Tag Archives: Respect

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…


A lengthy round-up of what people are saying about CSstooshie now

Creative Scotland is the arts blogger’s gift that keeps on giving. How appropriate, as we head into the festive season. But there are gifts and gifts, and this one feels like one of those annoying noisy battery-devouring things where once you start playing, you somehow can’t stop.

Perhaps that’s just me. I’m a bit tired and at an annoying stage of the editing process, and I’m being driven slowly (well, not very slowly) mad by the endless DIY noises from our downstairs neighbours. It’s not the greatest of moods to be in as I sit by the phone and internet waiting for news from Pitlochry, where Creative Scotland’s board has been meeting.

In case you’ve been living in a cave, let me make sure you’re up to speed – Andrew Dixon, Creative Scotland’s CEO, has resigned. He’ll be leaving at the end of January. The senior management team will be reporting to Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board, until a new CEO is appointed.

I don’t envy anyone the task of appointing Andrew Dixon’s replacement. This decision will speak volumes about whether Creative Scotland plans to do more than pay lip service to the concerns expressed by the artistic community. If Dixon is not replaced by someone who is prepared to address the ideological issues that lie at the heart of this dilemma, there will have been no point in his head rolling in the first place. My great fear is that the resignation of the CEO could be treated as a solution to the problem rather than a symptom of it. Resignations should be about clearing the way for someone better equipped to do the job, not about making a sacrifice to appease angry artists.

Whether Creative Scotland itself is changed from within or dismantled to start again, radical change is required. That takes time and sustained effort, and it’s a lot less dramatic and entertaining than a flurry of resignations and calls for revolution. It also takes a lot of talking and figuring out what our collective priorities are and how to realise the things we want.

I’ve seen several people re-posting Joyce McMillan’s column on the subject.  There are some excellent points about how public spending is perceived as a problem and its recipients as scroungers, not just where the arts are concerned but throughout our society, and about the dangers of treating the arts as a business. However, there’s a point at the end that I strongly disagree with and believe points to an equally troublesome way of thinking:

So far as the arts is concerned, the aim of a well-run funding body should be to identify those who have shown the capacity to create great work, and to give them the support that will set them free.

I don’t deny that this should be a part of what our national funding body does, but it should not be the whole of it or even its primary aim. Focus so heavily on those who are established enough to have demonstrated their “capacity to create great work” and you will drive emerging talent away, forcing new artists to go wherever the opportunities are – and once they’ve built up their contacts and reputations there, we may not get them back. Scotland’s emerging artists shouldn’t have to leave to seek their fortune because their own country is too blinkered to pay attention to anything that hasn’t already had the seal of approval elsewhere.

That need for approval is in itself a bit of a problem. Who decides what counts as “the capacity to create great work” and by what criteria? Joyce acknowledges that there is no conclusive answer, but I worry that the path she suggest leads to taking ‘greatness’ at face value. Shakespeare was a great writer, but is every single thing he wrote therefore great? I would argue that there’s a world of a difference between, say, Othello (which I’ll defend to the death as a great play) and The Winter’s Tale (which I’ll defend to the death as an example of how even Shakespeare has off days). The National Theatre of Scotland produced Black Watch, photos from which get trotted out at the top of every article about excellence in Scottish culture – but is this a somewhat lazy use of stock photos, or should it be raising questions about whether the NTS has been producing ‘great’ work since? If it hasn’t, should that be something that’s addressed in its funding? And if it has… well, surely there must be some photos from The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart or Macbeth kicking around somewhere? If we’re going to use the term “creative brilliance” and suggest that it be the main criterion by which funding is decided, we have to be very careful about how often and when and why we use it and also how we frame it, or we degenerate swiftly into ‘this is excellent because everyone says so and everyone knows it’ and risk excluding anything that doesn’t already fit that criterion.

I’m also concerned that this way of thinking does not allow for freedom to fail. If the pressure is on to make sure that all your work is ‘great’ work, where does that leave experimental work? Again, artists drawn to experiment will have no choice but to go elsewhere, to countries where the value of their work is understood. Countries like, for example, Germany – the very country Joyce cites as an example of getting your approach to the arts right. While making cuts to other parts of their national budget, they have increased arts spending by 8%. This is a testament to the difference between British and German attitudes towards the arts, but it’s important to remember that these differences aren’t just about money – Germany has (in theatre and opera at least) a completely different attitude to artist development, allowing for nurturing of emerging and mid-level artists as well as their more established counterparts. It is reassuring to see Germany taking such a step, but Scotland has a long way to go before it’s in a position to do the same because it would require a huge change in how people relate to the arts in the first place.

Elsewhere on the net, we’ve got thoughts from Pete Wishart, formerly of Runrig, currently Westminster Spokesperson for Home Affairs and Culture, Media and Sport. This is the gist of his argument:

Our creative industries are one of the major drivers of our economy and they have to be looked after, supported and nurtured.

Never mind all that silly self-reflection as a society, profound influence on people’s lives, education and civilising influence, the important thing is CULTURE = £££££!! Let’s get those artists arting, there’s gold in them thar hills!

In order to maintain our “cultural footprint”, whatever one of those may be, we apparently need to “develop our own distinct product”. You know, I find that deeply sinister. We’re supposed to make work that reflects some kind of bureaucratically-decided agenda, work that can be exported in a pretty tartan package with a Visit Scotland sticker slapped across it? That’s not art, that’s marketing material at best and propaganda at worst. If there’s a distinctive flavour to the work produced by a particular country, let that be something that grows organically as a response to shared influences and concerns.

I had to laugh at his suggestion that Creative Scotland has a role to play in getting artists to engage with the internet. We are talking about the same Creative Scotland, right? The one I’m talking about is the one with the horribly-designed website and fairly inept use of social media. Most artists are actually pretty web-savvy these days. We have to be. Most of us don’t have hefty salaries to rely on, and making self-employment viable relies increasingly on being good at using the internet.

On to another voice – Kevin Williamson’s this time, over at Bella Caledonia. (These are in no particular order, by the way, just as I happen to come across the open tabs on my browser.) This is where I started to find things really, really interesting. Kevin, like Kenneth Roy over at The Scottish Review, makes some excellent points about the lack of engagement or understanding from government. Since Creative Scotland serves policies that are decided at government level, surely Fiona Hyslop should be getting involved with all of this? Yet following her instruction to Creative Scotland to sort itself out, she has been conspicuously quiet. I asked whether she was planning to attend either Artists’ Open Space or the Tramway World Cafe and got a response saying she couldn’t as she would be busy promoting Scottish culture in India, which felt a wee bit like the cart being put before the horse and made me wonder whether the seriousness of this issue is clearly understood. (NB: While I’ve been writing this I understand Ms Hyslop has made some comments on the report from the board meeting. They seem to be pretty generic suggestions that artists and Creative Scotland should be nice to each other. If I come across anything else I’ll edit it in.)

And finally, there’s a strange contribution from The Commonty, a creative practice collective in the South West. I’m not entirely sure what this letter is trying to say beyond “we like Creative Scotland”. It’s all a bit vague, with a lot of talk about “initiatives”, “delivery of… Creative Scotland’s remit”, “real impact” and “strategic direction” and nothing more specific (for instance, examples of the projects Creative Scotland has backed and what “impact” they have had, or what the “specific realities of life in rural Scotland” might be). The assertion that “the overall momentum of change is in the right direction” would carry more weight if we had any idea what that actually meant.

There’s some complaint about the way this letter was reported in the national press, but to be honest I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. It’s nice to hear that there are some happy artists in Dumfries & Galloway and it’s good to give credit where it’s due, but this is a discussion about how Creative Scotland treats artists, not regions. Of course it met with a slightly bemused response. It’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. It’s not about whether it fits the national press’ story, it’s about the fact that in this particular conversation, the letter is a non sequitur.

 

And now the statement from the board has been released, so I’m going to go and have a look at that. At first glance I can see that they’re planning to do away with “strategic commissioning”, which seems to me like a step in the right direction – let’s hope that the rest of it turns out to be full of change for the better. No doubt there’ll be more Creative Scotland posts to come, but I’d like to think that they’ll be hopeful ones. I much prefer being optimistic to being weary.

It looks like this is Creative Scotland admitting they got things wrong and promising change. Let’s hope!