Director's Diary: Una McKevitt

Una McKevitt, a Dublin-based theatre practitioner, describes her documentary theatre craft and the background to her latest work,
The Big Deal, which opens at Kilkenny Arts Festival this week:

On Thursday August 5th, actors Una Kavanagh and Shani Williams did a run through of our new show The Big Deal without a script for the first time. I'm a Project Catalyst at Project Arts Centre and we’re teching the show there this week in preparation for the Kilkenny Arts Festival. During the run through there was some stopping and starting but that was to be expected as the script was only finalised the day before.  This is my first time working with text in this way; usually performers I work with tell their own stories from memory and our work in rehearsal is finding these stories and deciding where to place them.  A script  usually only materialises after I’ve transcribed it from the DVD a few months later but in subsequent rehearsals we never use it, it’s just useful for me to have. If we can’t remember something we always refer to the dvd.

With my two previous shows as a Director, Victor and Gord and 565+ , I approached  people I knew and asked them if they would be interested in discussing elements of their lives on stage that I thought were interesting; a difficult friendship in the case of Victor and Gord and with 565+ a woman’s compulsive love of theatre.   With The Big Deal, however, although I did approach people I knew, they were already aware of the dramatic possibilities of their story. And they did not want to appear on stage.

The story of The Big Deal is one of identity and struggle, of two women born into male bodies who for a long time tried their best to get on with it. Each woman found as she got older that the pain of the situation became increasingly intolerable and each began the process of transitioning to live full time as women.  It is also a love story. One of the protagonists grieves for her marriage that failed because, in her own words, she could not be the man her wife needed her to be.

When I was younger my mind was very conformist. I would gape at the houses of married couples on my road who didn’t have children marvelling at their strange lives.  How could they be married and not have children? Weird. When I was 11 (it was the early ‘80’s) and a neighbour told me there was a society for gay people in UCD I could actually feel my brain shift in my skull as it tried to accomodate this new information.  Despite my limitations and for some reason that is still unclear to me I always accepted unquestionably, even at a young age, that somebody could be born into the wrong body. And I still do.

What I didn’t understand was what it felt like. The two women have explained to me that for most of their lives, and they knew from a very young age, they were physically and psychically uncomfortable every day; they were worn down with the performance of being male, the effort of pretending to be something they were not and the pain of that situation infected their lives and their health. When they talk about their experience they both use the word condition; for a long time they lived every day with something that became increasingly difficult to cope with as they got older:
I was always like this but the pain was in my heart.
The older I became the more I thought of my mortality.
Not so much that I was afraid of death but that the chance to have my life was slipping away. So I was getting worse, the pain of the situation was getting worse.

The women, who for the purpose of the show we have named Cathy and Deborah, wish to remain anonymous but all the text in The Big Deal is theirs and taken from their journals and letters to each other. My role is to edit and arrange the text and, together with the actors, Lighting Designer Sinead Wallace and Production Manager Conor Mullan, to stage the production. Cathy had surgery before Deborah, she went to Thailand on her own in the middle of a separation and her heart was broken. To help her cope Deborah suggested she keep a diary and wrote her letters of encouragement and support, letters in which Deborah also outlined her reasons for not having surgery at that time:
If my life is not acceptable to me before going for surgery then it will not be acceptable to me afterwards. Before taking this step I want the people around me to accept me for who I am and eventually they will.
This year Deborah had her surgery and kept a similar journal. Cathy and Deborah have been friends now for 11 years.

I have adopted the story of The Big Deal but it is the women’s baby.  We’ve had a few disagreements during our time working together but these disagreements were essential to us finding a way to work and collaborate together and happened over the period of the work in progress we did during Queer Notions Festival in 2010. We came away from the festival with a working relationship that has stood to us during this more recent rehearsal period. Both women insisted very early on that they, quite rightly, be played by women. My head had gone a bit arty initially and I was going to cast beautiful topless men or something crazy and make some big statement about the body. No. Terrible idea. ‘Cathy’ and ‘Deborah’ have guided me all the way through this process to present them as they are and have always been, as women. They have impressed upon me how they have no interest in being another human interest story for people to listen to on the Joe Duffy show. They are much happier to read an article like this where I discuss their experiences within the context of the show sharing the information they really want us to know, the information they believe best illuminates how they feel and what they’ve lived through; not to suggest they are censorial or anxious to conceal the complexities of their lives in any way, in fact the material they have provided is astonishingly raw. More than anything else what the women hope for this production is that it will direct our naturally curious gaze away from their bodies and into their hearts and minds because, as Cathy says, ‘that’s where we really live, isn’t it?’     


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