Sisters of the Midnight Berries – @ Salford Arts Theatre

Last year, I was lucky enough to write a short piece to celebrate the Shelagh Delaney Day at Salford Arts Theatre. And I really want to thank everyone involved, it was a dream.

The event had several working-class writers and actors taking part – the audience too were people often told and encouraged to believe theatre isn’t theirs – that’s testament to the work Salford Arts Theatre does. While others are wondering how to attract “diverse” audiences, they simply do by virtue of being themselves. They have a distinct community vibe around their events. Community rather than elitism is key when you want to include people cos folk can tell if you’re bullshitting.

The play

The piece I wrote was SISTERS OF THE MIDNIGHT BERRIES – an underclass faerie-tale about two nonconforming sisters made homeless due to benefit cuts. I describe them as non-conforming as they choose to maintain control of their lives in small ways despite a society asking them to marry, work, breed etc. Being poor, their choices and demonstrable freedoms are reduced to their own thoughts and dreams of a “big life” constructed on a mood-board. This is something for a future set of sisters… the present is harsh and unforgiving. Drug-use is positional and co-dependency the thread that makes their current and future world/self-view possible. And yes, it’s a comedy! Just an old Irish faerie-comedy. Dark, wyrd, and speaking to the absurd.

Freud, autism, & the audience

As an autistic, I’ve been fascinated with neuro-typical’s (that’s non-autistic people) psychology and theories of personality development for a long time. I guess the interest started in my teens when I wanted to understand why my brain was different and wouldn’t behave itself. I’ve suffered bouts of reactive/selective mutism on and off throughout life and have a very low threshold for towing lines – they make me deeply depressed.

Before I started writing (and before my autism diagnosis) I was suffering with stubborn clinical depression with blobs of PTSD. After 5 years of failed treatment I was sent to an analyst (in Salford, funny enough) and he was alarmed by how little repression I seemed capable of (once I got over my reactive mutism and was able to speak to him, which took about 6 months) I just said EVERYTHING. Nothing was hidden. I couldn’t hide it, there was nowhere to shove it. Plus I have very little shame. I don’t understand why more people don’t talk openly about everything, but again, I’m autistic.

In hindsight, I was simply being autistic and showing my underdeveloped subconscious. Recently I spoke to other autistics who think they may not have a subconscious at all. For me, I feel conscious of past and present all the time – I can feel five and fifty all at once. Time is not experienced in a linair way for me so I decided to reflect this in the play by having younger versions of the central characters appearing at the same time as older versions. Both sisters (Beetle-trousers and Owl-pie) are living with trauma and for the first time (boy have I tried over the years) I was able to show that trauma autistically! For that, I owe Salford Arts Theatre (and Roni who directed) a massive debt and big fat THANK YOU! They enabled my process and allowed for autism to be present in the telling of this wyrd tale. Who does that? (Risk takers, that’s who.) And writers don’t forget that kind of encouragement. 

The three consciousnesses & everyday cosmology

After the event, someone asked if the sisters were in purgatory. And it set me thinking – it’s a yes and no. There are similarities in Freud’s structure of the mind and notions of Christian cosmology (another special interest of my mine is spirituality+magic+folklore) Anyway, so you’ve got: heaven – hell-purgatory/conscious-subconscious-unconscious. (3 is a magic number.) The sisters inhabit all of their consciousness, whether that consciousness is inherently spiritual is up for debate. (What I feel is true about consciousness now has changed dramatically since my 20’s and will undoubtedly change again.) My autistic experience of my own consciousness is challenging to express; it is felt, seen, heard, tasted and smelt in a very non-linear way. That’s obviously a very different way of being to non-autistic people. (That’s probably why autistic women are often misdiagnosed as mentally ill, mask, or were possibly burned as witches in the past.) Anyway, because of this, I decided to help the sisters and audience move through the terrain with the help of Mikey – the faerie narrator.

Mikey the Faerie

Faeries and their stories lie somewhere in-between all consciousness structures, they bridge the gaps by carrying coded information across boundaries using archetypes and/or symbols. Mikey eases the audience and the sisters into the autistic experience of the story. You’re on a coded trip where all things exist simultaneously and have meaning, even when that’s no meaning at all. Long faerie-story short; Sisters of the Midnight Berries aims to leave you bewildered and, in many ways, disturbed. What lies in your own faerie-land? How far are we all responsible for disregarding non-conforming women today? And how many of us are one fuck up away from homelessness?

Entering Faerie-land

We hope to pick up the play again this year. If we develop further, we’ll entering the next act: the faerie-lands. The sisters will traverse the conscious/unconscious/heaven/hell to find Mother. Wherever they’ll end up, I know it’ll be a great wild ride to write and so I’m buckled up and preparing to go over the hills and far away…