Friday, 26 April 2013


I learned a new word this fortnight.  Radicalise.  I haven’t looked the word up, but from its usage in news reports, the definition is, to become scary to us.  It implies a metamorphosis from human to monster by a force beyond our comprehension.  Sorcery.  I don’t mean to trivialise what’s happened in Boston, Newtown, Columbine, Utoya.  Rather, I fear that being blind to our participation in these incidents is dangerous to everyone.

El Punko getting radical
Not that we’re to blame for Boston, Newtown, Columbine, and Utoya.  No.  The perpetrators are to blame for the choices they made.  But terrorism is a complex phenomenon and we’re giving it a simple solution – Get a bigger gun.  We may still need that gun.  I’m not going to argue with that.  But you don’t teach a child not to hit by hitting her.  When a 19 year old boy kills an 8 year old, there has to be something more than the big gun in our solution. 

How did he become radicalised?  He’s as American as I am. 

I’ve introduced you to Diana Afanador’s monsters before.  Here’s another one with two heads.  A two spirit, in a way.  Something which has been subjected to several forms of sorcery and has divided itself in order to survive.  It’s these two heads which enable people to say in confusion, but he’s as American as I am, when in truth, he simply didn’t feel he could show the part of himself that wasn’t like you.  While we all have persona we drag out in different situations, managing two heads is quite a feat and I would postulate, damaging to the monster in question. 

by Diana Afanador

I was raised Catholic in Appalachia, the Bible Belt.  The Mecca of the Born Again Protestant, for my non-American readers.  Some children in our small rural community weren’t allowed to play with me because of my religion.  A classmate once asked the teacher about the Catholic practice of killing babies.  There was even a social studies teacher who wouldn’t give Catholic students a grade higher than C.  We were the one true faith, however, so I considered these people misguided. 

I moved north for tertiary education, where being Catholic wasn’t such a big deal.  But in the north, coming from below the Mason-Dixon meant I was a whole crate load of negative things, mostly amoral and some even criminal.  I noticed that the bad and the stupid on TV were people with my accent even when they lived in California.  There was no One-True category to protect me from feeling Less-Than.

Then I emigrated.  Having an American accent in Galway equated to wearing a bulls-eye and carrying a sign that said, Toss all your shit here.  I loved Irish trad music but learned quickly that my accent brought out the worst in the Galwegians, so in order to hear the music, I’d sit in my local and not speak.  At work, the Yank bashing was pervasive and when I complained, I was told by the director that I was a super power.  Our agency had a diversity audit and met in discussion groups with the auditors to share our experiences.  I shocked my colleagues by repeating the things they’d said to me.  But, but, but, it was a joke!  What a begrudger! 

Or had I become radicalised? 

In my next stop, Glasgow, I was pretty much allowed to be American and Appalachian as long as I didn’t admit to being raised Catholic.  Here, however, I was warned to watch myself around my Asian colleagues who were uber sensitive to racial slurs.  To be honest, after a lifetime of being Other-ed, to be told about people who weren’t going to take it any longer, that was like waving bacon in front of the Big Nosed Dog. 

It’s natural to hide what you value when other people want to destroy it.

Don’t misunderstand.  I had friends, good friends, in all those locations.  And, I was still myself– a self I liked – but part of me stayed on the inside.  I’d learned not to show my true face or use my true voice – I even toned down that accent of mine.  Although I still have a distinctively American twang, my friends think it’s a great party trick if I slip into Appalachian.  Do it again, Lora, as if being myself isn’t real, but a form of entertainment.

I’ve not included what being a woman is like nor the fact I’m mixed race – most people don’t look past my Welsh grandfather’s nose and the henna to see my Leni Lenape eyes and cheeks bones.  Even including those experiences, the bigotry I’ve endured, though uncomfortable, is small fry.  Let’s try getting cosy with the big cheese.  Let’s say that you’re blond with a London accent, C of E, and enjoy Morris dancing.  The latter might bring a bit of ribbing in the UK, but the rest is pretty much acceptable here.  So pack your bags.  I’m moving you to another dimension. 

London’s been taken over by the Westboro Baptist Church and you’ve left for political asylum.  You now live in a world where every villain or bigot on telly has a London accent.  The non-villain fictional Londoners don’t so much live in family groups as cesspools of sexism and domestic abuse.  There are protests whenever Anglicans want to build a place of worship, and existing churches are subjected to vandalism; the police can’t seem to help.  You’re routinely pulled out of boarding queues by homeland security for cavity searches until your name appears on a no-fly list.  Your vicar sister-in-law has been detained for six years and you don’t know where.  People in public places stare at your blond hair suspiciously, mothers edge their children away from you, old men cross to the other side of the street.  Your Morris dancing costume has been made illegal and all blond London Anglicans are accused of uniformly sexualising your male children.  You endure daily verbal abuse and periodic physical abuse from complete strangers; the police still can’t help you.  Super powers want to attack London to liberate your men from misandry.  And every single time some act of violence occurs, brown eyes look suspiciously toward the Archbishop of Canterbury.

If you think this is amusing, it isn’t meant to be.  This is reality for certain groups of people.  They live in a cage of being hated and feared without cause.  So damaging is this, in fact, that there may come a time when they say, fuck it.  And fuck you as well. 

Anger is a normal response to being treated like crap.

When American as I am people become violent, we look for the OTHER that RADICALISED the begrudger, who, by the way, is a LOSER whom we took under our wing and offered great opportunities to, and look at him bite the hand that fed him.  Radicalised.  By extremists who hate us, hate humanity, do vile things in the name of sorcery and call it religion.  Inbred BABY KILLERS who can’t take a joke. 

We never look at ourselves and say, you know what?  We could have done better.  Not ‘we’ being social services, immigration, the FBI.  We, being the social studies teacher.  My boss in Galway.  Myself, when the Asian guy on the train drops his backpack in the seat next to me and walks away.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Dramatic Alchemy

Audience.  Yes, that’s what you expected to hear about this week, wasn’t it.  Well . . . hm.  The creative mind always finds the tangled path, so chastise me if you must, but after a script-in-hand performance of my play, Cats in a Pipe, I’m contemplating the alchemy of transforming script into drama.  If you’re really peeved, I’ll send you a KitKat.  Better yet, if you live in the US, I’ll smuggle you a Kinder egg.  Naughtiness has taken over the Writing Closet.

One of the wonderful things about being a writer is the plunder of other lives.  Something grabs our interest, we collect information about it, sit down with a Double Caramel Magnum, stare into space and sift through what we’ve stolen. 

The end result isn’t to know completely what it is to be a doctor or chaplain or interpreter; the end result is to create stories about those people.  When a writer does this well, the reader believes the story, even with tiny inaccuracies.  When the writer doesn’t do it well, then the reader (or audience) gets hit in the imagination with an information dump.

Director, Lewis Gray
The director for Cats in a Pipe, Lewis Gray had a wonderful sense of what was dramatic, what was needless information.  He did an initial assessment of the script, then had me do a rewrite.  The first read-through highlighted other lines that looked good on paper but didn’t sound true on the voice.  Still, a skilful actor can make bad lines sound good.  So even at the read-though, the script was very much a piece of writing, not a dramatic work.  Enter the miracle of stage blocking.

In the Writing Closet, with a few taps on the keyboard, characters carve stone, perform surgery, break limbs, make love, try to hang themselves.  Actors aren’t that cooperative.  Try asking them to do something as simple as hunker down during a military attack then simultaneously take a radial pulse,  pass out sweets, dispense medication, make a phone call, keep hydrated, read from the Gita while singing a folk song, and see what type of fuss they kick up.  

You must be joking!
Full cast photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
For writers to create any story, we have some sense of how the action is played out.  Blocking that action is more than regulating traffic flow.  When we hand things over to the actors, they coordinate the delivery of lines within the space on the stage, around other actors, using props while making all these movements look natural. 

That's pretty incredible, when you think about it, and it's up to the writer to keep her demands simple rather than writing like a puppeteer.  If we let our actors communicate dramatically, they can take the story beyond what the writer envisages, give it a reality in the three dimensional world, create collaborative drama.

Gary Goodyear, Simon Motie
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
In Cats in a Pipe, the men share family stories, a conversation that is meant to  invest the audience in the characters and what happens to them later,  with the ultimate goal of eliciting an emotional reaction.  As he made a joke about the American surgeon, Simon Motie, who played the Afghan interpreter, leaned over to Gary Goodyear who played the Irish medical director.  Although in this shot to the right, Gary is still looking at his script, when he delivered the next line, he conspiratorially leaned towards Simon so that their shoulders touched.  What can't be seen in this photo is that Simon took Gary's hand.  The joke now has an intimacy that wasn't written into the script yet increases the audience connection with these two men.

As I noted last week, I had concerns for my American surgeon being seen as abrasive, his humour misunderstood.  To quote Lewis the director, the American can't resist putting the others on skewers.  Writing a character like this in a prose piece takes a huge risk of disengaging the reading from first, the character and subsequently the whole story.  In a play, however, the actor has the choice of demonstrating humanity in the role.  Below we can see John McMahon who played the American, using physical contact to add compassion to his character.

Simon Motie, John McMahon
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography

Actors are more than chess pieces moved around the board, however, and for me, this showed itself most clearly in the character of the military chaplain.  He's a young man from a sheltered and interpersonally deprived childhood who has accepted the beliefs and prejudices of parents old enough to be his grandparents. The theatre Reader who gave the script its first feedback felt that the chaplain had few redeeming qualities, would alienate the audience and perhaps should be scrapped or significantly changed.  I'd seen the chaplain as the quintessential cat in a pipe, thought he travelled the most significant dramatic arc of the entire cast and most importantly, was the civilian in the war zone, the person a civilian audience was meant to relate most closely with.  Somehow, his dialogue didn't convey this to the Reader.

Stan Hodgson, John McMahon
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
Stan Hodgson played the chaplain in a naive, self-effacing way that elicited protectiveness in the older characters as seen in these two photos of Stan with first, John McMahon and then Gary Goodyear.  This reaction from the other cast enhanced the 'babe in the woods' nature of the chaplain's character.  Stan conveyed this not through blocking, but by an open and guileless interpretation of lines and events, expressing himself as someone in over his head.  While the doctors speak of the wounded with clinical detachment, Stan brought compassion and horror to those conversations.  In the Q&A session after the performance, the audience said they'd seen the chaplain as I imagined him.  A clear case of how the dialogue only came to life through the actor.

Gary Goodyear, Stan Hodgson
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
I imagine for the cast and director that having an inexperience playwright was like a thoroughbred having a rider with too tight a hold on the reins.  Even so, they were immensely patient with me, but the first time they walked through the climax of the play, one of the actors stopped, looked helplessly at Lewis and asked for direction.  As everyone politely listened, I explained the metaphoric, spiritual, ritualistic, Jungian and Native American implications juxtaposed with references to music, cross cultural archetypes and body snatchers.

In other words, I'd written a climax worthy of a World Wide Wrestling match.  Lewis gave his direction, the actors played out a much toned down scene, I sat gobsmacked, my chest contracting over the depth of emotion in this simplified version.  The prose writer has only her words to bring the story to the reader.  The playwright has actors and a director.  Sometimes the action itself is so powerful, you don't have to tart it up.

There is a giddy freedom in handing over my story to the devices of other people.  I'm sure that my next draft, my next script and undoubtedly several more after that will all have shades of the puppet master in the writing.  My new mantra will be, Listen to your director.  Trust your actors.  Simplify.  Simplify.  Simplify.

Full cast
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
Thanks, guys!

Friday, 12 April 2013

A Lesson in Writing for Stage

Tackling script after a life of prose writing means I have a lot to learn.  Here’s a few things already.

Ah, the first rehearsal of my script, Cats in a Pipe, and the actor playing the American couldn’t come.  No surprise that I was conscripted to read the part.  While most writers read our work out loud during the editing process, reading with actors is an experience I’d recommend to writers of both prose and script (and boldly suggest that directors should adopt).  Having the writer take one of the roles in that rehearsal, benefitted all parties.

Any script starts as voices in a writer’s head that are later interpreted by the actors with guidance from the director.  One of my concerns for CiP was that the American character’s culturally specific humour would be interpreted as aggression by a British cast.  After hearing me channel the character, the cast said they now saw him as more likeable and more three dimensional.  But this meant that the American’s main sparring partner – the Irishman – had to tweak his interpretation of that character, which brought more depth to both roles.

By participating with the ‘Irishman’ during his process, rather than observing from outside the process, I witnessed, at close quarters, the actor adjusting his ‘garment’ – in other words, what it is I had asked of the actor.  This isn’t a lesson a writer can learn too often.  Our characterisations are challenges to actors.  Be kind to them without lowering your own creative standards.

Although this particular script is an ensemble piece, my creative awareness focused on the Irishman and the American, even in terms of casting choices.  During the last third of the play, events happen to the Afghan character, which affect the rest of the cast.  For me as the writer, the effect on the cast was the important thing.  However, I learned from the rehearsal that the Afghan controls the emotional level of the play by experiencing what happens to him.  Seeing this, reinforced the idea that the writer must know every character well, and never short change one because their role is smaller than another’s.  If a character can be short changed without affecting the whole play, then that character is probably not needed.

After the read through, we discussed problem areas.  Here I learned how interested actors are in speech, often moved by individual lines or needing to adjust them by perhaps a single word.  Their use of space, costumes and props holds an equal import which contributes to them being able to do their job.  While the director and writer hold the words as important, we tend to put theme and structure ahead of the space, costume and props of the actor.  This makes wonderful  sense; our jobs are different and so are our priorities.  Having some awareness of what matters to the other members of the team supports a successful collaborative effort.

So the newbie has learned a few things by coming out of the Writing Closet and going to the theatre.  Next week, I anticipate sharing with you what I’ve learned from the audience.  See you then.  Better yet, come to the play yourself and be part of my education.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Camp NaNo/NaPo

              Five days in, reporting to you live from Camp NaNo-/NaPo-WriMo!


In any group, there has to be one trouble maker.  Alien Magpie, Durham & I wanted to cabin with Fuzzball, and dutifully made our requests to NaNo.  After rejecting various cabins, only the three of us were housed together while Fuzzball was off somewhere in a holding cell.  I suspect it’s because he’s Finnish and we three live in the UK; he didn’t have the proper documentation to cross borders.

But never let it be said that trouble makers aren’t resourceful.  Fuzzball Bones created a secret Facebook clubhouse for us, and The Flying Wombats were born.  Occupation shot up from four to twelve in a matter of hours.  Soon the projects were being announced and as fate would have it, there was a classicist among us to raise the intellectual level.

Durham:  12 short stories, each inspired by one of the Greek pantheon, but it’s realism.  Managed to finish Hephaestus (with a whisper of Oedipus) but can’t type up as fast as I can write.  Bugger. 

The deceptively sweet looking, flute playing Kooky Spice revealed her darker side:

A fantasy story that I’ve been wanting to write for 4.5 years.  There will be assassinations, torture, and deity resurrection involved.  Wheee!

And Magpie took us into an entirely new genre:  

I’m doing a comic on Zev and Troy being super cool assassins.  Fewer words should mean less time, but it doesn’t.  Fewer words take much, much longer. 

I’m the sole early riser, which in this cabin, equates to evil incarnate, but by 10 a.m. on Day One, I’d killed off an innocent bystander while the others hadn’t poured their first cup of coffee.  They call me evil because they envy me.  The murder-a-thon was on.

Magpie:  I haven’t killed anyone yet, but I’m only just up.  Breakfast before murder and all that.
Kooky Spice:  No deaths yet.  But I have the first one planned.
Durham:  I’m biding my time til Hades.
Fuzzball:  You guys and your bloodlust are making me reconsider.  I don’t want to be the odd one out after all...

The cabin bonded during the body count, writers offering surrogate murders for those not ready to commit mortal sins.  Then it began to sink in, the reality of how difficult a challenge any NaNo month really is.

Fuzzball: I’m writing a horror story.  With strippers and drag queens and probably serial killers.  Before it actually began, the idea of NaNo was so exciting and I couldn't wait to get started!  I had my characters, I had a vague plot, I was looking forward to letting the writing just happen and fill in the blanks, and I was sure by the end of it I'd have the best thing I'd ever written in my hands!  Four days into it... My plan feels TOO vague, my characters aren't sure what they want to say and finding the time and the motivation to actually put words on the page is proving so tricky I'm 2k behind on my word count.... BUT! I just figured out my ending and writing down that scene felt so rewarding! NaNo is like a roller coaster, and you just got to love it.

It became obvious that some type of motivation was needed.  A crew of this ilk wouldn’t bat an eye at a threat.  Fortuitously, Camp started on Easter Monday, so chocolate was in bountiful supply.  But then they wanted beer.  And rum.  And mind altering drugs.  There were repercussions.

Durham:  Where is my voice?  Will it come?  Did I drop it somewhere?  I didn’t plan enough.  And NaNo is a hungry fucking child and I don’t have time to feed you!!!!!

But these are the conditions where serious writing happens.  Tips from Neil Gaiman and Josh Whedon were posted.  Word counts were compared.  Offers of feedback were given.  Pet rats were smuggled into camp.  (Three guesses whom those belonged to.)

Five days in confirms what I’ve often said, that writers need writers to write.  Writing is about the ability to imagine, to pretend, to play.  While we can do those things inside our own heads, group play energises and supports us.  Kudos to NaNo-NaPo-WriMo and all those groups out there supporting writers.


Now it’s time for me to get NaNo cracking.  Think of all the murders I’ve not written yet.  A waste, I tell you.  A waste.

                                                   Happy Wombat.