In a special Camden Fringe edition of A Glimpse Inside, I met up with TL Wiswell to talk about her new show ‘Space Age Love Songs’, running at the Hen and Chickens from 21st August.
So let’s kick off with the introductions…
My name is TL Wiswell, my first name is Tonnvane. I am doing a show called ‘Space Aged Love Songs’ which is running at the Hen and Chickens as part of the Camden Fringe Festival from 21st to 25th August at 9pm, and then having a second run at the 2 Brewers from Sept 4th to 28th, various dates at 7.30pm.
Tell me a bit about your show
Space Aged Love Songs is sort of a celebration of the 80s from the point of view of a goth girl who lives in a trailer park in Phoenix Arizona. Her best friend is a teenage drag queen and the two of them aren’t very popular in the high school setting, but they become friends with each other. They are both having maybe not the best lives, because being gay he is getting in trouble at school, and she is having problems because … her mother is really poor and Camille is getting in the way of her love life. To escape from this horrible world Camille listens to new wave music. She says she is listening to goth music, but I wanted more fun, upbeat new wave stuff. She puts on her headphones, and she escapes into the future and what we call Mirrorworld.
Mirrorworld is sort of a combination of Flash Gordon and Bladerunner, featuring these sexy young men wearing tight silver spandex clothing called the Mandroids. This is her sort of her representation of what her gay friends are, based on going out to clubs with them and stuff. She imagines that her best friend is actually a renegade mandroid who, instead of wanting to go into combat or working in the mines, actually wants to be a stage performer. He wants to be a singer, and he is, in my mind, if Roy Batty from Bladerunner had been a teenager, this could have been how he wanted his life to be. He wanted to be on stage. She wants to figure out how to help him escape from this horrible future that is planned for him.
But in the real world, all she is trying to do is survive, and see if she and Daniel can go to prom together. It goes back and forth between the pedestrian life that they live together, where Daniel is introducing her to drag clubs, and gay bars, and Jean Genet, and Charles Bukowski, and the future, where she is escaping to the clubs where he performs, meeting the other mandroid friends, and eventually trying to save him from a mine on the moon.
A bit much for fringe theatre, but I figure people come all full of imagination and we are going to make sure it gets a good workout.
In terms of the real world elements, I understand you’re drawing a lot on your own personal experiences
Yes. So, before this show got put on the stage, I had a conversation with the director Micha Mirto, who wanted to have a play set in England for a change. So that we didn’t have to do accents and stuff like that, although I don’t really think I can write British culture yet, even though I’ve been her for 12 years. But the thing is that the conditions for people that are poor in America are a lot grimmer than they are here. When one of my actresses was saying so “my characters background is that I had a baby when I was 16 and wound up living on a council estate etc..” and I was like oh my god, does she think that is what really happens to you in America? Because what happens when you’re pregnant, particularly in 1967 or so, is that you might get sent to an unwed mothers home, or your parents would just throw you out and you’d have to see if any of you other relatives would take you in. Or, maybe if there were some friendly people who would let you live with them, but basically you were likely to be on the streets. There were no government agencies to help you. So I couldn’t move this out of America, because even in the 80s, the social resources you could fall back on if you were a single parent were close to non-existent. So, the fact that Camille’s mum has to find boyfriends who help support her, is pretty real.
The other thing about this play, is that for me this play is a celebration of ally-ship between women and gay men. And I mean for it to be a placeholder and a representation of ally-ship across the spectrum. And not just across the LGBTQ+ spectrum but also across into the straight community. When I was doing my final re-writes for this play I was in Orlando, and it was well after the Pulse shooting. I went to an event there called ‘Straight guys do drag’ and basically what they were saying is that the LGBTQ+ community is not outside of us, we are all one community and we are united together, and when you sit there and you go trying to kill us, it is all of us together. And when we stand side by side we can not see any difference. This is a little bit about that for me. We fight together, we are family you know. I wanted to celebrate the friendship, of what is not affectionately known as fag hags. Over the years gay men have been such good friends to me and I wanted to see that on stage. Because they were the ones who accepted me as I was. They didn’t ask a lot questions. They were just OK with me being me. I think that those friendships made my life a lot richer than it would have been, if it hadn’t been for them. So I wanted to see that on stage and that is very personal, and that is why I chased Micha to do this show.
In terms of the show, where does it sit in terms of your writing development. What is your background when it comes to writing or performing theatre?
I’ve been sort of a theatre critic for maybe 30 years or something. I started when I was at uni. I didn’t think I had any stories in me at that time, and I had no ambitions to write plays. When I moved here in 2006 I upped my play viewing from 75 a year to around 200 or more a year. Most weeks I would go to the theatre 4 or 5 times. I think it is pretty normal.
I think we may have been separated at birth
Well, I’m always looking for a theatre buddy. And then I got really sick 6 years ago. I developed a chronic illness due to stress and over-work. I kind of had my health collapse and I had to quit working, and I just sat in my house all day long, didn’t really do much. I had a hard time even getting to the corner shop, if I could leave the house. So while I was sitting there, I thought, I need something to do with my time and I had this little germ of an idea, which was to do a play about my dad and his two brothers, and how they could never learn to work together, no matter how old they got. And I kind of thought it needed to have a kind of Chekhov kind of feel. You know, it was a comedy where you were laughing at the characters for being fools. And that’s how I saw them. So I came up with a play called ‘Three Brothers’ … it made me think of the Cherry Orchard, because it is three boys, three actually retired men, who can’t play nicely.
I like the slip of boys there, does this tell us something about their behaviour?
Yeah, they still couldn’t get along. It took me a year to write that. It was pretty hard work. I didn’t know how to do it, but I had a feeling about play structure from all the plays I’d been seeing. It was actually an education to see like a thousand plays. And after I wrote it, what’s funny, is that I immediately had an idea for something else that I wanted to do. I was very upset by what the government was doing in terms of blocking people from bringing their spouses over on the basis of income, so basically only the rich can bring their non-British spouses here. I was really upset by that. And also the deaths of people who were on benefit sanctions, for sometimes bureaucratic nonsense.
And I was at a Christmas Carol and I was thinking, how can people sit here in a really rich neighbourhood, and feel so content and smug because that was in the Victorian days, but now we love the poor, and we take care of them and we look after them. And I just thought, you guys don’t realise that looking after the poor is actually something that we need to do everyday, and the need to do this hasn’t stopped. And it is easy to think, when you watch a Christmas Carol and people are wearing hoop skirts and top hats, that that’s the past. But when you read the newspapers you see that it is still a problem. I was really determined to write a Christmas Carol based on the abuse of the poor, and the handicapped and immigrants in modern society.
I jumped right on in. I thought ‘Three Brothers’ that’s done and I started writing a Christmas Carol and got it down in 2 months. But at that time, I didn’t know much about how theatres schedule things. I thought I’ll have it done for November and we can have it on for Christmas.
Oh you really didn’t know much about it
Yeah, I didn’t know a fucking thing. So I finish it exactly on deadline, with no theatre, no cast, no director, no plans, no nothing, absolute ignorance. And I had a bit of a sad. And then somebody said to me, why don’t you have people get together to read your play, and you can actually have it sort of performed, and maybe you’ll feel a bit better about it, and not feel like such a big loser. Which is totally how I felt. I had people over and we had a Christmas Carol party, and I provided gin punch with lemons, just like Bob Cratchit did. It was so fantastic. I had 14 people all together, my ridiculous, crazy, wonderful friends, reading the play with the script. I listened to it and people laughed, they thought it was funny, they got my jokes, they loved having David Cameron as Scrooge, it just really seemed to resonate. I can’t imagine why!
As we started getting closer to summer, I sent a copy of the ‘Three brothers’ to the Old Red Lion, where Stewart Pringle read it, and he was like “this is really good. You’ve got the knack. What are you planning on doing?” and I told him I had this other play I was thinking of doing but I didn’t know what to do with it. He asked me to send it (Christmas Carol) over, so I did. We got together and he said this might be a good candidate for the Old Red Lion, and so about a year and a half after I’d finished writing it, that was the first play I had on stage.
When I listened to my play being performed to a live audience, and they laughed… I did not know all these people, they were not all my friends, and I was just fuck me I can write, I really can. I can make characters that people believe in. Because I’d changed the story up and down. Sure yeah, there is Scrooge, but I did the middle section, which is about Fezziwig and the big party he puts on, I had it set in a Welsh mining town. So the first time we go there, its 1972/73, the mines are in good shape, everybody is having a great time. The second time we go there, its 1984 and the mines are on strike, and after shutting down the mining industry and trying to starve the miners out. And it’s Christmas and people are giving food packages. That is what they’re being given for Christmas. And I had a character come up, that I created out of my own head and he said “Dad I want to tell you something, but you can’t tell mum. I’m joining the army. I don’t want to ruin your Christmas. I’ve got presents for everybody this year.” His dad tells him that he doesn’t have to do that, that its dangerous, you could die. And the boy says “there is nothing left for me here dad, there are no jobs and I can’t stand being a burden on you. Don’t tell mum”. That scene, with them, it was so real, and that was based on my own experience growing up in a poor mining town in Arizona, and just watching the boys sign up for the military year after year.
I watched that scene performed in a reading and it got me all teary. I was just like, I’ve done something good. I’ve made something out of my imagination that feels real, I’ve made characters people can believe in, I’ve made stories that people can care about. I think that must have been about 5 years ago.
Since then I’ve struggled with learning how to produce plays, how to get them on stage, how to find the right people, and with how to produce plays that people want to see. Because when I put the ‘Three Brothers’ on it was a tremendous failure. I must have lost £3,000 on that show. It was really harsh.
With ‘A Christmas Carol’ the last few shows basically sold out, that was an easy sell. So what was the problem with ‘Three Brothers’? Not the right kind of marketing? Not a familiar story? So the next two plays that I wrote were adaptations of Lovecraft shows, because I knew there was an audience for Lovecraft. I’d also set myself the challenge to create shows with good roles for women, so I just made them all women, because I don’t see why you couldn’t have women mad scientists and women necromancers and all of that good stuff. Plus he is out of copyright. And there was an audience, I was completely right, my first runs of both of those plays were sold out. So I got that right.
But then I wanted to do something that was me, so last year was my first go at going back to doing a story that wasn’t an adaptation, that was completely original. Last year I took a punt on a play which is part of a trilogy. That play I renamed from ‘Damned lies and statistics’ to ‘How I became a dominatrix’. Because I thought, this is a title that will win over a fringe audience. I sold out all 5 nights.
You know your fringe audiences
Nobody wants to come to a story about a marriage falling about but they’ll absolutely come to a story about how some gal became a dominatrix. Because that sounds… you know… well how bad could it be? And it wasn’t bad at all. It was super funny, I had a wonderful time putting it on. The cast were amazing and we had two offers for transfers before the week was over. However, offers for transfers don’t actually come with money to help you put it on, so we accepted the offer at the bigger theatre and I lost another £3,000.
It’s very easy to lose money in theatre
Somebody said to me, if you always anticipate at least a small loss, you’ll never be disappointed. And that was good advice. What I tell people these days, theatre producing is like horse-racing. You can’t be in it if you can’t afford to lose.
Which brings me the recurring money question of my interviews, how do you make a sustainable life as a playwright?
The reason I can manage it, the way I’ve managed it, is because I work in computers. And I don’t have any children, and I don’t have a house in the UK. I have the rent as my overhead and, for my previous shows, I’ve been paying for that out of my wages from my computer stuff. I have gotten better and better at getting close to breaking even, but I’ve also learned some important lessons. Like unless you have a one or two person show it is pretty much impossible to break even on your first run because of the cost of rehearsals.
I believe that it is important to pay your actors. The amount of money I’ve paid my actors has increased again and again over the years, and for this show it is the most I’ve ever paid my team. I was hoping I could have got Arts Council funding but I was turned down, because I didn’t display sufficient audience engagement, however I don’t consider having a community outreach program a necessary part of doing a play. I am a two person production team, and both of us have day jobs, because there is no way, even with Arts Council money, that we could possibly be making enough money to keep the rent paid. So we actually have drawn down out of savings from the US that we had for this play, and I will lose that money. We will easily lose £6-8,000 on this, and that is money that has been saved up for many, many years. I’m a complete dreamer, and my husband, and let’s be honest we’ve been separated for years now, he’s letting me take the money we were going to use for our retirement, or at least some of it, and spend it on this. To me it seems pretty fair, because if you look at the 25 years we’ve been married, I front-loaded it, because I put him through grad school. I think that will even out……
So we’re paying for it out of savings, which isn’t particularly great but it is still better than credit cards!
[at this point the two of us went off on a bit of a job tangent, talking about the impact Brexit is having on the job market and the very real possibility that Tonnvane may had to accept a project in Dover, as the computer jobs market is choking under Brexit. This would mean missing out on her heavy theatre going for 3 months etc…….]
Do you have any plays planned in the pipeline?
I’ve got a play about polyamory, that is kind of mentally based on La Ronde. A series of clusters of people dating seen at 3 different points in time, with the connections between the different clusters changing every time you get to the new spot. I did take a 3 month writing holiday earlier this year and I got that finished up, it was half way done. I’m kind of seriously gestational with this play I want to do, a really personal play, it’s about my mom, and when I say gestational I mean the baby is about the breach. I think it is going to show up this weekend, although I can hold it for a month.
This play….. it’s a two-hander, with two women, and in the first scene it is these two sisters in 1972 talking about how things didn’t quite turn out the way they were expecting after they left high school. Basically they’ve both got kids and failed marriages already at 21, 22. It is set at Christmas, and they are wrapping presents while their new men are out at the bar. The next scene is 20 years later, the same two actresses. One of them has aged, and the other woman is the daughter of the first one. They sit there and they talk about “what happened to your mom”….
Originally I had envisioned that piece as an epic, sprawling ‘August, Osage County’ with all the secrets, except with must poorer people. And then I saw a play by Mike Bartlett, who I totally worship, and it was a Christmas play about a man and his daughter. It was just him, talking to the audience about how he wasn’t sure what had happened between him and his daughter….. At the end of the play, as it is a Christmas play, there is a kind of resolution between the two of them. And I was like, oh my god, that is the heart of the Christmas play. It is people just being about to say I love you anyway.
So I had my little genesis moment while I was watching that play, and I realised that I didn’t need to tell a sweeping saga of 3 generations of women in my family, that I could tell the story of these two generations and I could have it done over a table in my grandparent’s trailer. And it would be that simple. So that’s the next one I’ve going to write.
I’ve got a play that I’ve already had a little presentation of Albertina West: Reanimator, based on Herbert West: Reanimator, which is a Lovecraft story. I did a preview of it at the London Lovecraft festival which I run, but won’t be doing this year, in February. And I discovered, when I was doing research for the play, a background story of women surgeons in world war one…. When I was looking at re-gendering the story…..I was worried that no-one is going to believe there were female surgeons on the battlefield in World War One. And I sat there, grumpy and sad on the internet, and I discovered not only were there female surgeons during world war one, there were all female medical corp volunteers in world war one. And those women, can from the very first women who came through medical school. I was so excited, and started doing all this research into these people. There is almost nothing that I could find. So I turned it into a buddy story about these two women who, in addition to trying to push to get through medical school as women pursuing an inappropriate occupation for a female, well one of them had a preoccupation with the causes of life. And while it is unlikely that any women were practising bringing back the dead on world war one battlefields, can it be proven that they weren’t doing it? This play could be based on reality!…I think this could be a really fun play for teenagers. As I’ve written it, it takes the story of these really fun, exciting women and adds in something sensational, that I think makes it even more fun to watch.
Given how prolific you are, have you ever been tempted to submit plays to theatres and let them take the financial risk of putting it on for you?
Oh I have no desire to produce my plays at all. At 5.03pm on a Friday, when I’m completely frazzled and we’ve got another 2 days of rehearsals, I can tell you that I’d be happy if I never produced a show for as long as I live. I’m completely exhausted. I may be good at doing this but I’ve spread myself too thin. I could have started working on the Christmas play in June if I wasn’t doing this. I could be back working on Albertina West, and I really really want to see Albertina, I want to see her, I think people are going to love her, and she is going to be really popular. But I don’t know how I get people to pick up my plays and getting this 3-week run, I’m hoping I can raise my name….
I don’t know how to get other people to produce my plays, and it feels like when I do submit plays they go into a black hole and I never hear anything again. If I knew what the magic answer was, I would go for it. But I kind of look at this as getting a masters degree in creative writing. I am learning more than I ever thought I could. I do get bored easily. This may have been the happiest summer of my entire life.
She says, looking exhausted and laughing hysterically. I think delirium has set in.
I was actually invited to go to a literary festival this summer, and present on my Lovecraft writing, which was funny because it isn’t something I take seriously. It’s something I do for shits and giggles. It’s fun. I want to make it good, but it’s fun. And there I was at a fucking conference for writers, and I was like, I don’t think you understand. I’m not a writer. I’m not one of those people with novels on a shelf. I’m part of a creative team, and I am only as good as the other people I work with… I am just an ingredient. I might be the flour in the cake but I am nothing without all of those other people. Whereas proper authors, of novels and stuff, to me they really stand by themselves and are really independent…. To me, I’m part of a team, and the way I’ve set it up, I’m working with these tremendous women, and….. I’m not changing the world, but I’m making this stuff happen that I’m really proud of. I’m working with people that are making my little words come to life, sing and dance, literally dance. And I’m just so happy. So I would love to just write, and not produce, but I absolutely want to be involved in seeing my plays go on stage because I learn so much about how to make my shows better. How to take my vision and let it come to life. I wouldn’t give that up for nothing.
What do you think audiences will get out of Space Age Love Songs
My mission was to create a show that would make people happy. Life is shit, we need a laugh. I think these are grim times, and I really wanted people to come out of the show and literally feel uplifted. I want them to get a kick out of hearing the songs. I want fag hags to feel like they’ve been represented, and that their friendship with gay men is something of value. I want people of all the LGBTQ+ and every other stripe, to say, we’re better when we stand together. And I’m hoping I can get some teenagers in to see this show, and they can see that they can push through, if they have had to deal with being picked on by their parents, or their room mates, because they were too queer. I want them to see this show and see themselves represented on stage.