My Village and Other Aliens: Terence Blacker's confessions of a Fringe virgin
Independent columnist Terence Blacker makes his Edinburgh Festival debut this week with a show of storytelling and songs. He reveals the pain and pleasure of creating a work for the stage rather than the page
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Wednesday 31 July 2013
The author is on stage, doing what authors do. He tells stories and talks about himself, with one or two knowing insights into the writing life. Then suddenly – hello, what's going on here? – he reaches down, picks up a guitar and bursts into song. It is not, frankly, what you would expect. The literary world, for all its brave talk of reaching new audiences, tends to take itself rather seriously. A discreet cordon sanitaire is maintained between it and the vulgar world of showbusiness.
This is my year of liberation from all that. Rather than sitting on a stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, reading gently from my latest work and answering polite questions about the writing process, I shall be on the Fringe, performing in a cabaret bar a one-man show of stories and songs called My Village and Other Aliens.
There are admittedly a few literary references in the show – Flaubert gets a look-in, as do D H Lawrence and Sir Kingsley Amis – but they are in the slightly unusual context of a modern village life. My narrator, a humble village writer – "a chronicler of the human heart", as he likes to call himself – follows the fortunes of a local character called Pervy John, mixes with expats in France, becomes messily involved in a marriage that has an unconventional online life. He is looking, with increasing desperation, for material.
When I first mentioned to friends my idea of performing a show on the Edinburgh Fringe, it's fair to say that there was a certain amount of head-shaking. To all appearances, it looked and sounded like the classic career freakout.
Yet telling stories this way feels new and interesting. Until quite recently, writing songs was therapy for me, an escape from the day job. When my most recent novel, The Twyning, was going through a tricky stage (it is part-narrated by a rat, which brings its own technical difficulties), I would take refuge in writing stories of different kind to music.
After I had delivered the book, something odd happened. The songs not only became increasingly important to me, but they seemed to have left behind them a sort of imaginative residue. I began to write short stories which were connected – sometimes directly, sometimes at a tangent – to the subjects of the song.
When, at a literary event, I read one of the stories and, halfway through the reading, sang the song which had inspired it, the audience responded well. I felt as if I was on to something: the music added a charge of emotion, a splash of colour, a joke, to the written narrative. It was an exciting moment.
I have learned as a writer to trust these unexpected turns , these urges to follow an uncharted path, however mad they may seem at the time. I began to work on a sustained story, or at least a connected series of stories, which would be a fusion of music and fiction.
It was fun to write but, unlike my usual work, it inescapably involved performance. There was really only one place to take a show that fitted no recognisable genre. The Edinburgh Fringe may be brutally competitive with almost 3,000 shows – loud, brash, young – vying for attention, but a month in front of its famously demanding audiences seemed likely to tell me whether what I was doing was as enjoyable and interesting to see as it was to create.
I had no idea how different writing for performance was from writing for the page until the brilliant Cressida Brown, artistic director of the Offstage Theatre, became involved. With Cress, I went through the script and discovered, sometimes painfully, that it was the very paragraphs which seemed to work best in written form that had to go.
Used to playing the role of a writer appearing at a literary festival – mumbling, faux-bashful, only truly at ease when behind a podium and reading – I discovered from Cress that I had to change. "I need three times the energy," she said at my first read-through. I had to "find ideas in the air", not somewhere around my feet. I had to "push to the end of the line", not taper off apologetically.
Performing the songs I found relatively easy: they are in different voices and a tune provides its own drama, but working on the narration has been an eye-opening process. With a written story, one can get away with being a bystander, telling the story. With a performance, there are unavoidable questions: why is this man telling me all this? Who is he? What's his game? There are two plots – the one that is being told, and the one that is unspoken.
I became the village writer, a name-dropping, socially inept, burnt-out case. The show, rather to my surprise, is partly about 21st-century life and partly about writing. Its previews, which have taken place this month, have been startlingly enjoyable, not to mention revealing. Audiences have been generous; it has begun to feel as if my original idea – that stories and songs can add to one another – is shared by others.
The excitement of the Edinburgh Fringe is infectious and empowering, a blast of rude energy which is startling to someone used to the genial, battered fatalism which tends to accompany the launch of a book. During this final countdown before my month of performance at the Zoo Southside cabaret bar, there's a heady sense that anything is possible.
Or is that the illusion of a Fringe virgin? I shall be reporting in these pages on how the reality turns out. After one of this month's previews, my friend and colleague Virginia Ironside, who has triumphantly performed her own show at the Edinburgh Fringe, said that she envied me the excitement and the heartache which lay ahead of me.
Heartache? What on earth was she talking about?
Terence Blacker's 'My Village and Other Aliens', Zoo Southside, Edinburgh (0131 662 6892; zoofestival.co.uk) 2 to 26 August (not 12 or 19) 5.30pm
Watch Terence Blacker performing three of his songs below:
I'd Rather Be French
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