Tag Archives: Scottish Storytelling Centre

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…


Unnamed Road

Well, happy New Year and all that kind of thing – was it a good one? I’m starting 2013 knackered. I can happily stay up until 2 or 3am on a regular basis, but apparently 5am still causes me to suffer through the following day. I might not drink, but you wouldn’t know if you saw me in the grip of a sleep hangover.

Anyway, now that January has started and the festive season is winding up, it’s time to start dragging myself back into some kind of routine. So here I am at 1.43am, avoiding editing by writing blog posts with Back to the Future on in the background.

Last October I had a play on at the Granary as part of Black Dingo’s launch season. Back then I mentioned that I would get round to telling the story behind Lost Love at some point, and since it’s going to be on again in a few weeks this seems like as  good a time as any. (Obligatory plug details: Lost Love is part of the line-up for this month’s Speakeasy, a spoken word event hosted by Jo Caulfield at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 22 January. Info about Speakeasy here. Booking for this particular event here. Booking is essential, people were getting turned away from the last event.)

Lost Love was the product of one of my mini-frenzies. I was supposed to be writing something else, of course – a deadline was looming large enough to make it necessary that I write, but not yet large enough to ensure that I wrote the thing I was actually supposed to be writing. The voice of the obsessed SatNav started chattering in my head and all of a sudden I had a ten minute play on my desktop.

When you write a play about a sentient electronic device and tell people it’s partly autobiographical they give you funny looks (and rightly so, I suspect) .But it’s true. As far as I know I  have not yet had a SatNav fall in love with me, nor have I been a SatNav. The SatNav-related bit comes from an epic drive through Central London. I was working on a show at the Rosemary Branch in Islington and one of the props required was a barrel. I tracked one down at the National Theatre prop store, which is near the Oval, and set off to collect it.

Driving in Central London for the first time is an experience. I had no idea how the congestion charge worked and didn’t really want to pay it, so I decided to avoid the charge zone. Unfortunately my SatNav was determined that we were going in a straight line, right through the charge zone, and I couldn’t find a way of programming it to go round the outskirts. Instead, whenever I reached a Congestion Charge sign I would just go in whichever direction felt right, causing my SatNav to tell me off in what I felt was an increasingly judgemental tone of voice. I spent about an hour of the journey yelling “you can’t make me” interspersed with various obscenities at the SatNav. I have since learned how to switch off the voice, meaning I can cheerfully ignore it without getting any backchat.

However, the autobiographical bit is actually to do with driving in winter. The SatNav in the play leads its owner into the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold day. When I say that it’s a black comedy, that’s not just a description of the humour but also of the ice. I don’t drive in winter if I can help it because I’m truly terrified of black ice. I’m nervous enough when I’m walking if it’s slippery out, having broken some bones in a fall a few years ago, but driving… No.

My first assistant directing job was in Forres, rehearsing in December. I was staying in a cottage just outside the town. On the second morning of rehearsals I woke up to find that it was snowing. I got in the car and set off for rehearsal. Less than ten minutes later my car was upside down in a ditch and I was lucky to be alive. I managed to get one of the windows open and climbed out, uninjured apart from whiplash. I counted my blessings and got back to driving as soon as the insurance cheque came through.

It wasn’t until the following year that the shock caught up with me. I had moved to London but was back in Edinburgh for Christmas when I got called in for an interview for a job I really wanted. I needed to be back in London by the next day. This happened at about 9pm, right around the time it began to snow… I slithered along the M8 and M77. The gritspitters weren’t out yet (because for some reason the authorities are always taken by surprise when it snows in winter) and the traffic was packing the fallen snow down.

That’s when I realised what a near miss I’d had up in Forres. Claustrophobia set in as I remembered being trapped in my wrecked car, my windscreen pulverised by rock that had narrowly missed my head. My phone had fallen out of my handbag and I couldn’t see it anywhere. As much as I wanted to find it and call for help, my priority was to find a way out. I didn’t let myself consider the possibility that I might not be able to get out. I didn’t consider that at all until that nightmare drive back to London. Then it all came rushing in, all those thoughts about how I could have been trapped on that quiet road, how wrecked cars can catch fire, how cold it was and how long I could have lasted in that cold, how no-one would have known exactly where to look for me when I didn’t show up, how easy it would have been to have got myself killed. Being cold, alone and having no control… I can’t even complete that sentence. When I try all I get is that squirming surge of anxiety, panic takes over and fills my brain with NO and I can’t say anything more coherent. And that’s after therapy.

Put the two together, my experience of using a SatNav and my unfortunately extensive knowledge of car crashes and icy roads, and you get Lost Love. Black humour and lots of Jen anxiety distilled into ten minutes.  At some point I’ll probably write something more serious about the car crashes, but collectively they’re amongst my greatest traumas. Lost Love let me scratch the surface. First I learn to laugh at it, then later I learn to be serious.

And that leads neatly on to the next future post promise. Sooner or later I’ll look at humour as a defence mechanism. But not tonight, because there has to be sleep at some point.