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James Ley on Writing Queer Joy

James Ley is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, and his most recent play Ode to Joy (How Gordon Got To Go To The Nasty Pig Party) has just been nominated in three categories for Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland: Best New Play, Best Music and Sound, and Best Ensemble. It is a riotous play, where ‘boring’ Gordon thrusts into the gay sex club scene, featuring a techno soundscape. In this interview, we cover James’ writing process and style, his transition to TV and film writing, and touch on theatre-writing in Scotland. 

You had not one, but two successful plays last year, both bold and brash and hilarious – Wilf and Ode to Joy. How have you and your writing changed since your 2017 play Love Song to Lavender Menace? What has remained the same?

That was a historical play, so I did absolutely loads of research. And I had the weight of the fact that I wanted to represent this world, although I still wanted to put my stamp on it. Prior to that, I had written some original pieces that weren’t based on true stories. I don’t think I’d really found my voice properly but in the process of writing Love Song to Lavender Menace I really found that cheeky style. It’s not that I’m eccentric. I am an electric eel set in a pond of catfish.

It was really with Wilf and Ode to Joy – written largely during lockdown – that I was able to really do what I wanted. There was quite a lot of fear in that, thinking: what will people think of me? I’ve been so lucky with who I’ve worked with and realising that people liked my plays. It took away the fear of saying what I really want to say and writing about the things I really wanted to write about. That’s what’s really changed in terms of subject matter and what I feel like I want to explore. 

Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

What’s stayed the same is my characters who are often really emotionally vulnerable, which is quite important to me. That was true of Lewis, the main character in Love Song to Lavender Menace, and I think exploring him, opening him, and having him be really emotionally present is the audience’s way into the play, through him and his journey. I think I write quite stilted men, often who are finding their way in the world and how to be themselves. They go from being problematic and excluded to being more integrated, and get to a point where they can express themselves. 

Calvin, in Wilf, is even more problematic and struggling, and the play is about needing to go on a major journey of self-love and self-care. In Ode to Joy, the character is really unhappy with themselves. Queer characters who have had some kind of trauma and they’re finding their way in life after surviving that trauma – that’s really my territory and I want explore that part of life. 

At the core of your work seems to be a celebration: of bookshops, of music, of queer love… Can you tell me more about that?

I really like to put those worlds that you don’t normally see on stage. Historically, a lot of queer stories are about coming out, and I like taking it further and it being a celebration. With Ode to Joy, it’s a celebration of sex clubs, techno music, and letting people into a world which has traditionally been viewed as niche or problematic. The scene can be really dark, but there’s also fun and there’s a lot of people who engage in a positive way. There are already works which explore the dangerous side of it, and I’m glad those works are there because we need them. But I also think we need to show this part of the world, that people are having fun, it’s our culture, and it’s celebratory. It’s how we define ourselves and explore ourselves.

I know you can’t let us know any specifics, but can you tell me a bit more about your transition to screenwriting?

Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Love Song to Lavender Menace has been commissioned as a screenplay and we’ve just attached a director to that. It’s been really exciting to work on that as a screenplay, and to find the screen language for that has been really cool. Lately, I’ve been doing more TV development stuff – dreaming up TV ideas is amazing, the amount of story you need – every episode is a play in itself, and trying to make a world that is rich enough for it to live on and have enough characters to do that. It’s just an expansion of theatre. It’s a real luxury, because in theatre the process is short, whereas with TV it’s a much bigger period of time and there are more people involved before there’s even a single word on the page. 

As someone who’s been a playwright for several years, what do you have to say about the landscape of Scottish theatre-making now?

Scottish theatre has been incredibly good to me. It is really exciting; it is really tough. It’s tough to have a writing career, and it’s exciting that we are managing to make so much new work. I hope that continues. There are so many talented writers and brilliant ideas, and I really hope the resources in the next few years can match that because there’s no shortage of them.

The 2023 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) ceremony is at the Traverse Theatre 11th June

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