Promising to be an epic concert of words and music for post referendum Scotland, Howl [ing] will be performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and the Arches in Glasgow as part of Glasgay! and the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. After last week’s preview in the Arches Café Bar, SMHAFF reporter Rob Dickie caught up with writer and director Drew Taylor to discuss his two main sources of inspiration, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the recent independence referendum. 

‘I was in San Francisco last year,’ says Taylor, when asked how the idea for Howl[ing] first came about. Having worked as a performance poet years ago, he quickly immersed himself in what he calls the ‘birthplace of the art form’. San Francisco is home to the Beat Generation poets and is the city where Ginsberg first unleashed ‘Howl’ in 1955. Radical in politics, content and style, it challenged the very foundations of American society and gave extraordinary impetus to the emerging counterculture. 

Howl[ing] borrows the four-part structure and poetic rhythms from Ginsberg’s poem but changes the words entirely to match the contemporary context. Quoting the famous opening lines, ‘I saw the best minds of my generation, starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix,’ Taylor talks me through his vivid interpretation of Ginsberg’s first section. 

‘[It’s] rambling, beautiful, almost like a camera has gone across a county. It’s zoomed in on people on rooftops, it’s zoomed out and looked at people gathering in the square…It’s going across the cultural and physical landscape of Scotland and deliberately roaming around, which is why the music is such a huge part of the piece because it really helps our audience…It’s useful to have that structure as a theatre-maker, and I don’t think it’s been restrictive for us.’

Taylor only discovered ‘Howl’ last year, more or less by accident. He was in San Francisco and went along to a retrospective of Ginsberg’s photography at the city’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. However, the poem made an impact on him in a big way. ‘In the corner, there was this little listening post. You could hear a lot of [Ginsberg’s] stuff and I was just mesmerised completely. I loved how contemporary it felt, even though it was written more than 50 years ago. I loved how unashamed he was of the gay content…I loved how unashamed he was about expressing the turmoil he felt, that his friends, his colleagues felt, that his nation was feeling at the time.’

In particular, it was the idea of combining ‘personal and national narratives’ that struck Taylor on an artistic level. Ginsberg views America through the lens of his own experiences and those of the people close to him. Following that same thought process allowed Taylor to link Ginsberg’s poem to the present political climate in Scotland. ‘I fell in love,’ he says, ‘with the way [Howl] looked at…encapsulating a nation. I wanted to create something that documents our own post-referendum time in that way.’ 

Like Ginsberg, Taylor is writing about a nation that’s going through a period of transition. The referendum has created unities and divisions, opened minds and hardened stances. Dealing with such a politically-charged situation, so soon after the event, is always going to pose significant challenges and it’s important to get the balance right. ‘We’re hopefully giving as many diverse voices as we can,’ says Taylor, ‘voicing different views within the Yes, different views within the No…We’ve been interviewing everybody we know [and] trawling through social media.’ 

However, ultimately, his team had to take control over the message. ‘This is a document about a generation,’ he says. ‘When you’ve given yourself the task of encapsulating a nation in a 45-minute piece, it becomes very important to make decisions about how you do that. One of the things that became self-evident and interesting to us was to not shy away from the fact that it’s from our perspective and our generation…We felt very strongly and very quickly into the process [that] this is a document of us to a certain extent.’

Personally in favour of independence, Taylor ‘thought it was going to be a Yes’ when he conceived the idea for the piece. ‘The notion was always going to be a celebration. But, actually, I’m quite glad to a certain extent…that it is a No, because it’s against…how I felt, how I voted. So, there’s automatically a conflict there and that makes for more interesting theatre.’ For the record, he adds that the writing team as a whole was split half and half and the piece casts a critical light on both sides of the debate.

Howl[ing] was planned for a long time before the referendum vote took place but the finished text contains references to the George Square riots and record turnout figures. Taylor actually surprised himself by how little writing was done beforehand. ‘I never thought it would be as reactionary as it is. I did some preliminary work…but I felt very strongly after I started trying to write it that I couldn’t do much until the decision was made. And, also, I wanted it to not just be my voice. I think it was really important, as a political theatre-maker, that it’s not just one person’s mouthpiece. So, [me and] the other performers, we’re writing it together.’

Part of the preview show focused on Scotland’s national identity, which remains strong but has undoubtedly been altered by the referendum. ‘No country ever who has been offered independence has not taken it. And I think there’s something very interesting about that fact simply in itself,’ says Taylor. ‘But…Scotland is a very proud nation…especially in terms of the rest of the United Kingdom. There’s such a strong visual, aural and cultural identity to Scotland, [so] not following the logic of becoming independent…is really interesting…I think there’s something interesting in where we are at right now…What is the identity? Because we can make our own one to a certain extent. Essentially, even though not that much [yet] has changed, we still have a situation where we can craft things anew.’

Howl[ing] is being presented as part of Glasgay as well as SMHAFF and Taylor described the opportunity to unite the two festivals as an ‘honour’. One of the main things that immediately attracted him to ‘Howl’ was its liberating attitude towards both sexuality and mental health. ‘Those are the things that I’m really passionate about as a theatre-maker and it made sense…to approach both festivals because the parallels are there and the connection is there.’

LGBT activism is vital to Taylor’s theatrical output, notably in his last piece, 44 Stories. It drew inspiration from people forced to live in countries where, as in Ginsberg’s America, homosexuality is illegal. He believes that it’s always worth challenging people’s views, even when they might not like what he has to say. ‘I’m happy if some people are offended. I feel like I’m not doing my job properly if some people aren’t. This piece [Howl[ing]] is looking at a wider content spectrum [but] there is still LGBT content littered throughout. For me, what’s important as a theatre-maker is fundamentally about the normalisation of the LGBT community…One of the best ways to do that is not to…make a piece that’s not just about that but to include it as part of the regular remit…Because that’s what it is in real life.’

Howl[ing] takes the same approach to mental health. ‘What’s really lovely,’ he says, ‘sort of by coincidence and slightly by design, [is that] every single member of the team has quite overtly at points dealt with their own mental health difficulties. We’ve created a really safe environment for discussion about how we move forward in the piece and these experiences are coming out in the work.’ Working in partnership with SMHAFF also gives him a chance to promote a cause he’s clearly passionate about. ‘I feel really strongly that this piece is contributing to the continued agenda of just talking about it more. Because, if we talk about it more, then it will become less stigmatised. It will become less of an embarrassing thing for people, because it shouldn’t be.’

Asked to give a final message to audiences ahead of the performances, Taylor says, ‘Don’t be afraid that it’s just words and music. I am never interested in leaving my audience in the lurch. As a poet, I’m always interested in the unexpected but not in making you feel stupid.’ Keen to stress that his poetry isn’t as difficult as Ginsberg’s own, especially when you hear it for the first time, he adds, ‘What we’ve done is translated the way we talk, the way we are, and created a poetic artifice around that to help us put something together…And the music,’ which features Glasgow band Julia and the Doogans, ‘is beautiful.’

Written by Rob Dickie