I hated going to Peterhead. We both did. We found it grey cold and oppressive, really appropriately dominated by its prsion, and so exposed to the bitter wind. 

It was a place where everything of beauty seemed to have been removed.

I hated what it did to Susie. It totally diminished the wild free woman that I loved as she tried to perform the impossible task of being true to herself and yet also somehow true to the utterly different image her parents had of her. 

So we slept in seperate rooms in meanly proportioned single beds and we found ourselves trying not to hold hands in public. The fear was that the small minded gossips that infested the place would see us and report back and cause a scandal in the atrociously repressive Christian sect to which her parents belonged.

In the end, too, these were good-hearted kind people and I hated deceiving them.

The bungalow was a haven from all this. One of Susie’s school friends lived there and a whole gang of them were having a reunion. I felt almost like a honorary female among these gorgeous young women, and maybe we were even smoking a joint.

There was that whiff of freedom in the air, I remember, and someone put this LP on the record player. Something completely unknown: Lou Reed’s “Transformer”.

And they put the needle down on one particularl track, maybe because it was about New York and Susie had by then spent a while living there:

“Candy left her home in F L A
Hitchhiked his way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows and he became she
And said, Hey babe
Take a walk on the wild side...”

This had never happened to me before. I’d never heard myself in a song.

Still less heard myself and the longings of my deep heart as being somehow admirable and good.

In all of my life up to then I’d never seen myself portrayed as anything other than evil or ridiculous or grotesque.

“And the coloured girls sing do be do be do...”

And they did, and the sax kicked in, and it was just perfect, and I had this amazing intoxicating glimpse of a different way of being. 

A free way of being.

And that’s what art needs to do. Especially now, when the catastrophic failures of our economic, political, social, spiritual and pyschosexual systems are becoming so apparent, and there is so much pressure to pretend there is no other way to live.

So we have to do more than rage or complain: we have to dream the new worlds. Dream the new worlds into being.

“Theatre is about conflict” they tell us. Well, in one model so it is. Capitalist theatre.

In capitalist theatre people are alone and miserable and hurt each other a lot.

(And all the best market research tells us that sad people buy more)

And in the post capitalist theatre I keep on and on trying to create things have to be different.

And thank you, dear Lou Reed. It is true it's all a wee bit more complicated than shaving your eyebrows, and it has taken a bit more than twenty years...

But thank you just the same. Thank you for rescuing me that dark cold Peterhead night. 

Thank you for opening my eyes....

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Working in 'Albemarle'.

When I was still a boy my mum and i would often make the sad journey to Cheltenham.

Sad because it was there that I would be put on a train to make the fear-filled journe to the boarding school in Swanage.

I don’t remember much about my mum. When she died, it was as if a lead curtain fell down to block my memories.

But I do remember us driving past a huge gasometer where it smelt of gas all around. 

There were houses there, and I remember saying how awful I thought it must be to live there in the smell of gas.

“The thing is”, my mum said sadly, “You get used to it”.

And then you don’t notice the smell.

I’ve been in and out of rehearsal rooms for the past thirty years; and the one smell I’ve got used to is the smell of fear.

Mine mostly. It’s a lonely business being a playwright in some ways, and you carry a load of responsibility. Because if the play is crap the production too will be crap. However much directors and actors try to gild it. And in that sense what happens there is in the end down to you.

So there’s my fear of failure, and the director’s fear of failure and the actor’s fear of failure. 

Bullying is pretty endemic in the profession, in one form or other, and I have sometimes been in rehearsals where it has been very obvious. And very ugly.

But always everywhere everyone tries to be professional and responsible and strong. 

Everyone does their best to get on with the job and create the very best production that can be created in the very difficult circumstances that always apply.

But still to a degree fear taints everything.

I mention all this because I’ve just been in a rehearsal room for two weeks where the smell wasn’t there. And so I noticed its absence.

Maybe it was because for the first time in those thirty years and all those rehearsal rooms I wasn’t writing the play. And so I had the pleasure and joy of creating material with none of the responsibility of trying to figure out what to do with it. Or where to put it. Or how it might fit, or not fit, into the overall structure.

I loved that. It’s a bit like being a grandma.

But then if I come to think about it I’m really not that frightened of writing plays anymore. I do know what I’m doing. And while there are also going to be people who dislike what I’m doing really very intensely (a “disaster of a play”: Sunday Herald on “The Tree of Knowledge”) I’m not that frightened of them.

So it might make more sense to be afraid of doing something I really have very little experience of - working as a performer/deviser - and that actually there’s not a lot of evidence that I can actually do.

Especially since I was working with such brilliant people:

Chris Goode

Jeni Draper (of The Fingersmiths

Tom Ross-Williams of Populace

Heather Uprichard of Shunt

Jamie Wood

And all under the incredibly well informed critical eyes of Maddy Costa (of The Guardian and and Theron Schmidt (of Kings College, London

It was all a bit like being in some 70's Supergroup with some unbelievably acute music critics watching every move. And it could very easily have been terrifying.

But it wasn’t. There were tears, to be sure; but good tears. Tears shed in an atmosphere of creativity and trust.

And consequently I kept on finding myself doing things I had no idea I could actually do.
All this was mainly due to being able to work with people who were not only incredibly skilled, but also worked with huge courage and generosity of spirit.

There is a fundamental belief at the core of the society we are forced to inhabit that fear is somehow good for people. That it brings out the best in us.

It’s crap of course. Like so much else. 

Fear inhibits creativity and stultifies thought. And a major aim of education and artistic activity should be to help people overcome it. 

Most artistic and educational events do the absolute opposite: and in that sense the artistic place we’ve been in for the past fortnight has more than a whiff of revolution about it.

A much better smell than fear....

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Healing the division between body and mind

So here I am trying to do a Pilates exercise when all of a sudden I overwhelmingly want to burst into tears.

I don't know why.

In the loo afterwards, trying to recover myself, I find myself thinking " It's so dreadful the way Susie died".

(Susie being my late partner, the mother of our children, who died of a brain tumour in 2005. After 33 years together)

My dear teacher suggested I do the exercise at home. So there's me at the bus stop, pressing my bag between my knees, doing the exercise, tears running down my face.

And when I get home its the same. 

That night I dream of a huge old fashioned reel to reel tape recorder, one that records feelings instead of sounds, and I know I've pushed the playback button and don’t know how to find the one marked STOP.

That’s the question, I think: how we stop ourselves endlessly reliving emotions of the past. And re-learn to live the feelings of the present.

But the problem seems to be there's a whole load of trauma stored up in my body somewhere, and I keep walking in such a way as not to to feel it.

And now my legs are twisted and arthritic...because the pain goes right back into the past, long before the death of Susie, maybe even before the death of my mother, and seems somehow connected with the terror and the shame of being forced to live as a boy when deep down I knew I wasn’t a boy at all.

To avoid the shame I forced myself to walk “like a man”: and so my body, like my identity, got twisted out of its proper shape.

It amazes me, when I think about, how we in the West could ever have fallen for the collective delusion that the mind, or the soul, is somehow different and separate from the body.

And yet in my deep fear and distress that is somehow how I had to live.

I used to love performing in plays; and the rehearsal room was one place where I felt accepted and at home. And wasn’t shy any more.

But that was where I also learnt I would be so much happier living as a girl; and the shame and the terror of that tainted the theatre and completely blocked my capacity to perform.

It all became like an underground stream, dark and hidden and incredibly powerful, that somehow, years later,  carried me back to the theatre as a writer.

And so saved my life...

I had to learn to write fast in my early days as John Clifford the writer; and bit by bit I became aware that I was performing all my plays in my head. That as well as becoming the character, I was becoming the actor or actress playing them.

That my performer’s instinct was still at work, deep underground, and telling me what lines worked and what lines did not.

My creative work, the love of my partner, the love of my children: all these helped me recover from the trauma. And as I became slowly more and more able to reveal myself as transgendered, so, too, did this underground stream rise to the surface more and more.

And now.... For years I’ve had an agent as a writer (Lisa Foster at and now I have an agent as a performer (Triona Adams at and an entry in SPOTLIGHT, even. As a transgender actress.

And I celebrate all this today because I am packing my bags to spend a fortnight in London  to work at devising a new work with the extraordinary gifted and courageous Chris Goode (

To work on the creation of ALBEMARLE.... not as a writer, but as a company member: a performer and deviser.

So here’s me: with my bandy legs, my arthritic knees and my bus pass. About to start a new chapter. Stepping into the gorgeous unknown.

How wonderful...

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