Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Empathy Machine

Last week I experienced an empathy machine. The Machine To Be Another uses virtual reality techniques to enable you to begin to see the world through another person's eyes.

At FLUPP, the literary festival that was this year in the City Of God, we were invited to experience the world through the eyes of the parents of young black men who had been murdered by the police.

When I put on the head set listening to a mother's voice in my head; and when I looked down I saw her legs instead of mine. Her hands instead of mine.

So when she held the photograph of her dead son, i held it too.

He was such a gifted child, I heard myself saying, he loved life and he loved his family.

Ho loved football.

And I hand back the photograph to the young woman who is in the room with me and, as she hands me a football, a performer in the 'real' room with me hands me a football and I find myself holding it.

Football was his passion, football was his life. And i find myself in another room in front of a display cabinet of all the trophies he had won.

And for his birthday he loved chocolate cake.

And now I'm holding a piece of the cake, and I'm eating it, and it feels sticky and it tastes sweet.

And if I understand her correctly, she was sure he wasn't involved in drugs, he loved football too much....

And I find myself standing in one of the alleyways of the favela, looking at a memorial to him and to his friends, all killed on the same day.

But even if he was, even if he was involved in drugs, he had the right to be tried, we all have that right, and the police had no right to kill him.

And then it was over, and someone took the ead set off, and there i was, blinking a little in disbelief, back in the tent of the City Of God schoolyard, and smiling at the kind faces of the performer and technician who had been there with me.

The sound track was created from interviews with the mother concerned, using her voice, and the images were filmed in her own home.

It's a remarkable and beautiful idea, developed by an idealistic group dedicated to using technology to develop human empathy on a world wide scale.

it's been developed in an extraordinary arts/techno lab in Barcelona

And this November alone ahs been travelling to Bogota and Delhi as well as Rio de Janeiro.

It seems obvious this has huge potential as a tool for conflict resolution.

And how would it be, I wonder, if it allowed government ministers to understand the experienc of those whose lives have been destroyed by benefit curbs...

Or what would happen if those victims were able to see the world through the eyes of the individuals who are implementing them?

Or if the parents of the murdered children were able to see the world through the eyes of the frightened and damaged human who did the killing?

Would that be possible?

And - of course - I find myself longing to write scripts for it....

The young man who developed the project in Rio attended one of the rehearsals  of Queen Jesus with the homeless choir came away with tears in his eyes...

And his machine is so needed everywhere just now.

So needed in the USA, as more and more anguished voices in that hate-filled nation are beginning to understand

Everywhere in this increasingly hate-filled world.

I have been so dismayed to the reactions to the death of Fidel Castro.

Those who were praising his achievements as a revolutionary leader hating and being hated by who who want to condemn him as a vicious homophobe who imprisoned LGBT people in internment camps.

But it should be possible, it really should, to understand Castro as a complex, flawed human being who, like all of us, did good and evil in the world.

And it should be possible for us to respect the fact that we will all have different views about him.

We need to be able to empathise with each other even in these small things.

Never mind the really big ones.

As for me, I had to leave the machine to go on stage to do what I could to promote empathy and fellow feeling and compassion.

In a much older empathy machine called the theatre....

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

trying to keep the light shining

Terrible things are happening in the City of God.

There was a police raid on the favela last Saturday which led to a firefight.

Later that morning, a police helicopter crashed nearby, killing all the crew.

Following that, police intensified what are euphemistically known as their ‘operations’.

As a result of that, young men started to disappear from their homes on Saturday night.

And then on Sunday morning, distraught families searching the overgrown areas of wasteland in and around the community recovered the bodies of 7 young men, some bearing signs of torture, which they placed in the town square.

Following that, the Police sealed off all access to the favela, preventing people going to and from their work.

Following that, the local clinic closed, depriving people of crucial medical care.

And following that, the police announced that their ‘operation’ would continue indefinitely.

Only the week before, I had been a judge at the World Slam competition, and the Brazilian poet won, and the whole amazing and unique Book Festival that is FLUPP closed with music and dancing and with joy and hope and celebration.

And the day before that, I’d been performing QUEEN JESUS there.

But the hope and the possibility for a better world that all that represented…. feels as if it has been snuffed out.

So I’m left, like so many of us, feeling helpless.

Asking myself what is the point of putting on a white dress and climbing up onto a stage and pretending to be Queen Jesus.

It does feel a little as if it's a waste of time.

But then it’s not as if this blatant cruelty and injustice has just been invented.

It’s not as if it’s a new thing for our economic and political structures to be breaking down; or for those who benefit from them to be resorting to brute force to defend their interests.

We began to see all this coming way back in 1968.

This madness, this violence, this self-destructive folly and injustice has been present all my life.

It’s just that the self-protective bubble I used to protect myself has burst; and now, with wide open eyes, I have to look out at the state of the world.

And my fear, my anger and my disgust will not make it go away.

So if I ask myself what I should do the answer is actually still the same.

However ridiculous or futile or absurd it seems, I have to go on speaking the truth as I see it.

Trump and the Brexiters may go on deluding themselves with their talk of walls but no matter what they say or what they do they cannot stop the change that is coming.

They and we have no choice but to acknowledge that we all belong to the one world and we are all in this together.

And we have to act on this knowledge.

So it’s important to dedicate the work to those young men who died so horribly in the wasteland, and also, hard as it is, to those military policemen who died in the helicopter.

For one day we will come to know we are all one people in the end.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Gentileza or kindness.

We were travelling through an endless dreary underpass in the port area of Rio de Janeiro. 

It was the usual hellish, frightening and repulsive kind of place where you often see the makeshift encampments of the homeless.

But even they seemed to have been cleared away, and there was no human presence to relieve the dismal monotony.

Until I began to notice the panels.

There they were, in their remarkable lettering, painted on each of the pillars of the flyover.

Impossible to read what they said, as our taxi sped past, trying to escape this accursed place as quickly as possible, but one word kept standing out:


And a sentence:


Kindness. From Kindness comes kindness.

And it was such a strange message to find in such harsh surroundings.

Apparently they were painted by a man who lived on the streets who came to be known as O Profeta Gentileza. A tall emaciated man with a long white beard who wore a white robe and who, when he wasn’t painting the fifty six pillars of the flyover, walked the streets all over the city carrying his message on a placard in one hand and flowers in the other.

There’s something very inspiring and something very futile and sad about this man painting his thoughts over flyover pillars where they could never be read.

And after his death in 1996, with his artworks becoming increasingly damaged and vandalised, the town council decided to cover them in grey paint.

And so it looked as if they were gone.

But that wasn't the end of the story: they were missed, their absence was mourned, and after a massive public campaign the murals were restored.

And here they still are, in all their eccentric glory.

And a cynic might say that the traffic still roars by regardless.

When I despair about the future of theatre and its intractable problems as a labour intensive craft in a capital intensive economy, I feel my attempts to create beauty in this form are really futile.

About as futile as writing messages on a flyover.

But even as the cars race by, fleeing one appalling traffic jam and on their way to the next, at least a precarious trace of the prophet's vision remains.

A fragile hope and belief that things can be different.

I’ll remember this man with gratitude. But I won’t start painting messages of peace and love on motorways.

I’ll keep writing plays.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sacred theatre in a private space

What is happening in the world is a nightmare. 

It’s no consolation that I saw it coming. I remember writing when I set up my website some time in the nineties that our democratic institutions were plainly inadequate for the massive changes confronting the world.

The UK votes for Brexit; the US votes for Trump. As Noam Chomsky says, it is extraordinary that we should choose so clearly to accelerate our self destruction.

All I can do in the face of all this is keep making theatre.

Creating it every way I can.

On November 6th I was invited to perform JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN in a private house.

I said yes because I wanted to experiment. I wanted to see if it was possible to turn up at an unknown space late in the afternoon, arrive with empty hands, and perform the show to an audience that night.

It was a theatre producer who invited me to do it in his wife’s family’s house.

An old house, by Sao Paulo standards, I’d guess dating from the 1920’s, built by a Lebanese immigrant to Brazil who wanted somewhere big enough to bring his family over.

In the last few years it’s fallen into disuse, and my friend is slowly beginning to reclaim it.

I’d asked him to provide bread and wine and candles; suggested a fee which he undertook to collect from his guests. Which he did; and before I left for my hotel gave me at least double in notes in an old cardboard box.

The room I was to perform in was big enough to seat 27 people crammed together and with just enough space for a small table to serve as an altar, two wooden boxes to put candles on, and a desk lamp in each corner.

It was lit by two old desk lamps, which I found somewhere, the rather gorgeous light fitting in the centre of the room, and the candles which I’d asked my friend to supply.

I poured the wine into plastic shot glasses which I placed on a tray, found a white table cloth for the altar, and used my rainbow scarf to wrap the bread in.

It couldn’t have been simpler. And it worked.

I won’t forget those 27 faces lit by candlelight, all focussed so intently on trying to understand a foreign language, some with tears rolling down their cheeks…

This was sacred theatre.

And it strengthens me, somehow, to know it can be done. That it can work artistically and economically.

Because, faced with the hatred that surrounds us,  a theatre based on compassion and empathy may be the most effective weapon that we have.

And we need to keep finding ways to create it. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Queen Jesus in Belfast and the City of God

Renata Carvalho is a force of nature in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

She is subversive, revolutionary - and also theologically orthodox.

Her name means ‘born again’. Which is exactly how she is: having left her male identity behind, she has been reborn in her true self. 

Just like so many of us. Just like me…

And Jesus tells us we must all do that: that we must be reborn again to enter the Queendom of Heaven.

The church teaches us that when God came down to earth She did not take the form of the powerful or the priestly or the rich, but instead the form of the oppressed and the poor.

And so now it would make absolute sense for her to take the form of a travesti - for so long considered the dregs of Brazilian society, associated with prostitution, drug taking and early death.

A group of people still denied access to education, health care, housing, gainful employment, and even to their own names.

Which is why Renata had to travel to Belfast under her male name…

She brings to the part all the anguish and rage associated with her identity; but also the courage, the energy, and the ferocious wit all incarnate in the fascinating, powerful, authoritative, charismatic and extraordinarily beautiful being that she is on stage.

It’s a total joy to watch her; partly because her interpretation is so radically different from mine in so many ways, and yet is also so rigorously faithful both to the text and the essential spirit of the play.

And I’m so happy with the incredible success the play has enjoyed in Londrina and Sao Paulo - every performance sold out, a waiting list of people waiting for returns, unanimous and high profile critical acclaim.

Not to mention the interviews and the profiles in websites and the straight press. I think this may be the first time a travesti has received such due recognition as a serious and accomplished theatre artist.

And this is having an effect on the fierce and ongoing debate about trans rights in Brazil.

Yesterday I was talking to a gifted and beautiful young travesti who was telling me, with tears in her eyes, of how much the play means to her and her sisters. Of how it has given them encouragement and hope.

And that’s the thing that makes me proudest of all.

Tomorrow and Saturday Renata performs the play in the Outburst Arts Festival.

I can’t imagine the impact the work will have on Belfast audiences. But I hope this will be the first of many invitations for her to perform in Europe.

While she performs in Northern Ireland, I will be performing in Brazil. I will be at FLUPP: at the Literary Festival of the Peripheries. 

This is a remarkable institution: a book festival that takes place in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. This year it is happening in the favela of the Cidade de Deus. The City of God…

I am collaborating with  Uma  Voz (with one voice), a choir whose members are all homeless or live in dire poverty. Together we are going to use parts of the text and their song to create new liturgy of defiance and of hope.

So the work goes on across continents: 

All of us here to love and to be loved.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

I will not lose hope

There was once a woman who wanted to do good in the world. 

Her name was Justina, and her desire was so great that she stumbled into summoning the powerful spirit of power and despair.

And he offered her the power she was after in return for her soul.

And when she hesitated, he said:

“what's a soul? A bag of air. A little wind. Sign here”.

And she does.

Everything goes wrong of course. The power that she wanted does not bring good to anybody, and she loses the one she loves.

And all the while death’s door comes closer and closer.

In the end the Devil says:

The king sat in her court. She had a soldier, a beggar, a madman and a ghost. And now they've gone and left her.

All but you.

And I will never leave you. I will stay with you always. Even unto the end of the world.


You belong to hell.

Where I live. Not where I belong.

Does it hurt?

It does at first. When we enter it, we cry. We howl with pain and rage. Our skin's so soft, you see. So very tender. But you get used to that. 
Besides, we all wear clothes.

Clothes? In hell?

Of course. It's very civilised.

But doesn't God torment you?

We don't need God. We all torment ourselves.

Which pain is worse?

The lack of light.

Is it always dark?

Of course we have the sun. We have the moon as well. And all the lesser stars. But that is not the light I mean. It is the lack of inner light that hurts. The confusion. The sense of loss. 
But you get used to that.

But that's what it's like here.

Where else do you think we are?

Is there no way out?

Through the door.

I won't go.

You will. You must. The seed must die. Your soul is mine.


How frail a light. How easy to put out. I could do it with my hand. 
They say to some death comes so sweetly, like a friend. But not to me. 
The night is always darkest in the hour before the daylight comes. 
Then, they say, the sun will rise and chase away the spirits of the dark. 
But, till that hour we have to grope our way through shadows and await the dawn.

And she goes out into the slowly growing daylight as the birds sing to announce the coming of dawn.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Two Queen Jesuses. One prejudice.

So me and Renata check into the same hotel.

Two Queen Jesuses, one reception desk.

The reception staff are polite and friendly and attentive.

I give my passport, which is in my name, Jo Clifford, and in my gender, female.

(My gender at least how our society understands it).

The politeness does not end.  The attentiveness continues. Someone comes to help take my luggage up to my room.

Renata gives her identity document. Which is in a male name.

Suddenly the politeness disappears.

And Renata, this gracious, magnetic, warm and profoundly gifted human being, is confronted with deep  and humiliating prejudice.

The outward expression of a set of values that refuses to acknowledge her as a human being.

She tells me this without rancour or rage. Daily she must confront this prejudice in the most mundane encounters.

Life must go on. This does not leave room for rage. 

But I keep raging. No-one should have to suffer this.

I rage on behalf of the beautiful gifted, talented young trans woman I also met last night  who lacked the possibility of gainful employment for so many years that she was driven to attempt suicide.

I am proud, too, that my play has given her the opportunity and the confidence to display her gifts to the world.

Proud, too, that through my play Renata now has won the visibility and recognition and esteem she so clearly deserves.

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the play’s first opening.

In Glasgay, in the Tron Theatre, back in 2009.

I found myself reliving the terror and the trauma of experiencing all the hatred the play provoked.

Remembering how it awoke in me then the deep nightmare  that drove me to conceal myself, way back when I was fifteen, and felt if anyone knew I wanted to be a girl they would hate me. 

And I knew I could not survive that.

And so I hid, and so nearly destroyed myself as a sexual being and as an artist in the process.

And the long long fight to claw my way back from there.

I understand now that the fear I felt then was not just mine. It was in everybody who oppressed me and insulted me and threatened me as I worked my way up into the light. 

As we all claw our way up into light.

And I don’t understand, when we are all such beautiful human beings deep deep in the heart of us and why, when in spite of all the damage we inflict upon it, we live in so beautiful a world.

“Why do we resist?”, Queen Jesus asks at one point, “Why can’t we celebrate?”.


Thursday, November 03, 2016

White Ted, two travestis, and The Gospel According to Jesus Queen Of Heaven in Sao Paulo

White Ted came into my life soon after my partner died.

I was visiting my daughter and she said, “Dad, you need White Ted”. 

And i said: “But what about you?”

And she said “I’ve got Theodora”.

And she had her lovely man too who was even better than her big brown teddy bear and so I took White Ted home with me, feeling all the more touched because I had never in my life had a teddy Bear.

My father didn’t want to me to have one, I think because he knew he had so badly wanted to have a girl and so was all the more determined I grew up a man.

And Teddy Bears were too soft for boys. 

My upbringing bore a remarkable resemblance to what is now known as “reparative therapy” - a means of supposedly “curing” young trans children and making them grow up in the  biological gender to which they were assigned at birth.

The most important aspect of this particularly horrible form of abuse consists in making sure its victim is kept strictly isolated from everything that could be remotely considered ‘girlish” and raised in surroundings that are rigidly masculine.

A teddy bear was apparently not masculine enough; which was why when I eventually met him in my mid fifties White Ted filled a need I didn’t even know was there.

And he’s with me here in Sao Paulo because he goes with me everywhere.

And among many other things he’s a kind of symbol of my gender non-conformity, which makes his presence here very important with me as I have come to see my play “The Gospel According To jesus Queen Of Heaven” performed in Portuguese by Renata Carvalho.

One of the many things I love about Renata is that she so publicly identifies as ‘travesti’. 

Years ago, when Susie was dying of the brain tumour, i remember speaking at a Playwrights’ conference and when asked to identify myself said

“I”m not a male writer and I’m not a female writer. I’m a transgendered writer”.

And looking back I can see so clearly how somehow my state of exhaustion and grief opened me up to a profound truth about myself.

I had to use the word “transgendered’ because there was no other.

But it doesn’t truly express who I am, because I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a state of transition from ‘male’ to ‘female’.

Some of us can see very clearly that our original ‘maleness’ was terrible mistake, and that we always were truly ‘female’.

But I could never do that. I just knew I was not a man.

But then who was I? I never really knew.

I accepted the label “transgender” because when I was young there were absolutely no names for someone like myself. No names at all.

I was somehow unspeakable.

And ,believe me, almost any word is better than none.

So I’ve made do with it.

But what a joy, somehow, to come across an interview Renata gave last week when she, too, said

“I am not a man. And I am not a woman. But a travesti”.

And so how wonderful that we are working together on this play.

I am seeing the show tonight for the very first time.

I can’t wait.

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