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Lubricate Your Stage: Talking to Actor Tam Dean Burn About Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room

by anna battista

He looks like a dead man walking. His head is white, almost glowing in the dark; the suit he's wearing clings to his tall and skinny frame. He looks around, and takes his dark glasses off, showing us his flaming eyes. Then he starts talking in a firm and scary voice. He tells the audience, "Never expect anything…". Silence is all around him, and while he continues talking, a woman immobilised on the stage by a set of ropes starts moving. This is the opening scene of the stage adaptation of Louise Welsh's novel The Cutting Room (Canongate, 2002). The play co-directed by Tam Dean Burn and Kenny Miller, adapted by the former and designed by the latter. It stars Tam Dean Burn and Anne Marie Timoney, and was staged for the first time ever in October 2003 at the Citizens' Theatre, in Glasgow, Scotland.

"NEVER EXPECT ANYTHING. An old porter told me that my very first day. We called him Cat's Piss. Mr McPhee to his face but always Cat's Piss, or sometimes C. P. McPhee behind his back. 'Never expect anything, son. They'll tell you they've got the crown bloody jewels in their attic and all you'll get's guff. But sometimes - not often mind, just now and again - you'll go to the pokiest wee hole, a council estate, high-rise even, and you'll find a treasure … I've been here thirty-five years and I'm still surprised at what we find and where we find it.' 'Yes, Mr McPhee,' I'd said. Looking all the while at a pile of furniture reaching almost to the ceiling and thinking, You stupid old git, thirty-five years in this place." Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room

Set in Glasgow, The Cutting Room is the story of a gay auctioneer, Rilke, who comes upon a collection of graphically violent photographs and tries to find further information about their owner and about the supposed victim portrayed in the pictures. In his search, Rilke will meet policemen and pornographers, book collectors and auctioneers, transvestites and erotica collectors. The novel was awarded the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger, BBC's Underground 2003 Award and shared The Saltire First Book of the Year Award. In 2003 writer Louise Welsh was also granted a Robert Louise Stevenson Memorial Award. "I was doing a reading for Canongate of one of Hugh Collins' books and Louise Welsh was on the same night," actor Tam Dean Burn remembers, while soft electronic music plays in the background in Glasgow's Tron Theatre Café. "I didn't know it at the time, but this was her very first public reading from The Cutting Room before the novel was even published. It was in that occasion that I spoke to her about the book and it sounded really interesting. She said that a friend of hers thought I was right for a part and I thought I had to read her novel because I had been looking for another one-man show to do after I did the stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel Filth. Louise got me an advanced copy of The Cutting Room and then we met up a couple of times. At the beginning the play was geared towards being another one-man show, then Glasgay's producer David Leddy got in touch with me because he wanted the play to be part of Glasgay 2003 and we both agreed it could be best if it could be staged at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre. Then things started getting complicated because the film rights of the novel were getting bought and I think the company which got them also wanted the theatre rights, but Louise and her agent were really good and said that I should get them. Kenny Miller who co-directed the play, suggested to have at least another actor in the play and Anne Marie Timoney got on board. It was much easier to adapt the text for the stage because of having a woman playing the female parts in it as well."

In the stage version of the novel Tam Dean Burn stars as Rilke and as many other characters as possible, among them a police inspector and Rilke's transvestite friend, in the same way as Anne Marie Timoney is Rilke's boss, the enigmatic woman of the photographs and other assorted characters. The scene is bare, apart from a set of mirrors, pulleys and a chair here and there. The two actors are simply fantastic, their role switching is quick, sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and a particular expedient resolves the problem of representing the sex scenes in the novel without wasting too much time. "We knew we had to have those bits in the play, the problem was to work out how to do it," Tam explains. "What we did is we included in the script this technique of flashing the lights in the audience's eyes, so it's as if you were getting a photograph taken of you. It's like the jump-cut technique used in films. The flash allows us to avoid doing all the acts and to cut straight to the orgasm itself. The flashes are also a connection to the flashes of the snuff photographs portraying the woman, coming back to Rilke's mind. This technique starts right at the beginning when Rilke is caught in the park and continues throughout the play."

The Cutting Room was quite a successful play; it became quite difficult to find tickets even a fortnight before it had started. "It was actually sold out before we even started," Tam nods, "maybe it happened because some people know me better than Louise, but I do think that we sold out because of the book. The novel sold over one hundred thousand copies, many were sold in Scotland and in Glasgow in particular and this happened because the novel presents a Glasgow that everyone knows is there but has been explored very rarely. I think it is amazing especially for a first novel and for a woman to be able to write about a guy and from his point of view. It's a difficult thing to write about the opposite sex."

Tam has appeared in quite a few TV movies and films for the big screen in the past years, including Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's Skagerrak (2003), David Mackenzie's Young Adam (2003), Mike Figgis' Miss Julie (1999) and Paul McGuigan's The Acid House (1998), though he's probably more well-known in theatres around the world for his one-man plays. One among the others was Filth, taken from Irvine Welsh's novel. Tam's collaborations with Irvine Welsh actually date back to 1994, when he starred in Welsh's first play Headstate, directed by Paul Pinson and staged at the Lemon Tree Theatre in Aberdeen, and continued with You'll Have Had Your Hole, directed by Ian Brown and staged in Leeds and London in 1998 and 1999. "I did worry about the fact that I was going to get tired of one-man plays or that I was going to be alone in every play I was going to do, but I have enjoyed that experience," Tam claims, "it was easier acting alone on a big stage than acting on my own in a small theatre room, because the tension and the energy in small spaces could be quite overwhelming. I was really glad anyway when I did join a company again and did more shows at the Citizens' Theatre with other actors. Irvine seemed to be very very happy with Filth. He's very generous, same as Louise: they see their novel as their baby, but the child has now grown up and has to make its own way. Irvine was very supportive when I toured with Filth, he came to every city the play was on and usually brought some friends with him, he even came to see me in Calgary."

One of the many major theatre projects Tam was involved was a stage adaptation of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Presented under the title Here Comes Everybody, the play was a celebration of Joyce's character Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. The project was created by Process (Ten 28) a group of four Scottish artists and performers. Produced by Ken Davidson, the play starred Tam Dean Burn as Earwicker and Pene Herman-Smith as his wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle. "Most of the solo projects I have done in my life have been with Ken Davidson," Tam says, "the James Joyce one consisted in taking sections of Finnegans Wake and performing them. Sometimes there have been other people involved in that, sometimes there were animals involved such as a horse, a chicken, a cat, all sorts. For two scenes I worked with my son, but often it was solo."

Another interesting performance in which Tam took part was the Lysistrata Project. On Monday, 3rd March 2003, fifty-nine countries hosted 1,029 readings of Lysistrata, Aristophanes' anti-war comedy, to protest against war on Iraq. Readings were held in theatres, schools, churches, libraries, music halls, homes, cafes, community centres, clubs, parks and on street corners all around the world. More than 300,000 people attended the readings which raised an estimated $125,000 for non-profit organisations working for peace and humanitarian aid. "Someone sent me an email about it and told me about this thing which was being organised all over the world," Tam remembers. "I accepted to do it because it just seemed a good idea to make this statement and it was good for the theatre to be doing something like that. At that stage it certainly felt as if the theatre was cutting itself off from the rest of the society. I was really pleased when Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre chose to do it. That was also a tricky period for me because at the time I was in Canada performing Filth, so I just came back a few days before we were due to do the event. I wasn't worried about it because I had a lot of experience in doing readings of plays at college, besides I had been doing public readings of plays with the Edinburgh playwright workshop. We got a big crowd at the Lysistrata reading at the Traverse and it worked really well. The first time I did a Greek play was when I played Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus the King at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, the play was part of this 'Playing in the dark' season, all the shows were done in complete darkness. It was purely a vocal thing, though we did have a designer who designed a set with ropes on which we could climb and move around the audience. It was an interesting experience and that was the first occasion in which I realised how powerful the Greek theatre is."

Performing companies all around the world often face difficult situations, sometimes because they don't get enough funds from the government. Of Scotland's four national performing arts companies (two orchestras, one opera, and one ballet company), only one, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, can be regarded as financially stable. Last year's debates about relocating the Scottish Ballet in Glasgow's Tramway Theatre caused a furor. The relocating scheme planned to turn Tramway's largest hall, an exhibition space, into a scenery store. This enraged Glasgow's visual artists. "Sometimes politicians don't see the power and worth of theatre," Tam states. "The Scottish Parliament is maybe a little step towards good things, but I don't think it's going to be the real vehicle for change here. The difficulty for an actor is to compromise and accept the fact that you're working with state funding. Theatre is just one of these things that doesn't make money in the way a movie can. It just doesn't seem to be so glamorous at the moment, but I think that if the government would promote it, politicians could realise that people are interested in the theatre. Very often people who had never been to the theatre came to see me, especially when I was doing plays adapted from Irvine Welsh's works, and they loved the performances. I've also realised that authors seem to be more attracted to writing novels than to writing plays. I don't think the theatre has really encouraged writers to come to it enough. Writers like Louise Welsh or Irvine Welsh and many others, aren't often brought into the theatre and if they are, they usually have bad experiences. I just wish that the theatre could attract more people. As far as actors go, I think there are enough of Scottish actors as well and often they're not given strong enough stuff to perform."

A few years ago, when Tam was in Caracas, Venezuela, he saw a play that struck his attention and wrote an article about it for the online Scottish magazine Rebel Inc. "When I was young I wanted to be a journalist," Tam nods, "but I found it hard to justify it. The difficult thing for a writer is who are you writing for and it has got to be for yourself, because writing must be a need. I found that maybe my form of expression was more in acting, but I started to write bits and bobs and it's usually when I get very angry or very excited about something that I write more." Writing a play, more articles or a book might be future projects for Tam, together with touring with The Cutting Room. "I know that the Drill Hall in London maybe interested in doing it. As a venue it has often got gay works on, so it would probably be the ideal place in London for it," Tam says. "There was also guy who specifically came from New York to see the play, he's got a long relationships with the Citizens' Theatre and he's opening three studio spaces in New York this year and wants The Cutting Room to be part of the opening season. This play seems to be the ideal type of work for a Scottish national theatre, that's a sort of model for it: it's a pretty simple show because it involves only two actors, it has been a success, it's totally Scottish subject matter but it could still interest people abroad, after all Louise's book is being translated into fourteen languages. I certainly hope that we can play The Cutting Room to a bigger audience in future. There are actually plans to do a proper tour with The Cutting Room and if the play comes back again I'll readapt it again. You can't tell if a play works just by reading a page of the script or during the rehearsals. It's once you do it in front of an audience and start to get advice from other people that you realise what works and what doesn't. If Louise had the choice, I'm sure that she would like to change something in her book, but now it's too late for her. Whereas I still have the luxury of doing it, I can still change it and make it stronger still." While Tam is thinking about touring, a movie of The Cutting Room, directed by Stuart Davids (from Raindog Company), is also being planned: rumours say Robert Carlyle will be in it. "He's a great actor and it could be a lot easier to raise the money with Bobby Carlyle in it," Tam admits, but the shooting still hasn't started so, who knows, perhaps Tam might still have good chances of being Rilke also on the big screen in case Carlyle refuses or might star in the film in another role.

There are still a couple of other projects Tam would like to see realised. One is doing a show with Scottish band Nectarine No.9, led by ex-Fire Engines and Win Davy Henderson. The thing might not be that improbable, since Fire Engines, one of the seminal bands of the Scottish music scene, will play a reunion gig on 24th January in Edinburgh at the Liquid Rooms, while Nectarine No. 9's new album I Love Total Destruction will be out in March. "I do really believe that music and theatre can come together much more. The very first thing I did when I left drama college, was a play at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980 and Fire Engines were in it as well, they were part of the show," Tam remembers. "Then we also did together a show that tied in with the miners' strike in 1984. I'd love to be working with them again. I think Nectarine No.9 are the greatest band around. I recently talked to another band, Alabama 3, because I would like to do a show with them as well, but we need somebody who can really run the idea and raise money because I'm not very good at this sort of thing. I also did two play, with DJ Twitch at Glasgow's The Arches and it was brilliant working with him."

Tam's other project regards a homage to the Scottish bard Robert Burns: almost a year ago, on Burns Supper, 25th January 2003, Tam took part in a cabaret show at Glasgow's Tron Theatre. The event included among the other performances a reading by Scottish poet Jock Scot accompanied by Nectarine No.9, a reading by Tam Dean Burn and Anne Marie Timoney, and a drag double act called Binge & Racket featuring Nicholas Bloomfield at the piano and Tam Dean Burn at the vocals. Tam also performed at two Burns Festivals organised by the Tron Theatre and at the "Burns an' a' that: A Festival for Scotland", an event staged in Ayr and Ayrshire, Scotland, last March. "I have the ongoing desire of making Burns contemporary," Tam concludes. Music is still playing in the background, unfortunately it's not "Lubricate Your Living Room Part 1" or "Candyskin" by Fire Engines or "Walter Tevis", "The Port of Mars" or "Pong Fat" by Nectarine No. 9. But I'm sure that those songs are now playing in Tam's mind, rolled up with Robert Burns' verses and with lines taken from The Cutting Room play and are giving him new inspirations for his next works or for a new adaptation of Louise Welsh's novel.

(Tam Dean Burn will be starring in Beowulf, at The Arches, Glasgow, Scotland, 11th-21st February 2004.)

Issue 19, January 2004

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Photograph: Tam Dean Burn and Anne Marie Timoney in The Cutting Room, by Louise Welsh. Co-Directed and Adapted by Tam Dean Burn, Co-Directed and Designed by Kenny Miller. Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, Scotland, 2003. Citizens' Company Productions.