Tag Archives: Edinburgh

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.


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…


Thoughts on yesterday’s Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting

Yesterday I went along to the Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting at the City Art Centre. EPAD is a project run by Lucy Mason and Nicholas Bone to bring those involved in Edinburgh’s performing arts together, get them talking to each other and finding practical ways to share resources and match up means and needs.

It feels necessary and very useful. It’s open to anyone within the performing arts in Edinburgh, and so far the attendees have ranged from emerging artists just setting out to established practitioners and people who work for organisations like the Festival Theatre and the Traverse (which is a supporter of the EPAD scheme). It’s a good mix, and a great way to get into a discussion with people who might otherwise have proved tricky to network.

Network. Who actually likes networking? We’re all told how important it is, but how many artists actually consider themselves any good at it? And how many break into a cold sweat at the thought of it? It feels so calculating, deciding that a person is someone you must know and setting out to form a connection with them because it’s politic to do so. Trying to initiate a conversation for networking purposes can be a strained, tongue-tied affair, along the lines of trying to ask someone out but with the added pressure of knowing that you’ll run into this person again and again because it’s a small industry, so you can’t fuck it up. And if you’re in any way anxiety-prone, as many artists are, your attempts will be underscored by that voice in your head saying “This person doesn’t want to talk to you, why are you pestering them? Look at their face, they just want to have a quiet drink and here you are ruining it. Look at how long it’s taken for them to reply to you, they’re trying to find a polite way of asking you never to talk to them again. Leave them alone. Stop inflicting yourself on them. You suck at networking. And theatre. And life.”

What a luxury, then, to have a forum that allows connections to be formed in a less forced, more natural way. Instead of desperately trying to think of something witty and memorable to say, you can focus on the questions asked within the discussion groups. You’re there to talk shop, so you don’t have to worry that it might be boring or inappropriate to talk shop (always a concern out in the wild). There are clear instructions on how to move from group to group to ensure a good mix, so you don’t have to worry that you look like you’re following a particular person around the room. By the time the group discussions end, you’ve got a good idea of who you’d like to talk to and why, and you can start chatting to them about something they said during the discussions rather than relying on the usual “I love your work” intro (because while it’s probably true that you love the work of a person you’re trying to network, it’s such a cliche that it feels dreadful to say). There’s plenty of time left at the end for chats, and the room is spacious enough for the chats to be spread out. It’s a very good set-up, and I’m immensely grateful to Lucy and Nicholas for making it happen and facilitating so well.

During yesterday’s discussions, the two themes that stood out for me were Space and Communication. Edinburgh’s a city with a lot of underused or disused spaces. Many Council properties sit empty, just waiting for someone to come along and suggest a luxury hotel/student flats/superpub development, or to fall into a state of such disrepair that there is no alternative to demolition. Some spaces are used for temporary arts projects – the Market Street arches, for example, have housed a couple of pop-up festivals. Some start out as temporary projects but grow, bit by bit, into permanent (or as permanent as any such project can be) ones like St Margaret’s House. These temporary or not-so-temporary users are given the task of maintaining the building so that it doesn’t become derelict. They might not generate the same level of income for the council as commercial rental would – but if no-one wants or can afford to pay commercial rates for these spaces, surely non-commercial lets are better than disrepair and vandalism?

It’s not only the empty buildings that are worth considering, though. There are plenty of underused spaces within working buildings too. Meeting rooms and function suites that sit empty most of the time – the pub downstairs from me has a meeting room that is seldom used in the evenings, and they let me use it for table reads for no fee. As long as we buy drinks they’re happy, and sometimes they give us free chips. Several of my friends in London have rehearsed in theatre foyers during the day, while the building is staffed but they’re not actually disturbing anyone. Most of the artists I know are not proud about where they prepare their work. All they want is a space, preferably one that isn’t their bedroom or front room, and preferably one that won’t cost them so much that it renders the entire project impossible.

I’ll talk more about why we’re so short of rehearsal spaces in Edinburgh another day, though. The important thing to know is that it was a prevailing concern at yesterday’s meeting. No less important – perhaps even more so – was the issue of communication.

As I’ve said, major Edinburgh venues and companies were present yesterday, and that was fantastic… but there were a couple of notable exceptions. First, the Council. One Arts Officer was present, but looking at the Councillors listed on the minutes from the last Culture & Sport committee meeting, I don’t think any of them were there. They should have been, especially after the Desire Lines process where it was made clear repeatedly that artists need to be able to communicate with the Council directly. Funding EPAD was a good start, but the answer isn’t money. It’s joining the conversation in person.

Second, Creative Scotland. Yes, the organisation exists to serve the whole country, but Edinburgh exists as a part of that country. What happens here affects artists elsewhere in Scotland. Cultural policy and practice in the capital city should be of interest to CS, and they should be seen to engage. The City Art Centre is a few minutes from Waverley Gate. Yes, it was a Saturday, but it was Saturday for everyone. Most of the people in the room, if not all of them, were giving up their time for free, for something they believe in. When asked the question “Who would you most like to have a conversation with?”, most of my group agreed that they would appreciate a chance to speak to Creative Scotland, particularly to Janet Archer. There will be a chance to talk to Creative Scotland at their Open Sessions next month (though whether Janet Archer will be there I don’t know – I will tweet and ask), but wouldn’t it be nice to see someone from the organisation at an EPAD meeting? At something that isn’t organised by Creative Scotland itself? I think it would.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that no-one from either of these organisations had heard about yesterday’s meeting or was free to attend. This is not intended as a slight, but as an expression of hope for the future. They’re people we need in our networks, and I hope they’ll be represented at the next meeting, ready and eager to join the discussions and speak to artists face to face. I’m looking forward to it already.


You wanna know how I got these scars?

Most people don’t notice the largest scar on my face. It hides in plain sight. It’s very pale, I’m very pale. But it’s quite long, starting about an inch above my left eye, running all the way up my forehead and ending about an inch and a half past the hairline.

The smaller facial scars are the ones that make their presence felt, because they’re the ones that interfere with the shape of my right eyebrow. It always looks a bit oddly plucked.  This annoys me far more than the deep, pale scar on my forehead.

Then there’s the scar on my left knee. It’s ugly and unmissable – or at least it would be if anyone ever saw my knees. That seldom happens. I don’t have much of a summer wardrobe, living in a place where warm weather is not abundant, but even the skimpiest of my dresses tend not to show off my legs. There’s not much about my body that makes me feel self-conscious, but the scar on my knee does. I hate it.

All of these scars are from the same incident, and they all turn ten years old today.

On the 8th of March 2005 I was involved in a five-car pile-up. I was still singing back then, and I was on my way home after a performance. The crash took place on Queensferry Road, just past the Quality Street junction heading away from town. Having grown up in the north-west of Edinburgh, it’s one of those places that has always been part of the landscape of my life.

At about 23.30, someone swerved out from his side of the road and onto mine. Despite the time of night, the road was busy. There was no evasive action I could take. All I could do was brake and hope.

The approaching car hit me. The car behind hit me. Apparently two other cars hit mine as well, though I don’t know how. My awareness ends with approaching headlights and the thought “I fucking refuse to die here” and resumes in the wreckage, watching blood dripping onto the airbag and realising it could only be mine. My passenger door was open and someone was telling me to stay calm and wait to be cut out of the car.

With impeccable shock-logic, I reasoned that if I didn’t have to be cut out there might be some chance that my car – my Mum’s car – might be saved. So I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed out. Via the passenger door, because mine was staved in. As I hauled myself out I noticed that my left wrist was probably broken. Didn’t clock the multiple pelvic fractures, though. I staggered around for quite a while, trying to get someone to tell me what had happened and whether it was my fault (at this point I couldn’t remember the events prior to impact), before the paramedics arrived.

The twenty minutes or so that I spent in that ambulance were among the worst in my life. I was bleeding, frightened, in pain – and when the paramedic asked me if they should call someone, I had no answer. I desperately wanted my Mum and Dad, but Mum had been dead for over a year and Dad for eight months. Instead I lay there, trying not to freak out as they strapped me into the neck brace, and wondered what time it was and which of my friends would not mind being disturbed. I knew I was nobody’s first priority. It was an incredibly lonely certainty. I asked them to call the friend I had given a lift to that night, on the grounds that she would probably still be up, then I channeled my fear and loneliness into bickering with the paramedics about how long it would take us to get to the hospital. They said ten minutes. I said that from Queensferry Road to the ERI with a head trauma patient was never ten minutes. I had some vague memory of Mum telling me that ambulances don’t speed or put the siren on when the patient has head trauma, and I knew exactly how quickly you could get to the hospital, whether by staying within the speed limit or by breaking it, thanks to Dad’s tests and then his stroke. In those facts, in that knowledge, there was a little bit of them. It was the best I was going to get. Those poor paramedics…

What followed was a jumbled, nightmarish experience. In that overheated A&E ward I drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I’d come to and someone would be doing something – plastering or stitching me up, wheeling me off for scans, taking blood. They took blood so many times. I was terrified that they’d found the same cancer in me that killed my parents. I had been warned that I might have it too and opted not to be tested. They kept taking my blood and not telling me why, and I was sure that they were making certain before telling me I was going to die. I didn’t have cancer, of course. I’m still here. It was just bad luck that my first couple of vials got contaminated.

By the end of the night, as the shock and morphine began to wear off, I knew that I had been in a crash with a combined speed of 100mph. I had five pelvic fractures, damage to my pubic bone and sacrum, my left wrist was broken and had been re-set, the laceration in my knee went all the way to the joint, glass had been removed from my right eyebrow area, and my forehead had been split open. Apparently my skull was visible, but no-one would give me a mirror. I can understand why, but honestly – how many chances am I going to get to see my own skull? Hopefully not many, but I would have been really interested to see it while it could be seen.

Scar 1

The doctors who treated me expected me to be in hospital for at least a month. I was having none of that. The hospital smelled of nightmares. The last time I had been there was when Dad had his stroke and I spent two days waiting for him to die (which sounds brutal, but we knew about the terminal cancer so swift death from a stroke seemed like a far kinder option). I wasn’t going to spend a minute longer in that place than I had to.

I forced myself back onto my feet and was home a week later. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. I might have avoided some of the permanent damage if I’d stayed in. But… I couldn’t. Not that being at home was much better, in a hastily set-up bedroom in what was usually the dining room. That was where we had laid out Mum’s coffin. To me, it always smelled of formaldehyde. I managed two nights in there before I became convinced that if I stayed there I was going to die too and started dragging myself up the stairs to my own bed. I had specifically promised the doctors I wouldn’t do that, but needs must. I had thought that I’d have someone to take care of me while I got back on my feet, but… well, let’s just say that I learned a few excruciatingly hard lessons about trust after I came home from hospital. I was on my own, negotiating the house with a crutch in one hand, a cast on the other and a massive feeling of being kicked while I was down.

I healed, mostly. The facial scarring, as I’ve said, healed cleanly. The one on my knee stayed hideous, but easy enough to conceal. I never regained full strength in my left wrist, there was some permanent damage to my lower back and my neck, and I was left with involuntary eye movement and deteriorating vision after the head injury. I haven’t needed a walking stick for crash-related reasons since 2007. My confidence didn’t recover, though. I learned how alone I was. I learned a very particular kind of fear. It threw everything I had lost into sharp focus. And even now, ten years later, I can’t stand the sound of car crashes in films and TV shows. If I don’t see the crash coming and cover my ears in time, the trauma reaction kicks in and I start twitching like a fucking idiot and have to fight not to scream.

That’s quite a legacy for someone’s brief fuck-up. To this day, I do not know why it happened. I don’t know whether the other driver was high, suicidal or having a seizure at the wheel. I don’t know whether he was suspended or banned from driving. All I know is that he was male, speeding, alone in the car, and he escaped with just bruises. That’s what I got from the police and hospital staff. I don’t even know whether I should be angry for him or sorry for him. All I know is that something this person did, voluntarily or otherwise, left me with damage that will be with me for the rest of my life. Scars on my face, my leg and my psyche, and I still don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it.

Scar 2

 

At least I could feel legitimately insulted by the compensation I was offered. Someone – his insurance company? – offered me £440 to compensate me for my medical expenses. I set the cheque on fire. £440 barely covered the amount I had to spend on getting to and from the hospital for cast removal, stitch removal, physio and god knows that else. It did nothing to cover the ongoing physio or my glasses or contact lenses. Those are costs I’ll always have to meet out of my own pocket, because someone drove his car into mine. I could have fought for more, but I was a traumatised 22 year old with no family and no-one who would support me through that process. I just couldn’t deal with the paperwork. I couldn’t handle reliving it and having the validity and severity of my injuries questioned. Dealing with the horrible, arbitrary nature of what had recently happened was enough, and if someone, somewhere was willing to price my well-being so low… fuck them.

Ten years on, I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this. I feel the need to mark the day, almost to the minute. I need to remember what happened and how it felt, and how difficult it has been to set aside over the years. The reminder of the car crash is there every single time I look in the mirror. Facial scarring is strange. I’m incredibly lucky that it wasn’t disfiguring. It so easily could have been. But even so… it’s my face. Mine. My visual identity. And it’s got this big line down it because someone caused me to get hurt.

I choose to own it. Back in the ghost tour days I used to rub lipstick into it to make it look recent and livid, because it freaked people out. I knew it had the capacity to freak people out. When people do notice it, it’s ghoulish. I went to the release of the last Harry Potter book with my scar proudly displayed because sometimes you just have to make the joke before anyone else does (and believe me, when the scar was still easily visible I heard every fucking Harry Potter joke ever). I part my hair in line with the scar. I refuse to hide it. It’s barely visible, but I’d rather leave it available to be seen than brush my hair over it and look like I’m trying to hide it.

Bizarrely, I sometimes catch myself wishing that the scar had not faded quite so perfectly. Sometimes I wish it had stayed visible so that it didn’t look like I’d made an effort to conceal it. I haven’t, and I never did. The scar is a visual signifier for something I haven’t forgiven or forgotten, something I probably should forgive and forget but I don’t know how, because I don’t understand the event itself. If I could just be angry about it or just know that it wasn’t his fault, I could feel something fairly. Instead I feel nothing but confusion and pain, even now. I would probably have let go of the emotional pain years ago, were it not for the literal, physical pain that accompanies it. I feel the pain, it makes me angry, and all the feelings come flooding back.

I’m not sure I want to let go of the anger, anyway. Destructive and unhealthy it might be, but it’s mine. When I began to let go of the anger regarding the bereavements, what I found underneath was something much more complicated and harder to deal with. I don’t know if this would be the same. It might not be. But if it is… it’s easier to be angry. I know how to do that. I’ve mastered the art of a nice, passive rage that sits below the surface, kept at bay until I need it. Any time it starts to burn a little low, I can look in the mirror and the scar is right there to refuel it. Long, white, less visible than it was, but clear enough. A reminder of 2003 – 2005, and the last of the three events that hurt me badly and shaped the course of my life. The last of the Decade.

Scar 3

(This was taken earlier today. Ignore the facial expressions, this is what we call “resting brunch face”. It’s just that the scar was noticeable, and it prompted this post so I thought I should include it.)


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…


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.


A belated write-up of Creative Scotland’s Open Session in Edinburgh

It has been over a week since the Creative Scotland Open Session in Edinburgh. I’ve been meaning to write about it since then, but every time I start a draft I get exasperated and abandon it in favour of the work I actually get paid to do.

The official write-up of the day is here, just so you know: http://www.csopensessions.com/pat-kanes-blog/edinburgh/

The session was 4 hours long, 12 – 4, but nothing actually happened until 1pm. That was far too long to leave people sitting around. I understand the value of chat and know that there’s always a certain amount of time set aside for meet and greet, but 25% of the overall event time was too much. It might have been more useful to have this unstructured time at the end of the session rather than the beginning. That said, the catering was very nice…

The structure of the event was as follows: an hour of dithering, three speakers, a Q&A with the speakers, then 45 minutes of discussion at our tables and a short presentation of what we found. Apart from the first hour, it was all structured and guided in a way that served to kill off any spontaneity or organic discussion.

I’m not convinced by the idea of having three speakers at each event. This is partly because I get bored very easily if I’m watching people who lack public speaking skills. Only Hannah McGill was a particularly engaging speaker. I’m also sceptical about the selection of speakers. I can see that CS is trying hard to bring in voices from all areas of the arts (no, I’m not adding “and creative industries” because I don’t see them as separate entities, that’s an argument for another post) and has invited some outspoken critics of the organisation. However, the very fact that only selected speakers have a voice rankles with me. There are so many people within the arts who will speak not because they have something to say, but because a platform has been offered and god forbid they should ever pass up such an opportunity to be in the spotlight. (Actually, I’m not convinced that’s limited to the arts. I suspect that’s just a human thing.) Add in a fee and few people will turn it down.

One of the speakers, Ed Stack of indie music download company Ten Tracks, chose to show part of a TED talk by Amanda Palmer. Pat Kane, who was chairing the Open Session, describes her as “US indie rock goddess”. If you consider a goddess as an entity that demands endless amounts of attention and tribute from group of fanatical worshippers, that sounds about accurate. I watched that TED talk in its entirety when it came out, and it puts an extremely disingenuous spin on Ms Palmer’s exploitative behaviour towards her fellow artists (again, future post) and completely disregards the fact that her “art of asking” only works if you start from a position of considerable privilege. We should not be basing our ideas about being a working artist on the assumption that everyone has a typical middle-class support system in place. Showing videos made by people who donated their labour for free is all very nice, but it doesn’t help me as a working artist unless you tell me how they’re paying their bills while they give everything away.

Anyway, by the time the speakers had finished I had nearly worn out the battery on my phone by having Twitter conversations, many of which were with people who were actually in the room with me. Since there wasn’t a way for us to talk to each other as part of the event, we found out own damn way. I do hope CS is keeping a record of the Twitter conversations – they’ll find more in-depth discussions there than those that I was privy to in the room.

The Q&A with the speakers was derailed by the very first question. Apparently someone thought it necessary to ask “how Scottish” Creative Scotland should be, plunging us back into the pointless circular debate of the Alasdair Gray stooshie from last December. Suddenly everyone had to prove their Scottish credentials and how non-anti-English they are. Useful conversation ground to a halt. I had a sore tongue for two days from biting it really, really hard. I’m still not sure what the point of that question was.

Tim Licata from Plutot la Vie brought up an interesting point in his question about whether CS needs a “vision” or might be better off having a “purpose”. This is actually the kind of discussion that helps, because it lets us get closer to the fundamental problems that have to be addressed first in theoretical then in practical terms if we are ever to see genuine change. Alas, this was a Q&A with selected speakers, not a free-flowing discussion amongst equals, and the room was still suffused with the energy from the last question – not the kind of energy that encourages debate or diversity of opinion. Although Tim’s question may well have been the most important one asked that day, the response was little more than “hmm, yeah, suppose so”.

Arguing about language doesn’t feel like it should be difficult, but it is. When you actually start picking apart the things that people say (and the things that you say yourself), you start to make discoveries about the ways of thinking that underpin the language. It’s easy to dismiss it as semantics and claim that it’s not action, it’s not important. It is. You can’t change how people think unless you engage with it and attempt to understand it. You can’t do that without looking at how their behaviour is expressed in language, it’s like wanting to see the whole dinosaur skeleton while claiming that sweeping away the first layer of dirt is pointless. We should be prepared to have our words challenged and to defend out use of them. I’ve argued for this throughout my involvement in this conversation.

However, challenge really wasn’t a part of the Open Session format. After the Q&A we were shuffled into groups sitting round tables, being asked to discuss a central question. By the time the shuffling was done, no-one at my table could remember what the question was. We discussed what we’d like to see from the new, improved Creative Scotland and some points were written down on a large flipchart that had been left with a single pen in the centre of the table. So rather than a record of the diversity of ideas and opinions around the table, we had a sanitised version that said all the things you’d expect it to say. On the surface, it looked like consensus. In reality, it was the result of voices being stifled so that we could get some dinky phrases down on paper by the end of our 45 minutes, to be shared with the other groups as someone from each table got up and explained that they had reached more or less the same conclusion as everyone else.  CS should be nice and supportive and understand us and help us. It should nurture this delicate ecology. Pat Kane asked the question about whether Creative Scotland should resemble a gardener, trying to control said “ecology”. As he notes in his blog, someone piped up to say that trying to control ecology doesn’t make you a gardener, it makes you a god. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was me. Gardeners don’t control ecology, they understand it. They learn how to work within it to bring about change. That’s not the same as control. By all means, let Creative Scotland be a gardener, but it must not be a god. That’s how we got here in the first place.

Afterwards, on Twitter, there was a bit of a discussion about the word “ecology”. I don’t like it much, mostly because I hear it used in an attempt to sound scientific and intelligent and to conceal a lack of content or substance. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify the value of art – but I don’t believe we do ourselves any favours by borrowing the language of science (or business, or anything else) without being willing to interrogate it. Also, “ecology” and “ecosystem” are not quite the same thing, and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably just because “ecology” sounds a bit more natural and friendly than “ecosystem”.

Anyway… by the end of the Open Session I felt frustrated and angry. The discussions that we had there were discussions that have already been had, over and over again, online and off. Perhaps the fact that we needed to have them again is indicative of new people joining the conversation, in which case it’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a frustrating thing. But perhaps it’s indicative that while there has been some change at CS, it’s not going deep enough yet.

That same day, the advertisement for the new Chief Executive was posted. The language is more promising – at least it features the word “integrity” – and we know there will be artists involved in the decision-making process, including Vicky Featherstone who seems unlikely to refrain from speaking her mind. However, the salary appears unchanged, and I question the integrity of anyone willing to accept a salary more than ten times in excess of what most artists earn. I question what it means that Creative Scotland still sees that disparity as acceptable. (Someone at the Open Session tried to defend the salary to me on the grounds that being Chief Exec is a difficult job involving long hours. Want to talk about difficult jobs with long hours? My mother was a nurse. She was not on £120K/year. Even without the apples to oranges comparison of arts and medicine, I am a writer and director. I regularly do 16 hour days. I never get paid to sit in meetings. I have coffee with people on my own time and money. My skills have to be extremely sharp and constantly honed if I am to find work in a highly competitive environment. Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for the terribly hard life of a heftily-salaried arts exec.)

I believe in the need for the Open Sessions, but I think the purpose is currently incorrect. Artists need a forum through which they can talk to CS. It needs to be less structured. We don’t need to be talked at, we need to have conversations. We need to meet the people who make up the organisation, put faces to them, let them put faces to us. We need to see that they are people and let them see that we are people. This is how you build relationships. Give us something truly open, where we can bring our concerns (whether “we” are artists, CS, audience or other), meet each other, respond to issues as they come up. Basically, look at the Devoted & Disgruntled model and do that. Not just because it works, but also because it’s an exercise in humility – by relinquishing control and trusting to those present, you make an admission that you do not know best. If CS knew both what it needs to do and how to do it, change would be happening already. It doesn’t. Perhaps no individual or formal organisation does. That’s not going to change without people being brave enough to admit that they don’t know.

That said, I believe that Kenneth Fowler – CS’ head of communication and external relations – actually gets this. I’ve always felt quite hopeful after talking to him. He seemed aware that the format wasn’t quite working and was asking people directly for their thoughts at the end of the session. He said it would evolve. I believe it will, and that’s why I’ve taken the time to write all this. I have no desire simply to be negative about the whole thing. Everything that I’ve brought up in this post has been mentioned because I think there’s a possibility for change. I hope that the attitude that I see in Kenneth and believe to be present in some of the other CS employees will spread and eventually become normal within the organisation. Believe it or not, I don’t write these blog posts just to get things off my chest. I do it because I still believe that thing can change. More than that, in fact. I still believe they must. Which is why, in spite of everything, I’m glad I went.