Monday, June 30, 2014

Resisting oppression with a smile

Yesterday I wrote about smiling. How it helps in rehearsals to smile. And a dear friend responded by saying she might try that out in life.

And suddenly her response brought back a whole heap of memories when smiling was impossible.

This was in the early stages of transition when I used to encounter a lot of hostility and abuse in the street.

I became adept at walking fast, head down, not meeting anyone in the eye. Staying alert to dangerous places or people and avoiding them. Crossing the road to avoid groups of adolescents. Especially adolescent girls. Avoiding groups of men smoking outside pubs.

My journeys through town became very erratic. They involved a lot of zigging and zagging; and it still wasn’t enough to avoid the derisive laughter, the nasty remarks, or the derogatory conversations about me that would go on in my presence as if i wasn’t there.

The problem was I was afraid. And people pick up on fear.

And as well as being afraid, I was ill at ease with myself. My new identity was a kind of ill fitting skin that still chafed me. And people pick up on that too.

Like many of us, I pinned my hopes on surgery. But the Thai surgeon I had chosen turned me down because of my recent heart surgery, and I felt devastated for a while.

Another dear friend had had facial surgery - and how I had envied her! - but that was not an option for me either. And for the same reason.

I was determined that, surgery or not, I would live the life I knew i needed to live; and as I became more comfortable in my new skin I began to be able to look people in the eye, and smile at them too, and the abuse lessened.

It only stopped completely, however, when I finally managed to have a much less invasive form of surgery that simply removed my testes.

The absence of any testosterone producing gland ended the chemical & hormonal war within me: and suddenly I became at peace with myself and with the world.

There’s been no research, as far as I know, on how we perceive testosterone in each other. Something subliminal is obviously at work; because suddenly people stopped finding my appearance incongruous.

And then I really could smile; because I really am at ease with myself and so much more at ease in the world. 

It's not a placatory smile, I should add. There's a kind of fierceness to it that stops dead in their tracks anyone who tries to invasively stare at me.

And generally, post transition, my casual street encounters are so much pleasanter than they ever were when I lived as a man.

Thinking all this today when we had a rehearsal in the church, St. Mark’s, where I will be performing JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

I so hated it there at first. I felt horribly oppressed by the weight of Christian oppression. 

It's not simply a question of the vile stuff perpetuated by fundamentalists now. There is a whole history of sytematic persecution and extermination of our gender non conforming brothers and sisters by Christian missionaries at the time of Imperialist expansion in the 19th century. A story that needs to be properly researched and which remains largely untold.

It seemed to hang in the space about me and I could only resist it by shouting as loudly and as fiercely as I could the words Jesus speaks in the play:

“I never said beware the homosexual or the transgendered or the queer
Because our lives are unnatural 
Or we are depraved in our desires.
I never said that.
I said beware the self righteous and the hypocrite
Beware those who judge others and imagine themselves virtuous...”

Which wasn’t at all fair on either the present or the past congregations of this amazing church, who live now and lived in the past according to very beautiful and enlightened Unitarian principles. 

And also not effective aesthetically. As my dear director, Susan Worsfold, was quick to point out.

And I wonder if it’s possible to create a piece that will smile that defiant smile back at these centuries of past and present oppression.

Laugh at it all, even. Acknowledge the anger but refuse to simply mirror the rage directed at us.

Can it be done? What will it look like?

That is one of the things we have to find out...

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Love of rehearsal

I love rehearsals and always mean to write about them.

But they’re so intense and so intimate and then also change all the time. That makes them hard to pin down and makes me, also, reluctant to make what happens public property.

At least I know now what’s measnt to happen.

At the beginning I didn’t know a thing. I remember sitting in on rehearsals for LOSING VENICE, my first original play to be publicly performed, about this time of year in 1985 without knowing at all what I was supposed to be doing.

I was obviously supposed to be doing something, but what it was I had no idea.

No-one ever told me and I felt too embarrassed to ask.

So there i was with everyone, rehearsing in the middle of the set of ELIZABETH GORDON QUINN, which didn’t help much, listening to actors saying my lines and feeling sorry for them. Sorry for them for having to say lines that I felt sounded so awful.

It was a kind of torture for me, I felt so vulnerable and exposed.

I wanted to hide, and  couldn’t, but did my best sometimes by putting my head in my hands.

This was not a helpful thing to do. The actors all thought I hated what they were doing.

So the first lesson was to smile.

That was what I tried to do in the next rehearsals, not always easy, but as years passed I discovered what i was supposed to be doing and also discovered I could do it.

Then I could smile for real.

The thing I was there to do was see past my own doubts and uncertainties, and the doubts and insecurities of the actors, and the director too, and think objectively about the text.

Was it working? If so, hang onto it. If not, change it until it did.

Difficult skill, I would say. I’m proud of it.

It’s a process that’s supposed to stop on opening night, in fact quite a while before. But it doesn’t, of course. 

With JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN I’m still at it, even though I wrote it in 2009 and have performed it a good many times since.

Which makes me realise, yet again, how hard it is to write a good play. 

I’m actually intrigued to discover that even though I’m rehearsing to perform I can still think about the text.

I wrote a radio play once called TORQUEMADA (a translation and adaptation of a beautiful book by Galdos) and the producer unexpectedly asked me to play the butler in a scene. I was so excited at having to say “Dinner is served, sir”, or whatever it was, that i completely failed to notice that actually the scene could be rewritten far more economically and effectively.

It’s like there’s two different compartments of my brain, that don’t always work together. And when I’m performing something written by someone else then usually the writing bit has to turn itself off.

Not always easy. But somehow a huge relief.

Even in rehearsal, as a writer I feel alone. The one thing I love about rehearsing as a performer is the feeling I belong.

I still remember so vividly feeling that the first time I was involved in rehearsing a play, way back in 1964 or 5. It was the first time I think I really felt at home in a group of people. The first time I felt I truly belonged.

And that was how I found my vocation in theatre. As an actress. How sad it got tangled up in my fear and shame of being trans.

Sad that I lost twenty years before I finally somehow found my way back as a writer. 

Sad it’s taken another thirty years to find my way back as a performer.

But how extraordinary that I have. Mad also, at this moment, to be doing it in the crazy uncertainties of the Fringe.

But all that lies ahead. What’s happening now is patient hard labour.

But what a joy. What a gift to be alive...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Forgiving the Just Festival

I sometimes think that the key to surviving as an artist in this extraordinary hostile world is not simply one’s talent or skill; but one’s capacity to forgive.

Forgive, especially, those who reject you or are vile to you. 

And there will be many of those.

My plan this year was to present my GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN in response to an invitation to the Just Festival.

It was the third time they’d invited me. Each time they’d got cold feet at the last minute; but this year looked like it would be different. 

There was a plan to make trans people and spirituality the theme of the Festival. I felt to hopeful.

Until the script was sent to the Just Festival Committee. Who eventually told me:

The play represents Jesus, God made flesh, in the flesh of a transsexual woman and the board felt that this was an interesting and engaging concept that is certainly worthy of exploration and that to do so in a church would make a powerful statement.  It would require people who profess faith in "God made human" to consider what it means for God to become incarnate and to take part fully in the human experience, the experience of all humans regardless of their gender identity...  “

Which I guess was a promising start. However, it doesn’t take much experience of rejection notes to know that there’s a nasty 'but' around the corner:

...”However, to do justice to the subject matter, the Board felt that the play would need to be rewritten from scratch.  This is because that the Board felt that there were issues with the script that were too great for the existing script simply to be re-worked, that the play requires more than simply certain lines or passages to be excised or re-written.”

The Board never really managed to make clear what these issues were; and even if they had, I expect I would have been too angry and hurt to listen.

This letter arrived in February, when it  seemed to me to be too late to find another venue for the show. My rage was so intense that i wanted so fiercely to denounce them.

Accuse them of hypocrisy and cowardice and worse. Remind them that Jesus said “Those who are not for me are against me” (Luke 11:23) and say how sad that they should be siding with the likes of the Russian Orthodox Church and he Southern Baptist Convention in seeking to silence me.

While I don’t know the members of the Committee personally, I do know members of St. John’s Congregation. In fact some of them are my oldest friends. And I know them to be decent, sincere people doing their best to do good in the world.

I like their Rector too, Markus Dunzkofer. He seems like a decent man.

Thinking of all this stayed my hand. And I’m glad. The internet is so full of hatred and denunciations, and I don’t want to add to them.

Strange to come to that conclusion and then eventually, and a bit painfully, click on the Just Festival website and find forgiveness is the theme of their festival.

Dear them. And I remember Jesus, too, advised us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Three days into rehearsal, and I am trying to understand him. Impossible, obviously; but try to feel, even if remotely, what it might be like to be him.

It was Rev Fiona Bennett. of Augustine Untied Church  ( who encouraged me; and Rev Maud Robinson ( who found us their space. 

And I owe them so many thanks.

But maybe I should thank the Just Festival too. For it was them who initially helped me overcome my fears and hesitations and resistances and make me determined to put the show on.

So thank you, Just Festival, for all my rage at you. I wish you success.

And I hope we both manage to light even a little light in this dark world.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

R.I.P. David MacLennan

It’s characteristic of David MacLennan, somehow, that the first time I encountered him I was absolutely unaware he was there.

It was only much later I understood he was one of the co-founders of 7:84 and so would not only have been on stage but would have played an incredibly important part of “The Game’s A Bogey”, the first show of theirs I saw and which was to have so profound an influence on my life.

It was their second show, I believe, after “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil” - a beautiful piece of work about the Clydeside revolutionary, John Maclean, and it moved me to the depths of my being.

The play’s unobtainable now and I cannot quote from it. But I can quote from John Maclean himself; and re-reading his beautiful words reminds me how powerfully they were used in the production:

my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was "Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill", and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed.”

I was struggling to complete a PhD thesis at the time on Calderón and seventeenth century Spanish drama and it was making less and less sense to me.

What 7:84 were doing at that time opened my eyes to a completely new understanding of what could be achieved thorough theatre.

I can’t say it influenced my writing - at that time I didn’t even know I was going to be a playwright - but it did completely change my life.

It was one of the factors that led me to give up my PhD and step off the escalator of middle class expectations I felt myself trapped on. I became a bus conductor in Anstruther, and then a student nurse in Kirkcaldy, because I wanted to understand what real life was about.

Uncanny to read in Joyce McMillan’s beautiful Scotsman obituary yesterday that David did something similar when he dropped out of Edinburgh University.

He was lucky enough to know exactly what he wanted and so to meet the right people to help him get there.

My path was more tortuous; and he disappeared from my life completely in the intense struggle to establish myself as a writer, bring up my children, and maintain my relationship with my late partner.

We didn’t meet again till 2009, when my “Apple A Day” was put on in Oran Mor and the Traverse. One of the many things I came to love about him as an artistic director was that he was not afraid.

He was not afraid of trusting his own instincts; he was not afraid of failing every once in a while; and he was not afraid of saying no.

All that, and an amazing generosity in him that helped give you courage.

Like so many people, he encouraged me at the beginning of a new career. I’m still amazed that it was him gave me my first job as an actor - in my “Sex, Chips and The Holy Ghost”. He was such a positive presence in rehearsals, and such a source of down to earth wisdom; I remember him sitting at the back in our only rehearsal in the venue. Straightforwardly and without anxiety reminding us to speak loudly and clearly in that place’s difficult acoustic.

Just before the show began, my acting partner would go off to have a fag by the stage door, and I would wait, trying to meditate, trying to compose myself, before David’s always welcome appearance.

I would always tease him about his always immaculate socks, that invariably and miraculously matched his outfit; and he would always laugh and give the credit to Juliet, his wonderful and much loved partner; and then we would take the lift and the labyrinthine passages he was somehow so playfully proud of for the way they secretly led backstage. 

There was an earthed straightforward kindness to him that always gave me comfort; and before I knew it me and the other David, my acting partner, would find ourselves on the unbelievably dark and rickety stairway leading to the stage.

Listening out for his famous introduction to his audience. And yes, this was a splendid time to switch off our mobile phones; and I was struck over and over again by the mutual knowledge, affection and regard between him and his public that I think is at the heart of all successful theatre.

And then we’d be on stage and I’d be calling after him “Mr MacLemon” - my character not being very god with names - to tell him we were cancelling the performance to exorcise the audience.

He took it all in good part, of course; and somehow in my imagination the name has stuck.

Dear Mr. Maclemon. You were such a beautiful man. It makes me cry to think how much I miss you. I know many many people will have cried over you; for you were so deeply and so widely loved.

But somehow I’m not sure you’d want that. What I loved about you most of all was that you believed in pleasing an audience; and doing so in a way that would change the world. Make it better, somehow; even in the smallest of ways.

And you’d want us to keep on doing that.

And I will, Mr. MacLemon. I promise.

I’ll do my best....

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Jesus Queen of Heaven: making a trailer. Saying a prayer...

When you're making a film and they say "Action!" then, right enough, you generally have to do something.

Open a door, walk to the spot you're meant to stand on, look a certain direction, say something...

And all the while ignoring the crew who may be remarkably close to your face, and looking anxious maybe, certainly concentrating hard and hoping you'll do it right...

It's an odd process. trying to look and sound completely natural in an utterly unnatural situation, and it amazes me that these days I should somehow feel so at home in it.

Making this trailer, however, was very strange

When Stuart Platt, the film-maker, said "Action" I was supposed to do nothing.

Or at least not move. Just look. Look calmly and with presence at the camera as it came slowly closer.

And then afterwards I thought: did I actually do anything?

Because it was Stuart who actually made the film.

And it did take hours, and I must have done something, because when I got home at about seven that night I went straight to bed. And slept for hours and hours and hours...


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