Ahead of his production Ban This Filth! coming to The Arches Behaviour Festival this month, qmunicate’s Caitlin MacColl chatted with Alan Bissett about his upcoming production and what he hopes to produce with it, just why Behaviour is such a fantastic festival for the Glasgow arts scene, and how his political involvement influences his theatre making.
1. First off, this is your first time at the Behaviour Festival – can you tell us what the ethos of the festival means to you?
Behaviour is unique in Scotland: a riotous, edgy theatre festival, that is about genuine artistic exploration and less about hitting some sort of middle-of-the-road demographic with safe material. If, as a theatre-maker, you’re asked to be part of Behaviour it’s a real honour, as it means you are considered a risk-taker. It’s a dangerous festival, basically – where an audience’s preconceived ideas are challenged – and the further into my career I get the more addicted I get to creative danger. So I’m delighted to be part of it.
2. You’re a man of many talents and this is not your first time performing your own work as various characters, following The Moira Monologues and The Red Hourglass. Why does performing your own work appeal to you and what challenges does it present?
It’s not always necessary to perform my work, but when I’m writing a play I usually get a sense of whether it’s something I’d like to take on myself or something I’d prefer to give to other actors. Luckily, my collaborator – the director Sacha Kyle – always makes me try out for my own plays, because, as she’s said: “I’m not going to let you fuck it up by casting you if you’re not right.” So I still have to pass a audition! The challenge is that the entire production falls on my shoulders, rather than those of an actual trained actor, and I constantly have to stretch myself. But sometimes I do feel like the writing and performing are two sides of the same coin: I get closer to the script by imagining how I could perform it, and I get closer to the performance by virtue of the fact that I’ve written it. It just seems very natural and obvious.
3. You’re very vocal about a number of social issues, especially Scottish independence, and have been involved in projects like the Big Sell-Off for the Big Issue and the International Network of Street Papers. Why do you think it’s important for you to talk and make work about feminism too?
Well, if you’re concerned about equality and social issues, then it stands to reason you’re should be interested in feminism, since it’s essentially about gender equality. Men tend to see feminism in one of two ways: a threat or an irrelevance. If you’ve got your eyes open you start to see the ways in which you are disadvantaged (I’m Scottish and was raised working-class) and the ways in which you are privileged (I’m white, male, CiS and able-bodied). It’s not enough to fight for the advantages you lack, but to fight for the advantages others lack. Men definitely receive rewards for being male. As part of a patriarchal society, that may seem invisible to us, but you have to develop a certain empathy and realise that, as men, the game is rigged in our favour. Once you make that realisation then you have to do something about it, and for me that involves taking feminism seriously. Men can’t be there to lead the movement, but they can be there to support it, and that means listening to feminists and not reacting to them as though they’re simply there to cut your balls off. Ban This Filth! is my attempt to engage with the feminist movement and ask real questions about male cultural conditioning. The challenge was to ask these questions in an entertaining way, that didn’t alienate the audience.
4. Ban this Filth was fantastically received at the Fringe last year. Now that it’s coming to Glasgow, who would you say it is for? Is there any kind of audience member to whom you’d particularly like to reach out?
Interesting you say that. The very first performance of the show I ever did was to a group of radical feminists at WordPower bookstore in Edinburgh last summer. They were initially very sceptical, but gave me hugely positive feedback. The show has since been exposed to ‘sex positive’ feminists, who tend to define themselves against radical feminists. They also loved it. The very last show I did was to an all-male Burns Club in Ayrshire (I didn’t know they were an all-male club until I got there). Now, you’d think that the sort of older gentleman who wants to be part of an all-male social club would run a mile from a show about radical feminism. But they totally went for it! So there clearly is no target audience. The show walks a line between being very edgy and very welcoming, and it hasn’t failed in front of an audience yet. It always gets people thinking and talking. Basically if you have either a penis or a vagina, this is the show for you.
5. You’re currently working on taking your pro-indy play The Pure, The Dead and The Brilliant to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Both in terms of the referendum, and in general, what do you think the next big steps artists and theatre-makers in Scotland could or should be making?
Well, each individual artist charts their own course. The point about art is that there are no set rules! However, I do know that almost all of the artistic community in Scotland is hugely excited by the possibilities of an independence, and we all feel that a No vote will be a result that will ultimately send Scotland into a spiral of depression, once the implications of our powerlessness become clear. My feeling is that the artists who are putting their energy into challenging a hideously right-wing UK status quo will, after independence, put that same energy into challenging the Scottish government, SNP or otherwise. The Scottish art scene has never been this exciting – we are literally imagining a different country – and if I was a young theatre-maker or writer I’d want to be part of that rising energy. Who wants to make art that says, ‘Ach, let’s just keep things the way they’ve always been.’ We need new voices to make a new Scotland, so to anyone who’s even remotely creative reading this: you just happen to be young at one of the biggest moments in your country’s history. Scholars of the future are going to be poring over what young artists had to say about this period. Are they going to pick up your manuscript only to find out that you just nodded along with what rich people in London had to say? This is our chance to change EVERYTHING! It’s a revolution, pure and simple.