By Boye Nagle
James Burnside and I met about five years ago. I was attracted to his calm, kind, generous spirit. It was clear our immediate connection was based upon our mutual weirdnesses, passion for theatre, and despite our very different journeys, our many shared life experiences.
Working together every week over the last two years during the shutdown, our friendship has blossomed. I have come to appreciate him as a friend and value him as a writing teacher. I’m excited to introduce this talented artist to the wider Art Spark Texas community!
So, who is James? This bio for one of his books, like good poetry, is misleadingly simple:
Former USAF jet fighter mechanic (now a writer), former commuter cyclist (now I work at home), former youth worker (now a foster parent, with my wife, to two teenage daughters).
Screenwright, playwright, novelist.
“We should perhaps do well in certain cases to make allowance for absolute irrationality.” – C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Volume 8, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, 1969, Princeton University Press
“I was only trying to guess your weight. You take things too seriously.” W.C. Fields, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
In a couple of sentences, I think it sums up his values, his genuine humility, his life’s passions, and his ever-present wit. Like his plays, it leaves with you a merry-go-round of tell-me-more questions.
I’m so happy I had the chance to ask some of mine.
MsBoye: James, congratulations on being November 2021 Artist of the Month.
James: I can think of several smart remarks to make here, but let’s just leave it at… I am honored, truly.
MsBoye: I found the bio from your book “Cars Suck”, published in 2011, and I noticed that back then you didn’t identify yourself as being disabled. Last year, I know you wrote and performed a monologue proudly “outing” yourself as a person with a disability, can you tell us about that journey.
It’s Toby’s fault.
As a vet [veteran], I started going to the VA (Veterans Administration) in the 2000s. I’ve had tinnitus and some slight hearing loss since leaving the service and was starting to have more serious hearing issues. Because my problems were service-related, I was designated a disabled Vet. At that time, my problems were relatively small. I didn’t think of myself as disabled.
I met Toby Al-Trabulsi at a ScriptWorks Annual Meet & Greet. I’m on the board of ScriptWorks, an organization to help and promote playwrights in Austin. As usual, I worked the crowd, but I kept finding myself going back to this bright, funny person, Toby, with an obvious disability, to talk. I told him about being a disabled vet and he turned my name into the Board for TILT Performance Group, a theatre group that tries to shatter disability stereotypes through inclusive theatre, as a prospective Board member. After talking to other Board members, I said “yes,” when they asked. That was several years ago. I participated in several TILT productions and learned and grew.
A disability arts organization, Art Spark Texas, asked me to write a play. I learned about disability history and disability justice and I made many more friends with disabilities. They helped me understand who I am and they have become my community. I am proud to call myself DISABLED.
MsBoye: Has joining tribe disability impacted your writing? How do you think about characters, staging, language?
My tribe. I like that, and YES! A simple example. The word “idiot.” I used to use it in anger (driving) quite a bit. In the past two years, I learned the history of this word in disability history. It was a medical label applied to persons with a developmental disability. People with this label were/are frequently locked in places, places created with the best of intentions, but which almost always became places out of my worst nightmares. I try not to use that word except in its historical context… and then I use the heck out of it.
Characters? I try to include disabled characters in all my plays, and I write a lot of works specifically for my disabled friends.
Staging? As a playwright, I suggest, I have a vision in my head, but I’ve always found that the other artists involved in the creation of the actual play on an actual stage with actual actors are much smarter and more creative than I am. I always try to leave a lot of space for the other artist involved in something I wrote to provide room for their natural genius.
MsBoye: You are a multi-faceted writer, poet, novelist, and playwright. Which is your favorite and why?
I love playwriting. I’ve written a couple hundred poems, an emotional outlet, a novel (I think of my novel as a failed experiment,) articles, screenplays, but playwriting gives me license to go a little crazy in ways that none of these other forms do. But the thing that makes playwriting my favorite is the collaboration with other artists, as people who help bring my words to life, but more recently, as co-playwrights. The piece I’m working on with Art Spark Texas is an amazing example… and now I’m seeing the next question and I will leave the rest of the answer to this there.
MsBoye: Tell us more about that Art Spark Texas commission. I have been honored to be part of that team with you, Celia and Eric. It is such a gift to bear witness to the depth of your research, and your creative process, to get up close and personal with a playwright while they are writing.
What interested you about this project?
Well, first of all, I’ve known both you and Celia for a long time and I thought creating something with my friends would be fun. Secondly, I love history. The project was pitched as a work of history. History is a touchstone for all my work. I’ve written a bunch of straight-up historical works, but even when I write sci-fi, I always explore some kind of history. So, the opportunity to explore the history of disability was just too good to pass up. Finally, I’d never had a commission before and I was totally flattered. How could I say “no?”
MsBoye: I watched you dive into some very dark historical research for the project, how did that impact you as a person, and also your approach to writing the play?
At times it has taken an emotional toll, and I actually appreciate that. That toll means I’m engaged on more than just a rational level. My gut, my heart, my spirit are engaged as well. Always a good sign for me as an artist.
I wanted to tell a story about “real” people. I could easily have made this a horror story, but I didn’t want to have a main character that just fought hideous monsters. But I also didn’t want to hide that part of this history of institutionalization. There’s no way to hide it, but I wanted to tell the human stories. The monsters are there, but day in and day out most of us don’t fight monsters, just ourselves, our personal demons and with hard work, we embrace our better angels. (I use these words, angel/demon, cautiously, but I think they describe a kind of truth within me.)
MsBoye: Without leaking the magic before it’s ready, what can you tell us about the play?
DEATH!? Okay, not death. The institutionalization of disabled people has a long and horrible history in this country. Our society has tried and, far too often, succeeded in hiding disabled people away, in what starts as benevolent, healthy places, but these places far too often and far too quickly became overcrowded, understaffed, unhealthy, cages. With a bit of fantasy, we explore these places and this history through the eyes of one character.
MsBoye: What message do you hope the play conveys to the audience?
Hiding disabled people out of sight in institutions is abusive and invites more and worse abuse.
MsBoye: Finally, can you tell us something you think people might be surprised to know about you.
I’m a gamer. I’ve been a gamer since before there were gamers. In high school (’68-’72) I would set up six chessboards in my room and play games from books. I was third in the Colorado State chess championship in … ’71 (?). In college, I fell in with a bad crowd in Jester dorm at UT, a bunch of bridge players. We would go to the Austin Bridge Studio several times a week and play in nightly tournaments, and we traveled the state playing in statewide tournaments. My lovely bride (43 years) is the sister of one of my bridge partners. Got into computers to write and not have to type and retype my work, but also, to play games. Still get on my new Xbox nearly every day and play something. I love single-player RPGs.
MsBoye: James, I know right now you are part of the devising team for TILT Performance Group for their Winter production, The Secret Guardian: A TILTed Secret Garden, opening December 4th. Do you have any upcoming events or releases you want to add here?
My short play “Dead Mommy Jokes” will be published by Fleas on a Dog (https://fleasonthedog.com/) magazine in their November issue, assuming all goes as planned. And, “yes,” “Dead Mommy Jokes” is as weird as it sounds.
MsBoye: James will be our featured artist for the November Virtual Lion and Pirate Open Mic on November 6th and a guest for our Community Conversation on Wednesday, November 17th.
If you want to learn more about James and read more of his work, visit his blog Unnecessary Stain on Silence.
James joined us on our Community Conversation series to talk about his writing. View James’ Community Conversation here: https://youtu.be/lDjsAOvJcjw