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Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh on Chicago’s music scene and his dark pop opera

Creatives, by the Trainspotting visionary and author Don De Grazia, traces the desperate paths people undertake when trying to make their art

Irvine Welsh transplanted himself from Scotland to Chicago several years ago, staying long enough to see a pop-cultural explosion that began with his 1993 tale of heroin addicts in Leith. The Trainspotting and Porno author took ‘choosing life’ to the Illinois city, and since seeing the long anticipated sequel T2 to the big screen, he’s been busy with his dark comedic ‘pop opera’ with American Skin author and professor Don De Grazia, Creatives.

“It's about how central music and culture is our lives, how much we invest emotionally in it, how is produced, used, contested, appropriated and stolen,” Welsh tells Dazed. Their story begins with Paul Brenner, who runs a Wednesday night songwriting class, where the egotistical and dysfunctional of Chicago’s musical landscape gather, seething rivalries meet and glimpses of raw talent steal across the stage. An ex-student of Paul’s, pop star Sean O’Neil, visits to judge a contest of hopefuls, when things get darker and desperate.

The music of the play features tracks from bands Welsh loves, and that have been the aural backdrop for key moments in his other work. Iggy Pop, Happy Mondays and New Order appear on the soundtrack: who could forget Mark Renton and co. shoplifting to “Lust for Life”, or the heroin withdrawal dreams with Diane’s rendition of “Temptation”. Lawrence Mark Wythe has composed original songs for Creatives, which Welsh says “just soar off the stage”. 

In Creatives, their moments of light and hope are when they are making their music. The darkest, he says, “are when they realise that their honest endeavours are being used by people of less talent and scruple to turn profit”.

“Often my books are about what people do after their dreams have been destroyed,” says Welsh. People could be striving for the next bag of skag, the deal money or a recording contract – the drive isn’t too dissimilar. “This is about their dreams, what they will do to realise them, how they are stolen, thwarted and compromised.”

Chicago, unlike L.A or NYC, sees people “come here to explore and develop their artistic talent,” explains Welsh. “Rather than 'be discovered' or chase the big bucks and the fame.”

He continues: “It means the creative community is more supportive and inquiring. Some will move on to L.A and NYC, others decide that it's not what art is about, and are much happier doing what they want to do without the dictates of markets, agents and managers.”

Welsh and De Grazia initially created a screenplay, before deciding that it would work for the stage. Next, they brought in director Tom Mullen. Mullen, who worked with Welsh on the Trainspotting USA play, changed the focus of the creative class to music instead of writing. This saw the format elevated to a ‘pop opera’. Welsh explains: “At that point it seemed sensible not just to know what kind of music they wrote, but to hear it performed by them. So that was the basic evolution of the piece.”

“Screen and stage projects are different to writing a book,” Welsh says of the challenges they both faced to see Creatives to the stage. “Not one person has control. With stage and screen you need to see them as life projects. This has taken three years to get to this point, which is pretty good going. They all have their different discipline. The book is difficult and easier because you are on your own. It's all down to you. I like that, but it can get lonely. You grow as an artist and a person when you work with other people. It's nice to challenged.”

De Grazia told the Chicago Tribune that Welsh is a “role model for any writer”. Long before they came to meet, De Grazia read a New York Times magazine piece profiling Welsh and other Scottish writers, “The Beats of Edinburgh”. It was in this piece that De Grazia also learned of the London-based publishing house, Jonathan Cape, which he would get his debut American Skin published with. It's a timeless coming-of-age story set against the swelling racial and social tensions of American society – Alex Verdi evades the police on drug suspicions and joins an anti-Nazi gang, to ricochet from an army bootcamp, to a cushy college campus and max-security prison.

Both Welsh and De Grazia understand the struggle that comes with being creative. They’re aiming Creatives at “anybody who has tried to write a poem or a song – namely all of humanity. We are all intrinsically creative to some degree or another,” Welsh says. “Indeed, the proliferation of creative arts programs suggests that we know that this is what our lives are really about, rather than making money. I remember when everybody wanted an MBA, now they all want an MFA.”

And we’re living at a time when the social and political landscape is pretty fractured – whether it’s the narrowing of the land of the free to the land of the fascist and privileged, or the cannibalising war on drugs (as Welsh previously told us, “the war on drugs is a war on you”). This climate has very much informed Creatives. He asserts: “Everything now, politically and culturally, is polarised and contested. We live in exciting, but potentially very dark times. Artists tend to feel more exhilarated than citizens with families to feed at such moments.”

Creatives is showing from February 16 – March 5 2017 by Chicago Theatre Workshop at Edge Theatre