Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Thoughts on an audition

I realised a while ago that the only way then that I could find a role for a trans person was to write them myself. And that the only way to get the work put on was to fund it myself. And I did that too.

It’s been quite a lonely business, and I got very excited last week when I heard of a television production company auditioning trans actors. Even more excited when I read the scene they sent me to prepare. 

I was expecting something that was about being trans; what it was actually about was three barristers jostling for dominance.

The writing fascinated me: the characters’ struggles for authority and dominance were so skillfully explored... but at the cost of exploring or understanding them as people.

They were the usual aggressive and somewhat repellent people you so often find in TV drama. Living and struggling as individuals to gain power over one another.

Life as a battle: this kind of thing is meat and drink to most television drama - to a drama created in late capitalism with a world view founded on the idea of life as a struggle between individuals. 

But it’s no use for a writer like me: someone trying to imagine a different world.

And a world built on solidarity and empathy.

So it repelled me as a writer; but fascinated me as a performer. 

And I could see so very clearly how the presence of a trans character could give a whole new and fascinating dimension to the dynamics of the scene.

And it was so liberating because then it belonged to a drama in which being trans just became a given, like having red hair; part of the emotional furniture of the scene, so to speak.

Simply accepted as part of the fabric of life.

I loved that.

I so wanted to explore it in the audition; but never got the chance.

It would be nice to feel I was simply being paranoid or cynical; but I left with a shrewd hunch that the company were not so much interested in creating a pool of trans actors as finding an attractive English counterpart to the amazing and beautiful Laverne Cox of ‘Orange Is The New Black’; and that that is a category of actor to which I am far too old to belong.

I’ve neither tried to work as an actor for long enough, nor lived as a woman for long enough, to get used to being judged solely on my looks.

I doubt you ever get used to it. It stinks.

But as I travelled back from London, it seemed to me that the best thing about the whole business was that it had quite by chance enabled me to be filmed reading my “Letter To The Unknown Soldier”

Part of this very beautiful project I feel so proud to be part of


And here, at least, my looks do not matter at all.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia and I was due to make a speech.

One of the events happening in Edinburgh was the First Scottish Dyke March and I agreed to speak at the start of it.

I felt nervous about it, and found myself secretly hoping it had been cancelled. But it wasn’t, and my dear heart gave a little leap of fear when I saw the group and the police standing up the hill by Adam Smith.

I’m so fond of this statue because it figures in my TREE OF KNOWLEDGE when Smith says to his friend Hume:

                 We are great people now!
You have a statue on the High Street!
Did you know that? Outside the law courts.
You're wearing a toga!
You look ridiculous!
I’ve got a statue too.
Mine’s bigger.
I’m carrying wheatsheaves!
I look majestic. Commanding!
And now. If you’ll forgive me.
I will go and get buggered.


And maybe something of the insight about men in that comes from the incident I told in my speech.

As soon as I stood up, of course, all my nerves disappeared.I didn’t use the loudhailer, because I hate them; I accessed my male voice and I projected.

It fascinates me that now I am living as a woman it is so much easier for me to get in touch with my masculinity. And totally enjoy it. (Something I could never really do when I lived as a man)

I said:

“Some years ago I was walking down the street just here when a man stopped me and said:

“Excuse me madam”

I was just beginning transition and I was so delighted. I loved him calling me ‘madam’.

Only then he looked at me again and started to apologise.

There he was, telling me how sorry he was.

Over and over again; and I couldn’t understand why, until it finally occurred to me that after reading me as a woman he was now reading me as a man. And he was apologising because for many men there is no worse insult you give a man that treat him him as a woman. Or call him one.

It was one of those moments when I was so glad to be trans; because the misogyny is so prevalent in our society that it mostly remains hidden below sight and we cannot se it. 

But this was one of those moments when it came to the surface, and I could see it. And understand also that I had internalised this misogyny as a boy, without realising it, and it was the main reason I was so frightened and so ashamed of the woman within me.

Because it’s no coincidence that the countries which treat women the worst are also the countries that treat LGBT people the worst too. And the fight for trans rights, especially, and for women’s rights, too, go hand in hand.

Often the hostility and abuse we encounter is so profound and so dangerous that we are forced to conceal who we are. And how wonderful that here today we can be visible and defiant together.

I want to dedicate this moment, standing here with you all, to those sad men of the Scottish Defence League who are apparently gathering at Waverley station. And to the man who was so busy staring at me and my partner as we walked along hand in hand that he tripped over a dustbin.

Not to mention the man who was so busy staring at me and my daughter walking along together that he drove his car into a brick wall.

Prejudice and hatred are powerful forces in this world but in the long run stronger still are the forces we are displaying as we set out to march together:

Solidarity and Pride.”

And here’s me, urging my audience to march to the barricades.

I don’t think I’ve ever spoken quite like that before. It amazed me. 

And my legs, which were so sore when I nervously set out in the morning, now carried me right on the march to its end.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Conchita and Christ Androgyne and Jesus Queen of Heaven

The tragedies in classic Greek theatre were all created in competition with each other, and I sometimes wonder what would happen if Scottish theatre adapted a similar scheme. Say the current Edinburgh Lyceum production of “Pressure” was competing with the current Glasgow Citz production of “The Libertine” for a top place in the municipal theatres league... 

Perhaps it really would add a certain excitement and urgency and edge to the whole theatrical process.

But then I look at Eurovision and suspect it maybe wouldn’t so good at raising artistic standards....

I missed Austria’s entry, the only one I really wanted to see, and didn’t stay up for the results. And was so happy this morning to see that Conchita Wurst won. 

And then this morning someone sent me an image of Christ Androgyne, who may or may not also be the Conchita who won, and I would show it you here if I was better at working with images, and the coincidence struck me because I am so engaged in the forthcoming revival of GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN, working on the press release in fact...

...and remembering at the same time the young bearded queer person I saw in full make-up gathering all their courage to walk down Brick Lane.

That was last week when i was staying in a hotel nearby, and a bit nervous about it, I guess because it made me think of all the times people used to laugh at me and pass remarks at me and shout abuse at me when I walked down the street. And how frightening and distressing it all was.

And the inspiring thing about that young queer and Conchita is that they boith have the courage to display their male femininity and defy that kind of ridicule.

As for Christ Androgyne, I was just on my way to church, as it happened, and wearing a nice dress. Just like my mum used to, I realised... I was a little late, and the church was full, and at first I couldn’t see an empty seat.

Which pleased me, because my church (Augustine United http://www.augustine.org.uk/) is a beautiful vibrant inclusive congregation and I love being part of it.

The service was beautiful, inspired by an engaged spirituality that is about creating a better world.

And it left me thinking of how, in spite of everything, we somehow still need a spirituality that is open both to the masculine and the feminine, and that is about lived loving experience of the world.

And that, as I try to do in my JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN, it matters to create theatre that reflects and expresses and celebrates that liberating sense of sacredness. And that encouraged me in this mad enterprise.

And then, as Jesus Queen of Heaven, I wanted to

Bless the brave young queer walking proudly down Brick Lane

For their courage inspires courage in others


Bless Conchita, the beautiful singer, for their song brings so many hope

And in spite of mockery and oppression

Like the phoenix we will rise....

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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Me and those pesky CATS

The most difficult thing about this time of year is probably that this is the time when they announce the CATS awards.

CATS stands for Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland and they’re a really well intentioned attempt to raise the profile and celebrate the achievements of Scottish Theatre.

It pains me that as a theatre community we haven’t been able to come up with any better than an imitation of London West End’s theatre awards, and I really do think we could do with something better, if I just knew what it was...

But what pains me more, if I’m honest, is that I’ve never won one. And then I get cross with myself for caring.

They got off to a bad start with me with my FAUST.

Actually my FAUSTS: Part One and Part Two. Round about four and a half hours of theatre I was and remain immensely proud of, and beautifully produced by the Royal Lyceum back in 2006.

Working on Part One helped keep me sane while my partner was dying of a brain tumour; and writing Part Two helped me recover from her loss. The whole project is incredibly close to my heart.

In Goethe’s original, Part One ends with the usual destruction of the main female character; but in Part Two something extraordinary happens. The whole work becomes a beautiful and revolutionary affirmation of the power of the feminine. And he ends the work saying:

“It’s through the female
that the world’s set free”.

It’s the Poet who speaks those lines. The poet was a character I invented who in Part One was a man and in Part Two had become a woman. This mirrored my personal journey from John to Jo which I was going through at the time, and maybe that very public coming out added to my vulnerability to the disappointment of the project not winning a single award.

Some critics and members of the public didn’t quite understand Part Two; and looking back I suspect it provoked a little bit of misogyny and transphobia.

Although I didn’t know it, I was also very ill at the time with heart disease; and my mind’s association of the CATS with illness and disappointment hasn’t really been helped by the failure of my next two plays to even win a nomination.

“Every One” and “The Tree of Knowledge” really did deserve better than that. 

And I won’t be going to the awards ceremony at the Citz. But I congratulate everyone nominated and wish them all luck and success.

I’m sure they’ll understand if my smile muscles appear a little strained. It’ll be because I’ll be reminding myself, yet again, that in the long run of things awards really, really, do not matter.

What matters is continuing to create. And continuing to say what needs to be said.

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

Overcoming emotional abuse

“Children should be seen and not heard”.

So often I heard this appalling nonsense as a child. And

“Want doesn’t get”.

The general belief seemed to be then, and sadly so often is now, that to listen to children and respect their wishes would somehow “spoil’ them.

I certainly wasn’t spoilt. I was damaged instead.

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot the past week as I’ve been working with Chris Goode 
(http://chrisgoodeandcompany.co.uk/) on developing a new theatre piece on what it means to be trans*.

My experience as a child seems to be the best place to start; it’s certainly no use looking for any kind of tradition because there isn’t one.

One of the things the week has forcibly reminded me is that it wasn’t until i was in my forties (1992, to be precise) that “The Crying Game” was released that I saw a dramatic portrayal of a trans person as a sympathetic human being and not as a monster or a grotesque.

For the very first time...

It reminded me once again that up till middle age, quite apart from the universally hostile prejudice, I’d had to somehow form myself in the almost total absence of good and accurate information.

No wonder it was hard.

I got haunted last week by an old school photograph. Wiseman’s House, Clifton College, maybe 1966.

It was a vile institution in those days. Bullying was built into the brickwork. By then I knew I wanted to be a girl; knew, too, that if that was revealed my life would quickly be made unbearable.

My mother was dead. I was estranged from my father. My brothers were ten years older. There was no help available. No help of any kind. I felt completely alone.

In the past I’ve always focussed on the suffering in the picture. The emaciation (I would never eat); the bent shoulders; the air of unbearable tension and strain.

Chris helped me see this differently. “You’re the only one”, he said, “the only one who knows where they’re going and knows how to be in this world”.

And it’s true. “See how you’re looking at the camera”, he said. “Look at the incredible intensity of your gaze”.

And I did. And it’s as if I saw myself for the very first time.

And saw myself as more than a victim of extreme bullying and emotional abuse: but as a survivor.

And more than a survivor. As a young transwoman lacking even the words to describe herself (words like ‘transgender’ were not then in current use) who knew that in order to survive I had to go deep underground.

A brave young transwoman who couldn’t even conceive the freedoms she would come to enjoy but who could wish for one thing, with every fibre of her being: to become a writer.

I was afraid of telling anyone that wish. And at that time, my instincts and desire to be a performer had been silenced.

That’s why it took me twenty years to find my way back into the theatre and find my voice as a writer; and, to begin to find myself as a performer, another twenty years after that.

And here I am.

I couldn’t have wished for a better week. As anyone who’s seen his work will know, Chris Goode is one of the bravest and best theatre makers around. A totally wonderful collaborator. A real joy to work with.

And all this happening while back home in Edinburgh, my monologue was one of those being performed as part of the acclaimed NTS “Dear Scotland...” project in the National Portrait gallery. And while other performance slots were falling into place - at Rally & Broad (Counting House 23rd May), the Sunday Assembly (Summerhall 25th May) and Jo Caulfield’s Speakeasy (Scottish Storytelling Centre 10th June). And an amazing creative team is falling into place around me to revive “Jesus Queen Of Heaven” at ArtSpace@St. Marks during the Fringe.

So I look back at my young self in that dark suffering place and feel so very proud.

“You made it happen”, I tell her, “You made it happen with the intensity of your wish”.

To their credit, the National Theatre of Scotland funded our first week’s exploration.

Let’s hope we get the chance to continue.

As dear Jesus says: “Ask, and it shall be given you”.

And I’m certainly asking.

And I know that if it’s the right thing wanting often gets.

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