Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh collaborate on Panic Patterns at Glasgay! 2010
First collaboration from writing pair
Glasgay!, Scotland’s annual celebration of queer culture, returns this month with a programme of events on the theme of relationships. Over the following pages Malcolm Jack explores this theme with some of the personal and professional partnerships that have generated this year’s most exciting commissions. First up he meets leading Scottish writers Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh, whose suspenseful thriller Panic Patterns marks their first professional collaboration
Award-winning writers Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh live together and are in a long-term relationship, but until recently they’d never collaborated. Glasgay! director Steven Thomson asked if they’d be prepared to change that by co-penning a play for this year’s festival. ‘We asked him if we could charge for any counselling we needed to undergo afterwards,’ jokes Strachan, as I chat to her and Welsh over coffee at the CCA café.
The pair developed an outline for Panic Patterns – a tender, suspenseful drama about two female ornithologists marooned on a remote island in the far north of Scotland while observing bird migration patterns – then presented it to Thompson, to approving noises. ‘He seemed to respond to words like “apocalypse”, “isolation”, “lesbians” and “solitude”,’ Strachan notes with a laugh.
Directed by the highly acclaimed Alison Peebles, the play will be performed in the Citizens Theatre’s Circle Studio, a venue that Welsh, whose Glasgay!-commissioned play Memory Cells was well received at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, believes will bring an added layer of intimacy and suspense to a production heavy with creeping, gothic unease, as the protagonists, Jacq and Fay, become cut off from the world and are forced to make critical decisions and confront deep-seated fears.
‘It’s quite short and it’s quite intense,’ says Welsh, of Panic Patterns. ‘The audience are going to be right in there, part of the environment, part of the stage.’ Jacq and Fay, like Welsh and Strachan, are long-term partners, although they insist that the characters aren’t intended to be read as versions of themselves – even if the original plan, thwarted by finances, had been to method write the play in isolation up north somewhere.
‘In a way we join them in the middle of a conversation,’ says Welsh. ‘You know when you’ve had a long relationship, you have got conversations that you’ve had before, and you’ll keep on having them, although they will develop? I guess we want people to get that idea of closeness. And jeopardy as well – there’s a lot of jeopardy. The jeopardy of not quite knowing what’s going on, and also the jeopardy of their relationship.’
Did collaborating on a major commission for the first time place any strains on Welsh and Strachan’s own relationship? ‘There was a bit in the middle when we thought “God, what have we done”?’ Strachan admits. But for the most part, they enjoyed finally getting a chance to work together – an experience they’re eager to repeat. They’d discussed collaborating before, but until now had never been presented with the right opportunity.
‘We laughed and laughed,’ says Welsh of working with her partner, ‘which was really good. I don’t even think anyone threw anything at any point.’ Though a few harsh words were exchanged.
‘You called me an arsehole,’ shoots Strachan.
‘Quite a few times, yeah.’
‘But it was in jest.’
‘It was in jest. I won’t say what you called me.’
Strachan, who recently collaborated with composer Nick Fells on a commission for Scottish Opera’s Five:15 series, describes how she and Welsh figuratively and literally had to step outside of their home life by using the Playwrights’ Studio at the CCA. ‘We usually went for a drink on the way home,’ Welsh notes, ‘for decompression.’
While they laugh at the moments of friction such an intensive creative partnership generated, it’s evident that the two writers share a very serious respect for each other’s craft. They describe how they never sign-off on any individual project without letting the other read it and offer frank feedback first. ‘I totally trust what you think of my work,’ Strachan tells Welsh, who nods in agreement. ‘I know that I would believe you if you said, “that’s shit”.’
Glasgay! returns somewhat embattled in 2010. Funding cuts of around 50% - endured, director Thomson points out, while other arts organisations in Glasgow faced only 5 or 10% budget reductions – have forced the festival to strictly tighten its belt. The memory still looms of negative publicity last year following demonstrations by Christian groups outside Jo Clifford’s play Jesus, Queen of Heaven, over its depiction of Christ as a transsexual woman.
Certain sections of the media have recently poured scorn on the very fact that a queer arts festival continues to receive public money in this age of severe economic austerity, something Welsh and Strachan are quick to write-off as typical right-wing gay-bashing. ‘You know, the way they cover it, you’d think that the funding came straight out the mouths of children,’ says Welsh. ‘Glasgow needs these things – the [box office] figures were great last year.’
It’s often said that if a work of theatre hasn’t provoked debate, then it probably hasn’t done its job properly, a view Strachan and Welsh would appear to share when expressing their hopes as to what audiences will take from Panic Patterns. ‘The best experience of theatre for me is you go with your friends and you’ve all got a different opinion,’ says Welsh. ‘You know, in the pub afterwards or on the bus, you’re all discussing it and having your different viewpoints. I’d like it if people did that – if people could see it in a few different ways.’
She smiles and exchanges a glance with her partner. ‘I’d be really pleased if some couple had a row on the way home about what they thought of it.’
Panic Patterns, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 19–Sat 30 Oct.