Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I made the mistake of writing the following piece for the (Edinburgh) City of Literature's Story Shop. Then I read the terms and conditions. It's meant to be fiction. Good lesson learnt. 

I want to be touched by the hand of David Greig. I mean, not literally. But see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Those gnarly overly-precisely muscled hands almost touching as God is bestows his water into wine power on Adam. I want Davie Greig to do that to me.

He’s a playwright. His plays are brilliant. But he is a modest and unassuming man. I deduce this from photographs, his twitter account and primary evidence from my friend Jeanette with whom he was at school. This extensive character analysis makes me certain that his advice to an aspiring person – someone who wished also to be a playwright - would be good.

Why Davie in particular? He’s not the only living, earning playwright in the world. I believe I admire his humanity. His plays are kind. Bursting with compassion for imperfect people stranded in an unappreciative world. 

Yellow Moon Billy didn’t mean to stab his almost step dad.

Prudencia Hart didn’t mean to fall in love with a Witches of Eastwick-esque devil but I’m sure she ended up pretty glad that she did. 

Midsummer’s Helena and Bob discover that reinventing your life half lived is perfectly possible.

As does Charlie when his golden ticket turns his life technicolour.

Greig’s characters yearn to be better than they are – but life gets in the way.

He also has cool friends. If I was mates with the exquisitely accessibly fashionable Cora Bissett, I might write great plays too.

I’m not saying I hope for pity – for compassionate encouragement - from Mr Greig. I picture a thirty second X Factor style encounter. I read him my most slaved over, most loved line of dialogue from my most vaulting ambitioned script. He hits the spherical X that stands for Don’t Give Up Your Day Job. And then I’ll know.

I’ve been writing scripts since the days when I wore red checked dresses to school in summer. With a solitary sibling, my collected cousins must have dreaded our visits. I’d send word ahead to warn them of the topic: usually a fairytale, but sometimes a nursery-based drama carved from my suburban imagination. And I’d pitch up in a cavalcade of costumes, scrappy script in hand and torment their holidays until the latest masterpiece was ready.

My dad’s family were less discerning than my dad. His sister and cardigan slippered parents watched with the forgiving pride peculiar to blood relations as my long suffering sister, aged approximately eight, writhed her way through a three minute version of Snap’s rumbunctious Rhythm is a Dancer. The dramatic pretext: she was the (lesser-known) dwarf named Rhythm. (She played the other six dwarves too. My aunt’s offspring were sufficiently young to be unreliable in character parts.)

In truth, in a sibling’s cackle of wickedness, I knew my sister hated dancing. Hated the song. Hated the humiliation that punctuated high days and holidays, courtesy of me. So for precisely this reason, I made her dance.

My mother’s family afforded many brothers and sisters. All possessing a similarly pessimistic outlook on life, dressed up as sober pragmatism. Her sisters fled the relentless cynicism early in life, one setting sail for Canada and the other, New Zealand. Her brothers had been less prescient and, following a brief sojourn in the priesthood, settled dangerously near the cradle of my early creativity.

The eldest brother had four children. A ready-made chorus line. But their house was located in untrammelled Arcadia. So I was easily sidetracked from rehearsals to gambol and splash in the ditch slicing the adjacent fields. The rain-damp oxygen-high twig-tangled urchin I should have been at that age.

The younger brother was father to my favourite co-conspirator, Kate. Her brother was less compliant than other cousins and infected my sister with thoughts of anarchy. We could consequently only trust them with menial tasks like serving the laboriously prepared brown bread ice-cream as fitting interval food. Kate and I were forced to muster all of our resources to depict as many varied, colourful and powerfully emotional characters as the story demanded.

Our coup de grace was the Ice Queen. I was Girl. Kate was the Ice Queen. She wore a tall silvery hat. I was jealous. But had to rise above personal petty jealousies to steal her wand. The chase started in the performance room and circumnavigated the hall, the dining room, the kitchen, the garden, the porch and back into the performing room. The audience endured the gripping drama with good grace. My pipe-smoking English professor uncle choked his intolerant chuckles with his hand.

When my mum moved out from the family home, my flight of theatrical fancy received its most substantial leg up.

Her new house had a cellar. By squeezing past the now quaintly antique grill atop a hob, you could push open the cellar door, descend the damply narrow, black as the earth is deep steps and enter – our theatre.

Rebecca and Laura were our playmates, pitch perfectly aged for Sister and I. Rebecca encouraged my quest for dramatic excellence. Laura acquiesced with the world-weary sobriety of the younger sibling.

This twelve by fourteen foot dank cave had its own stage. Half the floor had inexplicably been built one layer of bricks higher than the other half. It was all the nudge I needed. We assembled a collection of props consisting of a doll-sized china tea set and a plastic horse. We set to work on our wardrobe, pooling pocket money to pour over rainbow coloured net in Nottingham market as we determined to make a tutu. And we’d lure Mother, her partner, Rebecca and Laura’s wide-eyed curly-haired parents down the stooped steps to watch the Academy Award worthy performance of When The Clock Struck Thirteen. Clustered shivering in the bowels of the earth to watch us clamour for their attention while wielding a plastic horse. That is love.

I can still smell that cellar even though the house with ensuite theatre has long since passed into other hands. To the adult me, it would smell of damp earth, chill wet brick and mausoleums. To the child me, it smelt of escape.

The Attenboroughs. The Redgraves. All the other great acting dynasties – ain’t got nothing on me and my cellar. You can see how I’ve grown into a wannabe Davie.   

Oddly, I see him a lot. I live in Edinburgh. He (and I vow I didn’t stalk him) lives not all that far down the road. I go to theatre things. I go to his theatre things. Occasionally, so does he. So the Edinburgh rule is, I’ll stray across his path at least once a year. Sometimes more.

I refuse to be star struck. And I refuse to take advantage of my friend. She shall not be my pimp. Golden-haired Jeanette went to university with him and introduced us once, after one of his plays. I blushed uneasily. Not much to go on if you’re in the market for spotting a protegé.

Last year, the National Theatre of Scotland invited the world to submit five minute, referendum-themed plays and – God on the Sistine Chapel was smiling down on me – entrants would receive a master class with David Greig to help them hone and refine their work.

I wrote a script and submitted it with tremulous hand. But Davie was so jealous at the power of my words that he couldn’t bring himself to pen any feedback. Or he thought it was such a poor quality entry that it didn’t merit any feedback. Or he thought it was a joke.

My long-suffering boyfriend has gracefully co-existed with the spectre of Mr Greig’s hand from the beginning. In a superlative gesture of kindness, he endeavoured to arrange a lunch for me, with Davie, via his agent. My brain blushed when he told me. But I was spared the schoolgirl downcast-eyed encounter as his agent sent a focused response: he’s too busy.

All of this context. I walk into the Edinburgh International Festival launch at the Usher Hall late in March and there’s Davie Greig standing by the entrance, looking a little bit lost.

Be cool. I walk past him. 

The event ends, I’m rushing out, I rush past – Davie Greig. Looking a little bit lost. My stride hiccups to a stop. Mother’s words - if you see someone do something you like, tell them: it’ll make them happy – collide in my cranial cavity.

He won’t be interested in your opinion: you’re no-one, my skull retorts. And besides, you don’t want to tell him you love his plays. You want to find out whether you should write your own.

I stare at him. Adam appraising God and wondering if he really wanted the Water Into Wine gene. And then he’s swept up in a phalanx of fawners and bowled towards a drinks tray.

Davie. Oh Davie. Let me channel your wit and warmth and wisdom and love for little people. Let me write plays about devils and angels dressed in blue jeans with acoustic guitars. May my plays tour pubs and working mens’ clubs from Islay to Forres to Dumfries. May my plays be known as stories, just really brilliant stories, without a Brechtian conceit in sight. May I steal the stage to talk about things that matter and there by demonstrate that I’m not just a brilliant artist but a conscientious caring citizen in today’s bungee flung world.

That’s all, Davie. If you could just, you know, tell me. Thanks.


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