In the final part of the trilogy detailing the life and work of playwright and actor Jo Clifford, she gives tips to aspiring storytellers and explains her own working methods, views and philosophy, and she still finds time to gleefully explain her recent experience as the first openly transsexual female playwright for London’s West End, with her adaptation of Charles Dickens Great Expectations.
“What about your writing?”
Writing is a pleasure, writing saved my life – I would say very literally. If I hadn’t become a writer I’d be dead. So it’s part of my life blood, it’s a delight, it’s always a pleasure to write and to craft words. I love doing it.
”What attracts you to the titles that you have translated and adapted?”
I think it was through translating that I discovered I was playwright – that’s a long story, but essentially due to working on Calderón, that’s why I owe him a great debt.
And I love translating. When I started to work professionally as a writer, I realised that in order to make a decent living as a writer I would have to have five plays on every year. That’s a lot of work. Translating is quicker than writing an original play, but if you are asking what attracts me; well, I translate to order. People say “I’d like a new version of this, or I’d like an adaptation of that.” And then it’s my business to do it as well as I can and to make it a real gorgeous work of art.
“Do you write more by logic or intuition, a bit of both, or by something else entirely?”
It’s not logical, that’s for sure. It’s very practical, for instance, this new play, White Ted and the Right to Die.
Jo picks up and gently waves a copy of the manuscript of that play and then proudly indicates to a stuffed white teddy bear (that was gifted to her by that shows production team) that is sat on a chair near us.
There was a very specific brief involved here: I had six young actors, each had to have a part. All the parts had to be more or less the same size, and the play had to last for about fifty to fifty-five minutes.
There are a lot of really practical considerations there that have to be met. So that’s a starting point, if you like. Also, it had to be done on a small studio stage – probably with very little set. You have to write very practically while writing a play, but then I also try to imagine myself becoming the characters and in my imagination I also try to be the actors playing those characters and I just try to tune in to them and listen to what they have to say, that’s all I do. Then once that process is done, there is the whole painstaking procedure of re-writing and making it all work.
“The re-write stage is my favourite part if the process, what’s yours?”
All of it is a source of pleasure, and all of it is a source of misery – so it depends – HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!
What do you think most categorises your work?
I used to think that what made my work special was my exposure to those Spanish Seventeenth Century writers, that gave my work its distinctive quality.
And then I remember in 2004, I was speaking at a conference, and my partner Susie who was dying of brain tumour at the time and whom I was caring for.
I was half out of my mind with grief and worry and distress, but one of the things they asked me to do was introduce myself and they asked if I saw myself as an English writer, or a Scottish writer – in essence what sort if writer was I?
And I found myself saying I was “not an English writer, although I was born in England, and I’m not a Scottish writer – I’m a European writer”, and then – to my amazement – I found myself saying “I’m not a male writer, and I’m not woman writer – I’m a transgender writer, and it was a big gathering, and I thought “yes – that’s right! That’s what gives my work its special quality.”
We transgender people, have an experience of life that is incredibly special. Incredibly difficult. Incredibly troubled.
Yet, at the same time our lives are rich and amazing. As an artist, it’s a huge advantage to know what it is to be a be a man, and to know what it is to be a woman, and to know what it is to be an outsider and to have felt all that vulnerability and suffering.
All that made my writing what it is. And that’s what I am extremely proud of, because to be an openly trans-writer in this world is not an easy thing.
When my adaptation of Charles Dickens Great Expectations was put on in London’s West End – it was also transmitted live around cinemas, so it was important for me to say “I am transgendered – I am the first openly trans-woman to have a play on in the West End!” That was kind of like WOW!
Looking back on that play – which I adapted back in 1988, when I was still really deeply in the closet, I could tell it was about being trans – that’s one of the things Great Expectations is about.
I saw it in the cinema as it was being broadcast and when you said that and I was sitting beside a couple of fellow transgender friends and we pretty much jumped out of our seats, shouting YESSSSSS!” We both laugh loudly. Very loudly!
I hope there were other transpeople in other audiences…
”Oooohhh… I’m pretty sure there would have been!”
I was very excited, because I know that clip was shown all around the States in high schools. The State of Philadelphia organised every pupil in high school to see my Great Expectations. WOOOW! How important is that? HA-HA-HA!
We both laugh again.
“What is the biggest thing that people think about your subject matter/genre, that isn’t so?”
Oh gosh, I don’t know. That’s one thing that I had distilled in me very early on, that what I thought my plays were are about and what other people think they are about is, is usually completely different – and that’s okay.
When I write a play, I give it to the audience. Doing this play is a gift to the audience and what they make of it is their business it’s not my job to tell them what to make of it, or what it’s about – they’ve got to work it out themselves. My job is, really, to entertain people as much as I can.
“What cultural value do you see in storytelling?”
Stories are what enable us to make sense of our world. Storytelling is one of the earliest cultural things to have happened.
The first literary text we have – Homer’s Odyssey was somebody telling a story, obviously, even before Homer’s day that had been going on for millennia.
A story is this fantastic combination of intellectual and emotional content. You get involved in the story, you care about it, but you can also transmit intellectual truths. It is as if our brains are hardwired to accept that.
I can remember when I started, just before I had my first play on, at the height of Thatcherism, there was very strong messages coming across, that what mattered was being an entrepreneur, there’s shit around about that at the moment.
What mattered was enterprise, learning to make money out of other people.
But I understood that telling stories, writing and creating theatre is more so. It was Lorca, the great Spanish poet, who said that “if you deprive people of theatre, it is as if you are depriving them of bread”. You’re depriving them of something intensely vital that we all need for our welfare and our wellbeing if you wake someone up every time they start dreaming – they’ll go mad.
We need stories, and it is incredibly important that these stories are good stories. I believe very strongly, that my plays have an effect on people, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that it is a good effect. Because so, many people make masses of money and become very successful from telling yarns that damage people. I do not want to be one of them.
“Can I come back to the point of everyone being encouraged to be entrepreneurs – if everyone was, how would that work? We would all be our own bosses, we wouldn’t really be able to hire or fire anyone, as they’d also be their own boss and we’d all be in competition with each other – it would be a disaster.”
Well maybe, if we think outside the paradigm, if we lived in a society that stressed cohesion. But we are given a view of history that is false. We are taught that history is about competition and warfare and people struggling for power – actually – that’s just part of it. The most important part is that of people learning to work together and collaborate and if you could just tell history from that point of view what a difference it would make.
“And how do you imagine you career developing in the future?”
I have no idea – I have no idea, Cate! I haven’t a clue – literal answer. And if you ask me what I shall be doing this time next year? I have no idea!
I decided I was going to be a writer way back in, cor, 1963 or ’64, and that I wanted to make a living out of it, I didn’t want to have to worry about money, I wanted to travel a bit, and all those dreams came have true and I think fuckin’ ‘ell – how lucky am I!
“I still dream of the day where I don’t have to worry about money! Ha-ha-ha!”
Well I’ll tell you dear, it’s really only came about in the last five years, or something for me – since my partner died, strangely enough. We always lived on that edge of things, and my partial retirement, I don’t know how it’s happened – its part of being a pensioner – HA-HA!
“What is your role in the writing community?
WOW! Erm, that’s very difficult, very difficult to judge. I often feel left-out of it, actually, but I don’t know if I am just being paranoid. For instance, there was a petition went round recently to protest against the appearance of an Israeli company during The Fringe in view of what’s happening in the Gaza Strip and it was signed by prominent writers and I hadn’t been asked to sign it, and I thought I’d been left out.
In fact, now I come to think about it, when I started to try write about the experience of being trans in the 1990s, for the Traverse Theatre in response to a commission by them and they turned it down and they dropped me as a writer.
I used to be very much part of the Traverse scene, but I was just forgotten about. The fact that I was trying to write about trans-identities at that time, I don’t think that was a coincidence.
I think it’s one of the difficulties of being trans, isn’t it, you can drive yourself MAD by worrying about whether you are being discriminated against or excluded, or not. You know what I mean, you know that feeling.
“Oooooohhhhh – YES! HEE-HEE!” I reply.
I get it as well. You just have to say, I am not gonna let this get to me. I would say I’m very fond of lots and lots of writers and what people say about the writing community in Scotland is how it is very closely-knit it is. I think it’s a difficult world to belong to because, as we’re kind of under siege. Writers don’t have the reputation in Scotland, as they do in the continent, for instance. British public life has a tradition of anti-intellectualism. I know who I am who I am and I enjoy being who I am. That’s the end of it, really!
The event is family friendly, and refreshments are being provided, and the venue is wheelchair accessible. Book tickets by calling 0131 523 1104, or online by http://bit.ly/lgbtwinter14, or pay (in cash only) at the door.