This interview was originally published on www.shiftword.com
Jenny Lindsay’s Ire & Salt is SHIFT’s Wednesday show.Buy tickets now!
1/ What is your show about?
Long version! It’s part-fiction, part-memoir, and it’s about power. Political and personal power and a battle for both.
The plot devices I use for exploring this are, firstly – and perhaps most obviously – the recent Scottish referendum campaign, in particular the conflict between those who campaigned for a Yes vote as a means to an end, and those who campaigned for a Yes as an end in itself. How you chose to involve yourself in that campaign, and how you view its legacy says a great deal about how empowered you really were by the whole thing and how you feel political power should be exerted more generally. And that’s the narrative now, isn’t it? That we’re all so much more empowered now… I question that, even while feeling it in a sense.
In my own experience, there was a real conflict between working to build a cultural movement, and working to build a political campaign – and they are different, both in means and ends; in structure, solidity and sustainability. It was a confusing time, a tumultuous one, and it took many months before I gained enough perspective on what had happened to start writing about it. Saying that, I wrote the first piece included in Ire & Salt back in October 2013, using the second plot device in the show – Julia.
Julia, from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is an absolutely fascinating character, and I had written my undergraduate dissertation (in 2008) on socialist thought in imaginative literature (clearly because I do not value employment). Julia’s role in that story, which is very under-valued by many Orwell scholars, started to come back into my head as I started to wonder how best to campaign, particularly as an artist, which requires you (in my humble) to be pretty much mega critical and questioning of everyone who wants to use your work to further any agenda, even if it’s one you agree with.
Julia’s clarity of purpose in how to live in a world that she too thought ridiculous – as much as Winston Smith – and her dismissal of organised, structured opposition and charismatic leaders was a playful but interesting way to talk about power and activism more generally.
Her character is integral to the story I tell in Ire & Salt, and while she might be a work of fiction, she tells a truth.
The third part of the story that weaves its way throughout the show is about mental health and empathy. This was probably the most difficult part of the show to write as it is the most ridiculously personal poetry I have ever written – I usually advise against that!
‘Burn-out’ is a common tale in activism of all kinds. I was far from the only one to experience this, which suggests an integral problem with the way that we do activism – certainly the way that elements of the Yes campaign(s) did, what with there being this big, flashing 18th September end-date and the ensuing panic as 2014 went on. But… we don’t need to be run into the ground: we don’t. Where we are, it is usually about power. It is about leadership. An extremely wise friend of mine said that the basic rule of activism is to look after yourself; look after your comrades, and only then start campaigning. He was right.
Short version: it’s a story about love, power, activism and keeping the heid in a world that stitches alienation intae yer skin from the age yer old enough to hold a fork…
2/ How long have you been interested in the themes of your show, and what kickstarted your passion?
The Orwell interest started a fair while ago. I skived off school when I was 14, waited for my Mum to go to work (sorry Mum), let myself back into the house, and read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (except The Book excerpt – far too boring for my 14 year old mind) in one sitting, and was hooked on Orwell ever since. I wrote my Review of Personal Reading aged 16 on ‘the anti-hero’ in 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, steadily read through all of his other works, became a mature student in 2004 – 2008, and thrillingly had the best tutor I have ever had (Prof Stephen Ingle) come out of semi-retirement to be my dissertation mentor as I explored how fiction can be used to influence political thought and culture more generally. Despite my earlier joke, I had never gone to university to get a job. I went to hopefully become a better poet. By studying politics and religion. (I never claimed to make things easy on myself….)
On a personal level, giving illegitimate power a good kick in the shins has been my general mission since I realised that the disempowerment I was feeling wasn’t entirely my own fault, and I’ve always been keen to use spoken word to do that, in whatever small way I can. I’ve always been pretty confused about why we live the way we do – it’s inherently pretty stupid, and makes all of us really quite unhappy – and I’m curious about how people address that, particularly how it makes us treat ourselves and each other. I guess that’s why I was always more drawn to Julia than to Winston. I never found her as one-dimensional a character as she first appears, and oh-so much more human than anyone else in that novel.
3/ How long have you been involved in doing spoken word, and what is different about the way you perform?
About 13 years, but in all honesty, the majority of that time has been spent as a promoter and it’s only in the last year or more that I decided to chuck in any semblance of security I had and become a full-time writer, performer and promoter of spoken word.
What’s different to how I perform? Hrm. Well. I guess that a long self-training in compering has done me well for creating a relaxed and intimate atmosphere for any lengthy performances I do. I hope. I think. Sometimes, in theatre-settings, I just want all the lights up, though – you know? My mother always told me to look folks in the eye when I was talking to em… And the way I write is often a parody of conversation.
4/ SHIFT say they are going to challenge audiences this summer: how will you challenge them?
I’m not entirely sure how to answer that, in all honesty. The themes are challenging. The piece, Today, which is about mental health, has made more than a few people bawl their eyes out (sorry). Given it’s part-memoir, some folks might disagree with my interpretation of the successes and failings of the Yes campaign. Given it is part-fiction, some folks might see my re-imagining of Julia as total sacrilege! But as a work that is part-fiction, part-memoir, with all of the artistic licence that entails – I just hope that folks can embrace a slightly left-field perspective on something that I was very much involved in.
Julia plans to challenge the audience to a gin tasting session where she asks the audience if they can differentiate between Gordons and Victory Gin…
5/ What three pieces of culture should people be up on before coming to see your show, if they want a taste of your influences and aesthetic?
Acht, none really. I’ve been told by folks who have seen the scratch version that they really want to re-read 1984, so that makes me very happy. I guess if folks are slightly aware of Orwell’s 1984 and the dominant themes that we associate with that novel, and are aware that Scotland had an independence referendum, that it wasn’t dominated by the SNP and that, despite current events the majority of the campaign was pretty bereft of saltires, that might help. But otherwise, nae footnotes necessary.
6/ What are you looking forward to about being at Summerhall this August?
In my head, there is sunshine in the beer garden… I’d like that to feature at least once or twice. Also, the camaraderie that springs up between performers in the same venue. And there’s a heckuva lot of ace spoken worders at Summerhall this year!
7/ Where can we find more of your work before the show, if we’re curious?
http://www.msjlindsay.wordpress.com for the odd blog about politics and mental health (though it sorely needs updating!); www.rallyandbroad.com for the shows I run with Rachel McCrum; and both have links to my merch. I’ve also a youtube channel with bits n bobs on there, but as someone who writes for performance yer really better coming to see it live…