Tag Archives: Edinburgh Fringe

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!


A theatremaker’s plea: do shut up

I know better than to waste my time arguing with lazy clickbait articles. I do. It’s just… sometimes I can’t resist.

The piece of lazy clickbait in question is this article in The Telegraph, courtesy of Douglas McPherson. He is a theatre critic. In the theatre he toils not, neither does he spin, as someone once said. Yet he has a great deal to say about funding – specifically, that it should not come from the state.

He does not advocate an American-style system where the arts are dependent on philanthropy, you understand. He thinks that letting artists keep more of the money they make through tax breaks is the answer. Which is a lovely idea, except he doesn’t address the question of where the earnings of which they are to keep more should come from. Presumably they are supposed to come from the infallible commercial model, which McPherson believes is the key to producing great work.

In twenty years of reviewing, McPherson cannot recall a single subsidised show that he considered good. Not one. I thought I might have a look through his old reviews and find out whether this assertion was reflected in his critiques of subsidised and commercial productions. Unfortunately, for someone who boasts two decades of regular contributions to The Stage, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, his reviews are remarkably hard to find. I’ve turned up his circus blog, several circus-related articles (mostly arguing in favour of live animals in circus acts), his romance writing alter ego… but in terms of reviews, I can only find references to the ones he wrote for What’s On, which aren’t archived online, and a couple of music reviews for The Telegraph. So I suppose we’ll just have to trust him on this one. Not a single good subsidised show in all that time. How hard that must have been for him, considering how much subsidised work a critic sees.

Commercial theatre, on the other hand, has filled McPherson’s days with joy. Commercial work is “new, vibrant, exciting and creative” – and entirely divorced from state subsidy. What utter nonsense this is. Subsidised and commercial theatre are not two discrete entities. They overlap. What happens in one influences the other.

Let’s have an example. David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers’ production of Calendar Girls was a massive financial success. (Let’s not argue about whether it was an artistic success or simply a way to cash in on the film’s success – let’s just assume for the moment that McPherson is correct and that it was, like other commercial work, new, vibrant, exciting and creative.) It toured from 2009 – 2012, with advance ticket sales of more than £1.7 million. It became the UK’s most successful touring play and grossed over £35 million. Amateur performance rights are now available so the play continues to generate income even when there isn’t a production on tour.

A triumph for commercial theatre, right? But of course, the story of that wildly successful tour doesn’t begin with Pugh and Rogers. The writer, Tim Firth, cut his teeth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a subsidised house. His first major success, Neville’s Island, was commissioned by the SJT. More than half of the women featured in the original cast spent their early years honing their craft in subsidised rep, national companies and the RSC. The theatre at which Calendar Girls first opened was Chichester Festival Theatre, also a subsidised house. Can it really be argued that this commercial success existed “without any need for government help”?

McPherson’s argument that subsidised theatre does not concentrate on “producing work the public might actually want to see” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has The Woman in Black, which originated at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, run for quarter of a century because no-one wanted to see it? Or The Mousetrap, now 63 years old, which came to the West End after opening at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham? Do more recent shows like War Horse (National Theatre) and Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland) tour the world without any demand for tickets? Or would McPherson suggest that people are somehow being coerced into purchasing tickets, then turning up out of politeness when really they would rather be anywhere else?

It’s all very well to say that if these shows are so successful, they should be self-sustaining. But that misunderstands the nature of theatre. Yes, some shows can become successful enough to meet the immense costs involved in putting them on. But it’s unrealistic to expect that every show will achieve this. There has to be some middle ground between the smash hits and the complete flops, because that’s where development happens.

The artists who created Black Watch and War Horse had full careers behind them. Those shows are the results of years spent developing craft and technique in subsidised theatres. Would they ever have existed, let alone become the massive hits that they were, without John Tiffany and Marianne Elliott being nurtured by venues like the Traverse or the Royal Exchange? Theatremakers don’t approach each show in isolation. Every new project benefits from all your previous experience. All the things you’ve learned on previous shows, every success and failure you’ve ever had – they all inform the work you do. The failures are as important a part of a theatremaker’s development as the successes, and it is subsidised theatre, not commercial, that offers greater freedom to fail. This is not a question of “subsidising the mediocre” – which I would agree we ought not to do – but of allowing artistic risks to be taken. I don’t know which commercial work he’s been seeing, but it’s not generally known for its risk-taking.

Of course McPherson has thought of this, and he has an ingenious solution – “Companies can create new or experimental work in fringe venues on a profit-share basis without funding.” I would have hoped that someone claiming twenty years’ experience of writing about theatre would be more knowledgeable about the many, many problems that plague this model. Alas, it appears he is not.

Profit-share is a euphemism for “unpaid”. We all know this – well, at least those of us who actually make theatre know it. Very, very occasionally you’ll get something out of it, but the most likely outcome is that your fringe show will make no profit. This is because fringe venues cost money, and rehearsal venues cost money, and set, props and costumes cost money, and hiring a tech costs money, and hiring in extra lights to supplement the venue’s extremely basic rig costs money, and PR costs money, and insurance costs money, and PRS licenses cost money.

All of these costs add up. You’re looking at thousands of pounds to stage your show, even without paying people. Even if you rehearse in someone’s living room and have no set and source all your costumes from your own wardrobe, even if you can get a technician to give you a freebie, even if you reduce your costs to nothing but the venue, it’s still expensive. You are still unlikely to recoup your costs from ticket sales alone, because the chances are that your completely unheard-of show won’t play to packed houses from the very start. The chances are that you won’t play to packed houses at all, unless you get well-timed stellar reviews and/or exceptionally good word of mouth.

Getting good reviews on the fringe isn’t simply a matter of doing a good play, of course. Several London publications won’t review fringe shows unless they do a three week run, so if you can only afford, say, a week’s try-out run at the White Bear then tough luck. If you’re in an outlying venue there will be critics who just won’t travel. I’ve seen several excellent shows at the Rosemary Branch, for example, but trying to drag reviewers to a venue that doesn’t have a tube station within 10 minutes’ walk can be blood from a stone. Aim for a more central/better connected venue and you might find it easier to attract critics, but you’ll also pay more, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get reviewed early enough in your run for a five star rating to bring in enough punters to cover your costs – let alone make that fabled profit that you were going to share.

So if profit-share means unpaid, who can afford to do it? For a little while, it’s possible to work unpaid while supporting yourself with one or more day jobs and, usually, a growing mountain of debt. It’s a fast route to burn-out, but it can be done for a bit. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive spouse or family or trust fund, you can do it indefinitely. Perhaps Douglas McPherson doesn’t consider it a problem that unpaid work turns fringe theatre into the playground of the affluent. I, on the other hand, do. Theatre benefits from a diverse range of influences, and that’s much easier to achieve if it’s possible for people from all walks of life to make it their career rather than leaving it to be a hobby for the wealthy.

Quite apart from practical considerations about whether it’s even possible to pay people making theatre on the fringe, there’s the question of why we ought to. Theatre is beneficial to the UK’s economy, bringing in an estimated £2 for every £1 of subsidy. That’s not all direct income through ticket sales – people having a night at the theatre also buy dinner, buy drinks, take buses and trains and taxis, pay to park their cars nearby, pay for hotel rooms if they’ve travelled for the sake of seeing the show. There’s so much more to it than just tickets. But if we treat early career and experimental work as mere dilettantism, the standard of the work made will plummet and the public’s willingness to pay to see theatre will follow.

However, the economic argument for theatre is not the only one, nor is it the most important. We ought to value theatre because, quite simply, culture is important. Culture enhances our lives, gives us the capacity and tools for self-reflection as individuals and as a society, encourages empathy, stretches us intellectually, educates us emotionally, challenges us, baffles us and entertains us. It’s how we make more of ourselves. This isn’t just about the people who practice professionally – subsidising the arts is about recognising the importance of culture. It’s about making it available to those who are able to engage with it directly, and letting its influence spread through commercial work with a wider reach so that it affects those who can’t or won’t engage with it directly. To think only in terms of direct engagement is reductive and simplistic.

It’s true that there are flaws in the way that arts funding is dealt with across the UK. There are plenty. But what Douglas McPherson suggests is not the answer. It’s the prating of an armchair artist, and ought to be treated as such.


A response to Desire Lines from a grassroots theatremaker. Looooong.

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and decide how best to write about Desire Lines.

 

For those of you who, by dint of not being attentive Edinburgh arts folk, have not heard of Desire Lines, it is this: http://www.desirelines.scot. It’s a project started by a handful of people working in the arts in Edinburgh to provide a way for artists to communicate with the Council and with each other. The first meeting took place on Monday 8 December at Summerhall.

 

First things first: It was a remarkably positive event. Like many people, I was concerned that we might spend the evening unproductively bashing the Council, or that it would be a tedious few hours of listening to people from large organisations droning about key stakeholders and service provision and so on. These things did not happen. While there were plenty of people with a great deal to say about licensing issues and the Council’s apparent preference for focusing on the Festivals rather than Edinburgh’s year-round cultural life, the artists expressing their views did it vehemently, not aggressively.

 

I was a bit disappointed that we never directly got to grips with the event’s title question, “What makes Edinburgh a culturally successful city?” or the implied sub-question – is Edinburgh a culturally successful city? How do we define cultural success? Is the city successful because it has lots of Festivals? Because Edinburgh started the trend for Fringe Festivals, or attracts high-profile international companies to the International Festival? Or is Edinburgh successful because the arts form an important part of the lives of ordinary people (by which I mean non-tourists and non-artists) living here?

 

The latter question seemed to be on the minds of the people in the room. Unsurprisingly, artists want to share their work, and not just because it’s financially beneficial. When you make something and you care about it deeply, you want other people to care about it too. You want to touch people’s lives, brighten their day, get them to think or whatever else your work sets out to achieve. And you don’t want to be limited to August or to the specific audience that goes to the Festivals.

 

Or at least, that’s the case for me. Judging by the voices in the room, I’m not alone. The perception that the arts in Edinburgh are only for some rarefied crowd of champagne-sippers (not that all Festival-goers fall into that category, of course, but I’m using the prevailing stereotype) is inaccurate, and there are plenty of the city’s artists who would be happy to break it down.

 

With that in mind, it was great to see grassroots figures being invited to speak. Morvern Cunningham, Caitlin Skinner and Olaf Furniss all work wonders to keep the city alive with music, theatre, visual art and film all year round, and often outwith the city centre. It’s a pity that they didn’t get to speak until the end, by which time the event was overrunning (which was inevitable considering the massive scope of the conversation) and the representatives from Edinburgh Council had long since gone home. I would suggest that at future Desire Lines events, it would be worth letting the artists speak early on. Responding to what the people with the money say is what we do all the time – this could be one of the exceptions.

 

It might also be nice to see Desire Lines challenging the format of their own events. The setup was pretty standard – a raised platform for the chair and speakers, with everyone else in attendance sitting in the audience, waiting for the roving mic if they wanted to speak. Having worked in the Dissection Room I know that it’s a tricky space, especially when you have such a large number of people to accommodate, but I can’t help feeling that there must be a way to set things up less formally. Something like an Open Space format might be interesting, making things feel more laid-back and perhaps more equal. That’s not to say that the current structure didn’t work well – but I’m always keen to see people experiment and find egalitarian ways of doing things.

 

 

Ever since the event I’ve been thinking about the state of grassroots theatre in Edinburgh. I mean, I do that all the time, of course – but I’ve been trying to work out how to explain the particular challenges facing the grassroots scene in Edinburgh just now and how that impacts on less experimental work.

 

The main challenge that we face is a lack of infrastructure. How many small theatres can you think of in Edinburgh? Less than 100 seats? There’s the Netherbow with 99. There’s Discover 21 with 35. There are some spaces in Summerhall. Traverse 2 can be a 99-seater depending on its configuration, but it’s been a long time since the Trav was a little experimental theatre rather than a major player in the British theatre scene.

 

There are other spaces that can be theatres if you’re willing to equip them. If you’re willing to bring in lights, sound equipment, possibly seats and drapes, and get the place licensed, anywhere can be a theatre! We learned that from August, right?

 

But that’s the trouble. If you’re a small company making experimental theatre on tiny budgets, the cost of hiring all your equipment, transporting it and paying for the extra time you need in a venue to set everything up can be prohibitive. Grassroots companies are often self-funding, supported by the artists’ day jobs. Every extra cost incurred takes us a step further away from breaking even, let alone making a profit or actually getting paid for our work.

 

That was one of the main reasons for setting up D21. Edinburgh seemed to need a small space with seats, lights and licenses in place, where all a company has to do is turn up and concentrate on its work, and where the costs are clear and as low as we can make them.

 

Over the past year we’ve found that several groups and individuals have made work in D21 that they might not have made if they had been faced with the expense and inconvenience of creating a working performance space. We’ve launched Collider, a project designed to introduce theatremakers to potential collaborators through mini-productions, and 21@21, a residency offering three weeks of free studio time to experimental theatremakers. Creating our own permanent (or at least semi-permanent, thanks to licensing and short leases) space has been expensive, but considerably less expensive than building a temporary space for every project.

 

So why aren’t more people doing this? First, it is expensive, and exhausting. Dave (my co-founder) and I work bloody hard to cover the theatre’s costs, as well as to run the theatre itself. That’s essentially two full-time jobs each. It doesn’t allow for a lot of free time or spare cash. It means cheap groceries and holidays not taken. It meant that I kept the cost of my entire wedding well below what most brides pay for the dress alone. It means that I try hard not to think about the things I could have and could be doing with that money. It’s not a sacrifice that everyone is prepared to make, and I completely understand why. But to pursue funding just now would mean clarifying and quantifying what we’re doing in a way that would not be beneficial at this point. For now, at least, we need the freedom that comes with self-funding. That will eventually change – but D21 can’t become the thing it needs to be without going through this early, free-flowing experimental stage, so for the present we grit our teeth and accept the lack of time and money.

 

Second, it’s terrifying. I wake up anxious most mornings, worried that there will be costs we won’t be able to meet or that we’ll do something wrong and get into trouble. I dread that we’ll make a mistake with licensing or the lease, that someone will have an accident in the space and my risk assessment will be found wanting and my Public Liability Insurance won’t pay out. Getting things wrong in any of those areas could result in fines or damages totalling tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pounds. And guess what? I don’t have tens of thousands of pounds. Thanks to my dead parents I do have a flat, but I really don’t want to find myself in a position where I have to sell my flat and destroy what security my husband and I have – just because I wanted to do some experimental theatre and facilitate other people doing it too. Life was certainly a lot easier and less risky when I first started out and just did monthly rehearsed readings requiring nothing but a room with some chairs in it.

 

Dragging this post back to Desire Lines, is there anything Edinburgh City Council could do to make this situation easier? Well, yes. Licensing could be a lot less restrictive and less expensive. There could be another category of theatre license, one that applies to groups that aren’t amateur or charities, but which aren’t commercial or subsidised professional work – specifically for grassroots work.

 

Year-round licenses could be cheaper, or a discount could be offered to small companies making work in Edinburgh year-round if the Council still wants to be able to charge incomes through the nose for the Festivals.

 

Empty spaces (of which there are many in the city centre) could be made available at peppercorn rents for use as rehearsal and workshop spaces, in exchange for a certain amount of maintenance. This has worked in other cities, as Rachel McCrum mentioned at Desire Lines.

 

The Council could also settle once and for all the matter of Public Entertainment Licenses, which they have chosen not to enforce for the present but which could be brought into force at any time. Nobody wants to be the first artists to be caught out by these and hit with a £20k (if I recall correctly) fine.

 

Basically, anything that allows Edinburgh’s local theatremakers a little of the freedom usually granted during August would help. But why should the Council do these things?

 

Well, assuming Edinburgh wants to be a culturally successful city, mainstream arts need to be influenced by a steady stream of new and exciting ideas. The more freedom you give the grassroots, the more potential there is for interesting and avant-garde work. You won’t find the avant-garde at the Lyceum, for instance – nor should you. That’s not what it’s for. What you see at the Lyceum is work that is influenced by the avant-garde of previous generations. New ideas, whether new writing, new ways of staging, new relationships with audiences, what have you, filter gradually through to the mainstream and prevent theatre as a whole from stagnating. You don’t support the grassroots for the benefit of mainstream theatre in five years’ time, but in twenty or fifty years’ time. A hundred years’ time, maybe. It’s long-term thinking.

 

Of course, this doesn’t have to be done on a local basis. Edinburgh’s mainstream theatre could just draw on the influence of Glasgow and London instead. They’ve both got strong grassroots scenes, right? But if Edinburgh is simply an importer of new ideas, if Edinburgh does not generate and export them, then can it really justify claiming to be a culturally successful city?

 

The healthier Edinburgh’s grassroots theatre scene is, the healthier its mainstream theatre will be, the healthier the art forms that share borders with theatre will be, and the healthier the city as a whole will be, economically and artistically. Why wouldn’t we want to be known as a city that produces exciting, innovative theatre in more than just a couple of venues? Why wouldn’t we want visitors to be attracted to Edinburgh by its theatre scene all year round – not in the same numbers that we see during August, but a fraction of that, bringing with them a commensurate fraction of the money Edinburgh makes in August? Why wouldn’t we want interesting experimental artists to stay here rather than move away, or even to choose to move to Edinburgh as a city that will welcome and support them? Why wouldn’t we want to nurture a diverse, vibrant grassroots that attracts theatremakers from different cultures, political beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

 

It wouldn’t take much for the Council to make Edinburgh a far more welcoming place for grassroots theatre artists. A little loosening of the licensing, a little more focus on the year-round scene rather than just August.

 

Hopefully it will come. It looks like the charge is being led by the live music scene, fighting for the survival of small and mid-size venues. Events like Desire Lines give those of us in grassroots theatre a chance to add our voices to theirs, since our interests align in many ways. Anything that brings the Council and Edinburgh’s artists together in discussion has the potential to be massively beneficial to the city as a whole.

 

I’m excited to see where future Desire Lines events will take us…


Pre-Creepie Stool thoughts on strength and complexity

Creepie Stool opens tonight. My plans to attend a rehearsal were scuppered by hospital time (no Fringe flu for me, this year I went for full-on gastroenteritis and getting pumped full of IV fluids instead). Consequently, tonight’s performance will be almost entirely new to me. (I say almost because I’m still expecting to recognise the odd line here and there, but you never know, I suppose…)

Anyway, just in time for the opening of my play, this article starts doing the rounds on social media: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Can’t be bothered clicking? It’s Sophia McDougall writing about the trope, primarily found in film but also prevalent in theatre, of the Strong Female Character. She dislikes Strong Female Characters because they are so seldom proper, rounded characters. Instead they are the same old weak, male-dependent figures except they also kick people (usually men) in the face. They still don’t get to have, y’know, personalities.

There are plenty of comments from people who think it’s not a problem because they can name a few female characters who are rounded, human and well-written. Many of them cite characters who are actually none of these things, but even if they were, the fact remains that we need more. There’s still a huge imbalance between male and female protagonists. We’re still defining particular films and shows and plays as being “for women”. It’s still tough for a female actor over 30 to find meaty roles.

I’ll admit that I had all of these things in mind when I wrote Creepie Stool. I had agreed that it would be a three-hander for a female cast before I had even chosen the subject matter, and both of those decisions were purely pragmatic. There was enough money in the budget to pay three actors. Women are more plentiful than men in the industry. On a personal level, I like to write roles with specific actors in mind and I know several excellent actors who happen to be both female and over 30. Writing for a particular actor can be an incredibly useful starting point, because then I can take that person’s qualities and think about what conflicts and secrets and challenges they could have… Basically, I sit down and think “how can I give this person a hard time?”

None of the characters in Creepie Stool are intended to be representative of all women, or of a particular section of society, or to be role models or good examples of any kind. I wanted them to be messy, fearful, just trying to get through life without everything collapsing around them. None of them is in a particularly great place – Jenny sees herself as a matriarch but she’s beholden to her son and to a daughter-in-law whom she protects and resents in equal measure, Marjory has married somewhat above her station and lives in fear of disappointing her exacting husband and/or her family, Christian has reached an age where she needs to get married or wind up a spinster with no security, and her choice of husband is severely limited by the secrets she carries around (one of which is never explicitly mentioned, and I wonder how many people will even notice it). They’re all aware that they have to keep other people happy if they want to have a roof over their heads. They’ve all got things they have to hide and public faces they have to show if they want to survive. They have things they love and want to protect, things they fear losing, things they’re proud of, things that upset them, things that interest them. Jenny has monologues because there are things she will only tell the audience, not the other characters in her world. Marjory doesn’t, because it would be bad manners to monopolise the conversation that way. Christian doesn’t, because there are things that are too private even for a soliloquy. Some things you don’t even tell the audience.

I hope, I desperately hope, that some of this will come across in the writing. More than anything else, I want people who see this play to find the characters believable. If I can go to bed tonight feeling that I wrote three layered, complex characters, I’ll be happy. They’re not “Strong”. None of them knows kung fu (that I’m aware of). The world they live in removes much of their agency. They all have to take a certain amount of shit from other people because, well, who doesn’t? They’re quite capable of being paralysed with fear and indecision, but no-one is coming to save them.

And they’re all on the poster.

 

Debbie Cannon as Marjory, Angela Milton as Jenny, Belle Jones as Christian


Plugging Project: Kabarett

This post will involve a little less introspection than usual and a hell of a lot more plugging. I have an event coming up that I’m quite excited about…

On Saturday 27th July I’ll be taking part in Project: Kabarett, a fundraiser for an amazing immersive Weimar experience. It’s the brainchild of Susanna Mulvihill, who plays Madeleine Smith in Tightlaced’s production of I Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards, and it’ll be opening at Summerhall in January 2014 – but first we need to find the money.

The show itself, properly titled 1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett, will bring together Edinburgh-based artists from all sorts of disciplines and many of the people who are currently working on the project will be taking part in the fundraiser on the 27th. I don’t know the whole line-up at the moment, but I know about a handful of the performers and can assure you that it’ll be an eclectic mix and a great night for £10!

We’ve got three short plays from me, Susanna and Tightlaced Resident Writer Fiona McDonald (who was recently longlisted for the James Tait Black Award, so we’re all even prouder of her talent than usual). We’ve got Miss Fi and the Lost Head Band, Eleanor Morton, Colin Hoult, Tom Watton, Hazel DuBourdieu and a sneak preview of song of the music for 1933! We’ll also be giving you a chance to win a variety of interesting prizes, ranging from Fringe tickets to a custom-written short play.

Susanna and I also have our first outing as Chanson et le Chat, taking on a few operatic favourites and hopefully winning. It’ll be the first opportunity anyone has had to hear me sing in public since 2005 (I think), so it’s a combination of nerve-wracking and exhilarating for me… and possibly for the audience! Our programme consists of Mozart, Offenbach, Rossini and the inevitable Delibes, and we’ve been having a great time getting them into shape.

So if you fancy an evening of appreciating and supporting Edinburgh’s local talent before the world arrives on our doorstep for the Festivals, the trick is to contact sporadicmusic@gmail.com to book tickets! Please come. You’ll love it.

 

And of course, there’ll be an over-long introspective post about the return to singing at some point between now and the 27th… I wouldn’t dream of doing this or anything else without a little bit of angst.


Writing Creepie Stool

Yes, it’s that time of year already… The Fringe is poised and ready to pounce, snapping us up in its five star fangs yet again. It’s no secret that I have a love/hate relationship (weighted in favour of love, but the hate can’t be ignored) with the theatrical behemoth that takes up residence on the Royal Mile every August. As it gets closer, no doubt there’ll be posts from me about its irritations and imperfections. However, at present I have reason to love it and to celebrate.

This year I wrote my first commissioned piece for the Fringe. It’s called Creepie Stool, and it’s part of the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. They commissioned two new plays from Edinburgh writers on the theme of sectarianism. I was one of those writers, Jen Adam was the other – her play is called Kiss, Cuddle, Torture. It’s a lovely feeling, being asked to write a play rather than starting by writing one and then shopping it around in the hope that you’ll find someone who wants to stage it, or producing it yourself. However, it’s really weird writing a play to a specific brief.

I’m used to writing to a brief in other styles. When I ghostwrite fiction, the briefs are often very specific. There are particular formulae I’m usually asked to use within the genres in which I specialise. They’re not the same stories that I choose to write when I have no-one to answer to but myself, and the characters don’t make the same choices that they would if their fictional world was governed only by me. My job is to put flesh on pre-existing bones.

When I write plays, on the other hand, there are no pre-existing bones. I create the skeleton myself. Plays happen when I have an idea that rattles around in my head for long enough that I can’t ignore it. I start writing for the same reason that oysters start coating bits of grit in mucus – not with the intention of creating a pearl that someone might someday value, but simply to get this fucking sharp thing to stop irritating me. I don’t go looking for bits of grit. They just find their way in.

Starting work on a play without the bit of grit was a strange experience. I knew I had to write a play, I knew it had to be about sectarianism and I knew I had to deliver it by a particular date. You would think that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, considering that I was brought up by a Glaswegian Protestant and a Glaswegian Catholic. But there are two problems with that. First, Singing I’m No A Billy, He’s A Tim has already been written. Second, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my Mum’s death and the ninth anniversary of my Dad’s. Anything that takes me too close to the world they grew up in… no. Not just now. That way madness lies.

I considered various other options. There’s sectarian violence and discrimination all over the world. You’d think that it would be easy to find some where other than Scotland and write about the situation there. I didn’t, because sectarian issues tend to be incredibly complex and I would need more than a couple of months to do sufficient research to write anything that did justice to the places and people involved. The best I could have done would have been something trite, shallow and general, the kind of play that can do nothing more than reassure my fellow Guardian-reading lefties that we all know that sectarian violence is A Bad Thing. I needed to start from a position of actually knowing something.

So I looked to history. I’ve been an amateur history nut for most of my life. I can date it back to my first trip to Linlithgow Palace, when my dad started telling me stories about Mary, Queen of Scots and I realised that “the past” was a massive repository of my favourite thing: stories.  As I grew up and began to think critically I realised that history was not something fixed and known, it was open to interpretation and revision. It wasn’t pretty and orderly, and it certainly wasn’t some kind of golden age where everyone was better behaved than they are now.

The “golden age” attitude to the past came to annoy me more and more. When I worked as a tour guide I began to see how many people thought that anything that happened before 1960 was a BBC costume drama, the kind where the good end happily and the bad unhappily (give or take the occasional tragedy, where the unhappy demise of someone good is ultimately redeemed by the dignity and beauty of their death). I listened to people bemoaning the stupidity and selfishness of people in the present with increasing vexation. You think that people were more intelligent, more faithful, more honourable a hundred years ago, or a thousand? READ MORE. THINK MORE. Check out the Greeks moaning about how stupid and selfish people had become. I came to the conclusion that people, collectively, remain more or less the same. Values and influences change, but I think we remain more or less the same bundles of chemicals and impulses no matter when or where we live. (Then again, most of the confusion in my life has been caused by thinking – hoping – that other people are more or less similar to me, so what do I know? Still, I have yet to see anything that convinces me that people living centuries ago were fundamentally different to people today, so I stand by it.)

So how did this generate an idea for the play? Well, I am particularly interested in people’s need for a common enemy. Some years ago I did a Lifelong Learning course studying witchcraft in early modern Scotland, where I learned how little the persecution of “witches” had to do with witchcraft and how much it had to do with anti-Catholic sentiments and tension between the old faith and the comparatively recent adoption of Calvinism. I found it interesting, but I didn’t dig into the details too deeply at that point.

When I went looking for the Sectarian conflict that would prompt the play, I began thinking about how little I knew about  Calvinism. It’s a religion that had a profound influence on the country I grew up in, and yet I couldn’t have explained its basic beliefs.  I knew far more about the Church of England than the Church of Scotland – score one for Religious Education in Scottish schools! I knew a little about the Covenanters’ War, enough to understand that 17th century Scottish people had issues with Charles I and it was something to do with religious strife,  but I couldn’t have told you how the whole thing got started. I wondered whether the play might be lurking somewhere in the depths of that conflict, so I started digging.

That’s what led me to Jenny Geddes. In 1637 she got quite upset at the introduction of a new Book of Common Prayer. Charles I had been advised that the Scots weren’t going to like it, but he wasn’t a great one for listening to advice. Jenny thought it sounded a bit too much like Mass, so she picked up the stool she was sitting on and threw it at the minister of St Giles. A three-day riot ensued. Shortly afterwards, the National Covenant was created and signed, and the Coventanters’ War began.I started exploring Jenny’s motives. What got her so angry that day? What was she afraid of? What were the influences that got her to the point where she felt so strongly about what she was hearing?

Then I needed to find some other characters for her to interact with. There’s not a lot to go on, historically. Jenny Geddes didn’t have a well documented life. So I imagined her employer, the woman whose seat Jenny was being paid to keep in church that day. And I gave her a maidservant, because I wanted three women with different social status. I made a few basic decisions about what they would be, engineering their characteristics to allow for conflicts of interest and personality, and off I went.

In terms of research, this was a very difficult play to write. Even now that it’s written, I still don’t feel like I’ve completely got my head round it. If I hadn’t had a deadline, it would probably have become one of those plays that I rework for years and never show to anyone because it’s not exactly right yet. I’ve done my damnedest to get the historical context right, but I know I set myself an impossible task. Which makes me quite glad that I didn’t try to write a play about a present day culture that I don’t understand from the inside. At least I know that I won’t accidentally make things worse for Jenny Geddes, upset 17th century Scots by misrepresenting them, or trivialise an ongoing conflict.

Does that mean the play isn’t relevant? I don’t think so. We have a hell of a lot to learn from history. We don’t, as a society, because we reduce history to a Sunday teatime drama or a narrowly focused and horribly dry subject at school. I’m well aware that some people will come to see this play, take one look at the costumes and decide that it can’t possibly have anything to say about the world we live in today. All I can do is hope they’ll spot the similarities between 17th century people attacking a church because they considered Catholics a threat and 21st century people attacking mosques because they consider Muslims a threat.

The play is being directed by Jasmin Egner and has a fantastic cast; Angela Milton, Debbie Cannon and Belle Jones. I can’t wait to see what they’ll make of it. They’re intelligent, sensitive people and I trust them, which is great because now I have to leave it in their hands. My only involvement now is to throw research resources their way and try not to pester them. In the meantime, I am off to write a play that no-one asked me to write, with no brief at all, about what will happen when social media eventually turns on us all…