What does it mean to be a transgender artist? We asked playwright Jo Clifford about her experiences and her creative process.
Can you explain what happens in your play, Jesus Queen of Heaven, for people who won’t get to see it?
The play imagines Jesus coming back to earth in the present day, in the form of a trans woman. She preaches a sermon, talks about the Nativity, tells some familiar parables, is crucified, and offers communion and a blessing - all from Her own very different perspective. In doing so, she gently but firmly invites us to consider what this means for Christianity, and what this means for ourselves.
Sometimes I hand bread to each member of the audience; sometimes I ask them to distribute it among themselves. My version of the parable of the Prodigal Son begins: 'There was once a man who had two sons. And the younger came to know she was his daughter, and didn't know what to do...'. In the play, these Bible stories are told from a trans perspective. For example, the Good Samaritan is a transvestite coming home from a party.
How did you come up with the idea for your show? Where did your inspiration come from?
The play is actually a sequel to God's New Frock, which is about the God of the Old Testament. It tells my story, as an adolescent having to suppress my femininity, and the story of the Old Testament God who had to do the same: some scholars have said that before we worshipped a father God in the sky, we worshipped a mother God on earth. I feel that I, God and the Western world are all caught up in a toxic kind of masculinity, and the play tries to offer a way forward.
In the early nineties, I had tried to write about trans issues for theatre companies, and they all rejected my work. When I wrote God's New Frock in 2002, I realised that I would have to fund it myself. At that time, I was the only trans actress I knew, so I also performed it. It was the first time I publicly performed as a trans woman, and it felt frightening, but necessary.
To write, it’s as if I need to ‘hear’ the characters talking in my head. The play was originally going to be about one of the disciples. But the disciples didn’t say a word. Instead, it was Queen Jesus who spoke, telling me the text of the play.
How did you stay motivated while writing your show? What was your creative process like?
God's New Frock was translated into Italian and put on by an Italian company in Florence in 2007. It was hugely successful, so I told the theatre company performing the play that if they gave me a flat in Florence for three weeks, I’d write a sequel for them about the New Testament.
Because I only had three weeks, I had to finish it. Writing is an absolute necessity for me, so motivation was not a problem. I was alone in a room in Florence. It was stiflingly hot. I would get up early, write in the morning, go out for lunch, and then visit Florence in the afternoon, and usually draft a bit at night.
I was frightened of facing the world as a woman. This was very early in my transition: when I went out into the streets of my home town dressed as a woman, people shouted abuse at me. This made it hard to go out, and even harder to travel. But I knew I could not be defeated.
I also felt frightened of the play, which seemed to me to be absurd - the idea of portraying Jesus as a trans woman. This fear was very real, and there was good reason for it, given some people's reactions. All I could do was try to stay open and hear the voice of Queen Jesus.
Can you talk us through the process of organising the performance of a one-woman show? How do you find a venue and get people to help?
The director was a very talented student of mine who I trusted - I was working as a lecturer in a drama school at the time. I don’t know where the first producer came from, but she got £2,000 from an LGBT arts festival in Glasgow, and they found the venue. And then, she ran away to become a stand-up comedian. I muddled through. Afterwards, the director was distressed by the hatred the play aroused and said she no longer wanted to be involved.
So I struggled on my own, until I started to work with Susan Worsfold who directed me in another project. We’ve been working together ever since. We had conversations with various independent producers but they really weren’t interested.
I met our producer Annabel Cooper because she produced a short film I was to play the lead in. The director dropped out at the last minute, and Annabel stepped forward and directed it. I was really impressed by how she handled this difficult situation, and asked her to be our producer. Now there’s three of us: Team Jesus.
Your work has attracted controversy. How do you stay confident when producing a piece of art that you know not everyone will like?
I had no idea this play would generate such controversy. I actually didn’t imagine anyone would be that interested in it, but I knew I had to write it anyway.
It’s a strange paradox being a playwright. Obviously I want to give pleasure to audiences. I want them to enjoy the work. But at the same time I absolutely must not write anything because I think it might please them. If I do that, it never does. I have to leave behind all fears of failure or hopes for success, all that ego stuff, and focus as purely and as strongly as I can on what the characters have to say to me. They are always a reliable guide.
How does your identity as a transgender woman inform your identity as an artist? Is it not something that you think about – i.e., you’re an artist first and foremost - or is it central to what you do?
Everyone's writing, painting or music, comes from who they are as a person. So obviously, my being trans gives my writing a very distinctive flavour. I would say it has improved me as an artist. The more I took the journey of transition, the happier I felt as an actor and performer. My creative blockage, which had lasted 40 years, was gone. I see writing as a form of activism: a way of resisting the prejudice from which we suffer. So I’m proud of the effect Jesus Queen of Heaven is having.
I’ve always written differently from everybody else. For many years, I thought it was because when I was young, I immersed myself in 17th century Spanish plays - Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca.
In 2004, my wife became terminally ill with a brain tumour. In the autumn of that year, half-dead with exhaustion and grief, I had to speak at a playwrights’ conference in Edinburgh. We all had to introduce ourselves, and my defences must have been down because I found myself saying: 'I’m not an English writer or a Scottish writer, but a European writer', and: 'I’m not a male writer or a woman writer, but a transgendered writer'. As soon as I said it I knew it was absolutely true, and that my very distinctive theatrical voice comes from it being a trans voice.
Since that realisation, I’ve written a new version of Faust; a play about bereavement, a play about the origins of capitalism, a play about euthanasia, a play about a grandma and the internet, and had my adaptation of Great Expectations performed in Japan and London’s West End. And now I’m writing a play about Marx, Manchester and the Industrial Revolution for Manchester’s Royal Exchange. So yes, I am a trans writer. But I write about everything.
What advice would you give to young artists – whether trans or not – who want to emulate your success?
I’ve no right to give advice. Every artist must find their own way. I write because I have to: if I hadn’t become a writer, I’d be dead. I never thought of success because I never imagined I would have any. When I became successful, I found that success could be as destructive as failure. If we allow failure to destroy our self-belief, it silences us. But success has the power to destroy our capacity for self-criticism and self-reflection, and that is damaging too. I have also felt that, as an artist swimming against the cultural tide, I was under pressure to keep silent. But I had to find my own voice - I had to keep on.
The Brazilian production of Jo's play Jesus Queen of Heaven will be performed in Florianópolis and Recife, Brazil, in January 2017. Her recent visit to Brazil and the Brazilian production of the play were supported by the British Council.
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