2019

What, so I only make end-of-year posts now? Possibly. As a glance at the Gig Archive will show, it has been a busy year. Fortunately it has been a kinder year than 2018, bringing no further losses, and a far more professionally satisfying year. There’s still a lot going on in the headspace, but the rough times in therapy aren’t something I’m ready to write about yet. Maybe later. Maybe never.

I’m not doing the decade round-up because there are too many things I’m angry about from this decade and I’m not going to post about things as if I’d made my peace with them when I haven’t. Besides, I have a theory that decades don’t actually change when you reach the -0 year or even the -1 year, they take until about -4 or -5 to establish their own identities. So I might do that round-up in 2025. Or I might wait until 2022 and look at how things have gone in the decade since the world ended. Either way, I’m not doing it just now.

As for the 2019 round-up… well, why not? It has been a decent year. So here’s what I can remember:

Writing: This feels like the least active aspect of my career this year, though when I stop and think about it I’ve done a fair amount. I wrote two more shows for EAS – Timesync, which was an adaptation of The Tempest mixing Shakespeare’s language with mine, and Eggshells, a huge piece of choral storytelling about the North Berwick witch trials. Given how difficult it is to find opportunities to write for large casts of adults these days, I feel very fortunate to have had this chance, and I love finding ways to challenge actors at different stages of their development. I also started playing around with the idea of adapting Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach’s Lyric Novella and tried a bit of it out at In Motion Theatre’s Write Lines event. I’m undecided as to whether I’ll adapt the rest – mostly because I feel I should ease up on the genderfuck protagonists before I write myself into a rut – but I might.

I keep thinking that I haven’t been writing much fiction this year, and it’s true that I’ve only written one new short story – and that one was another daft Christmas story that I wrote specifically so I could get cheap laughs by Whamrolling people, because apparently that’s who I am as a person. And the short story on which Grave is based was published in Haunted Voices, which was lovely – though I wrote the damn thing so long ago that I keep forgetting that happened this year. However, I did also finish adapting Heaven Burns into a novel, so I suppose I did write a fair old chunk of fiction. Whether it works or not, I have no idea. My plan for 2020 is to stop freaking out about the damn thing and actually send it out into the world like I should have done ages ago.

Teaching: I’ve written about this on Facebook but not over here, so here it is – I really enjoy teaching. I love watching people develop into actors and watching actors develop into better actors. I love being the one to introduce students to practitioners, exercises, new ways of doing and seeing things, and watching them experience it all for the first time or rediscover skills they haven’t put to use in a while. I love what it does to my own practice as well as theirs, because it really is true that you don’t fully understand anything until you’re able to explain it to another person.

Fortunate for me, then, that this year has involved quite so much teaching. I’ve continued working with EAS’ Stage 3 students and took the first Performance class of the year, and in January I began teaching the first cohort of students taking the ATCL Diploma. I designed EAS’ version of the course, helped select guest artists, and celebrated as 100% of the students passed with Distinction. I’m very excited to see where our first cohort will go, and looking forward to welcoming new students in the new year.

Performing: Being broken mentally and physically at the start of 2019, I really wasn’t keen to perform much this year and didn’t seek out opportunities as much as I might have. I did bust out Grave a couple of times, once for In The Works Theatre where I opened for the truly delightful Space Gecko Project, and then for a short run at the Scottish Poetry Library during the Fringe. I also made my debut at Loud Poets, which was an excellent gig that I enjoyed the hell out of (and continued finding thrown sweets in my bag for weeks afterwards). By the end of the year I felt I’d got my mojo back somewhat, so I did a couple of open mics to give the Christmas stories an outing and we’ll see what happens in 2020. I have plans for Grave. I might resurrect Star Cuddie if I decide I need an excuse to dye my hair black again. We’ll see.

Directing: After the fringe in 2018, as I spent my time curled in a ball of physical pain and existential terror, I came to the conclusion that I hated directing and wanted nothing more to do with it. So naturally, I’ve done more of it throughout 2019 than ever, and only one of my gigs was something I specifically sought out. From my students’ work to a Summerhall lab, two Fringe shows (technically three if you count self-directing my own), starting work on my first opera and did preliminary bits on a couple of projects for next year. I’ve been learning to trust my instincts again, and realising that even though last year’s escapades kicked the everloving shit out of me, they somehow managed to yield good things.

Dramaturgy: aka MY FAVOURITE THING. I love working with other people’s texts, I really do. I love getting to know people and finding out what story they’re wanting to tell and what their voice sounds like, and whether they need to be gently coaxed or gently terrorised. This year brought opportunities to work with first-time writers, established writers, writers exploring new disciplines, and writers who have, as all playwrights should, been dead for three hundred years (closer to 400, but I’d rather quote accurately than count accurately). I was going to get specific and mention each of these projects by name, but they’ve been numerous and my relationship to time is terrible, so I’m worried that I’ll have mentally assigned some of them to the wrong year and will forget things and upset people. Suffice it to say that if I’ve dramaturged your work this year I had an amazing time doing so and I want to geek out over the broad sweep and minute word choices of your scripts again soon.

 

I’m heading into 2020 with a number of projects that really excite me lined up – the main tranche of rehearsals for Cavalleria Rusticana, the R&D week and Manipulate sharing of Canto X (the Dante-inspired thanatheatrical piece on which Flavia and I are collaborating), and the thing I can’t talk about yet. And the other thing I can’t talk about yet. And the other things that are waiting on funding decisions. 2020 looks promising – so if the world completely goes to Hell then I apologise for doing the life equivalent of planning a barbecue on a sunny day.

 

Jen at Cymera


2018

I have not liked this year. Professionally it hasn’t been too bad, politically it’s been ridiculous, and personally it has been overshadowed by loss, painful anniversaries, the rekindling of an old trauma and several months of physical pain. My biggest achievement this year is probably that I’m still standing (albeit sometimes with the aid of a stick) and that by the start of 2019 I’m writing again. And there has been progress, there have been things I’ve been proud of mixed in with the awfulness, so I’m going to use this post to remind myself of that.

2017 was a good year for me. I’d done the 100 Rejections challenge and felt the benefits. I’d had publications, scratches, a residency and a lot of promising meetings. My goals were to do the challenge again, get one of my plays staged, assemble my short story collection and start shopping it around, and to tour the spoken word show I was working on.

Things got off to a good start. I began 2018 with a Tom McGrath Award, allowing me to write another draft of Volante. I’d been given a small grant by Illicit Ink to develop Star Cuddie (the above-mentioned spoken word show about women in astronomy), and I had a scratch lined up at Summerhall and would later debut it at Hidden Door. By the end of February, Flav and I had a work in progress showing lined up at a festival, and I’d just found out that I’d won the ART Award.

Then the HellCat died, and my relationship with the year never really recovered. I don’t want to go into detail about how what happened to him echoed what happened to my parents, or the series of weird coincidences that followed and made the headspace difficult to manage as the schizo brain began screaming “what did I fucking tell you” and basically didn’t stop. Working through the trauma and StPD stripped a lot – honestly most – of the joy out of the things I was doing. It meant the blows to my confidence hit much harder, which led to my ceasing to write anything for my own enjoyment, and to my sending half as many submissions/applications as last year.

So I definitely failed to repeat the 100 Rejections challenge, since I only actually racked up 50 submissions – and ten of those were just in the last month, since I started feeling things again. However, my hit rate has been as high as in 2017. Out of 50 submissions (technically 48, since I had to withdraw two due to the pieces being accepted elsewhere), I made it onto 11 shortlists, which yielded 6 acceptances. While quite a few of my acceptances in 2017 were for small things like getting shorts into new writing nights, in 2018 my applications led to readings and a staging of full works. I also found that the work I’d done in previous years continued to pay off, so 2018 brought me a fair amount of work that I didn’t specifically seek out.

While I scratched and debuted Star Cuddie as planned, I had to put the project on hold after Hidden Door so that I could concentrate on Heaven Burns. The feedback I got from the audiences at Hidden Door was very positive, and I’ve begun some good conversations that will hopefully lead to my putting the show on its feet again in the near future. I’ve also got exciting news about my other spoken word show, Grave, but you’ll hear that when I’m allowed to share it.

The one goal for 2018 that I definitely hit was getting one of my plays staged. Winning the ART Award got me a full Fringe run at Assembly Roxy, something I couldn’t possibly have afforded to self-fund, and I’m incredibly grateful to the Assembly team for all they did for me. What I love about the ART Award is that in both years of its existence, it has supported artistically risky plays. Neither Andy Edwards’ Scribble nor my own Heaven Burns were conventional crowd-pleasers, and while I can’t speak for Andy, I can say that I really appreciate the opportunity I was afforded by the Roxy’s boldness. The value of their support was inestimable, and I’m especially grateful to Luke Holbrook for his interest, guidance and apparently infinite patience.

Of course, the joy of plays that aren’t conventional crowd-pleasers is that they don’t please everyone, and Heaven Burns got the full range of reviews. Some publications loved it, one even nominated it for another award. Some hated it. Some were exactly the people who should hate it. The one piece of feedback that was consistent across the board was that the play strained at the limits of a Fringe time slot, and it’s true – it’s a big play, and it needs a bit more breathing space. It also needs a bigger team and a proper production budget. I have no definite plans for its onward life at the moment, but I’m also currently taking my first actual time off since before rehearsals began, so let’s just see what happens. For now, I’m glad that it happened and grateful to everyone involved for their belief and their work.

In addition to Heaven Burns, 2018 saw Old Bones visiting Prague and Buxton. Over its two short runs it played to full houses and great reviews, and audiences really seem to love the intimacy and interaction of the piece. I’m so proud of Daniel Hird for rising to the challenge I set him, successfully self-directing and getting the show out there into the world. I believe there are plans for future performances, to be announced in due course. And hopefully it’ll make its way to Scotland at some point!

Then, right at the end of the year, there was the staged reading of Volante at the Edinburgh Multilingual Stories Festival (which is honestly one of the loveliest small festivals I’ve encountered). I gave the new draft I’d written courtesy of that Tom McGrath award to Flavia and the new cast, and we spent a couple of days going to town on it. I love coming back to a script after spending a solid chunk of time away from it, and after the darkness of Heaven Burns and Old Bones I was in desperate need of the hope and self-renewal of Volante. Even though it was just a reading and not a full production, it seemed to strike a chord with people. Hiding out in the tech box, watching people come out of the audience and join the actors for a dance on stage after the epilogue was a lovely feeling.

So of my four goals for 2018, I achieved one twice over, put one on hold to facilitate another, and made it to 50% of the other despite adverse circumstances. The only one I failed at completely was finishing the collection and beginning the hunt for a publisher – and even then, most of the work is done so that’s an easy one to pick up now that my energy is coming back. For a year that was so miserable on a personal level, that doesn’t feel too bad.

There were other achievements, too. I did two other performances at Hidden Door – reprising The Ambassador’s Reception with Interrobang & Poetry as Fuck, and sharing a stage with my husband for Interrobang’s The Edinburgh Bible, which we also performed at the Book Festival. I had pieces published by 404 Ink and Marbles Mag. I wrote two plays for the students at Edinburgh Acting School, an adaptation of Tartuffe and a new piece called Deidkist Dolls, which let me explore writing for large casts. I joined the steering group for Theatre Directors Scotland, and I now run the Facebook group and am working on a proposal for a slush fund scheme that has the potential to do something truly radical (big words, I know – but not ones I use lightly).

I should probably illustrate this with pictures, tag people, all that kind of thing. I should probably set goals for 2019. But that can wait. We’ve got just under 48 hours of this strange year left to go. Plenty of time to figure out what to do next, and for the moment I am out of steam.


Picking back up

So that was 2018 and being 35. For all the horrors that await next year, I’ll be glad to be done with this one.

By the end of the Fringe I was completely burned out. It felt like everyone was struggling this August, it was a tough one – and I’d managed to bust my knee in the last days of July, so it didn’t take long to find myself both literally and figuratively limping. Fringe flu got me a few days in, giving me a cough so bad that I cracked a rib, so by the end of the month I was held together by bandages and gaff. I’ve been wanting to write about this year’s Fringe experience ever since, but even now, months later, I don’t have the bandwidth. I was back to work within three hours of Heaven Burns closing and my head has been noisy ever since.

I had anticipated that the anniversary of my mum’s death would be a difficult one. 15 years is a long time, and it had been weirding me out for some time that at 35 I would be 15 years from the last time I saw her and 15 years from reaching the age she was when she died. The schizo brain insists on trying to map all sorts of doom-laden meanings onto that, and events around me were not helping. Much as I hate to get cryptic, I can’t talk about those events – some aren’t my stories to tell, some I don’t have words for. The important thing is that time passed, and the headspace started to recover a bit in November.

I do want to do a Year in Review post and talk about the things I’ve got coming up next year and my goals for 2019, but I think that’ll have to be a separate post. This will do for now.


Heaven Blogs: Opening Day

After two days of previews, today was our official opening. The past few days have felt about a month long and about five minutes long simultaneously.

Our first preview was a bit of a blur. The joy of the Fringe is that you don’t really find out what your get in/get out will be like until the first day, when everyone has moved into the dressing room, the venue is full of people and time is not on your side. By the end of the show we were all completely wrung out, but the audience feedback that we got was positive and enthusiastic and we were all set for Preview #2.

The following day I got a call from Susanna, who plays Christian, letting me know that she was unwell to the point of being unable to stand. My heart breaks for any actor who ever finds themselves in this situation. Being unable to perform sucks massively, and all it takes is breathing around the wrong person, touching the wrong door handle or having the wrong person hand you a sandwich. It’s rubbish, and we missed her badly.

I stood in on book, since we had a decent number of people booked in and didn’t want to cancel at such short notice. It’s been a while since I last performed in anything that wasn’t spoken word, but if you’ve ever seen my spoken word you’ll know that it’s all sneakily theatrical character stuff anyway, so the transferable skills are there. More importantly, Marion and Andrew are absolute stars who handled the new dynamic with ease and supported me through the whole thing. I’m so, so glad to have such a lovely, tight-knit and capable team (and so, so glad that everything went well, since several of my EAS students were at today’s performance!)

Tomorrow we should have Susanna back, and I’ll be so happy to hand back the witchpricker’s needle and go back to my rightful place out front, notebook in hand. It’s been fun, but I love her version of the character, I have no desire to wear the torture bra ever again, and I am itching to see the whole beautiful cast back together.

We’ve also had our first review, and I’m pretty pleased that even when we were one actor down and the understudy was literally limping through the part (I sprained my knee last week and the choice was to use my stick or the script – I chose the script), we got four stars.

Click here to read it. 

Click here for tickets! 

Kevin the Chair

The Chair awaits Susanna’s return.


Heaven Blogs: The End of Rehearsals

This is technically my day off – my last one until September. After two weeks of rehearsal and months of preparation, Heaven Burns is very nearly ready to hit the Fringe!

It has been a gloriously enjoyable rehearsal period, thanks to having a brilliant team. When you’re working on something as intense as this, you need people with a decent line in nonsense to keep you sane and I’ve definitely had that. In between the technical complexities of choreographing violence, navigating the psychological twists and turns of the script, and sweltering in a roasting hot tent, there’s been cake, improvised one-man versions of the show, and quite a lot of dancing to early Britney in full 17th century gear. It’s been immense amounts of fun.

Today my flat is full of freshly repainted props and newly laundered (and subsequently newly bloodspattered) costume bits. I’m very confused by being able to see daylight and my body can’t understand why it’s not lunchtime yet. After lunch I’m going to drag my brain into a different project for a little while, because we all know there’s really no such thing as a “day off” when you’re freelance, only days where you work on different things.

Tomorrow and the next day we’ll meet for line runs and the mad run, and then on Thursday we open. Tickets are available from the Assembly website (and other places, but it’s better for us if you buy them from there). I can’t wait to put this show in front of an audience.

DSCF2564

Susanna Mulvihill as Christian Caddell. Photo by Jen McGregor.


Heaven Blogs #??: Into the Unknown

We started our main tranche of rehearsals today. It’s been a long day, or rather the latest in a series of long days, and the words in my head refuse to arrange themselves in an orderly fashion and be typed out. We launched straight in with a very complex scene, the actors pulled out all sorts of interesting and exciting things, and I’m champing at the bit to get back into the room tomorrow and shape the material we found.

But first, emails and showers and sleep. Let’s pretend this isn’t a non-post for the sake of maintaining the blog, shall we? Look, media content! Check out this gorgeous photo of Marion Geoffray as Isobel, taken by the wonderful Chris Scott. It’s not the one I’ve been posting everywhere else, this is a blog-exclusive (not in any way a consequence of me forgetting to vary the pictures):

IMG_1381.JPG


Heaven Blogs #4: A post that got away from me somewhat

I’ve just spent three incredible days in the depths of the Roxy, watching characters who have existed in my head for three years starting to take shape.

I can’t pretend that I have even the least amount of chill about this. The process of making theatre blows my mind every single time, and this is the first time I’ve had the chance to work this way on one of my own scripts. I’ve watched other people direct my text, I’ve directed other people’s texts, but I’ve never been both writer and director on anything but development pieces.

Over the past few days I’ve found myself saying repeatedly that I know almost nothing about this play. That might sound like an odd thing for the writer to say, but… it’s true. Yes, I poured my research and craft and love and labour into the script. I thought I knew the characters and their motivations inside and out. Then I actually got into the room with the actors and realised how utterly wrong I was.

Letting go of the script is always nerve-wracking. I’m used to that. But when I hand it over to another director, it’s out of my hands. This time I am the director, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to assume a position of complete authority – to say “this is my text, my word on it is final, the actors’ job is to serve my vision”.

The fact that it would be easy is precisely why I don’t do it. It’s far more difficult for me to relinquish control and just trust the actors to use their instincts and intelligence… so that’s what I have to do, because I know how much I love the results this process can yield. Besides, it would do an injustice to this play if directing it were not a leap of (or into) faith.

On Monday I handed the cast over to Flav again. We’ve had a change of lineup, losing our original Isobel, which meant welcoming a new member to the team – the excellent Marion Geoffray of Theatre Sans Accents. Fortunately Marion is a veteran of the Domingues D’Avila experience, having participated in Flavia’s PhD workshops earlier this year, so she fitted right in and it has been thrilling to watch her bring her own unique qualities into the room.

I wish there was a way to describe what happens in the rehearsal room without sounding utterly wanky. Either it sounds boringly hippyish, all about grounding and breathing and repeating the same phrases over and over again, or it’s fanciful to the point of being alienating. I could write about the strange alchemy that takes place when you get the right combination of people and words and energy and music, but… does that mean anything to people who weren’t there? It’s a live performance medium. Everything that has happened these past three days is unrepeatable. It can only exist in the moment, you can’t experience it through my retelling. Even if you come and see it in performance, that will be something different. There’s no way to pin down that feeling when you see something that’s just right for the very first time, and that’s probably for the best since the act of pinning it down would kill it. We aim to create those moments in every performance, of course, but that’s still a very different thing to watching it happen in the rehearsal room – and inevitably, a different thing to seeing it through my eyes. The one thing no audience member will ever bring to this show is the years of living with Heaven Burns in their head beforehand. That’s just me.

Experiences that are impossible to capture precisely in words are infinitely frustrating. It bothers me that I can only tell you that these three days have been amazing and ask you to take my word for it. I want to make everyone who reads this understand that I’m so incredibly excited about this show, and that this script has occupied a special place in my heart for reasons that even I don’t fully understand, and that I feel tantalisingly close to making it into the thing I’ve always thought it could be. I want you to understand that these past few mornings I’ve woken up with my heart pounding with excitement at the day’s work ahead of me, and I’ve never felt that way about a show before despite having worked on many things that I’ve loved. Watching the cast making discoveries and taking me into parts of this fictional world that I hadn’t realised existed is something new and intoxicating, and I’m grateful that I have the chance to do this.

This was not how this post was going to go. The plan was to write something insightful about process and music and being in the moment. But fuck it. This is what I’ve got. I suck at marketing but I occasionally surprise myself with my capacity for candour. Come and see the show and maybe more of this will make sense, I don’t know. Come and see it because that’s how being part of the weird wanky alchemy of theatre works.

Melted

That’s me dying of warm weather on the pavement outside the Roxy on Monday, but it’s also a pretty accurate representation of how I feel right now. Knackered and collapsed but so, so happy.


Heaven Blogs #3: Domingues D’Avila’d

Time to introduce the Heaven Burns team…

IMAG6866

There they are! From left to right, Kirsty Eila McIntyre (Isobel), Susanna Macdonald-Mulvihill (Christian), Flavia D’Avila (movement director), Daniel Hird (understudy) and Andrew Findlater (John).

 

I’m so happy that these guys could all be involved. Kirsty, Susanna and Andrew were in the rehearsed reading back in 2015 and they were always going to have first refusal on their roles if the opportunity to stage the play ever arose. Dan is stepping in to cover a performance before he heads off to drama school. And Flavia…

 

If you know my work, chances are you’re also familiar with Flav. Artistic Director of Fronteiras Theatre Lab, director of the beautiful and award-winning show La Nina Barro, We met during our undergrad at QMU, the hell in whose flames our bond was forged, and we’ve been working together in various capacities ever since. She always encourages me to up my game and hold my nerve, and if I could work with her on every damn thing I ever do, I would.

 

This particular iteration of our working relationship, with me directing and Flavia as movement director, is new to us. At first glance, Heaven Burns probably doesn’t look like the kind of play that requires a movement director – but that’s exactly why I want one. It’s a dense, texty script that could easily slip into inert staging, so Flav’s job is to help me keep it alive and in the actors’ bodies as well as their brains. She’ll also be helping me to solve the problem of the play’s violent moments, finding a way to make them read effectively in a small space.

 

Last Monday I handed the cast over to Flavia for a workshop to introduce them to her way of working. We only had four hours together so it was a short, intensive spurt of activity, and I loved watching it. Although Flav and I ostensibly take very different approaches to our work – I’m all about the text, she’s all about the body – we share a lot of fundamental values. We both spend a lot of time at the beginning of our respective processes building up trust and rapport, encouraging actors to work on instinct and bond as a group, and we both find that this speeds up the later stages of the rehearsal process exponentially.

 

Like me, Flavia makes extensive use of music in her work. Having been in her rehearsal rooms on a few occasions, I’m always intrigued by the pieces she selects for her playlists as she guides the actors through various emotional states. They’re seldom the same songs I would have chosen, they’re often very different in tone and feel, but I can always see where she’s coming from and it’s a constant reminder of how different our cultural influences have been.

 

The actors had each been asked to bring in an object that they felt represented their character in some way. I love this exercise. It seems to make people so nervous because they know their choice makes a clear statement about how they view the character, and that’s a nerve-wracking thing to do at the beginning of the process – particularly when you’ve got the writer in the room and you’re worried that you might reveal that you’ve completely misread things. But honestly, I’ve yet to see anyone get it “wrong” – for me as a writer, what’s interesting is to find out how the actor sees the character, where and to what they connect, and to be reminded that I’m no longer the exclusive holder of knowledge about these fictional people. By the time we do this exercise, the characters are out and living in other people’s heads, being reshaped by someone else’s life experience, they’re not solely or wholly mine any more. It’s a useful exercise in humility at the best of times, but particularly when I’m directing my own writing.

 

I won’t share exactly who brought what and why, since I didn’t ask the cast if I could and I would jeopardise their trust if they thought that anything they say in the rehearsal room might end up here. What I will say is that they all made intelligent, insightful choices, and gave themselves over freely to the exercises they did with their own objects and each other’s.

 

Much of the workshop was spent exploring and responding to objects and the actors’ bodies, creating and recreating sequences of actions and finding ways to link them together and make them correspond. It’s so simple and beautiful. Nothing is choreographed, everything is generated by the actors – yet due to the combination of their instincts, the music and their prior knowledge of the text, I started catching glimpses of the characters and the dynamics between them. It’s exciting, that moment. That’s when it all starts to feel very real, and when I begin to feel certain that the show’s physical language can be found, not imposed.

 

And that, when it comes down to it, is why Flav and I work so well together. Whatever the differences in our approaches, we both believe in the actor as an artist in their own right, a contributor to the creative process rather than just a tool by which a director’s vision can be realised. We care about the process being collaborative and exploratory, rather than hierarchical. I’m excited about the work we’ll do over the next two workshops and what we’ll find during rehearsals in July. Finding the right collaborators makes the task of theatremaking far, far more rewarding and enjoyable.


Heaven Blogs #2: Prima la musica, poi le parole

Music is vitally important to my writing. The first thing I do when I start work on a new play is figure out the soundtrack – not music that will make it into the script directly (usually), but the sounds that feel like the world of the play. It’s one of my favourite parts of the process, not just because it’s useful to me creatively but because the hours that I spend searching for the right pieces always yield a ton of excellent new discoveries.

 

I start by going to YouTube and if I have a piece in mind, I look it up and start wandering through the recommended videos. If I don’t have any specific starting point in mind, I just start typing words related to the world and characters until I find something. Even when I do know which track to start with, it’s often quite abstract. I just go by intuition.

 

In the case of Heaven Burns, my starting point was a song I had heard in a café and Shazam’d – CW Stoneking’s Don’t Go Dancing Down the Darktown Strutters’ Ball. Why that piece? Not a clue. That song didn’t end up on the soundtrack, it just led me to other things that did. The first was another CW Stoneking track, The Love Me or Die, which quickly established itself as Christian Caddell’s anthem.

 

After that I began following links and refining search terms until I somehow found my way to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Luzifer’s Abschied. It’s… weird. Not the most musical of music, and every single character in Heaven Burns would be horrified at how Catholic it is, but it was exactly what I needed to get me into the right place to write some of the more emotionally gruelling scenes.

 

Beyond the YouTube playlist, however, there was another musical influence on the script. I wrote most of the text during August 2015, while I was operating for Lucid Arts & Music’s production of The Secretary Turned CEO. It was a reimagining of Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, blending the original baroque intermezzo with Danyal Dhondy’s original music – all of it beautiful and sparkly, all of it a downright bizarre influence on a dark, moody tale of 17th century witch panics. But somehow it brought out aspects that I hadn’t realised the story and characters would have, particularly where the character of Isobel was concerned. Her story became more romantic and her intelligence got sharper, and both of these things I attribute to the strange juxtaposition of music and subject matter.

 

At the moment I’m supposed to be making decisions about what kind of music, if any, will feature in the show this August. I know what I’d like to do, though time will tell whether I have the resources to make it work. I know that my ideas might completely change in response to the workshop we’ll be doing next week, when I hand the cast over to Flavia for their first movement direction session. I’m fairly certain that none of the pieces I’ve mentioned here will appear in the final show… but you never know.


Heaven Blogs #1: The Origin Story

I’ve picked up a lot of new followers recently, which I imagine has something to do with the EdFringe entry for Heaven Burns going live… which probably means it’s about time I wrote something about the show!

 

The short introduction to Heaven Burns is this: I’ve been fascinated by the Scottish witch hunts since my teens, so when I started writing plays it was only a matter of time before I wrote one on the subject. That play was Heaven Burns, which I wrote in 2015. There was a rehearsed reading at Previously… Scotland’s History Festival that year, followed by two years of looking for a home for the script. After a lot of rejections I was on the point of shelving it, but then the Assembly Roxy Theatre Award came up and I decided to give it one last shot… and I won! Heaven Burns will run for three weeks at Assembly Roxy during #edfringe2018.

 

As we get into workshops and rehearsals I’ll be sharing bits of the preparation process here. Until then my plan is to talk a bit about where the play comes from and the process of creating it, starting today with the very earliest point in its journey – my interest in all things witch-related.

 

I can’t pin down the origin of my interest with any certainty. I was a spooky child and anything with a supernatural element was right up my street. From Babette Cole’s The Trouble with Mum and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch to Bewitched and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, if there was a witch involved, I was sold. The concept of magic made sense to me, possibly because I experienced a lot of powerful hallucinations in childhood and the possibility of growing up to command an army of museum exhibits didn’t seem like a stretch.

 

As I grew up it became increasingly clear that the world didn’t work the way I thought it had. Like all 90s teenagers I dabbled with the kind of magic that has to be spelled with extra letters, but all it did was bring me to the realisation that things like Wicca aren’t for me. I was looking for something that doesn’t appear to be available within reality. Not to mention that styling yourself a witch was just so bloody popular in the late 90s, and I was an angsty pretentious teenager who wanted nothing to do with things that were popular, so I had to find a way of satisfying my interest while still feeling different.

 

God, being in my teens was exhausting…

 

The answer, I decided, was to look to history. By this point I’d started working as a ghost tour guide, because if you work in the arts in Edinburgh it’s pretty much mandatory that you do your time telling scary stories to tourists. I’d developed a bit of an obsession with the bubonic plague, particularly the epidemic during the 17th century, and had started reading more widely about the period in order to flesh out my mental picture of the society it affected. That led me on to reading more about the witch panics, which fuelled my interest in learning much more about them than we covered on the tours.

 

At this point, being a young and undisciplined reader, my ability to evaluate sources was limited. It took me a while to get the hang of reading critically, but as I got better at it I began to realise how little I understood. Next thing I knew I was down the research rabbit hole, trying to wrap my head around the complex factors that contributed to the witch hunts – Scotland’s shift to Calvinism, folk belief and its overlaps with Catholicism, James VI and all his emotional baggage and subsequent paranoia, the ravages of the plague, family dynamics… even the weather causing crop failure and lost fishing boats. The more I read, the more interested I became in what it must have been like to live one’s everyday life in that society, and that’s what started finding its way into my plays.

 

My first Fringe play, Creepie Stool, contained a sneaky reference to the North Berwick witches. Old Bones, which opens in Prague later this month, engages more explicitly with the events leading up to the North Berwick trials – I’ll be writing a separate post about that in a few weeks. Heaven Burns, the first of my plays to focus solely on the witch hunts, is set a bit later and deals with the brief heyday of the witchprickers, and particularly with one named John Dixon, who turned out to be a disguised woman named Christian Caddell.

 

Spoilers for the play? Not really. Between the blurb and the opening scene, those of you who see it won’t be in any doubt as to the situation. I first heard Christian Caddell’s story from Susan Morrison of Previously… Scotland’s History Festival. She had encountered this little-known figure, unearthed by Dr Louise Yeoman while working on a BBC Scotland documentary, and thought it was such a powerful story that she actually had it printed on the back of her business cards. I’ve still got that card somewhere, and it’s to Susan that I owe the initial spark of the idea for the play.

 

As I searched for what little information there is on Christian, I noticed that she was operating in Morayshire at around the same time as Isobel Gowdie, whose story I had learned in my earlier studies. Isobel is a very unusual case, since she presented herself to the parish authorities and freely accused herself of witchcraft, apparently without being under any kind of duress. She confessed at length and in great detail, telling about her coven’s activities and contradicting prevailing opinions about the Devil’s proficiency as a lover. Her eventual fate is lost to history, but the records of her confessions remain. Christian Caddell, or rather John Dixon, doesn’t seem to have been involved with her trial – but John Innes of Spynie, who hired the disguised Christian to prick witches near Elgin in 1661, was the Notary Public who recorded Isobel’s confession, so they at least have some common acquaintance.

 

This was enough to set my imagination to work. Did the two women ever meet? What would have happened if they had? What kind of fervour spurred Christian on to hunt witches? What makes someone accuse herself of witchcraft when it carries the death penalty?

 

I don’t claim that the play answers these questions, but it does explore one possibility – and I’ll be talking more about how I chose to treat the historical subject matter and how I see its contemporary relevance in future posts. For the moment, I’ll leave things here and not risk turning this into the mega-post where I attempt to explain every thought I’ve ever had relating to Heaven Burns. If you’ve got any questions that you’d like me to answer in future posts, comment away and let me know!

 

And get your tickets for the show, I’d love to see you there. Cast announcement coming soon!