10 Questions with Damian Barr

News 13 Jun 2024

"Seeing my play on at one of the very first theatres I ever went to feels very full circle."

We caught up with writer Damian Barr ahead of his new play, Maggie & Me, coming to the Traverse this week. Read below to hear more about the journey of transforming his award-winning memoir into a play, taking it on a national tour, and bringing it back to the Traverse, where he experienced his first play.

1. You’ve reflected that one of your first experiences of theatre was at the Traverse, can you tell us a bit more about what that was like as a young person?

It felt impossibly glamorous and more than a bit intimidating to get the train through to Edinburgh for a night at the theatre. The wild thing is, I can’t remember exactly what I saw - I think it was the Ballad of the Sad Café. I just remember the deep dark hush of the room before it all started and the sense afterwards that I now knew how to behave in a space like this, so could come back again on my own (if I could afford a ticket). It was a threshold moment for me.

2. How do you feel theatre has influenced your creative journey?

My very first theatre trip was, like so many Scottish kids, to panto - that was at Cumbernauld. My first encounter with a playwright that wasn’t Shakespeare it was Tennessee Williams. In keeping with Section 28, my English teacher never identified him as a gay man - imagine what a difference that would have made to me and my understanding of Streetcar! As it was, I felt Williams’s otherness, and outcastness, I identified it in Blanche’s breakdown. Years later, in LA, I met his biographer and best friend who told me that Williams wrote Blanche’s ‘kindness of strangers’ line as a laugh line and would often be the only person laughing at in the theatre. He also told me he thought Williams might have been murdered, but that’s another story and one I hope to write about. Williams is mentioned in Maggie & Me and that is a nod to his importance in my creative life. I had written radio plays before - this was my first foray on to the stage, it won’t be my last (I hope).

3. What are you looking forward to in bringing the show to the Traverse?

The Trav will be the end of the tour that started at the Tron then travelled all around Scotland and to England, thanks to NTS. I am looking forward to letting it all go, emotionally. It is a lot to have out there and to hold. Seeing my play on at one of the very first theatres I ever went to feels very full circle. In a curious way, that reflects the structure of the play itself.

4. What was it like to adapt Maggie & Me from the memoir into the play?

I’m not quite sure I’ve had enough time to reflect on this yet. But let me begin to think about it… Writing my memoir changed my life. It took seven years – from deciding I’d finally had enough of carrying increasingly heavy secrets to the last full stop. It reconnected me to forgotten joys like playing in the Bing or Carfin Grotto. It helped me process pain I’ll always feel. It was published in 2013 – the week Maggie died. Approaching the play, a decade later, I’m a different person again. I view my past from another perspective. My book is as much a record of who I was when I wrote it as the childhood it depicts. But adapting is a misleading term - moving from page to stage is like demolishing your happy home then trying to build a new one on the same foundations. I was not alone on this journey - the whole amazing Creative Team in lighting and sound and video and set design and costume… they all supported and encouraged me and brought their stories too. James Ley, my cowriter, handed me the dynamite which helped free me from the constraints of my story as I'd told it. Suba Das, our director, powerfully believed in my right to tell my story and pushed me to find new meaning and connections – he is incredible. I came to rely on the keen insight of our Dramaturg Rosie Kellagher who always knew how far to push me and the work.

5. Why did you want to tell the story on both page and stage?

The play does something the book could not and which I was not ready to do at the time - it lived between the lines, it considered who the writer of the memoir was. DB, the writer played by Gary Lamont, didn’t exist in the book which was all about Wee DB, played by Sam Angell. The play problematises and dramatizes the act of finding your own voice - something we all have to do. That is why I think the book and the play resonate. Writing the book left with me with questions which I ask, and sometimes answer, in the play.

Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
6. What has it​ been like to see your story come to life on stage?

Each and every one of our actors is incredible - most of them are multi-rolling. Their versatility, care and passion is astonishing. What’s it like seeing two different versions of me on stage - talking and laughing and arguing? It is wild. See also: my entire family and all my most beloved friends. It is very comforting too - there is nowhere to hide, in the text or in the audience. I am sitting there watching it all. It is both healing and triggering all at the same time. I am a lucky man.

7. How do you want audiences to feel having watched the show?

Dolly Parton says: laughter through tears is my favourite mixed emotion. It is mine too and that is what I want folk to feel. More than that… I want folk to feel seen. For DB I wrote the line ‘stories are mirrors’. It is true - stories are where we see ourselves. I want people to leave the theatre feeling seen and like they can see the world differently after.

8. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?


9. Who have been the biggest influences within your career?

Janice Galloway, the iconic Scottish writer who shared her stories of her west coast childhood. Her prose is flawless and dangerous. Watching Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey felt thrilling to me and I should probably talk more about what an important moment that was for me as a gay artist but also as a gay man. Alice Walker showed me that we can sue the words we find around us to create a rich and magical world - Celie in Colour Purple was the first narrator I felt I really trusted because I could really truly hear her. Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit floored me. Nonwriters? Well, you can meet them in the play.

10. What are you compelled to do next?

Register myself for a sleep cure in a small quiet country where nothing bad ever happens - lying down in crisp sheets overlooking a peaceable mountain. But actually I have a novel that I’ve been missing spending time with and it is calling me –it is a big gay Scottish love story and it is being published by Canongate next year.