Category Archives: Writing

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


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!


The Nastyversary

A year ago yesterday I received a book in the post. This book:

Nasty Women author copy

My contributor copy of 404 Ink‘s Nasty Women. The look on my face is somewhere between pride, joy and sheer bloody terror based on the growing realisation that this book was something much bigger than I’d anticipated.

I’d first heard about 404 Ink through my husband, Mark Bolsover, who had spotted them on Twitter and foretold their greatness/retweeted them a lot. As the deadline for submissions for the first issue of their lit mag approached, Mark kept nudging me to send something in. I kept putting it off because the only thing I had to send was a monologue and I doubted they’d want it. Then, half an hour before submissions closed, 404 tweeted a gif from one of my favourite songs.

Muse gif

I don’t think it was that actual gif, but it was close enough. It made me smile – 404 Ink has the best damn gif game out there – so I thought “fuck it, why not” and fired over the monologue. It was selected for the lit mag (which surprised me) along with a piece of Mark’s work (which didn’t surprise me at all), so for the first time we were published together.

We went along to the launch, which turned out to be one of the most useful events I’ve ever been to. It was our introduction to Interrobang, Chris McQueer, and most importantly of all to Heather McDaid and Laura Jones themselves, the powerhouse women behind 404 Ink.

At that point I knew they were doing an anthology called Nasty Women and I was aware that the call for pitches was due to close shortly. Again, I’d been ignoring it – not because I didn’t feel I had anything to say, but because the one thing I really wanted to write about was so damn personal that I didn’t really want to write the pitch. That changed when I actually met Heather and Laura in person and decided that I liked them and thought they seemed sound. Again, I thought “fuck it” and proposed a piece about my experiences with hormonal contraception and the toll it took on my body.  Again, they accepted something I’d felt sure they’d reject.

Writing the piece should have been a more nerve-wracking experience than it was, but given the speed with which the anthology was pulled together, there simply wasn’t time to get spooked. The piece was written, sent in and ready before I had much of a chance to think about it. Besides, it was an anthology by a new publishing company being funded via Kickstarter – not much chance that anyone beyond a fairly niche crowd would actually read it, right?

How very, very wrong I was.

The crowdfunding campaign spent its first couple of days bouncing along at a nice rate, which I attributed to a combination of Heather and Laura being savvy about it and to the large number of contributors who were sharing the link. Then Margaret Atwood backed it and tweeted about it and suddenly everything went absolutely bonkers. The project was 100% funded. Then 200%. Then 369% (iirc). There was extra money (always appreciated). There was publicity.

…there was a sudden certainty that people were actually going to read my essay.

And they did. I have no idea how many copies of Nasty Women have been sold over the past year. What I do know is that friends have sent me photos of it in bookshops in different parts of the UK, that it was the best-selling book at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, and that Audible turned it into an audiobook. I know that copies have been ordered by people all over the world.

Which means that there are now a lot of people out there who possess in-depth knowledge of the state of my uterus and more about my sexual history than my mum would have been happy with. I mentally apologise to my mum on a regular basis for my need to share my life with strangers – but I think she’d be happy about the results of my oversharing if she’d lived to see them. I don’t just mean things like Book Festival bestseller status, but the responses I’ve had from other women.

I had always assumed that the extent of my troubles with contraception was unusual before writing that essay. Nobody seemed to talk much about it, and the doctors I saw acted as if I was a statistical outlier. But after Nasty Women came out, several women left reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and their blogs saying that they’d had similar experiences. At the Glasgow launch I found myself having intense, hasty conversations at the signing table with women who wanted to tell me that they’d been through it too. It’s been the same at every Nasty Women event I’ve been involved in since. Older women talk to me about the early days of the Pill and the things they went through. Women my age and younger open up to me because they know that I know. I’ve had medical staff tell me that the essay gave them a new perspective on the patient’s experience. I get emails and Twitter messages from strangers telling me that because of my essay they’ve requested bone density scans, adjusted their calcium intake, rethought their contraception.  One even sent me pictures of the passages she’d highlighted and shown to her GP in order to get a gynaecology referral to discuss sterilisation.

Even though it feels strange to have given strangers such intimate information about me, it makes me incredibly happy to have those moments with readers. It’s often quite emotional, because they’re often talking about it for the first time or I’m the first person they’ve spoken to knowing for certain that there’s a shared experience between us. That’s a big thing to be trusted with. Which is why, for all it has felt exposing and raw, I know that writing that piece was the right thing to do and I’m glad I didn’t have time to talk myself out of it.

My essay isn’t the only one that provoked this kind of response, of course. Skim through the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon and you’ll see lots of readers name-checking the writers whose pieces really spoke to them. I’ve seen my fellow Nasties’ work recommended in threads on social media discussions about the issues they explored. I’ve heard them talk about the readers who have engaged with them, who’ve reached out to share their own stories in return.

In addition to bringing us into contact with the readers, the Nasty Women anthology brought us into contact with each other. I didn’t realise, this time last year, how much of a bond I would feel with my fellow contributors. Ren Aldridge described it as feeling like she’d joined a coven, and I’d agree with that. We haven’t all met in real life, but that doesn’t matter – even the Nasties that I’ve never met are special to me, and it makes me happy when good things happen to them.

Most of all, I feel incredibly happy when good things happen to 404 Ink. Laura and Heather have gone from strength to strength, won one award after another, and continued to be genuinely lovely human beings who do their work with principles and respect for their writers (and they have the best office dog ever). I’m very glad to have them in my life, on my CV and on my bookshelves.

The moral of this story: Writers, find publishers who tweet gifs from your favourite songs and send things to them.


Rejections Suck

Today (well, yesterday, but it was today at the time of writing) has been a rotten day. Two days ago I got a rejection for a thing I really, really wanted. I got shortlisted, which was nice, but still rejected. Then yesterday I got a rejection that I’d kind of expected but got angry about the way it was handled. Then today I got three rejections, including one that I’d had high hopes for. It’s been a pretty galling time, and it’s probably not over – I’m due to hear back on three more things within the next two days. One of them I’m expecting to be rejected for. One I’m expecting but desperately hoping I’m wrong. And one is something I’m on the shortlist for when I didn’t expect to be, so I have no idea what to think. I’m bracing myself for a rough weekend.

 

Normally I find rejections a lot easier to handle. They’re usually spaced out. Some of them hurt, because when you’ve put a lot of work into an application and fallen in love with the project you pitched it’s always galling when the answer’s no… but individual stab wounds to the heart and ego are manageable, and there’s usually a sprinkling of acceptances to soothe the stings. When they’re bunched together like this, though, it feels relentless.

 

The thing is, I know all the reasons not to get upset by rejection. I’ve been on selection panels myself and I know that perfectly valid (and sometimes extremely impressive) applications have to be rejected for any number of reasons. Sometimes it comes down to a simple gut instinct for how things fit together. I’m well aware that rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that your application was terrible (though that is a possibility).

 

This is why I like being told when I’ve made the long or shortlist. I know that not everyone does, I have some friends who hate to be told that. Personally, I appreciate the reassurance that my application wasn’t the first one in the bin. That mine wasn’t the one that got passed around to gleeful cries of “look at this joker!” (This might be something that only happens in the depths of a fevered and anxious writer’s brain, but still, if I’m shortlisted then it can’t have happened at all. Unless they’re shortlisting me for sheer comedy value. Oh god.)

 

However, knowing better than to get upset and actually remaining un-upset are two very different things. I can brush off an individual rejection, but five within three days? It hurts, and I will admit to feeling somewhat bruised and in a deep sulk.

 

The worst thing about it is feeling powerless. I can’t change a damn thing. There’s no undoing the applications, no restoring the moment I began writing them and using a different project instead. There’s no changing the lifetime of experiences that brought me to the point where I felt the need to make these particular shows. And of course there’s no arguing with the decisions made, tempting though it always is.

 

Today I feel useless. I feel like there’s no point in continuing with any of this, like nobody cares about my work anyway and all the work I’ve put into honing my craft is worth nothing. Time is passing, life is short and progress isn’t happening fast enough. I feel resentful towards the years I lost to events that were completely outwith my control. I feel angry and cut off and as if nothing I’ve ever done has any kind of value. I feel like everything is personal even when I know damn well it can’t be.

 

Such is the power of the sulk that I also feel resentful towards the good things that are happening because they interfere with the strop-narrative. Yes, I have the new spoken word show and I’ve got bookings for it and it’s shaping up well. Yes, a show that I wrote is going to Prague. Yes, I got a Tom McGrath award to help with one of my works in progress. These are all things to be happy about, which means that I can’t even just be allowed a straightforward woe-is-me outpouring. Clearly the entire universe is out to torture me by denying me abject misery.

 

The solution, of course, is to buck the fuck up, end the sulk and get on with things. Have the genuine emotional reaction that only my nearest and dearest get to see, turn the entertaining/potentially useful bits into a blog post for the handy dopamine hit that comes from online attention-whoring, go out in the sunshine, restock the cat litter and maybe buy a Crème Egg, then write the things that need to be written today. Read a bit. Do the next round of applications. Get over it. Get over it because freelance life means the next rejection is always just round the corner and if it hits while I’m still in this mood it’s going to be harder to bounce back from. Get over it because freelance life is better than the alternatives available to me and for all its precarity I’m generally pretty happy with it. Get over it because it’s annoying and so is everything else, but at least I can choose whether to annoy myself.

 

I’m pretty sure I intended this post to be a bit more positive and potentially helpful than this. Oh well. Too full of rage for that today.


Writing Vox

Two months since my last blog post? Really? Busy times – busy and really exciting!

In April I was over in Milan for the opening of #SonsOfGod: Vox, the adaptation of Coriolanus that I wrote for Charioteer Theatre. I’ve been acquainted with Charioteer since I assisted on a show of theirs about eight years ago, and I was thrilled to be approached about the possibility of writing for them this time last year – even more so considering that Coriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

The process of creating Vox was longer and more complex than any show I’ve worked on before. The brief was quite specific, requiring me to include elements like rap music and social media and to find a treatment that would appeal to both young and fully-fledged adults, mostly non-native English speakers. I knew we would be working with the School of Cinema in Milan, so video would be integral to the piece. There was a lot to consider.

Fortunately I was allowed to be present at the auditions, so I had met the actors and got a sense of their qualities. I much prefer writing for specific actors to writing first and casting later – it means I can write for the actors’ less obvious qualities and hopefully offer them roles that will challenge and intrigue them. Sometimes I’ll see something in an actor that unlocks the character or completely changes my intention. Once I knew who would be in the production everything began to take shape – and you can see the results below.

What followed was a very generous development period, a ton of hard work from everyone involved, and a nerve-wracking flight to Italy – I’m a slightly nervous flyer at the best of times, and it turns out that flight nerves coupled with show nerves aren’t fun. But once I got there, remembered how beautiful Milan is, saw the incredible space that is the Studio Melato and watched the first performance… I won’t say I relaxed, because that’s definitely not the right word. I had a wonderful feeling of certainty that it was a good, strong show. The audience’s reaction was fantastic, so was the response from the Piccolo, and I felt truly happy with what we had made and my part in it.

I’m planning to write more about the process of writing for specific actors, about the comedown from Vox after my return to Scotland and about Unfinished Demon Play, the piece I’ve written during mentoring through  Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. I’ll get to those things, but in the meantime have some pictures from Vox (by kind permission of Trish Hamilton Photography):

Aufidius - Michael Cooke

Coriolanus - Daniel Hird

Apology


Squiggles

This monologue was originally intended to feature in Such a Nice Girl, the play I wrote for the Just Festival in 2014. The character was cut and the play went in a different direction, but this piece has been used once or twice as a standalone monologue. I’m sharing it here because the events that inspired it have been on my mind of late. (I’m also sharing it under a Creative Commons license, so if you’re an actor and you want to use it you can do so royalty-free – click here for full details.) 

 

Squiggles. That’s what I used to call her. Partly on account of her hair – growing out of her head in little squiggles, but that wasn’t where it really came from.

 

No, it was from when she was two, and her big brother had just learned to write his name at school. Eilidh was determined she was going to write hers too, so she went and got her crayons and made her daddy write her name so she could copy it, just like Alisdair’s teacher had done for him. Then she took her favourite crayon, her blue crayon, and she had it in her wee fist, with her head down so her nose was just about touching the paper, and she was like that for about fifteen minutes until she came up to me with this solemn look on her face and said “Here you go, Mummy. That’s my name. Put it on the fridge.” And I looked at it and she hadn’t even tried to copy the writing at all! She’d just drawn all these squiggles. So I looked back at her and asked, quite seriously, “Is your name Squiggles?”

 

And she looked at me – she was such a serious wee lass, you could never tell if a thing like that would make her laugh or cry. I raised my eyebrows, making myself look even more serious, and that’s when she decided to laugh. And then she wouldn’t stop laughing, and said yes, that was her name, and it just kind of stuck. I kept calling her Squiggles even when she was too old for that sort of thing and would just sigh and pretend she didn’t know me.

 

Telling her I was dying was… Well, you can imagine. Jim offered to tell the kids, or I could have got the doctor to do it, but… The poor doctor, he was only about Alisdair’s age himself. Must have drawn the short straw. Looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, like he was wondering why he hadn’t just skived school and got a job at McDonalds. He was sitting in the chair next to my bed, and I was patting him on the shoulder and shushing him and thinking about how his shirt needed an iron. I knew what he was saying, but he could hardly get the words out. He kept getting as far as “I’m so sorry, Mrs Curran,” then he’d stammer and start again so I just said “I know. It’s ok. I know.”

 

And I did. I knew. I knew the minute I saw his face. Truth be told, I knew the minute the ultrasound man stopped as he was going over this bit here and went over it again. I knew when they said I’d to get a biopsy. I knew this was what they’d been looking for, even though they hadn’t said the name. All those tests I’d had over the last year. All those times when they’d told me it was stress or IBS or the menopause – because if you’re my age, everything’s the bloody menopause – I knew it was this. Cancer. Too fast and too aggressive to fight it, or even to slow it down. Sometimes you just know, it’s like your whole body saying to you “Come in Number 99, your time’s up!”

 

So I couldn’t let the wee doctor lad tell my family when I’d had more time to get used to the idea than he had. I told Jim first, and I could see how hard it hit him, but I could see him push it down into that part of his brain where he keeps things to be dealt with later. And he said he’d tell the kids, and I said maybe he could tell Alisdair. Ally’s like his dad, he’ll deal with things in his own way. He’s never really liked to show his feelings in front of his mum. He’d be better off with his dad. They could shrug and be silent about it. But Eilidh needed to hear it from me, and I needed to be the one to tell her. So I did.

 

And she looked at me, just the same look on her face that she had that day she tried to write her name. And I remembered that, and I raised my eyebrows like I did back then and wished she’d laugh. I could have done with seeing her laugh. But this time she didn’t. This time she just welled up and stared at me and said “Mum, I can’t manage without you.”

 

And I just said “Oh, Squiggles. You’re going to have to.”


Due giorni a Roma – Comfort & Joy at TREND

24 hours ago I was in Rome, sitting on the floor at Ciampino airport and trying to ignore the ache in my feet. Now I’m back in Edinburgh, my feet hurt slightly less, and I can hardly believe that the past three days have happened.

 

The reason for the mad dash to Rome was that one of my plays was being performed there – my first play outside the UK! Comfort & Joy, my Christmas tragedy, was on the bill at the Trend Festival, part of a programme of British new writing.

 

I was delighted to see my play featured alongside work by established writers like Simon Stephens and David Greig, and very excited to see what would be done with it. The two actors, Elisabetta Scarano and Bianca Vanoni, proposed to translate it. That was daunting – it’s nerve-wracking enough handing a script over to a director, but giving my words to someone along with permission to turn them into other words was something else. I speak Italian and can translate from it into English, but I’m not nearly fluent enough to translate into it, so I knew I couldn’t tackle the task myself. I concluded that I could either breathe down Elisabetta and Bianca’s necks and demand approval of the text, or I could just put my trust in them and see what happened. I chose to do the latter and gave them carte blanche to cut and rearrange as they saw fit.

 

So, having handed the script over to a group of perfect strangers, I was quite nervous when I arrived at the beautiful Teatro Belli, tucked away in Trastevere, on Saturday night…

 

The first thing I saw was a blank stage, bare apart from two chairs and two microphones. I was intrigued. I wondered how handheld mics were going to fit into a play that draws heavily on Dickens and the dark side of festive Victoriana. When the house lights went down and Santa Claus is Coming to Town began blaring over the speakers, I wondered even more. Of one thing I was certain – this was not going to be a straightforward naturalistic production!

 

Although director Marcela Serli had never met me, she seemed to have had a good look into my gothy little mind. Her production was tight, sparse and monochrome. The two sisters, identically clad in black, were lit only by stark white spotlights, two pale ghost-faces trapped in darkness. Where the script called for them to sing or dance, the sisters would try and fail. Stage directions projected onto the wall would spell out their intentions while the characters found themselves unable to participate in their own story. I loved it.

 

I really appreciated seeing a director doing something so abstract with the script. Comfort & Joy lends itself to that more than my other plays, and I was keen to see the script treated as a starting point rather than a blueprint. What I saw drew on Brecht and Artaud. Where I had envisaged pain so suppressed that it can barely be expressed even in soliloquy, Marcela had seen pain that she could bring out with operatic intensity. The world she created was even smaller and more claustrophobic than the one I had imagined, which made the antagonism between the sisters feel sharper and more vicious. I felt more acutely aware of the presence of their domineering late mother than I did when I wrote the piece.

 

It’s hard to write this post without it simply turning into a love-in. Before I get any more caught up, suffice it to say that I was delighted with what I saw. This was the first time I’d seen a play of mine directed and performed by people who didn’t know me at all. Usually I’m directly involved – I write for specific actors, I come into rehearsals, or I give the piece to a director whose work I’m familiar with. They tend to know me fairly well. On those occasions when my work has been directed and performed by people I didn’t know, I haven’t been able to attend. So this was a new experience, and I’m very glad to have had it.

 

It was also amazing to hear the play in Italian. Bianca and Elisabetta, in addition to giving very fine performances, did a great job with the translation. Their cuts and amendments made sense, and the language added a new dimension. The rhythms and cadences of Italian suit the heightened feel of the play. The sisters are theatrical by instinct and upbringing. Their words, particularly their soliloquies, are lyrical even in English, so they work well in a language which, as someone once said to me, non si parla, si canta.

 

The company is keen to take the show further, and I sincerely hope that they will. I’d be very happy to see them doing more with it, and to extend it and tailor it to them now that I have some idea of their qualities. Brave, Elisabetta, Bianca e Marcela!

 

Now I’ve just about got time to let my blisters heal before I’m back into rehearsal for #SonsOfGod: Vox with Charioteer Theatre, which will open in Milan in April…

 

I was going to close this post with an embedded video, but since WordPress has changed everything and I don’t know how to do that any more, CLICK HERE TO SEE A LITTLE OF COMFORT & JOY!

(It’s not a rickroll, I promise.)


History, witchery and recurring themes…

A few years ago I found my Story Jotter from P1. I flicked through it, interested to see what I was writing about when I was four and a half. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to find a story about a witch, another about a ghost, and one about two children playing in a tree house that inexplicably burned down. Supernatural beings and subtext, two of my favourite things… for longer than I realised, apparently.

I was a spooky little child, it’s true. I spent my first ever book token on the Usborne Book of Ghosts, and I was constantly on the lookout for anything that might be evidence of ghosts in my house (and since I’ve always been prone to sleep paralysis/night terrors, this wasn’t in short supply). Hallowe’en was my favourite day of the year, outstripping my birthday and Christmas by a long way.

Where the initial interest came from, I don’t know. I’ve mentioned before that some of my earliest memories are of powerful hallucinations and magical thinking due to the wonders of Schizotypal Personality Disorder, so perhaps it’s just that these things made sense to my addled brain. No matter how it began, the fascination only grew as I got older. I hit my teens at that point in the 90s when all things paranormal and occult were in vogue.

I got myself a deck of tarot cards and a few crystals, but actually the popularity of these things dampened my enthusiasm. Contrary soul that I am, I didn’t want to be just another teenage girl toting a mass-produced Book of Shadows. I liked history. If I was going to dabble with the occult, I was going to find out how it was done before US Games ever produced a ouija board and do it that way. This, in my teenaged mind, constituted authenticity. I was going to be the most non-conformist non-conformist that ever refused to conform. Let my peers get their ideas from Buffy and Charmed, I was going to get mine straight from the Malleus Maleficarum.

My motives may have been daft, but the important thing was that I started reading. I began with stuff aimed squarely at tourists and teenagers, but I quickly worked my way towards more legitimate sources and discovered that the history of witchcraft belief was incredibly interesting. I took Joyce Miller’s OLL Course on Witchcraft Belief in Early Modern Scotland, which fuelled my interest further and led to my amassing a respectable collection of books on the subject… and of course, since I like to plunder history for plots, those books informed a couple of plays.

Creepie Stool, the play about Jenny Geddes and the riots over the Book of Common Prayer, is not specifically about witchcraft, but it gets a couple of mentions. One of the characters is viewed with suspicion because she comes from somewhere near North Berwick, and the memory of the witch trials there a generation earlier still casts its shadow. Jenny attributes the sudden death of her beloved elder brother to witchcraft because she has no other explanation for an apparently healthy man simply dropping dead. As far as I know, none of the characters in the play have ever attempted maleficium – but it’s a concept that exists in their world. They don’t all entertain it to the same extent as Jenny, but they’re all aware of it and the dangers of being thought to practice it. It’s also in there because the play is about religious tensions in Scotland in 1637, and witchcraft belief is all tangled up with the politics of the era.

My latest play, Heaven Burns, is set in 1662 – 1663. It’s less concerned with the wider political picture, and much more directly concerned with witchcraft. Again, none of the characters actually practice witchcraft. It’s based on the story of Christian Caddell, a woman who disguised herself as a man to become a witchpricker – and a particularly vicious one, at that. In my version of her life, she’s a woman with a lust for power that gets channelled through religious fanaticism. She’s an extremist who believes she has a direct line to God. She’s the kind of person who should be frightening in any time period.

One of the other characters in the play is Isobel Gowdie, who may or may not be the same Isobel Gowdie whose famous confession was so influential in shaping perceptions of how witchcraft was practiced. The historical Isobel lived near Nairn, and Christian’s territory ran from Elgin to Wardlaw (now Kirkhill) at least, so it’s possible that their paths crossed. However, Isobel’s long and detailed confession is believed to have been taken without the use of torture – unusual in witch trials, especially if Christian was involved. The play suggests a possible reason why Isobel might have self-accused so freely, and why her case might not have fallen to Christian. It’s pure speculation, of course, based on the little information available about these women and my own overwrought imagination… but I hope it’s not too far-fetched. My aim is to explore the fears and tensions of the time, and to steer clear of anything too fantastical.

I’ve been asked a few times recently why I base so much of my work on history. The simple answer is that it’s an incredible resource. History is a vast collection of lived lives in which nearly everything that could be done was done. It’s made up of stories told by countless people, each with their own bias and limitations, so it’s never truly knowable and is open to endless interpretations. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s rarely pure and never simple. It’s fucking fascinating.

If I had set out to create Christian, I don’t know if I could have done it. The process would have gone something like this:

 

ME: Ok, so I want to write a play about a woman who passes herself off as a man to become a witchpricker.

VOICE OF REASON (VOR): That’s stupid. How would that even work?

ME: Well, she’d get men’s clothes and use a man’s name and… well… prick witches, I suppose.

VOR: Right. And nobody notices she’s a woman because everyone in The Past is simple and credulous, right? So let me get this straight, a woman decides to run the massive risk of pretending to be a man so that she can, for some unexplained reason, hunt witches. Without any kind of training or preparation, she is so convincing that no-one ever doubts that she’s a man. And she becomes a witchpricker despite her lack of papers, history, letters of recommendation, license… And then what? What’s the point of it?

ME: …I don’t know.

VOR: Didn’t think so. Sounds a bit shit and implausible. Are you perhaps letting your determination to write roles for women cloud your judgement?

ME: …maybe. You know what, you’re right, it’s ridiculous. I’m just going to write another play about ghosts now.

 

I needed Christian to exist already so that I wouldn’t get sidetracked by wondering whether her story is plausible. It doesn’t matter whether a woman pretending to be a man to become a witchpricker is plausible – it happened. She was eventually arrested and made her confession in the Tolbooth in Edinburgh on the 30th of August 1662. Even taking into account the fact that records are often full of inaccuracies, I’ve yet to come up with a solid argument suggesting that Christian didn’t exist, or didn’t fake her way into a brief but eventful witchpricking career. Try as I might, I can’t think of a reason why that accusation would have been levelled at her unless it was true, or at least thought to be true.

Knowing that Christian’s story did exist, I was able to use it as a lens through which I could examine the fears, tensions and power struggles that affect her and the other characters in her world, but which have parallels today. I think one of the greatest things about theatre is that it offers a means of creating and dismantling monsters. The world is full of people who do things that I find hard to understand, whose actions baffle my bleeding heart and liberal mind. I can either ignore them, clutch my non-existent pearls at the thoughts of such horrors, reduce them to caricatures, or try to understand what motivates thinking, feeling human beings to deliberately inflict suffering on others. Christian might be a historical figure, but people like her, as terrifying as her, are not confined to the past.

Heaven Burns has been an unsettling play to write. It’s darker than my previous work, and I find myself wanting to apologise to the other characters for putting them in the same world as Christian. There were scenes I put off writing until the very end because I didn’t want to think my way through them. I’m very excited to hear it read at Previously…, especially as I’m certain the cast will make a very fine job of it, but I’m also nervous at the prospect of developing it further and spending more time sharing my head with these characters. (I’m also nervous because there will be an actual historian at the reading to talk about the historical context, which means there’ll be someone qualified to catch all my errors and call me on my bullshit. This is an inexpert enthusiast’s dream and nightmare rolled into one.)

If you want to hear the play/watch me panic/ask awkward questions to which I don’t know the answer, it’s on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the 21st of November. What happens with it after that is anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping that it’ll have a life beyond this reading. It’s no secret that I believe there’s an audience out there for new, lively history plays that focus on interesting women. Now I just hope I’m right…