THE HERALD, Glasgow, February 14, 2001
meets a playwright who makes a habit of confounding expectations - even his own
WHEN Michele Celeste first came to Britain in 1982, he could not speak a word of English. A student of classical guitar in his native Italy, his plan was to learn the basics of the language to help with his studies. He had discovered that the international language of the guitar masterclass, as with much in life, was English. A brief sojourn in London was the aim. It did not turn out quite as expected.
Two years later he found himself living in a squat in Brixton, a winner of a playwriting competition, and hailed as an extraordinary new
voice for West Indian lesbians. All of which rather surprised him.
Those who followed Celeste's work at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh a decade ago (including Columbus, the production that launched the theatre's new building), will be familiar with the story of how he accidentally became a playwright. It is one that bears repetition, given its pertinence to the play he has just written for TAG, the young people's theatre company.
"I was quite politically active in Italy towards the end of the l970s,'" he tells me. "When I came over here, my home was in Brixton and we had all these riots going on. Great, it's just like Italy,' I said. So I wrote a play about the riots, sent it off to a competition, and forgot about it. Six months later I received the news that I had won first prize. `Bloody hell,' I thought, `I've never won a prize as a guitarist! `And here I am today." Which makes it sound rather simpler than the reality. His first play was written in West Indian patois, the only language he had learned from his two years in a south London squat.
Given the language and the voices in his play-not to mention a first name which, though pronounced "Mik-ay-lay", could easily be mistaken for the Pfeiffer/Fowler variety -the judges were not expecting their winner to be a young a male, white Italian. "They were totally shocked. And disappointed. At the time the theatre establishment -
still now, probably - was looking for this big, black playwriting figure for English theatre, and maybe they thought that was me.' It was not to be; however, it did not stop Celeste carving out a successful career. His experience of homelessness - he was a squatter for four years - also informs a number of the plays he has written.
It was this that made him the ideal choice when TAG decided that its next school's production would explore the experiences of young Scots who run away to London and end up on the streets. It is something Celeste has experienced firsthand. As research for an earlier play he joined the dropouts and dispossessed on London's South Bank, living fora month in what he describes as "a cardboard city that was like a third world shantytown".
Many were young homeless Scots, fleeing abuse or unhappiness.
For this project TAG has also spent two years talking to young people across Scotland, including in Polmont Young Offenders Institute and community centres in Aberdeen and Inverness. Celeste also interviewed young runaways and spoke to charities like Borderline, set up to deal with young Scots on the streets on London.
The charity's Stephen Conville says research shows that 10-14% of people living rough in London are Scots. Last year Borderline worked with 1479 people, many of them young. it was their experiences that Celeste was interested in, along with their regrets and what they hoped to find within themselves by hitting the road.
"You can see the appeal of running away," he says. "You know it can be appealing if you do it for a week, for a month, for a couple of months. But after that you realise that there is nothing romantic or glamorous about it. You are dirty, you never have a bath, you never have good food, you never brush your teeth. It is horrible."
The TAG production follows the adventures of three young Scots roughing it on the streets of London who have fled from problems at home, at school, or within their own heads. Rather than just a gritty urban drama, however, the play turns into a kind of road movie as the three youngsters head for Stroma, a bleak, abandoned island off John O'Groat's.
Everything that happens in the play has come from the stories told by the interviewees, says Celeste. His job was to distil the tales into an 80-minute drama, and the result is a play about journeys: the sort that take place within yourself as well as the sort that traverse the British mainland. It is not, however, Jack Kerouac or Thelma and Louise, he insists. Disgruntled school pupils will not be inspired to hit the road after watching it.
AS HE explains: "It is an epic story. It is about runaways. But it transcends that. It becomes a great theatrical experience in the sense of what it says, what it teaches, the insight it gives into human needs. I don't think it is the kind of thing that would make a young person run away. What they see is not appealing, it is not glamourised at all. It is a metaphor about finding out about yourself, finding your own individuality and expression, how to realise your dreams. These are not heroes to be imitated, they are people to be understood, empathised with, reflected upon. In a way it is a kind of warning. Young people will always run away.'His own journey has been a strange one, he says, and not at all how he planned. A London runaway himself in some senses, he successfully managed to go from squatter to scribe. He never got to be a great classical guitarist, however, and that is a deep regret -though maybe all is not lost: Celeste is currently working on the first-ever flamenco musical.