Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
My name is Ian Tucker-Bell. I’m a writer and composer, sometime actor, sometime director, with The Orange Works. I’m based in Kent but originally from Yorkshire. I’m surprised at how old I am, but generally happy in my own skin and with the person I’ve become so no complaints there! When I’m not doing writer things I’m also a part-time Drama Teacher. I get a lot of energy from my students, and they inspire me to be better and to make better work. I’m especially passionate about telling stories that are rooted in real life, that ordinary people like me can connect and identify with.
Tell us about Trans Pennine?
Trans Pennine is a one-act play about families, gender-identity, and caravan holidays. It’s about a man and his two adult children who travel to Yorkshire to scatter the ashes of his wife, their mother, that none of them liked. Ben, the son, had reconciled with Mum in recent years when she finally accepted him as transgender; he is the driving force behind the journey, which ultimately leads to him coming out as transgender to his father. It’s partly based on the story of my friend Kat who came out to me as trans last year, and she has had a massive impact on the story, but it was also influenced by the families of trans people I’ve met over the last year. It’s a fast paced play, both funny and very moving. I’m really chuffed with it, and I think people are going to love it.
Why do you want to perform at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and is it different from other festivals?
I was initially drawn to Edinburgh because of its reputation. It’s one of the biggies, and it seemed to me that it would be amazing to get a play on there. The main difference to other festivals is the size – and also the expense. There are loads of really great festivals around the UK, and they are often much easier and more affordable for smaller companies to access, but … yeah, I got bitten by the Edinburgh bug. It’s a really exciting, buzzing city around Fringe time, with so much interesting stuff going on to see and hear. To have my work there makes me really proud. The first year we went, which was only a couple of years ago, I went as a punter. I wanted to see what was there, and to work out how my work would stack up against other things. Before that I didn’t really believe I was good enough to put something on there. I realised I was wrong – I saw a real mix of work, diverse in every sense, including quality. So last year we nervously took my play “From Today, Everything Changes” and picked up some great reviews from audience and press, and a nomination for an Amnesty International Award. On the back of that success we’re returning with “From Today…” as well as “Trans Pennine”. It’s addictive!
Outside of theatre and playwriting, you are a talented musician and composer. Where did your interest in music stem from?
The music is probably the first thing I got into as a maker. I had a fantastic music teacher at school, who taught us instruments (keys, drums, guitar, bass), and got us to form bands, write songs, play live. He had such an impact on my life – and I’ve been composing ever since. In recent years as the cost of recording tech has come down in price I’ve been able to establish a small studio in my home and that has helped to nurture this interest further. But initially – and I acknowledge how lucky I was – I had a fantastic teacher who believed in me, and gave me the time and encouragement to be creative. Changed my life. I doubt I’ll ever make millions doing it, but it’s incredibly rewarding in so many ways. My mental health, for example, is always better when I’m composing.
In what ways do your talents as a playwright and a musician complement each other?
This has really started to bear fruit over the last year or two. I’m involved with a local theatre who approached me to compose a suite of music for one of their plays. I created seven instrumental pieces for that which underscored the play very successfully, and I think that my understanding of how plays work – characters, emotions, structure, etc – made a huge difference in how I accomplished this. Having a clear understanding of a character, or a setting, or a scene helped to compose music that created an appropriate atmosphere. I’ve since composed for other productions, and I’ve really enjoyed how this merging of my talents has pushed me to create something not just new, but something I hadn’t even considered I was capable of.
What first motivated you to enter the industry? Who were your inspirations?
My main motivation was boredom – seriously. I came from a part of the world that didn’t encourage you in the arts, or to be creative. Sure, I had a great time at school, but in the real world – you need a job. I didn’t do so well academically back then, so ended up in a series of dead-end office or shop jobs which left me wondering what the point of it all was. My love of writing and acting were nurtured through a church youth group I wrote for, but after I left that behind I was kind of lost for a bit. In my late twenties I got fed up of being bored, in fear I’d be bored forever, and put myself through night school – got some A Levels, then went off and did a theatre degree. I had a few key people in my life who inspired me, encouraged me, supported me – believed in me, and that was vital. I owe those people an enormous debt of gratitude for the difference they made, and make, in my life. Ultimately, though, it was a combination of all those things, and an inner hunger in me to make my own theatre and music in collaboration with people who believe in what I’m writing. Apologies if that was waffly!!
The Orange Works focuses on LGBTQ+ issues. What drives this focus?
The focus on LGBTQ+ issues has come from my own experience as a gay man, and those of friends – past and present. I wouldn’t say that is our entire focus, although it seems like it at the minute! For example, I’m currently throwing ideas around about mental health, and Brexit, but – you’re right – our initial focus has been LGBTQ+ issues, and these are likely to be prevalent in future things I write. In the beginning I just didn’t feel that LGBTQ+ stories I saw on screen or stage reflected my life or experience. The stories I saw were fixated on people with perfect skin and flawless physiques – and they didn’t reflect my life, my gay experience, my hopes and fears. I think that when we boil down representation of people to a perfect few we lose sight of who we are, and we create a sense of inadequacy in people. We say “your stories aren’t so important”. I suppose that’s where I write from – an antithesis to that perception I have. You won’t see pretty boys in my plays, or rich confident people. My characters are warts and all, insecure, longing for acceptance they’re not sure they’re going to get. When I was writing “From Today” my focus was on two things, a generation of men who had married and pretended to be straight because it was illegal to be gay when they were younger, and age-gap relationships which are often portrayed very poorly and cheaply. With “Trans Pennine” I wanted to capture the insecurity of coming out, the fragility and the hidden strength of family life. We’re not all feisty, confident queens - some of us struggle with our identity, and our sexuality. These are the stories I get very passionate about!
Do you feel there has been a shift in public sentiment that has affected your work?
Definitely. When I was writing “From Today…” I had to make vast changes to the third character in the piece. Alice is the daughter of the protagonist, Chris, who discovers his sexuality in quite a shocking way. Original drafts of the play had her being quite hostile to her father over this, but gay friends who had adult children all disagreed with this portrayal of her. They all felt that, yes there would be a shock, but that she, like the younger generation she belongs to, would be more accepting – and as we’ve shown that play we’ve certainly seen that reflected in how the audience responds to the story. With “Trans Pennine” I feel we are on the verge of a shift. Many people have been very interested in the story, and very supportive of what we’re doing, and that’s been great – but I recently went to visit Kat, who inspired the story, and we went for a walk around her hometown. I was honestly appalled to see how people responded to her. I think we’ve a long way to come on transgender acceptance as a nation, but the more we have positive representations of trans people out there, in defiance of the hideous bile our right-wing media pushes out, the better. We will turn the tide.
Do you think the creative sector is currently accessible enough to LGBTQ+ creatives? If not, what more could be done?
I think it is. I can’t speak for the whole of the creative sector, but the elements I’ve worked with have often surprised me with their natural inclusivity, and those that don’t include us are dinosaurs that will ultimately become extinct. LGBTQ+ people are often very creative, very insightful, and very empathetic –any industry that cuts them off does so to their own detriment.
As for what more can be done – I think we need more opportunities for makers at a grass roots level. We need theatre spaces to take more risks with people like me and put our work on. I hit a few brick walls last year because I’m at the stage where my work is starting to get recognised, and we got some great feedback at Edinburgh, but I’m not yet at point where I can employ professional actors, and many of the LGBTQ+ theatres I’ve spoken to aren’t interested in my work unless I can… it’s frustrating, because I’m confident my work is of a good enough quality. All I can do is keep creating good work and sticking it out there. I’ve learnt that sometimes you just have to do it on your own.
Describe the last year in 5 words or less?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take a show up to the fringe?
Think it through carefully, plan it well, and get all the facts before you do anything. I’d advise going up and getting a feel of the fringe if you can, to see what is there - the different kinds of venues and performances etc. The fringe put on seminars up and down the country that explain about taking a show there, and we found that session really helpful before our first venture. The other thing is check the finances. Performing at the fringe is expensive, and most people lose money on it. Having said that, if you plan it early enough then you can fundraise to your hearts content and that makes a nice big dent in any budget you may have.
And what advice do you wish you’d been given when entering the industry?
Work out what it is you want. Do you want to work on other people’s shows, whether stage or screen, or make your own work? What kind of shows do you want to work on or make? I regretted for a time not being able to go into TV via the whole “Runner” or “unpaid intern” route which so many people (who can afford it) do. I couldn’t afford it. Now I don’t regret it at all because I’m making things that I’m passionate about, that fulfil me creatively – and I doubt I’d feel that if I’d become a first assistant director or whatever in TV. So, yes, work out where you itch creatively and go all out to scratch it. Find your tribe – people who will be there with you, support you, work with you, encourage you – and never, ever take them for granted. Be brave and make stuff you are proud of. If you can make money out of it, that’s a bonus!
When and where can people see your show?
We’ll be performing “Trans Pennine” at the Camden Fringe on August 1st at 9pm, and at the Edinburgh Fringe alongside “From Today Everything Changes” from August 13th to the 25th.
We’ll also be performing at The Old Fire Station, Tonbridge, on August 2nd and the Faversham Fringe at the end of August – details for that one TBC.
And where can people find, follow and like you online?
You can follow us on Twitter @WorksOfOrange, @TransPennPlay, @FTECshow, find us on Facebook, and online at www.theorangeworks.org.uk
Ian has also written an article in celebration of Pride Day, which you can read here.