Shaan Sahota: “Writing about a chaotic, painful world is still a meditative and lofty experience.”

Ahead of her upcoming debut this November, playwright and junior doctor, Shaan Sahota, tell us about UNDER THE MASK and what led her to step into the world of theatre…

Shaan Sahota

Shaan Sahota is a playwright and doctor working in London. Her debut play THE ESTATE deals with a Sikh family in crisis over a disputed inheritance, set against the backdrop of a political election. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Playwriting 2020, and earned her a place on the Tamasha Playwrights program. Before studying medicine, Shaan read History and Spanish at New College, Oxford. She worked in domestic violence advocacy for Southall Black Sisters, specialising in survivors of honour-based violence. She learned she thrived helping individuals on their worst, weakest days and it led to her decision to retrain as a medic at Cambridge University.

How did the commission of UNDER THE MASK come about?

I am a junior doctor and was a Tamasha playwright for 2019/20. When the Covid pandemic hit I was re-deployed to care for critically unwell patients in ICU. It was a heartbreaking and humbling experience for everyone involved, and a painful lesson in the limits of medicine. My writing about this period was published by the Guardian at the height of the pandemic. UNDER THE MASK was Fin (Kennedy)’s idea – he’d been wanting to play with binaural audio drama for a while and thought this could be the moment. He asked me if I thought it would be possible / therapeutic to write about what was going on.

Tell us what UNDER THE MASK is about

UNDER THE MASK is a binaural audio-drama in 3D sound, with elements recorded live on Covid wards. It follows Jaskaran, a junior doctor, through a nightmarish landscape of bionic organs and mechanical lungs.  The immersive nature of the piece means that the listener is thrust with Jaskaran into the throngs of a global pandemic, to watch it unfold one person at a time.

Portrait by paper collage artist Rosalind Freeborn http://www.paperface.co.uk

In many ways, it is a small story. Jaskaran has to learn to look upon death and suffering, from very close. She’s worked hard to understand all the interventions that modern medicine can offer, but now she has to learn to just hold her nerve, just hold her patient’s hand, when there’s nothing else she can do. That’s not something we memorise for exams.

What was it like writing and creating a play during a global pandemic?

Even though one obviously informed the other, the pandemic and the writing felt very separate to me. Writing about a chaotic, painful world is still a meditative and lofty experience.

In the writing, it has a shape and it makes sense and it’s distorted into something manageable. But when I was living it, it was so much sensory input – it’s hot, fevered breath through two pairs of gloves, splatters of blood that isn’t yours, splatters of excrement that isn’t yours, it’s ribs cracking under your hands – there was no story. Living it was very far from writing about it.

Also, when I am working, I try pretty hard to keep my imagination in check and not get too involved in the backstory / emotional journey of the people I work with – it doesn’t help anyone, not my patients, not me. But in the writing, it was obviously vital to delve into the inner world of characters, to imagine how they feel and what the experience means for them, so that was pretty different.

You’re a junior doctor by profession. Why did you decide to become a playwright and how did it come about?

I love theatre, it just hadn’t occurred to me as a world I could work in. In my last year of medical school my family was torn over a disputed inheritance and I was thinking about the themes of fairness and inheritance all the time. This real life drama, the pettiness and the cruelty, gave me the idea for my first play, THE ESTATE. I was accepted into the Tamasha Playwrights group with THE ESTATE and there I’ve been writing my second play. I’ve not reached a point yet where I ask myself ‘what should I write?’ – it’s more that something is playing on my mind and the story becomes a way of exploring it.

How does your background as a doctor feed into your playwriting?

Chekov said ‘medicine is my lawful wife, writing my mistress. When I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.’ I feel like there’s something in that. I have no plan to leave the wife for the mistress, but arguably the nights spent writing keep me sane in my marriage to medicine.

Medicine allows me to be the one stranger in the room at times of existential transition. It gives me a lot to think about and then to write about.

How do you juggle writing and being a doctor on the front-line? And any tips for those who may be in a similar position? (i.e. full-time role/ambitions to write).

I imagine most writers, even full-time writers, have to balance the jobs that pay bills with personal projects so I think it’s something everyone has to adapt to at some point.

One thing I find useful (for anyone juggling a full-time job), is to try to keep a sense of ease about writing, even when I’m tired. It’s easy to fall into feeling sorry for ourselves when we have lots of ‘work,’ but I really try to keep in mind that it’s not an obligation; it’s the thing I’m choosing to do with my time, when I could choose to do anything.

I find that’s a helpful attitude, it allows me to focus on writing after work without feeling overwhelmed or burned out.

What else are you working on right now?

With the Tamasha playwrights group, I’ve been working on my second play, THE AMORTAL COIL. It’s a stripped back sci-fi romance exploring existential malaise, and the fantasies we collectively imagine might make us happy. It’s a slightly bleak product of lockdown writing – I’m trying to rework it now with some comedy and maybe some possibility of redemption(!)


UNDER THE MASK: 14-15 November | Oxford Playhouse | Book Now


Ishy Din: My motivation wasn’t to become a writer; my motivation was to do something with this computer…

Ahead of the upcoming web stream of his 2019 gritty play, we sat down (virtually) with the writer of Approaching Empty, the very lovely Ishy Din, and asked him a few questions. Grab a cuppa and read on!

 

ISHY DIN

From taxi driver to full-time writer. For those who don’t know, tell us – what sparked that transition?

Serendipity. Plus our first family computer and my resentment of it not being used enough!

I’ll explain.

When I was driving taxis, there was just this belief that writing was what other people did and that actually, brown guys with my background from Middlesbrough, don’t become writers. I had just bought my daughter a computer – the first computer we had in the house. The girls were quite young at the time, they’d use it for a bit when they came home from school, then they’d eat, have a bath and go to bed. And I remember just resenting the fact that I’d spent all this money for this thing that just sat in the corner and hardly ever got used.

So, I was cabbing one night and I heard an advert on Radio Five Live saying they were looking for short scripts with a sporting theme. And I thought, I’ll use this new-fangled machine I’ve spent all this money on to enter this competition. My motivation wasn’t to become a writer, my motivation was to do something with this computer. So, I wrote this short radio drama about two young Pakistani kids who go and watch ‘Boro play for the first time and sent it off to the BBC thinking somebody’s going to read this and think what a git, but they liked it and they made it and that’s really where my journey began.

If that first effort hadn’t broken through, it would have just confirmed my original thoughts all along – that people from Middlesbrough, especially brown people from Middlesbrough, don’t become writers. That’s why I use the phrase serendipitous – a few things went in my favour – the computer, the resentment of it not being used enough, this advert that came in a timely fashion and then being shortlisted and having my stuff made. There were a few things that worked in conjunction for me to believe that, maybe I can do this.

You’ve written about topics that are pretty hard-hitting, have you had any negative reactions to anything you’ve written, and how have you dealt with this?

I haven’t really experienced much controversy around my subject matter, because it’s my truth. The plays that I’ve written about have either been meticulously researched (I’ve written about Indian soldiers in the First World War) or come from a lived experience, so it’s very difficult for someone to start breaking down that lived experience and say, well, I don’t think it’s like that, because it is like that and that’s the life I’ve lived and those are the experiences I’ve gained over time.

I have had my work critiqued though, of course. Being a playwright is incredibly exposing, so when everybody doesn’t say nice things all of the time, it does affect you on a really deep, personal and visceral level. 99 people might say this is fantastic, but as a writer you’ll latch onto the one person who thinks, oh well, it’s not all that. Speaking to other writers, that seems to be true across the industry – we focus in on the negatives as opposed to all the positives.

It can be nerve-wracking and soul-destroying when people don’t say nice things about your work. But you don’t absorb the criticism as a critique of your work, you absorb the criticism as a critique of you as a human being. So when they say we don’t think your play works, we’re not reading it as we don’t think your play works, we’re reading it as we don’t think you’re a good human being, and that’s why it affects you in a such deep way. Everything I write has a little bit of my soul in it, so when people do critique it, it is personal.

Approaching Empty is set in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death and touches up on her legacy as PM. Any parallels to today’s times, especially with what’s happening right now to local economies and businesses, following Coronavirus?

APPROACHING EMPTY. Photo: Helen Murray

Of course! What we saw with Margaret Thatcher and also with Reagan in America was the beginnings of neoliberalism, and that’s why today we have found ourselves following down that path again and why we’re now in a position where profits have come ahead of people. We now as a society believe that’s fair game. It can all be traced back to that period – whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s the handling of the pandemic, whether it’s the decisions Governments and people who govern us are making now, you can trace a line back to when that switch occurred to a new economic model – the neoliberal one – which really does put money before people, in my humble opinion.

The people who aren’t benefitting from these policies are the very ones who are so convinced that those implementing said policies are on their side. And that’s really sad and quite frightening.

You’ve worked as a writer in many different capacities, are there any particular projects/jobs that have made a lasting impression on you?

They all have in some way.

I loved writing my play about the First World War, because I learnt so much about our history and the contribution the territories of the Empire and of the role they played in Britain winning both World Wars – whether that was through men and arms or whether it was through hard cash. We made a massive contribution in both of those World Wars, which is criminally not talked about on the school curriculum.

Currently I’m under commission from the RSC for a new play about the Mughals and I find it fascinating – gaining knowledge and understanding about that world and that period.

I always like my TV gigs as well, because again, you get to go into and find out about new worlds and issues that perhaps you wouldn’t have under other circumstances. So just that idea of the research and the knowledge that you procure to be able to tell and present that story with an accurate eye… I always love doing that.

Does your approach to writing change depending on the form?

Yes, it needs to necessarily, because although the overall task is to write, each medium – whether that’s film, TV, theatre or radio – has a different methodology and there are different requirements.

For film and TV which are visual mediums, you’re telling a story with pictures rather than dialogue, so the method and process of creating that necessarily has to be different. For radio, there is no visual so you have to think about sound and tell the story via sound, whether that’s SFX or how you use dialogue. And again, theatre is a confined space and happening live… I once read something that’s quite pertinent… that in TV and film if there’s a smoking gun, the story’s about who fired the gun, but in theatre if there’s a smoking gun you ask, well why did they fire it? You come at it from a different place – you’re confined to this stage and it’s happening live and it’s much more dialogue-led and you’re interrogating the human condition much more with the benefit of words rather than pictures like TV.

Do you have a preferred medium?

I like the one that I’m not working in at the time (laughs). Whatever I’m doing I hate doing it, so when I’m doing TV work, I’m like, I should be writing plays, this is horrible, and when I’m writing plays, I’m like, I should be working in TV, this is horrible, so yeah… I like the one I’m not working in at that time.

What advice would you give to an emerging/early career writer?

Over the years, I’ve been asked this question a few times and there are a couple of answers, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important thing is resilience and stamina. You’ve got to be able to stick around long enough for people to start trusting you and giving you gigs.

You’ve got to develop the ability to brush yourself down and start again, because you’re going to face a lot of rejection. It’s going to take a long long time for you to be able to get yourself into positions where you feel that your writing can support you, and that you’re getting the due opportunity that should be coming your way for the effort and work you’ve put in to get to that point.

And then the other thing is write – practice. If you wanted to be a chef, you wouldn’t stop cooking and think, well I’ve learnt everything there is to know about cooking. So likewise, practice, write wherever you can and whenever you can, because it will all pay dividends.

 

Approaching Empty: web stream is available to view on our Facebook and YouTube channels from 7.30PM 21 July until 7.30PM 4 August. Presented by Tamasha, Kiln Theatre and Live Theatre. 

Exploring Approaching Empty beat-by-beat with Arun Ghosh

To celebrate the upcoming two-week stream of Ishy Din’s Approaching Empty, Composer and Sound Designer on the show and our good friend, the sublime Arun Ghosh, has put together a #TamashaTrax playlist featuring its tracks and inspiration. Here he tells us why he chose those exact tracks. Over to you, Arun!

 

Arun Ghosh. Photo by Emile Holba

Most of the music in the show was specially composed, and I used a lot of traffic that I’d recorded around the place. But I chose my songs carefully for the interval and dotted through the production.

The interval started with:

Roots Manuva – Soul Decay

Such a moody intro, leading into a power play between 2 and 3 beats in the rhythm. Unnerving. The lyrics are so fitting for Approaching Empty – capitalism (in the form of drug deals), business gone wrong, friendships breaking down over money…it’s all there. An amazing song.

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

James Brown – The Boss

I play this in the interval too, get the audience feeling good. This song’s hard as nails though…Raf paid the cost to be the boss, dedicated all his energy to the business, maybe losing a lot on the way. Nas samples this on Get Down – which tells the same sort of story.

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

The Stone Roses – Fool’s Gold

I play this classic as the audience are coming back in from the interval. Again the lyrics say it all; Gold’s just around the corner, Breakdown’s coming round the bend. I think of Approaching Empty as a morality play….Fool’s Gold tells the same sort of story.

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

Sean Paul – Gimme The Light

Didn’t use this in the show…but I imagine Sully, one of the drivers, blasting this out on his way to a job, thinking he’s cool as…

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

Linton Kwesi Johnson – Inglan Is A Bitch

Our national poet is here talking about the Jamaican experience working in London….but I reckon Raf and Mansha would feel the same way as steel workers, and then getting laid off: “fi di laas fifteen years dem get mi laybah, now awftah fiteen years mi fall out a fayvah”

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Mahya Pardest Hogiya (My Love Has Become A Stranger)

The King of Qawwali! I use a snippet of this in the show…and I imagine Mansha and Raf listening to Nusrat together in happier times.

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

The Beat – Stand Down Margaret

Approaching Empty is structured all around the death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher, and her ideology and legacy totally sums up the difference between Mansha and Raf. This song, from 1982 is one of the best anti-Thatcher songs. RIP Rankin Roger.

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

Chris Rea – The Road To Hell

I thought I’d include this cos Chris Rea is from Middlesbrough, just like our Ishy. The lyrics are quite fitting actually, and weirdly enough I can see Raf quite liking this one if it comes on the car radio.

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

Arun Ghosh – Ode To The Martyrs

This is a piece of mine from my album A South Asian Suite ; it closes the show…you’ll see why when you watch it.

Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray

 

About Arun

Arun Ghosh is a British-Asian musician and composer.

Twice awarded ‘Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year’ at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, Arun leads his own ensembles, touring nationally and internationally. He has released four albums on camoci records: Northern Namaste, Primal Odyssey, A South Asian Suite and but where are you really from?

As a composer for theatre, Arun has contributed scores and sound design to an extensive array of productions over a twenty year career.

Arun has been regular collaborator with Tamasha; Approaching Empty was his fifth production for the company, having previously scored and designed Child of the Divide, Blood, My Name Is and Made In India.

Since the lockdown in March, Arun has been looking after his three sons, composing for film projects and working on a new album, due to be released in 2021.

Follow Arun on Twitter

Approaching Empty: web stream is available to view on our Facebook and YouTube channels from 7.30pm 21 July until 7.30pm 4 August. Presented by Tamasha, Kiln Theatre and Live Theatre.

 


“In a frightening climate when we need to speak up, stand up, value and protect all marginalised communities more than ever, I hope this play is a small reminder of those workers, who risk their bodies and lives to keep ours turning.”

To celebrate the web stream of her 2017 thrilling play, journalist-turned-playwright and writer of Made in India, Satinder Chohan, tells us why she felt compelled to write the play and how it’s more relevant now than ever before.

 

Satinder Chohan

“There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.” (Hong Kong subway graffiti, Dec 2019)

In 12 short seismic weeks (and tragically, hundreds of thousands of deaths later), we are emerging from a global lockdown fighting one pandemic – coronavirus – to global protests fighting another – racism, sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Historically, pandemics reveal structural inequalities. Covid 19 has exposed ingrained disparities around race, starkly accentuated by Floyd’s death. Communities of colour have been disproportionately impacted and killed by the virus, even as many among them – our hospital and medical, delivery, transport, supermarket, school and food supply workers – have risked their lives serving our primal needs, keeping us alive, feeding us, moving us, while the rest of us have quarantined at home. 12 short seismic weeks have laid bare and begun to shake a neoliberal system built on a bedrock of racism and colonialism, reshaping our sense of normal. It’s very much a neo-liberal, neo-colonial world of ‘normal’ depicted in my play Made in India, which toured the UK in 2017.

I began writing Made in India after reading an article about an infertile English middle-class woman who had paid an Indian village woman to birth her baby at an Indian fertility clinic. The English woman described the Indian surrogate as a ‘vessel’. With my Indian village roots, the surrogate could have been any of my Indian female relatives or in another lifetime, if my parents hadn’t emigrated to the UK, even me. With so much conflicting emotion, culture, racial and class politics around the nexus between science and money, I wanted to explore this unregulated multi-billion dollar industry in India – the biggest commercial surrogacy hub in the world.

I grew up when the pioneering, if controversial, science of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) first emerged through test tube babies and IVF, giving new hope to infertile women and men everywhere. According to the WHO, an estimated 48.5 million couples worldwide were affected by infertility in 2010. As ART (egg, sperm, embryo donation, IVF and surrogacy) has rapidly advanced, becoming costlier and outpacing government legislation, this life-giving, life-changing science has raised deep emotional, ethical and legal questions not only for the adults and children involved in these non-traditional ‘new’ families but also wider society.

Set in a Gujarati fertility clinic, Made in India is ostensibly a play about the emotional and financial transactions of a commercial surrogacy between three women – Dr. Gupta, a fertility clinic owner, Eva, an infertile British woman and Aditi, an Indian surrogate.

On a deeper level, commercial surrogacy seemed a perfect metaphor for our ‘everything for sale’ society. Through market fundamentalism and the commodification of everything, ‘everything is for sale’ in these neoliberal times including health, education, emotions – and bodies. In the West/Global North, we’re those privileged, entitled consumers who depend on low-cost, low-paid disposable local and outsourced global workers to provide the material stuff of our lives – cheap, efficient, fast products, whether a smartphone, a pair of trainers or a baby.

Made in India tries to explore this terrain. Is it right a woman is so financially disadvantaged and deprived of basic human rights such as adequate healthcare, social welfare and education that she must hire out her womb and deliver a baby for money? Yet when she earns far more money as a surrogate (at the time of writing the play, up to £6000 for a baby) than other low-paid work (earning a similar income would take several years), how can we argue with what she wants to do with her own body?

When I began the play, commercial surrogacy was rife in many countries. As the play developed, India, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia banned commercial surrogacy to varying degrees, creating hotspots elsewhere such as Ukraine and Russia. In India, a Surrogacy Bill (2020) is still being tabled through Parliament to enforce the initial 2016 ban. The current version outlaws commercial surrogacy and limits altruistic surrogacy to Indian nationals – married heterosexual couples and single women (widows and divorcees) only. LGBT communities, unmarried singles and foreigners are effectively banned, while the surrogate can be any ‘willing woman’. By controlling the use of reproductive techniques and reproductive freedoms of women in India like this, the Bill appears to push a right-wing, nationalist government agenda realigning surrogacy with conservative family values. With the ban, many clinics have also been driven underground, endangering the health and lives of surrogates. Only late last year, a surrogate at a New Delhi clinic who had not been properly screened, died while 17 weeks pregnant.

Many have argued that rather than being banned outright, commercial surrogacy should be allowed with greater regulation. Potentially empowering Indian women, emancipating them from poverty, surrogates have agency to exercise their own reproductive choices. Yet in an industry involving profit-driven clinics (the odd few verging on ‘baby factories’) and affluent global and domestic clients, there has been and will be exploitation. When a surrogate’s rights are undermined, they receive only a fraction of overall costs, surrogacy is not clearly explained, contracts are written in English, multiple embryos are injected risking later foetal reductions without their consent or knowledge…, surrogates are rarely valued more than the babies they deliver or profits they generate. Whether empowerment or exploitation, health and human dignity should not be sacrificed for a quick bloodstained buck.

Made in India is rooted in a neo-liberal, neo-colonial world, which has profited from the centuries-long exploitation of non-white labour, extracting Western market demands, dreams and desires from non-white bodies. In a frightening climate when we need to speak up, stand up, value and protect all marginalised communities more than ever, I hope this play is a small reminder of those workers, who risk their bodies and lives to keep ours turning. In 12 short seismic weeks, perhaps we are beginning to imagine a brave new world that must never return to the inequities of ‘normal’.

 

Made in India: web stream is available to view on our Facebook and YouTube channels from 7.30PM 16 June until 7.30PM 30 June. Presented by Tamasha and The Belgrade Theatre in association with Pilot Theatre.

 

 

 


Crisis, Creativity and Hope

In little more than a week, it’s already become a cliche to say we are living in unprecedented times.

In my last entry on this blog, barely three months ago, I was mourning the defeat of progressive values in the December general election, and looking ahead to five years of opposition, as the UK slid into a post-Brexit malaise of small-minded ethnonationalism.

All that has changed. The coronavirus crisis is a bitter blow to a country already battered by three years of infighting, and the costs and consequences will of course be severe. But there’s also a stark kind of poetry in being thrown headlong into something which forces us to put our recent domestic dramas into some kind of perspective.

It’s my belief that, despite the huge and painful costs of what we are all going through, the very fact of being united in a shared trauma, and being forced to pull together, is what will endure, long after we have buried our loved ones and defeated this virus. Don’t get me wrong, Brexit has still happened, and may yet get worse, in addition to whatever social consequences coronavirus brings. (And the price is already high, just ask any British East Asian).

But biology, illness and mortality do not discriminate. Whatever we end up facing, we will face together, no longer the same country. We will have rediscovered our collective spirit. And in that lies hope.

It’s easy to be despairing. Plenty I know are, and even I’ve had my moments. But despair is not a plan. And it is the job of those of us in the creative industries, most especially the publicly-funded arts (and theatre specifically as its most collective, collaborative form) to find hope in unlikely places, and describe imaginative ways forward. Art creates meaning from suffering.

Let’s start with politics. I was brought up by a single parent mum, a 60s hippy turned social worker. Some of my earliest memories are being taken on CND anti-nuclear marches, to collectivist communes, wacky outdoor performance art festivals, or surreptitiously putting up posters around my school to resist the first wave of state school privatisation (which started in the late 1980s). So it’s no surprise that politics has always been an abiding personal interest.

It’s also the prism through which I view my work and creative output. I believe theatre, and narrative storytelling in particular, is not just an essential part of a democracy, but a way of understanding ourselves – our species, our histories, the forces which have shaped our world – and in so doing creating a space in which to imagine new and different futures.

But even we storytellers would have had trouble imagining all this. It just goes to show how close we are, at any given time, to the possibility of radical, world-shifting change. If I’d been sent a play to read about the events we are living through today, it would have been hard to suspend disbelief. Yet here we are.

Consider, for a moment, the irony of the most hard right Tory government in history becoming the most extreme socialists the UK has ever seen, effectively nationalising the entire British economy. (Its nearest fictional parallel would be Channel 4’s 1988 drama A Very British Coup, which in hindsight is way off the mark!).

The implications of this cannot be understated. There is now a huge question mark over the free market orthodoxy which has governed our lives and shaped our society for decades, namely, that the ideal organising principle of our society should be the wholesale marketisation of every aspect of our lives. Nature appears to have intervened. The free market can’t fix coronavirus – only the state can.

As we are creatures of short lifespans, who live mostly in the present tense, it’s easy to forget that the collective will and action of a people expressed through a state long pre-dates the no-tax, no-state ultra capitalist model of doing the same through market forces. We are being forced to reconsider cutthroat competition with one another as the basis of our social contract. Instead, it is (for the most part) bring replaced by a renewed faith in community, collectivism and cooperation.

Every day brings new developments as we rediscover this age old love of the state as a force for positive social change – from proper funding for the NHS, to state-run railways, to a reprieve for the BBC (a Tory war against it was just gathering pace), to collective organising around education, health, food, culture, and a long overdue recognition that ‘low-skilled workers’ like cleaners, bin collectors, delivery drivers , fruit and veg pickers, and supermarket cashiers are actually essential services which keep our society functioning. Even my street, in a typically atomised London commuter town of busy people mostly ignoring each other, now has a ‘shared library’ in the form of a storage box for swapping kids books and novels.

This is a tectonic shift in our thinking. We will emerge, blinking, into a different world. It’s going to be difficult to go back to how things were.

I predict that this new world will include a resurgence of enthusiasm for public institutions, including the arts. The theatre industry might have been temporarily forced to fall silent, but it’s striking that in times of crisis, we nevertheless fall back on creativity and culture – whether it’s Netflix binges, streaming theatre, online live gigs and listening parties, or taking the opportunity of more free time to write, draw, learn an instrument or another language. Even home schooling our kids is making us more creative. Many cultural organisations are falling over themselves to share fantastic content free of charge. Although not a sustainable model, its short term generosity is responding to a huge demand as we consume music, art, stories – most especially stories – to comfort ourselves and find meaning (that word again) at a frightening time.

Of course, this is against a background of great individual hardships. My heart goes out to those in overcrowded households, care homes, prisons, the disabled, the homeless, the elderly, NHS staff and young people due to sit their exams this summer, to name just a few. These are also the groups we’re going to have to work out how to look after better, once all this is over. Coronavirus is showing up political decisions for what they truly are, pulling away the fig leaf that some things are simply not possible or affordable. Just look how quickly rough sleepers can be housed once the government really put their minds to it.

Closer to home, at Tamasha, we are in touch with many early-career artists whose livelihoods have been pulled out from under them, or who are suddenly having to care for older relatives.

One in particular, a current member of the Tamasha Playwrights group, Shaan Sahota, is a junior doctor in Southall. Although a gynaecological specialist, she has been posted to frontline coronavirus intensive care. Shaan writes:

“My work life has changed quite dramatically since we last spoke – I was ‘redeployed’ to corona critical care last week, all my annual leave has been delayed for the foreseeable, the legal limits on my hours have been lifted by my union and my work rota has changed a lot … Hospitals are a really sad place to be right now, and we aren’t used to the kind of decisions and deaths we are seeing. And it’s one thing to be brave for yourself, but I know we are all afraid we might be putting our families at risk.”

Shaan Sahota

Naturally, her first draft for us is going to have to wait. I can’t help wondering what it will be like after what she is experiencing now.

Another of our writers, Satinder Chohan, author of 2017’s Made In India has different challenges:

“You’ve got childcare and I’ve got high risk elderly parent care! That weird parent-child role reversal that kicks in during one’s later years…now banning them from going out, rather than vice versa. It’s hard to keep my Dad locked in, calm and my Mum’s borderline dementia means we have to keep explaining why she can no longer go to the Gurdwara…Everything a bit uphill at the mo but slowly pushing through, trying to reconfigure, like everyone.”

However, she ends on a positive note:

“With all that’s going on, I think you’re right there’s a real opportunity for a much changed world. While everything has been so absolutely messed up on a political level, I honestly think Earth/mother nature has had enough of us. It’s really enforcing a break we wouldn’t give it, slowing us down, forcing us indoors to retreat, reflect, reset, take care of our bodies, our selves, each other and of course, to take care of the most vulnerable among us.”

Satinder Chohan

We may not be able to control these catastrophic events, but we can control our reaction to them.

One silver lining is surely the chance to catch up on fantastic work you might have missed due to the relentless pace of modern life. As the biggest single employer of dramatic writers in the country, BBC Radio 4 has a new drama out every single day, with each available on iPlayer for 30 days. That’s in addition to a slew of exciting online-only content for new platform BBC Sounds, which I’d been wishing for ages i had the time to explore.

Indie companies are following suit. One of our longtime collaborators Holy Mountain, is releasing audio drama content from their back catalogue every day for the foreseeable future, including some radio plays by yours truly.

As a touring company, Tamasha is less reliant than venues on box office and bar income, so we are relatively lucky. But if our venue partners go bust all around us that is of course bad news.

The Arts Council have been fantastic, announcing within days of the shutdown a £160 million rescue package for companies in danger of going under, and including a strand for non-NPOs and ‘creative practitioners’. This includes writers, translators, producers, editors, educators, directors, designers, choreographers, composers and visual artists working in the publicly funded culture sector.

Individuals can apply for one-off grants of up to £2,500. Check out the details of how to apply announced this week, or download the full eligibility criteria here.

At Tamasha, the office team are working remotely, but we are still here and luckily were mostly preparing for a year of R&D on a couple of new projects, much of which can continue during the lockdown. Sadly, our 30th anniversary celebrations have had to be put on hold.

But one project in particular can still take place online – our first open call for an Introduction to Publishing course run in collaboration with our friends at Hachette. Think you’ve got a novel in you? Now is the time to pitch us! We will read applications and recruit the group as normal, with sessions pencilled for the autumn, all being well. Applications are open now, with a 5th May deadline.

Intro to Publishing

Our Tamasha Digital pilot year last year was timely. Our online content for your listening pleasure now includes Decolonising History, Tell Dem, Loyalty and Dissent, and the original Taxi Tales audio monologues. We’re also looking into securing the relevant permissions for another webcast of our two livestreamed shows Made In India and Approaching Empty.

Decolonising History

Our regular groups Tamasha Playwrights and Tamasha Directors have moved online, prompting us to consider what else we could do remotely. For example, workshops for those who can’t get to our office base in East London, or developing more Hear Me Now audition monologues by pairing up actors and writers to develop new characters online. Watch this space and check the company’s social media for future initiatives.

We are of course a small player in a much larger cultural landscape. It’s been heartening to see such a groundswell of imaginative online creativity – and not just in theatre. A previously profit-driven model has been temporarily abandoned in favour of a community-spirited giveaway, with numerous apps, games, learning resources and other membership schemes being offered for free.

True, none of this particularly helps individual artists looking to create new work, or replace lost commissions. This is why, behind the scenes, we are trying to marshal our sector to start a round of commissioning. It’s harder than it sounds when finances across the sector are in freefall, with companies nervous about committing to new spending without knowing what the future holds. But in principle at least, now is a great time to commission new work which can be developed solo – playwriting in particular, and we hope to have some more news on that front soon.

I’d like to end with a book recommendation of my own. In fact, I have just bought a copy for each member of the Tamasha team. Just before coronavirus hit, I was reading Hope In The Dark by Rebecca Solnit.

I started reading it feeling a bit despairing about the general election and Brexit, and the book’s relentless optimism was quite infectious. Solnit’s whole theory is that because the future is always unknown, and unknowable, therein lies hope. She’s brilliant at picking examples from recent history where unexpectedly positive side effects came out of distressing social upheavals. I remember thinking ‘Well that’s all well and good but what are the chances of a great social upheaval in Brexit Britain to overturn our current hard-right political hegemony?” Then coronavirus did exactly that, and the book seems more relevant than ever. It’s only a few quid on Kindle, and if you’re in any doubt you can read the introduction online for free here.

In her foreword, written to accompany the second edition, Solnit looks back at her original text, written in 2003, and the changes since. She writes:

“If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it is that the unimaginable is ordinary … We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.”

Hang in there. We’ll get through this together. Once the collective suffering is over, the collective change begins.

Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director


The new patriotism

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post for the Tamasha blog called Best of British: New theatre in the age of Brexit. The piece looked forward to the busy year ahead; with no less than 7 productions or co-productions and 3 digital projects scheduled to launch. At the time, the UK was also due to leave the European Union on 31 March.

One year on and, after a short breather for the Christmas holidays, we’re once more looking forward to the year ahead – with the added excitement that 2020 also marks the start of Tamasha’s 30th anniversary year.

The political backdrop remains as dire as it ever was. The result of the December general election is likely to have serious consequences for arts funding, as it will for the whole future of the UK. The only positive seems to be that at least now we know where we stand.

It’s an odd contradiction to be enjoying such a boom as a company while the social and political context for so many in our country remains so bleak.

Still, our 30th anniversary celebrations will take place regardless, and I hope might give Tamasha’s community of artists and supporters some winter cheer at a difficult time.

In what might become an annual tradition, I wanted to look forward to the year ahead once more, announce a few plans, make an appeal for collaborators in our forthcoming fundraising efforts, and reflect on how the cultural sector should respond to the new political reality in which we find ourselves.

2020 so far has lead seamlessly on from 2019, with our seventh and final show of the year, I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed, our co-production with Paines Plough, finishing its triumphant run at the Bush Theatre studio on Sat 18 January. It’s a gorgeous jewel of a show, beautifully directed by Anna Himali-Howard with stunning sound, movement and fully integrated BSL. As a contemporary cross-cultural love story, I Wanna Be Yours perfectly showcases Tamasha’s belief that the personal is always political, and small lives emblematic of the society we live in. Do catch it before it ends.

I Wanna Be Yours. Photo: The Other Richard

After I Wanna Be Yours closes, our official first event of 2020 is barely a fortnight later.

Hear Me Now: LoveSexIdentityAmbition is a week-long festival of monologues taken from the book Hear Me Now: Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour, co-created and edited by Titi Dawudu, and published by Oberon.

As well as performances of several of the monologues, each night the audience will be invited to participate in discussions by a dynamic, high-energy host around what stories for women of colour are being told in the theatre, and how many more stories there’s still left to tell.

Hear Me Now. Illustration: EmKayHaytch

The festival represents the first iteration of a longstanding ambition to do more with the extraordinarily fresh, funny and poignant material contained in the Hear Me Now anthology – with plans to commission a second volume and possibly even a full length show. Watch this space… In the meantime, LoveSexIdentityAmbition plays at Theatre 503 from 4th to 8th February. Book your tickets now.

Festivities officially launching our 30th will start in the Spring, with a re-brand – a new logo and website fit for a grown-up company turning 30. Tamasha will be getting a makeover! Keep an eye out.

In the meantime, many of you will be aware of our flagship writer attachment scheme Tamasha Playwrights, now in its sixth year. The group goes from strength to strength, with a strong track record of launching careers. This year, for the first time, we’ve secured some funding to cover the travel costs of regional writers, bursaries to write, and perhaps most significantly to train the group as workshop leaders, then pay them to deliver playwriting workshops in inner city schools – role models for the next generation of new talent.

Tamasha Playwrights Scratch Night 2019.

I’m pleased to say we’ve also been awarded funding for a second group, Tamasha Directors, a monthly group run by the incomparable Sita Thomas in the same artist-led format of bespoke sessions responsive to the group’s needs. We’re hopeful it will go on to similar successes, contributing to and diversifying the talent pool in the same way its sister group has for playwrights.

Sita Thomas

One of the questions any theatre company grapples with is how to preserve and capture the legacy of its past, when theatre itself is so ephemeral as a form. Since I got this job we’ve been looking for a home for the Tamasha archive – three decades of groundbreaking British theatre history. Well, I’m pleased to say that our brilliant Executive Director Valerie Synmoie has secured a partnership with the Bishopsgate Institute to host this valuable record of 30 years of this company’s extraordinary history and shows. Currently gathering dust in storage, it will soon to be made publically available for the first time. The Bishopsgate Institute holds important historical collections about London, the labour movement, free thought, as well as the history of protest and campaigning. And now political theatre too – we’re proud to be working with them.

Our first full production of 2020 is soon to be announced, but I can reveal will be a debut play by a regional writer who first came to our attention via Graeae’s pioneering Write to Play scheme. The show will be a co-production with Graeae and the Bush, opening in July…. Watch this space for more.

Throughout 2019, we’ve been in a pilot year for Tamasha Digital, testing out various formats for creating online work, including arts and culture discussion show Tell Dem, an interactive smartphone adventure around Brick Lane, We Are Shadows, created with the local Bangladeshi community and with our friends at Coney, and Decolonising History, five audio dramas for SOAS University of London.

It was a pilot year well spent, because Tamasha is fast becoming the go-to independent production company for cultural and historical organisations looking to commission audio podcast dramas.

The first half of this year sees us returning to collaborate with the National Archives. We’ll be working once again with researcher, historian and lecturer Iqbal Singh on two more specially commissioned audio dramas, this time looking at early 20th century migration to British port cities, by Arab and Indian sailors settling there. Let superstar writers Satinder Chohan and Hassan Abdulrazzak transport you to another era, and how it shaped our country today.

Iqbal’s already come up with a title for us – Once British, Always British – a direct quote from a letter in the Archives by an Arab hostel owner to the India Office, protesting how ostensibly ‘British’ citizens from elsewhere in the Empire were being treated once they settled here. (I like how it sounds cheekily Brexit-y until you read a bit closer….)

The second half of 2020 will see our first digital project for schools, The Power of Persuasion, a series of dramatized podcasts about staying safe online, a spin-off from Nyla Levy’s extraordinary hit show Does My Bomb Look Big In This? which sold out Soho Theatre last year. This year we’ll be putting that learning into practice in a tangible way, using our storytelling expertise to address a gap in provision around educating young people about the ways in which they can be targeted by groomers online, in an effort to inoculate them against it. But crucially, doing so in a fun, interactive, character-led format with all the wit and irreverence of Nyla’s original play.

Does My Bomb Look Big In This? Photo: Bettina Adela

Alongside all of this, we’ll be leveraging some of the digital work already generated during our pilot year – particularly the audio dramas from our Decolonising History project at SOAS – with some further ‘gathered listening’ events in London and beyond, including potentially for private commission.

Our Brick Lane walking tour We Are Shadows remains live, for anyone to play at any time. We’ll be using the opportunity of having this permanent presence to curate timed tours with specific groups – journalists, students, tourists, teachers – showcasing how arts and culture can get under the skin of a rapidly changing area, and preserve the voices of the communities most affected.

We Are Shadows: Brick Lane. Photo: Bettina Adela

And these are just the confirmed events. We’ve ambitions to raise money for much, much more – including a 30th anniversary scratch night of new commissions, celebrating the company’s achievements, a brand new digital storytelling project taking place entirely on WhatsApp, and numerous other projects for 2020 and beyond.

Fundraising is a constant challenge, of course, and our anniversary a unique opportunity to grow our community of supporters, directly contributing to our long-term financial sustainability.

Our plan, throughout this year, is to offer up a range of Tamasha projects for groups of sponsors of all levels to cluster around – inviting individuals to contribute directly to the project which most inspires them, becoming its champions, in exchange for exclusive access to the creative team and their process.

After making donations of their own, we’ll ask sponsors to advocate for others in their networks to do the same – harnessing the power and structure of social media to forge emotional connections with donors who remain attached to and updated about the project which they care most about, right up until opening night.

If this sounds a bit labour-intensive, that’s because it is. We’re going to need some help – and are asking all our supporters to drop us a line if you’re up for getting involved.

We’ll need some champions to align themselves with one or more of the projects for which we want to secure sponsorship, and donate a bit of time to help promote them, perhaps shooting a short video, speaking at some of our events or meeting with potential donors in low key socials at the Tamasha office, to describe in tangible terms your relationship with the company, the effect it has had on your life, work and career and – hopefully – inspiring them to help us continue that work. And as with any good partnership, we want also want to hear from you, what you think might be the best way to engage with those you know, and think might support our work.

Tamasha has always been not just a theatre company, but a movement.

On which note, I can’t finish without acknowledging the political climate in which we’re attempting to achieve all of this.

The result of the December general election will have as yet unknown but undoubtedly serious consequences for arts funding, as it will for the whole future of the UK. It sadly also ensures that the values that most of us hold dear will be in opposition for the foreseeable future.

Progressives have – for now – lost the political battle. We will need to draw on each other for support more than ever. Just a glance at social media is enough to see what has been unleashed; the increased levels of open hostility towards minority groups from a newly-emboldened far right.

At Tamasha this is personal. ‘Minority groups’ means our friends, family, colleagues and collaborators. We want you to know that we stand with you. Tamasha is one of your key hubs for the push back against this.

If there’s one glimmer of hope, it’s that progressives have always had the upper hand in the cultural arena. What we do, and how and where we do it, has the power to shape hearts and minds at the grass roots. It’s a fact that almost all progressive political achievements – from universal suffrage, to the welfare state, to same-sex marriage – started life as cultural movements, changes in the hearts and minds of the population, sparked by outrage at injustice.

Pushing back against the prevailing perception of Britain as a small-minded island of imperial fantasists is no different.

Because there is another Britain, waiting in the wings. In fact it’s never really gone away.

It’s the Britain of protest and political struggle. Of tolerance, social justice, and the willingness to fight for what is right. It’s the Britain of the suffragettes and the Chartists, of the NHS and Notting Hill Carnival; of the Iraq War march, trades unions, and the People’s Vote movement.

It’s the Britain of Stormzy and Banksy, of Shami Chakrabarti and Mary Beard, of Kindertransport and Glastonbury.

Closer to home, it’s the Britain of Kwame and Lynette and debbie and Roy and Roy and Bryony and Tanika and Inua and Indhu and Ishy and Matthew and Michael and Dawn and Amanda and Suba and Sudha and Kris and Jatinder – we have the power.

While our allies in politics begin the years-long struggle to regain a seat at the top table, those of us on the ground are primed and ready to go.

Our sector knows how to do Opposition. It’s all we’ve ever known.

This is the new patriotism in Brexit Britain – arts and culture as the conscience of the nation, refusing to let our country go to the wall, and certainly not without a fight.

In his own similar list of the British progressive tradition, rapper and historian Akala included the little known “John Brown Women’s Society from Sheffield, who refused to make manacles for factories which supported slavery, but because they were poor, and women to boot, their names have vanished into history.”

Our work, our storytelling expertise, is a tool – a weapon, even – to put this other Britain centre stage, to ensure that history does not overlook the ordinary people with whom political change always starts. In doing so, we multiply their power.

As the Brexit debacle calcifies into a hard new reality, this nation is going to have to have some difficult conversations with itself. But conversations are what we do.

Make no mistake, this is now a generational struggle. Difficult times are ahead. One of Tamasha’s board members, Anshu Srivastava, an architect, likes to say that Tamasha is at once a port, and a harbour – somewhere to shelter from the storm outside, but also to recuperate and recharge, to get back out there and continue the fight.

Change will be slow, and incremental, one heart at a time. But we – the storytellers – can be at the vanguard.

I hope you’ll join us in 2020, giving what you can – time, money or both – to sow the seeds of a more progressive Britain.

It starts with the stories we tell. It starts with Tamasha.

Fin Kennedy 

 

If you would like to volunteer some time to help Tamasha fundraise during their 30th anniversary year, please drop us a line to register your interest.


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