I wouldn’t change a thing: John Byrne on art, life, painting in purgatory and typing with one finger
The writer typed the script with one finger on an old typewriter, and the actors delivered the lines with their heads stuck in cupboards.
However, the result is one of the most anticipated works on the Scottish cultural calendar since the pandemic forced theaters to go dark a year ago.
A new play by one of Scotland’s most beloved writers and artists, John Byrne, will premiere later this month despite Covid’s onslaught on the arts.
Tennis Elbow is Byrne’s first game in 13 years and a sequel to his first, Writer’s Cramp, which was produced 44 years ago.
It’s the latest in a wealth of work the paisley-born artist has created over a career spanning six decades. During this time, works like Tutti Frutti and The Slab Boys Trilogy have achieved classic status.
Writer’s Cramp told the story of the fictional writer and artist Francis Seneca McDade. Tennis Elbow tells the story from the perspective of his wife Pamela.
Byrne said, “Tennis Elbow is the outside of Writer’s Cramp. I remember Writer’s Cramp was a wonderful thing. It was on the outskirts of Edinburgh in 1967 with Alex Norton, John Bett and Bill Paterson. Since then I had the idea to do the distaff side of it. I always intended to do it, and I finally got around to it. “
Byrne has worked on the play over the years, but Lockdown finally got it to the point through the Pitlochry Theater’s Sound Stage initiative.
Byrne said, “I could do without lockdown, of course, but I don’t mind too much. I painted every day as always, every day from morning to evening. It’s the same as it has been for 70 years. It gave me the opportunity to do things and not be bothered by anyone. Nobody asked me to do things for them. I almost can’t remember when we weren’t locked up. “
Tennis Elbow isn’t the first work Byrne has presented to the public since Covid’s demise. Last year the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh hosted an exhibition of his work Welcome To My World. “It worked very well,” said Byrne in the house he shares with Mrs Jeanine in Edinburgh.
Tennis Elbow is presented as a radio play as part of the Pitlochry Theater’s Sound Stage program. It features Maureen Beattie, Scot Squad actress Sally Reid, and Kirsty Stuart, who starred in the hit TV hits Outlander and Shetland.
Byrne is pleased that his work is delivered as a listening experience. He said, “I am an avid wireless listener. I can listen wirelessly and record and paint everything at the same time. Those are the only two things I can do at the same time. I can’t do anything else together for some reason.
“I don’t really have to see the characters. I can see them in my mind. And I hope everyone who hears the show can do the same. But they’re probably not sitting there painting. “
Byrne is still typing his written work with one finger on a typewriter. “That’s how I’ve always worked. My cousin Aileen loaned me a typewriter when she was learning to be a touch typist. After that, I bought one on Back Sneddon Street in Paisley for a fiver, but I only typed with one finger at a time. It’s as fast as I can think and not faster.
“I type as fast as I think and it looks like a draft of a piece. But then I rewrite it. Broadway writer Moss Hart used to say that there is no writing, just rewriting. And he was right. Nowadays people write a draft and cut and paste parts of it here and there. “
Byrne may be slower at 81, but his creativity remains unbroken. He works in the studio in his back garden and adapts his technique to problems with his eyes.
He said, “I can only see black and white with my right eye and color with my left eye. So I resorted to a technique where I could make marks and then color them to make something that looked like a painting. It’s a new way of painting for me. “
Byrne studied at the Glasgow School of Art and believes the art school’s plans to rebuild Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s world-famous building after the devastating fire three years ago are pointless. He said, “You can’t just build a replica of a building Charles Rennie Mackintosh built in the early 20th century and call it an art school.
“When you walked into this building, it had a soul. All great works of art have a soul. A replica would be a waste of money because its soul cannot be replaced. It was a worldwide treasure and it just can’t be repeated. “
Byrne lived a full life. He had two children with first wife Alice Simpson and twins with actress Tilda Swinton. He married Jeanine Davies seven years ago.
In a 2017 interview, he revealed that his birth was the result of sexual abuse his mother suffered at the hands of her own father. “She was in love with her own father,” he said at the time and went on to say that he had found a way to reconcile his grandfather’s behavior. In his ninth decade, he looks back with no regrets.
“I wouldn’t change anything in my life because this is the life I’ve led,” he said, although he admits that he wishes he could ride his Flying Scot bike one more time. “I can’t balance to ride a bike now.”
Byrne’s legacy will endure in words and pictures, but he cannot put his visual or literary work above any other. “I have twins that I love,” he said. “I also have twins on the side and on canvas that I love too. You can’t separate them. “
And he has no plans to quit. “I’m going to paint in purgatory,” he said with a laugh. “My mother swore I drew in the stroller and I pretty much believe her.”
Tennis Elbow starts on April 30th. Information and tickets can be found at pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com.
I was in the closet with a duvet on but couldn’t have been happier
– Writer Kirsty Stuart
Kirsty Stuart joined the cast of tennis elbow from a closet in her child’s bedroom.
When Lockdown arrived, the actor bought a piece of furniture that she hadn’t used just a few months earlier.
“My husband and I also do voice-overs. We had talked about getting something at home, but when it came to a lockdown, we made it, ”she said, opening the closet, which was covered with blankets and soundproof foam.
“You squeeze into this room and put a duvet behind you and that’s it.”
It’s not that the Fife-based actor who has appeared on television series such as Outlander and Shetland performed the works of one of the country’s most respected performers.
“It was a breeze when I was asked to participate. But I was scared because it was John Byrne’s job. I felt like I wanted to rehearse for four weeks.
“You just have to serve John Byrne’s words. It’s actually more about submitting to what he’s written than finding the character and allowing his words to do the work for you because he’s doing it in an extraordinary way. “
Kirsty has teamed up with the other cast members to create a mix of audio and video links to create the most interactive acting environment possible.
“Not only are you in a tiny closet, but you have a balanced phone, laptop, and the rest just to keep it going,” she said. “Things that are balanced on books.”
And she hopes Tennis Elbow will be seen as an event by the home crowd. She said, “I hope people make a commitment to watch it just like they would if they went to a theater. They make room for it in their schedule.
“It’s nice to give people something to look forward to on a painfully empty social calendar.”
Pitlochry Theater Artistic Director Elizabeth Newman added, “Sound Stage is about reaching out to audiences and giving them quality new drama to experience at home. It’s about making sure they can have a theatrical experience that we know they’ve been missing. The audience can even meet their friends in the theater bar before, during the break and with artists involved in the production after the shows. “