Friday, February 26, 2016

In memory of Freda Alexander: a wise woman, and steadfast in the face of death

The last time i saw Freda it was obvious she was dying. She told me her body wasn’t so good, but in herself she was absolutely fine.

And it was obvious that she was.

She was my spiritual adviser. She was happy to meet me the last couple of times that we met, though she said she wasn’t well enough to give me spiritual advice.

I didn’t want to ask for it, given how ill she was. But she gave it anyway.

Cancer had been a very present, if not consciously acknowledged, presence at all our meetings. So her dying was something I had long anticipated; and Freda treated Death’s coming like the arrival of an old and long expected friend.

Someone, or something she was not at all afraid of; but also someone she was in no particular hurry to meet. Because life, for her, was such an amazing blessing.

Death being someone, or something, to be simply encountered as part of living in the sure knowledge that at the right time it would come.

Every time we’d met in the past she’d helped me hugely with her words. With the wisdom in her understanding of life.With her completely easy and natural acceptance of who I am and her enthusiastic understanding and support of my project to present Jesus as a transsexual woman.

The last thing she gave me was a simple message of love and support for all her trans friends; and all this, coming as it did from someone so deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, meant a huge amount to me.

And then I’d so love the discussions we had about the theory of relativity and its relationship to the coming new social order. I so loved the way she approached spiritual matters with so open a heart and with all the intellectual brilliance of her brilliant mathematical mind.

Those last two meetings when she said she couldn’t give me spiritual direction of course she actually did. Spiritual direction of the most profound and special kind.

She was so happy when I told her so. Because through everything she always wanted to give.

And the gift she gave me was not so much all the wonderful things she said. It was the wonderful way she was: the way she was in the face of death.

Monday, February 22, 2016

rediscovering the fragment of a lost play

Years ago, I was commissioned by the Traverse to write a play about Lorca.
This must have been in the early nineties, when I was seriously beginning to write about being trans.
Not because I wanted to, specially, but because I had to.
And when I thought about Lorca and how I read him when I was 14 or 15 and how deeply he spoke to me without my really knowing why, it became clear to me that it must have had something to do with the fact that he was gay in Spain of the twenties and the thirties, when such a thing was utterly shameful and forbidden; and here was I, a transwoman in Scotland in the nineties, when it was still also utterly shameful and where I was only very slowly and painfully beginning to be able to be open about it.
I realised that Lorca's poems spoke to me so deeply when I was young because, even though I didn't know it at the time, they came from a place of deep repression and the inescapable urge to overcome it. 
And my work was coming from a similar place, too, and that Lorca had helped me find the courage to take the first slow steps to overcome my own repression.
So I wanted to put these into my play, somehow. At the same time, when I was nursing, I had been working on a medical ward where, amidst all the other misery, were some pale and troubled individuals wandering about in the mornings in night wear and dressing gowns.
For a while I had no idea who they were, until someone finally told me that they were the people who had taken overdoses the night before and had had their stomachs pumped out in casualty and were then being held in the medical ward until they'd had their twenty minutes with the psychiatrist.
And then they'd get their clothes back.
So the main character of my play was someone who had attempted suicide, and while unconscious dreamt of a journey through hell.
In Dante's Inferno, his guide through hell was Vergil, the poet who inspired him when he was young. And my guide was Lorca, because he, too, was my poet.
Hell was made up of my memories, and Lorca's life and horrible death, and, because the play was about my early years of internalised repression, became mixed up in my painfully low self-esteem and caused me immense pain to write.
I don't know if it was any good because the Traverse rejected it, and now I've lost the script..
And it ended my long artistic association with the Traverse theatre.
Some fragments of the Lorca play I put into a radio play; and others I put into a monologue I performed for the Lorca Fiesta put on by Northern Stage in 1998.
 I was both coming out as a trans person and coming out as a performer. I was very frightened.
I'd have lost the poem, too, only it was published in a book.
I'd forgotten about the book, too, only Leith Village Theatre asked me if I would perform something for their LGBT Innovators season.
And that helped me remember. And, after many years, finally get round to reading it again.
And discovering that, in spite of the discouragement and shame, it really was pretty good.
At least, that's how I felt until I performed my "Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven" last Sunday and it attracted a certain amount of hatred, and when I went back to the poem I found myself disliking it....
... Until I realised that was all part of the same dreary internalised prejudice and transphobia that led to me doubting the play and the poem in the first place.
And now, as I read and re-read it in preparation for the performance, I begin to understand I have no need to be ashamed of it. But many reasons to be proud.
Not least because it was the first time I'd tried to write directly about being trans.
So it matters a lot to me. And I look forward to performing it tomorrow,  Tuesday night, in the Traverse bar.

And how satisfying to take it back to the very place that rejected it...

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Queen Jesus and the Daily Mail

I knew the man from the Daily Mail getting in touch with me would cause trouble.
It's always a dilemma: do you talk to such people, knowing whatever you say they will try to use against you, or do you not?
I can't stop myself from reaching out to people, it seems, because I spoke to him.
I enjoyed our talk. He seemed a very pleasant and intelligent person. Not that that meant anything...
And sure enough on Sunday the article came out, under the headline: "Unholy Row Over Church's Play Which Portrays Jesus As A Transgender Woman".
There was, of course, no row. The kind people of St Chrysostom's church in Manchester were friendly and hospitable and I performed my play there. The performances were sold out, and the audiences enjoyed them.
The row was manufactured by a fundamentalist blogger based in Australia who alerted the Mail On Sunday to the performance in the hope it would cause controversy.
And the Mail On Sunday obliged. What was remarkable about it was that it referred me respectfully, using the correct pronouns.
This marked a change from the first coverage in 2009 when I was called things like "Sex Swap Playwright" and consistently referred to as "he".
The other remarkable thing was that the paper was a lone voice. No other tabloid joined the "outrage".
And the article's author had clearly had difficulty setting up the "fury". He found only one Christian traditionalist who was willing to be named.
That individual attacked me for referring to God as "mum" on the grounds that Jesus in the Bible always refers to God as "father".
Which he actually doesn't.  Jesus didn't speak the English of the King James Bible. The word he used was the Aramaic word "Abba", which is not altogether gender specific, and which can more accurately translated as "loving parent".
What the journalist predictably omitted, obviously, was everything I said about the Gospels in no way ever supporting anti-trans or anti-gay prejudice. That, on the contrary, in his words and his actions Jesus always reached out to the marginalised and the victims of prejudice.
It's such a source of sadness to me that everywhere throughout the world the opponents to ending discrimination against us should always do so in the name of Christianity.
As Queen Jesus says in the play: "I never said beware of the homosexual or the transgendered or the queer... I said beware the self righteous and the hypocrite. Beware those who judge others and think themselves virtuous. Those who condemn others and imagine themselves good".
And she also says: "Bless those who persecute you, for hatred is the only thing they have. And it doesn't amount to much. And they will lose it in the end.
For whatever they say and whatever they do they cannot stop the change that is coming.
And one day we will all be free."

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

rehearsing 'Every One' and 'Jesus Queen Of Heaven' & the power of theatre

Last night I dreamt I was in rehearsal with an amazing group of women. I felt relaxed and happy and at home.

And when i woke up it was true.

As a writer, I used to dread rehearsals. It seemed to me they were places where my work, and my self, were in danger of being tested to destruction.

But now I enjoy them. I’ve come to understand that it’s not a question of work being tested; but of being with a group of people where we are all doing our best to create something that will do justice to the work. And make it all happen on stage in the most beautiful way we can.

All too brief a day with Chris Goode and Company working on my “Every One” for Battersea Arts Centre reminded me of the truth of this.

Looking back, I can see that my early fears were due to the fact that soon after I really came to accept that I loved acting, loved playing girls’ parts, I came to realise that i would be happier living as a girl. And that was so impossible and terrifying and shameful a thing back then, in the mid sixties, theatre itself became a place of fear and shame.

It took me twenty years to get through that and find my voice as a playwright. But even then I was terrified because I wanted to write so very differently from everyone else , and so assumed that I was wrong.

And then it took another twenty years for me to get back to performing.

And that only really became possible after I transitioned and began living as a woman.

So here I am, high above the rooftops in the King’s Theatre’s utterly beautiful rehearsal room, preparing to perform “The Gospel According to Jesus Queen Of Heaven” in Manchester.

And feeling happy.

I love what happens in a rehearsal room. I love the way a blank and often nondescript space gradually transforms. The way tape on the floor marks the dimensions of the rehearsal area. And a chair becomes a pillar. A row of chairs a table. A little table a stool. Another table the kitchen area. The window is the main door in. And the other wall, in our imagination, opens out into the amazing nave and altar to the East.

And so by the end of the day the nondescript room becomes, in all our minds, a map of the extraordinary and beautiful church, St. John Chrysostom, where the event is happening.

Rehearsing as a writer, I am obviously most passionately involved. But I also try to remain detached, outside the physical process, trying to observe the writing as dispassionately and as skilfully as I can, and change it as the piece requires.

Maybe that’s why I feel such pleasure rehearsing as a performer, and being able to work to make the words i so love come alive through body and through voice.

And not to be so alone. Not so detached, also, but profoundly and passionately involved with my collaborators. Who I also love.

Maddy Costa reminded me the other day of how passionately I believe in theatre as an act of resistance. Resistance to the cruel and destructive society that surrounds us.

One of the crucial ways we resist is through working collectively. Not as isolated individuals competing with each other to make money; but as collaborators and co-workers working co-operatively to create something far far more important.

For me as an individual there’s something else incredibly important going on.

I lost my capacity to perform through those early years of repression and emotional abuse. Repression and abuse are terrible things. They blight so much more than their main target.

But what I’m learning is that it is possible to recover, even if it does take forty years. That those old wounds can be healed. 

And perhaps, in performing, I can communicate to audiences that all our collective and individual wounds do not doom us to a lifetime of powerless repression and rage.

That it is possible to recover our true creative selves. Possible to change the world.

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