Jo Clifford: ‘When I write a script, I become the actor playing the character’
It’s a clear, bitterly cold day in Leith, too cold for snow. A perfect day for a big bowl of hot soup and bobbly, home-made rolls, seated in playwright Jo Clifford’s comfortably ordered but tousled room.
Her LPs are stacked along one edge – ordered but disturbed in the way of having been recently listened to. Leaning against the stereo is a photo portrait of Clifford’s two grown-up daughters and infant grandson, parts of whose toys are occasionally to be found underfoot.
Our conversation dots around Clifford’s childhood as a boy and how she came to terms with that, her role in bringing Edinburgh’s Traverse to the international stage and reminiscences about the joys of filing hard copy in they heyday of print journalism. There are the 70-odd plays she has written since 1985, both as John and as Jo, news of her children’s achievements, the controversies of her current big project, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, and the way she finds herself turning increasingly to performing.
Over it all, mentioned only in passing but always with love and a visible sense of loss, is Susie – the writer Sue Innes, Clifford’s partner since the age of 21. Mother of their children, Susie died suddenly of a brain tumour in 2005, aged 56, after which John Clifford felt able to come out fully as transgender.
Clifford’s next project, Eve, is a commission to create a new work for the National Theatre of Scotland this coming autumn. It is co-written and directed by Chris Goode, who is also reviving Clifford’s 2010 Lyceum hit, Every One, for the Battersea Arts Centre. It is part of a double bill with Adam, a play from Cora Bissett about a young Egyptian girl who moved to Scotland and changed gender. The double bill looks at trans lives in Scotland today, and Clifford performs and reflects on her own life as a trans person, a boy who knew he was really a girl.
The play, Clifford’s life (both in the last decade as Jo and before that as John) and the changing emphasis from playwright to performer are inextricably linked.
“When I was growing up, there was no information to help me as to who I was,” she says. “The information that I got was that I was grotesque, like a pantomime dame, or that I was evil, like that young man in Psycho.
“One of my ambitions has been to try to create a body of work about being transgender, just as there is a body of work about being gay for instance. But for being transgender there is very, very little. One has got to start somewhere, and so I have been trying to do this for a long time.”
Her first plays specifically on the subject, in the early 1990s, were all turned down. They marked the end of Clifford’s relationship with the Traverse. If that was distressing, as she started to come out more, the performance aspect of her work became more important until, in the last 10 years when she has been living openly as a woman, she discovered it as something she says she maybe should have been doing all along.
Clifford came to the theatre through performing in school plays. “I was always given the girls’ parts, which I loved. When I was 15 or 16, I came to understand what this meant. Suddenly everything fell into place and I understood I would be happier being a girl.
“That was the most terrible revelation at the time. As far as I could tell, I was the only person that felt that way in the whole world. I knew in the situation of my dreadful, conventional English public school that if that ever got out, it would be unbearable. The bullying would become impossible.”
The knowledge led Clifford to stop acting altogether, although she wanted to carry on. There was no one in her family she could turn to, so she suppressed her feelings, and found male roles beyond her, blocked in many ways by the prevailing transphobia of the time.
Yet her inner knowledge of performance allowed Clifford to become the playwright she is: “I still had incredibly strong instincts as a performer. That is how I knew if a line was good or a line was bad. I used that all the way through my career.”
That career didn’t really start until the early 1980s, when Clifford was in her late 20s. Because of what had happened at school, theatre became a place of shame and fear which she avoided. But at the same time, it exerted a strong pull, which she dealt with by doing academic work on 17th-century Spanish theatre, eventually writing a thesis on a play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca.
Although that thesis was abandoned for a while, as Clifford attempted to start writing novels and took up a job as a nurse to sustain an income, it was Calderon’s El Medico De Su Honra – the Physician of His Own Honour – that brought her to the stage. In an attempt to get back into the thesis, Clifford decided to translate the play and, on Susie’s suggestion, sent the script to Robert Livingston, one of her colleagues at the BBC, who not only knew of Calderon, but also directed.
It led to a revelation, as Clifford recalls: “He said: ‘You can write dialogue!’ and that was complete news to me. Then his aunt died and left him a little bit of money – enough to put on a play in the fringe. So he said to me, ‘Why don’t you do a Calderon comedy?’ ”
In 1980, they formed a company and put on Calderon’s The House of Two Doors. It was not a success in terms of ticket sales – Clifford smiles with satisfaction as she recalls the “large school party” of 25 people who made up their largest audience. Sitting in on every performance, Clifford saw that the people who were there were laughing at jokes she had written.
“I thought okay, now I know what I want to be,” she says. “I want to be a playwright. That is what I want to do.”
Aged 30, unemployed, trying to finish a thesis, living in Fife and doing nursing shifts, Clifford might have been an authority on 17th-century Spanish theatre, but she knew little of contemporary Scottish theatre, outside regular trips to the Glasgow Citizens.
Hardly the greatest grounding for a budding playwright, until friend and theatre critic Joyce McMillan suggested Clifford apply to review for The Scotsman during the fringe. Successful in that venture, she spent three or four years covering theatre and then dance for the paper.
It was a time of on-the-night reviews with midnight deadlines. She would phone the copy in to these “amazing ladies” or type it up in The Scotsman’s old offices before taking it physically down to the subs, who would then send it further on down to the printing presses, rumbling in the building’s basement.
“It was such an incredible training because I learned about theatre, I learned what I liked, I learned what I didn’t like and I learned how to say it very fast in very few words. In a way, I couldn’t have asked, quite accidentally, for a better training.”
And then, in another fortuitous accident, Susie met Jenny Killick on a train, who was on her way to to becoming the first female artistic director at the Traverse, in its old building in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket.
“We got talking,” says Clifford. “And in 1985 I got a commission to write a play for the Traverse. It was Losing Venice. Before then, I had written a couple of plays for radio and had adapted Romeo and Juliet for TAG theatre company. But Losing Venice was my first original play.”
The Traverse in the early 1980s was not the vibrant hotbed of theatrical revelution it was to become. Indeed, Clifford recalls that in the Edinburgh Fringes of 1983 and 1984, if you wanted a quiet drink, the Traverse bar was the place to go.
That changed in the season of 1985. Killick, with directors Stephen Unwin and Peter Lichtenfels, staged a total of eight in-house productions, introducing some of the most influential young playwrights of the day.
Notable among the productions were Peter Arnott’s White Rose, about a female Russian fighter pilot in the Second World War; Chris Annan’s Elizabeth Gordon Quinn concerned a woman who refuses to accept her working-class status during the Glasgow rent strike of 1919; and Clifford’s Losing Venice was about a Spanish attempt to colonise Venice in the 17th century.
They all had a big, bold and visionary outlook, with what has been described by commentator Mark Fisher as “an outward-looking European sensibility”, adding: “Big, bold and visionary, the plays changed the face of Scottish theatre.”
Losing Venice opened in the 1985 Edinburgh Fringe. It was, remembers Clifford, the talk of the festival, and received 25 different festival invitations from that run. From that time on, the Traverse became a trendy place to be.
Sadly for Clifford and the Traverse, the Scottish Arts Council at the time was not as outward-looking as its client companies. It would not put any money towards foreign productions. It did, however, allow the Traverse to take it to foreign festivals if they paid all the costs, so Losing Venice got to festivals in Australia and Hong Kong.
It was the beginning of a shift away from what Clifford derides as “astonishing stupidity and short-sightedness” from the SAC. Because of that – eventually – companies were able to get cross-border funding. Indeed, 30 years later, Clifford was part of the Made in Scotland showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Q&A: Jo Clifford
What was your first non-theatre job? Nursing assistant at a hospital in Melrose.
What was your first professional theatre job? Romeo and Juliet for Theatre About Glasgow, directed by Ian Brown.
What is your next job? Jesus Queen of Heaven on tour in Brazil.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That it was all right to wear a dress.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Spain. That allows me to say Calderon de la Barca, Tirso de Molina, Lope de Vega and of course Federico Garcia Lorca. And death, but let’s just stick with Spain.
What’s your best advice for auditions? What I was always looking for when I was casting people wasn’t what they looked like, it was whether they really had a connection with the director. Whether they felt happy being with the director and whether the director felt happy being with them. Crucially important was whether they understood, at a deep, instinctive level, what the play was about.
If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been? Probably an academic. I would have been a miserable person.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Before a performance, I meditate. I spend five minutes saying a mantra to myself off stage, in the dressing room or wherever I can get a bit of quiet.
Losing Venice was the beginning of a strong association with the Traverse for Clifford, one that lasted through Killick’s tenure and into Ian Brown’s. However, it did not bring an immediate financial reward and Clifford had to go back on the dole.
She says: “I didn’t want my children to suffer poverty – I wanted to earn as much as a schoolteacher. I thought that was a decent aim. Taking the commissioning rate at that time, I thought, ‘Okay, that means you have got to write five plays every year.’
“Doing translations is quicker than original plays, it is less painful. Doing adaptations is the same because the characters are already given you, but you can usually make more money out of them. Everybody knows Great Expectations, for instance. So that is what I did. And then, there was a long, 13-year period when I was not getting commissioned to do original plays. The only way I could survive was doing adaptations, translations and radio work.”
It would be wrong to dismiss the translations and adaptations from Clifford’s body of work. She wrote her own adaptation of her script of Ines De Castro for James McMillan as the libretto for his opera. Calderon’s Life Is a Dream and Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina were critical successes at the Edinburgh International Festival. Her adaptations of Faust were a huge success at the Royal Lyceum in 2006.
Popular success came in her adaptation of Great Expectations, made for TAG in 1988, with many successful revivals over the years. Clifford became the only openly transgender playwright to have a production in London’s West End, when it was revived at the Vaudeville in 2013.
While it might be easier in one way, as much skill and invention is needed for translations and adaptations as for original scripts. Clifford describes it as being far from a mechanical process: “It was very clear to me that when you translated words, it wasn’t the words, it was the feeling behind the words [you were translating]. And it wasn’t just the feeling behind the words, it was what was actually going on. It was what those words facilitated. You had to get to that.
“Translating is akin to writing original scripts in the sense that when I write a script I try to tune into the character and listen to what they have to say and feel what they are feeling and then write it down. It is exactly the same with translating. That is the process. The really interesting thing is I also become the actor or actress portraying them on stage. Because these characters live on the stage, they don’t live anywhere else. And that is what I try to capture. That is what I try to put down.”
And interestingly, when it comes to Eve and the expression of Clifford’s own life, lived outwardly as both a man and a woman, she returns to these ideas of how translation works to express what it is that she is trying to do.
“Eve is a translation attempt in a way,” she says. “It is trying to make an experience that is closed for lots of people into something that they can relate to and understand and feel with. Just as when you are dealing with a Spanish text you are trying to do the same thing for the audience.”
Before Eve/Adam arrives, however, there is the not inconsiderable event of the English premiere of Every One, first staged at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. Looking back at that 2010 production – charged and poignant, calm and elegiac in its portrayal of the death of a loved one in the family – it becomes clear that it was so strong precisely because it, too, was a translation. A translation of Clifford’s own experiences, his life and Susie’s death, on to the stage.
CV: Jo Clifford
Born: 1950, Derby
Training: Traverse Theatre
Landmark productions: Losing Venice (Traverse, 1985), Ines De Castro (Traverse, 1989), Great Expectations (Theatre About Glasgow, 1988), Life Is a Dream, (Edinburgh International Festival, 1999), Faust parts one and two, (Royal Lyceum, 2006), The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven (2009)
Awards: Fringe First for Losing Venice, 1985, Spirit of Mayfest award for Great Expectations, 1988, Scotland on Sunday Critics’ Award for Ines De Castro, 1996, Herald Angel for Ines De Castro, 1996
Agent: Lisa Foster at Alan Brodie Representation