Creating drama with Janet Paisley

I first came across Janet Paisley’s writing in 1993, the year I founded Scotland’s women’s theatre company, Stellar Quines. I was researching contemporary Scottish women writers with a view to commissioning a new play for the company, and read Janet’s superb short story collection Wildfire (Taranis Books, 1992). There seemed to me to be something intrinsically dramatic about her prose - her characters and dialogue so vivid and energetic. And I loved her combination of humour and compassion, instantly engaging the reader.

I got in touch with her, asking whether she’d written any drama. She said she’d collaborated with Bread and Circuses, a group of writers who mounted dramatic presentations of the written word at Mayfest, and that she would send me something. In the sheaf of writing that came through the post, I read a brilliant monologue in Scots rhyming couplets - the voice of an abused woman, who had found an ingenious solution to managing her husband’s violence: every Friday night, when he came home from work, she would lace his supper with valium. This piece was both hilarious and moving, the Janet Paisley hallmark – a daringly exhilarating collision of comedy and tragedy. I asked her whether she might be able to write a play based on the subject she addressed in this terrific monologue – i.e. male violence against women – and in the same tragic-comic style. She said she thought she could.

And so, Refuge was conceived. Janet began to write her first full-length play for stage, set in a women’s refuge. And what a tour de force it proved to be - moving, funny, and deeply disturbing. The cast comprised five women, and one teenage boy, representing a variety of backgrounds - male violence against women knows no class boundaries. The characters spoke in different registers – some in Janet’s own Falkirk Scots, and some in English with a Scottish accent. What’s remarkable about the structure of the play is that all the action takes place in one room. There are no short scenes jump-cutting to different locations – none of the familiar fast-edit writing style, which has become common in contemporary theatre, inevitably influenced by television and film. Refuge is a classically constructed play for stage. The dialogue is scintillating in its wit, peppered with devastatingly funny one-liner put-downs, yet every one of them entirely related to the theme, and to the development of the drama as the tension builds throughout the play – nothing gratuitous at any point in order to elicit a cheap laugh from the audience. Another remarkable feat pulled off by Janet in Refuge - the mark of a born playwright - is that she was able to write for so many characters, all interacting within a single scene. Playwrights will often cut their teeth on two or three-handers – dialogue being so much easier to write in simple dualogue form. But Janet was able to write for a cast of six on her first full-length stage play – sustaining a multi-layered, varied counterpoint of character interaction.

Refuge would be Stellar Quines’ third production. The first was Night Sky, by the American playwright Susan Yankowitz, with whom I’d worked as a member of the London based Montrous Regiment, universally recognised as the inspirational grandmother of British women’s theatre companies. After the success of Stellar Quines’ inaugural production - achieved purely on a profit-share basis - we received a small grant from the Scottish Arts Council to produce The Seal Wife, an existing, very fine play by Scotland’s already well established dramatist, Sue Glover. The SAC project funding was barely enough to pay an administrator to organise the tour of this second production, so I got stuck in, writing shameless begging letters to friends and colleagues, contacts I’d built up in the fifteen years I’d worked in theatre, radio, television and film, not to mention those I didn’t know from Eve, such as Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, now Stellar Quines’ patron. These generous, trusting people stumped up enough to enable the company to keep going administratively. At this point, the artistic side of things was still running more or less on fresh air.  

Janet and I were in touch regularly, occasionally meeting up to discuss drafts of Refuge. Our communication was lively and positive, and the play was progressing. I knew that the Peggy Ramsay Foundation gave an annual award in the form of a production grant to companies who had commissioned and wanted to produce a new play, so I submitted a draft of Refuge, explaining that a further draft would be in the post soon. Meanwhile, I proposed to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the RCS), that Janet as playwright, and I as director, could work with drama students on a presentation of some scenes from Refuge. Thiswould enable us to develop the play in rehearsal, getting the characters moving around the space, while the students would benefit from working on a new text, building the characters and their relationships. The RSAMD accepted my proposal, and this work-shop period was hugely beneficial to us all. I still have the students’ self-assessment reports in my Stellar Quines Refuge file, and they make heart-warming reading:

‘I found Refuge compelling to read. It was instantly apparent that it was a play of many levels. I thoroughly enjoyed the work, and honestly didn’t want rehearsals to finish. The input from Janet was invaluable. Whenever there was confusion or misunderstanding, she was able to give the writer’s perspective on the problem. I found Gerda and Janet good to work with because of the energy, enthusiasm and thorough nature of their commitment to the project.’

‘It was really exciting having Janet in the room to give advice on the language and characters. Although I couldn’t really objectively judge my performance, I thought, as a whole, the group did very well. The scenes and characters came across clearly, and it was very powerful. We got some very positive feedback from audience members. The process and performance were quite draining, both physically and mentally, But I really enjoyed and looked forward to working on it and performing it.’

‘Working with such a strong script, was a real pleasure.’

‘It was helpful to have the input of three contrasting voices in reaching an understanding of the play and the characters – the voice of the actor, the director and the writer. I gained much from this unit.’

This process enabled Janet to work on a further draft of the play. Not long after this, I remember the thrill of receiving an urgent letter from John Tydeman, Chair of the Peggy Ramsay Foundation Award panel, asking me whether the final script of Refuge was available, as the judges were very interested in it indeed! I put the latest draft in the post, fingers tightly crossed.

This was a hugely productive period for Janet and me as a team. We frequently met up at one another’s homes, cooking up projects. The next play she wanted to write was about the Jacobite leader Colonel Anne Farquharson. She was, in fact, commissioned by Stellar Quines to do so, but by that stage, the company had expanded into a somewhat unwieldy structure, and regrettably for us both, I was not the director attached to that project. The play was given a rehearsed reading, though never saw the full light of theatre lamps. But Janet, of course, went on to rewrite it as her globally successful novel, White Rose Rebel. A beautiful Jacobite white rose still flourishes in my garden, gifted to me by Janet, which we planted together one spring. It blossoms profusely without fail every summer, during the month of June, always reminding me of Janet, and of the exquisite song The White Rose of June, composedby the sadly neglected great Scottish song-writer Lady Nairne,

As well as the constant (usually unpaid) activity with Stellar Quines, I was keeping the proverbial wolf from the door by producing programmes as a free-lance for BBC Radio Scotland’s Education’s Department. As the mother of a young child at the time, I was blessed that the brilliant Moira Scott was head of that department. She completely understood the flexibility required for working parents, and trusted her staff – mostly female – to deliver the programmes while structuring their own work patterns. One of my many cherished projects for the BBC was a series of twenty-five programmes, entitled The Story and the Song, presenting Scottish songs that have stories behind them – work songs, street songs, supernatural ballads, such as Tam Lin, etc. I wanted to include some Burns’ songs as part of the series, presenting aspects of the poet’s life – from birth to death – told by some of the women he’d known. I asked Janet to write the scripts – five monologues, each one relating to a Burns song. I invited musicians to record the songs, and wove them in and out of the monologues. Broadcast in the Autumn of 1996, these Burns programmes, written by Janet, proved very popular with schools, as well as with general listeners; over a decade later, they became a beautiful stage production, entitled The Lasses O, which I performed as a solo actor, with three superb musicians – Rachel Newton, Seylan Baxter and Lilias Kinsman-Blake. The show, produced by the Rowan Tree Theatre Company in 2009, directed by John Bett, was a hit. It received rave reviews, and was nominated for two CATS awards (Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland), winning one. A year later, in 2010, Janet’s son, David Paisley, also directed a very successful large cast production of The Lasses O, on the Edinburgh Fringe.
When I toured with my own play Federer versus Murray to New York in 2012, I was invited to return with the Rowantree production of The Lasses O (rumours of its successhad crossed the Atlantic!), although, sadly, the latter’s international outing didn’t come to pass.
Every now and then,while working with Janet on the Burns radio programmes, I’d wonder about the deliberations of the Peggy Ramsay Foundation’s judging panel. Refuge had been a long journey - commissioned in 1994, I received the first draft in 1995. Finally, in 1996, a letter arrived from the Peggy Ramsay Foundation with the news that their illustrious (all male) panel - Simon Callow, Michael Codron, Laurence Harbottle, David Hare, John Tydeman, and John Welsh – had judged 49 plays, including submissions from theatre companies all over the UK, including the Royal National Theatre, The Bush, and The Royal Court; and Stellar Quines had won the £50,000 production grant for Janet Paisley’s outstanding play Refuge.

Janet's powerful creativity was a significant mile-stone on the journey of putting Stellar Quines on the map. From that point onwards, the company secured regular core funding from the SAC. In March 1997, I directed Refuge, with a terrific cast – Anne Downie, Carolyn Konrad, Libby McArthur, Bridget McCann, Rosaleen Pelan and Jonathan Strange, the set designed by Karen Tennent, and lighting by Jeanine Davies. We received glowing reviews, from audiences and press alike. On the week we opened at Edinburgh's Traverse theatre (March 1997), the Herald reported: “If the SAC is sending out signals about how to run a company, then we should look no further than Stellar Quines.”

Janet’s own words, as the Writer’s Note, appeared in the printed programme for our production of Refuge:
Falkirk’s motto is Touch Ane, Touch A’. Yet, in 1989, the district council closed our local women’s refuges. Campaigning to reverse the decision convinced me REFUGE had to be written. Stellar Quines provided the means. I campaigned because some battles, though already lost, must be fought. But I wrote because I’m angry that safe houses are necessary, that we accept, even applaud, the existence of places for women and children to hide. I wrote for the women whose stories I knew and for those I never heard. For the men who violate. For men who don’t. I wrote for children who witness, who are abused, whose perceptions of love become warped. I wrote for my sons, for all our sons. They need to value their manhood, deserve a model to become. I offer no solution to the brainwashing and torture prevalent in our society. We are involved. I write because I can. My sister, a woman of fifty, spends tonight in a refuge, to protect a young family from a determined, dangerous man. Once, she protected mine. This play is for Joan, for half a century of genuine love.’

The Sunday Times hailed Refuge as ‘the most sobering play of the year’. Here is a taste of other press responses:

‘You don't win this award for nothing. The characterisations are too rich to be written as types, the dialogue too salty and downright funny at times to be dismissed as formula…performances of blazing conviction are matched with unfussy, confident direction.’ The Guardian.

“Comedy, reality, and a real psychological and moral thriller.” Critic’s Choice, Scotland On Sunday.

‘You assume it takes a foreigner like Ariel Dorfman…to show us the horrors of torture. It’s abhorrent and vexing, but we can rest easy because it’s always somewhere else. Only it isn’t. Janet Paisley’s Refuge tells us with plain-talking candour that torture is our problem, in our society, now.’ The Herald.

‘Paisley has the power to take us right to the heart of another human being's experience in the space of a couple of hours in the theatre… the mark of a true playwright.’ The Scotsman.

Particularly gratifying to me was the response from theatre colleagues.
Liz Lochhead sent a fax, in her inimitably generous self-penned hand:
‘This is just a fan letter to the whole company for the excellent production of REFUGE which I, Tom and Clare Boylan from Dublin much enjoyed at the Tron in Glasgow last Sunday. Very, very powerful.’

From film-maker Kenny Glenaan:
‘I saw REFUGE last Thursday. I thought it was brilliant. The writing was excellent. It was so good to see a well-written, intelligent (and funny), thought-provoking play. As a man, I found it very challenging. I learned a lot from it. Stellar Quines has discovered a formidable Scottish dramatist.’

Moira Scott, then Head of BBC Radio Scotland Education Department, wrote to Janet with searing eloquence:
‘I went to see REFUGE the other night with the rest of the department. By the end, we were weeping, and I’d nearly taken off my colleague’s arm in my distress. But I was so angry that women can be treated in this way. I wanted to show the play to every young teenage person to get them to think about relationships. The fact is that it has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with power and its abuse. The section of the play with Gordon describing his mother’s ordeal I found so unbearable that I couldn’t actually look at him at that point. Almost as if by looking at him I would be humiliating him further. `The rage in him at his own impotence was frightening, and yet he saw the only way to remedy that was to commit violence himself.
I wanted to thank you for writing such a powerful piece that showed how humanity and humour can still raise their heads, even when the individual has been almost destroyed. The compelling thing about the women for me was that they demonstrated aspects of so many different types of women I know - even I think parts of myself. I ask myself – why them and not me? Is it that some people are lucky? Is it to do with this thing called Self-Esteem? But what is it, and how do you get it?’

And a letter to me from the theatre director John Carnegie:
‘It was bracingly exciting to see such a classically constructed premiere on a Scottish stage. REFUGE certainly vies with Peter Whelan’s THE HERBAL BED for my vote for the best new play of the last couple of years. Equally pleasurable was the passionate ensemble playing, with the way that the baton was continually passed unselfishly round the cast. I was also gratified to see so much trouble had been taken over the lighting as a major contribution to the evening’s success.
If we had a proper repertoire system in Scottish theatre, this production, of course, would be available to audiences for many years to come. It’s sad that the effort you have all put into this should see the show thrown away in history’s dustbin so soon. All power to Stellar Quines for your future shows!’

As I write this, looking back, the news on my radio is reporting on two major headlines: Oprah Winfrey’s barnstorming acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards about abuse of male power in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations; and the recent case of a woman, here in the UK – a hairdresser - murdered by her former lover, who stabbed her in her salon. She had contacted the police. She was afraid of this man. It’s still happening. Every day. And women’s refuges – vitally needed places of sanctuary – are being closed the length and breadth of the country. 

John Carnegie is absolutely right in pointing out that Janet’s brilliant play Refuge deserves to be seen again and again. As Moira Scott urged, it should be shown to every young teenage person in the country. Thankfully, the script can be read on the invaluable on-line resource, Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech:

It has been a privilege to know and to work with Janet. Her creativity and its legacy is part of our nation’s treasure trove.

Gerda Stevenson, 2018.

Jump to top