Writing The Future – Tamasha Playwrights

Four years ago, when I was appointed Artistic Director of Tamasha there were two things I was clear about. I will never write a Tamasha full production. The company simply isn’t there to support writers like me. And second, I am not a director and never will be. These two things essentially underpinned my pitch for the job.

Because I’ll never write the plays for Tamasha, we’ll always need to commission new writers. Because I don’t direct, we’ll always need external directors. My role is much more behind-the-scenes, as a dramaturg and creative producer, working to put others centre stage – much as I did when I first came to Tamasha’s notice for my work over several years as writer-in-residence at Mulberry School for Girls, where I specialised in co-creating new plays with British-Bangladeshi girls in Tower Hamlets; and subsequently via Schoolwrights for Tamasha. My job is to put the structures in place for others to shine.

The Unravelling (Schoolwrights) Picture from Tamasha

Production from Schoolwrights

It was against this background that the idea for Tamasha Playwrights took shape. I’d taught for many years on playwriting Masters degrees at Goldsmiths, Central Saint Martins and elsewhere, and it seemed an easy thing to be able to offer in-house at Tamasha. In the first instance, it wouldn’t even need any external funding. All it would take is my time and the office after work, which was empty from 6pm. The TDA mailing list contained a large number of diverse emerging playwrights, all hungry for opportunities, mostly broke, hardly any with formal training, and all seeing Tamasha as a safe and welcoming entry point into a profession and industry which can sometimes feel alienating and a closed shop.

Tamasha has historically always had this function, as a stepping stone into the mainstream for diverse new talent. Many of those involved in our shows are at the early stages of their careers, and the roll call of those who have gone on to become household names is impressive and growing, from Ayub Khan-Din and Jimi Mistry, to Parminder Nagra and Nina Wadia, Sunetra Sarker, Chris Bisson and Nabil Elouahabi. More recently, rising fast behind them are Krupa Pattani, Kiran Sonia Sarwar, Ishy Din, Emteaz Hussain, Diyan Zora, Pooja Ghai, Arun Ghosh, Prema Mehta and Satinder Chohan. Others who’ve taken part in Tamasha workshops and other training opportunities include Nadia Fall and Madani Younis, now Artistic Directors of major London theatres, as well as prominent artists such as Suba Das, Pravesh Kumar, Samir Bhamra, Rachna Jahdev and Dominic Hingorani. Tamasha has a long and proud history of changing the face of the professional British theatre landscape.

Having had to survive as a freelance playwright myself for almost 15 years, I knew just how tough it was – and I was in the relatively privileged position of being white, male, middle class, university educated and experienced about the pitching, fundraising and commissioning processes. I had personally struggled, at one point even considering giving up writing altogether. For every one of me, how many others must have fallen by the wayside, and their diverse stories fallen with them

At the time, in 2014, I was fresh from the unexpected success of a grass roots political campaign, In Battalions, which challenged the government about the effects of its funding cuts to the Arts Council on new plays and playwrights, especially those from under-represented backgrounds. I was only too aware of the amount of opportunities for entry level writers which were closing down. Yet, of all the theatre artists, playwrights are surely the lifeblood of the industry. They’re also critical to diversity – everything starts with the writer and their vision. They decide whose lives to a put a frame around in the first place, which has a direct impact on what ends up on the nation’s stages.

In conversation with Tamasha colleagues, and in particular outgoing Artistic Director Sudha Bhuchar, we conceived of an approach to training diverse emerging playwrights in the best tradition of Tamasha’s support for new theatre artists, with core staffing costs that could be covered in-house. What we came up with was really quite simple – so simple that I have sometimes wondered why more theatres don’t offer it.

Tamasha Playwrights 2017-18 Picture

Tamasha Playwrights 2017-18

Tamasha Playwrights is a year-long attachment programme of weekly evening sessions in our office, in the model of a writer-led collective, with open applications and free to attend. All writers need to do is send us a CV, letter of application and one full-length play as a writing sample, though it doesn’t have to have been produced. (The submissions window is every September, sign up for the TDA mailing list to be notified.)

Tamasha Playwrights is not a taught course. In our model, every session is by majority request from the participants. In every first session we ask “What do you need? What is holding you back?” and use the answers to plan our year together. In practice, this can mean practical writing workshops on any aspect of the craft, from dramatic structure, to character and dialogue, or stagecraft techniques around using location, managing stage time, writing non-naturalistically or writing for radio. There’s an expectation that this learning will be put into practice, with each writer writing a wholly new play; we set deadlines, offer feedback on drafts and run a ‘group dramaturgy’ process of 30-minute slots where individual writers get the benefit of the whole group discussing and analysing their play.

We also offer more holistic training, about how to maintain a freelance career. One always-popular session is on how to apply to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts scheme (now the National Lottery Project Grants). We also offer training in self-producing, on how to structure a budget for a show and how to manage a small-scale production of your own – the artist as producer. Then there’s the sessions about earning a living between commissions, free training in teaching playwriting in schools and youth theatres, and co-creating work with young people as a writer-in-residence.

There’s also the opportunity for group members to suggest projects to us, and lead on their development with our support, such as looking over a funding application, providing a supportive quote, and office space, marketing or dramaturgy as support-in-kind. We try to offer each and every Tamasha Playwright at least one substantial opportunity during their time with us, whether it’s showcasing some work at a scratch night, taking part in one of our own projects like Hear Me Now, delivering some schools workshops, or working with us on partner-led projects like Loyalty and Dissent with the National Archives or Barbican Box.

At the end of their time with us, writers join ‘the Tamafia’, a secret group of agents and sleeper cells out there in the industry who we might call on at any time to conduct a mission for us. Just like the real mafia you can never truly leave… In all seriousness, we do stay in touch with everyone and as news of our group spreads year on year we find ourselves acting more and more like a writer’s agency, championing our graduates to other companies, forwarding opportunities and call-outs, or being approached by other companies looking to diversify their collaborators. The different year groups also stay in touch with one another long after their time with us and, among other things, become an active network of supportive readers of one another’s plays.

Apart from all the practical things above, there is one other principle behind our group, perhaps the most important one. It is something I have been at times quite painfully aware of during my time as a freelance writer. It is the need to be able to call somewhere Home. To have a company and community of artists and peers who, although they may not be a main source of employment or income, are an artistic community and lodestar, a place of succour and shelter from the chill winds and from the cold hard reality of surviving in the arts marketplace. A place where your creativity can be nourished, your craft developed and your voice heard.

The reason for running Tamasha Playwrights is more circumspect than merely looking for plays we can produce. It’s about investing in a stable of diverse artists we can draw on for a variety of projects, matching them to different strands of our work where we can, particularly community and young people’s projects, and championing them within the industry. We also sometimes get approached by schools or other organisations looking for writers who better reflect the make-up of our nation than those who tend to get the higher profile breaks. Inner city schools want role models for their students; The Migration Museum wanted writers with migration experiences in their immediate family; The National Archives wanted writers able to engage on a personal level with untold diverse histories buried deep in the government records. Tamasha Playwrights is fast becoming the go-to group for a wide range of organisations undertaking creative arts projects with a diverse flavour.

For me personally, more than anything, it’s about investing in a new generation of playwrights capable of taking on the big issues of the day, through the prism of their own diversity – though also capable of writing beyond their own lived experience if they wish to.

It’s about setting up a pipeline for these writers to go out into the industry and beyond, and tell stories and make theatre which looks a bit more like the world around us. It’s about playwrights playing a critical social and democratic function, as one of the main and most important artists in a society, because they curate a space where that society can truly reflect on itself, in all its diverse, messy and contradictory glory – where audiences from all walks of life can meet, walk a mile in one another’s shoes, stop, think, feel and hopefully understand one another a little more than they did when they stepped into that auditorium. In a world where we seem more atomised into warring tribes than ever before, this is surely more important than ever.

Four years in, and our initial hunch about the need for and success of our model of writer-led writer training is starting to be confirmed. In the past 12 months, a flurry of Tamasha Playwrights have had significant breaks within the industry – and it’s really thrilling to see.

Acceptance by Amy Ng

Currently, Acceptance by Amy Ng, her debut professional production, is running its full length run at Hampstead Theatre. It’s a story about a gifted Chinese music student who makes a life-changing allegation at an American university. Amy is also under commission at the RSC and Belgrade Coventry. This summer, Rabiah Hussain’s Spun opens for its full run at the Arcola, her second full commission after a monologue for Theatre Absolute in Coventry. Spun charts the relationship of two young, female British-Pakistani best friends and the personal and professional fallout of the 7/7 London bombings. Last year, Asif Khan had a hugely successful tour of his play Combustion, about the effects of a child abuse scandal on the Muslim men working in a garage in a northern British town. Asif also secured a place on the BBC Comedy Lab and has just been announced as one of the recipients of a £10,000 Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme bursary to spend a year on attachment at Watford Palace. Guleraana Mir is producing a tour of her own play Coconut after a successful Grants for the Arts application; Coconut is a comedy about a Muslim woman and white British man who converts to marry her. Guleraana is also under commission at Rightful Place, a new theatre company set up as a vehicle for alumni of Mulberry School (and a former Tamasha Associate Company). Others have made the shortlists for some major awards, including Mel Pennant for the 2017 Alfred Fagon award for her play A Black Fella Walks Into A Bar… a tense two-hander between two mothers, one of whose son is accused of murdering the other in a hate crime. Also this year, Iman Qureshi was shortlisted for the Tony Craze award for The Funeral Director, about a Muslim funeral business taken to court for turning away a gay couple, and the impact on the owner’s own marriage. Prior to that Iman delivered a searingly innovative youth theatre play, Side Effects for East London company and Tamasha Associate Company, Purple Moon Drama, about a drug trial which gives black and Asian young people visions of their ancestors’ past lives. Yet more have got live commissions such as Ayesha Siddiqi at Derby Theatre for Asylum, about a British-Pakistani family who take in a Syrian refugee; Ross Willis and Mahad Ali at Theatre 503, both for plays they first developed on our programme, and Matilda Ibini a residency at the National Theatre. Yolanda Mercy, also a performer, is currently on an international British Council funded tour of Nigeria with her solo coming-of-age show Quarter Life Crisis, a hit at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, which started life under different auspices in our group. A radio version has just been announced as one of the inaugural drama commissions by BBC Radio 1Extra. Many others have been taken on by leading literary agents and we await news of their future successes… All these and more feel like British theatre’s new wave, and this country’s stories of the future.

Despite all this, Tamasha Playwrights remains an initiative delivered with no external funding, offered using Tamasha’s core resources of my time and our empty office. In one sense, this means the group’s future is protected; as we have found, we can always offer it using only the infrastructure we already have. But we have found some limitations. Because the group has no cash budget, we can’t offer travel costs which makes attendance expensive for those living far from our office base in East London. As a national touring company, we have a commitment to nurturing new talent from across the UK, and a genuine need to find and champion regional voices. We have had group members take part from as far afield as Bristol and Manchester, travelling at their own expense every week, such is the value to them of what we’re offering. We’re hoping we might find a funder to help us cover the costs of this, so we can have more writers from further afield who don’t have to foot this bill at a formative stage of their careers.

We’d like to showcase the group’s work more, ideally with a week-long festival of full length readings. The one scratch night we can currently stretch to can really only accommodate 4 or 5 short pieces – choosing which ones get on is always tricky.

We’d like a budget to commission more work, including in innovative new formats such as audio dramas for online podcast, something we have a longstanding ambition to achieve via nascent new strand Tamasha Digital.

We’d like to set up an agency of ‘diverse writers for hire’ – aimed at schools and youth theatres in the first instance, but perhaps developing into a little business which might generate some income for the group through commission.

We’d like to found a Tamasha Playwrights North at a regional venue, to export the model, training and paying graduating members to lead on setting up and running regional branches so that not everything has to take place in our London office.

In time, we’d like to look at replicating the model with other disciplines, such as Tamasha Directors, Tamasha Designers, or Tamasha Stage Managers (we already have a new Producer scheme, including our Sustained Theatre Regional Associate Producers programme – Ignite).

But all that is for the future. We’ll get there, even in the current tough fundraising environment we’re confident that Tamasha Playwrights’ ongoing success speaks for itself and will continue to attract attention (though if you are interested or know any potential sponsors, please do get in touch).

In the meantime, we’ll keep on keeping on. The opportunities will keep multiplying, and we’ll continue to work behind the scenes to put the next generation of diverse playwrights centre stage.

Apart from anything else, Tuesday nights in the Tamasha office are the highlight of my week.

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Loyalty & Dissent: the forgotten stories of the First World War by Hassan Abdulrazzak

This blog was originally posted on Medium

Loyalty and Dissent Web Landscape Amend 2

Image credit FO 141/733. With permission of The National Archives

If you grew up on a diet of First World War films (or even just Blackadder’s final season), you could be forgiven for thinking the war was an entirely white affair. The contribution of Indian soldiers was as immense as it is largely unknown. They fought for Britain on the Western and Eastern fronts. They were particularly vital in the early phase when Britain’s native army was inadequate to cope with the fast German advance.

Last summer, Iqbal Husain, an outreach officer at the National Archives, approached Fin Kennedy, the artistic director of Tamasha, to commission short plays that would be inspired by documents in the archive relating to the experiences of people from South Asia in and around the time of the First World War.

Tamasha commissioned five writers including myself. We had two days to browse through five sets of documents that Iqbal had selected to inspire us. They covered topics such as the experience of Indian soldiers on the Western Front, Pan-Islamism and Muslim networks in early 20th century Britain, immigrants unwilling or unable to serve in the war who headed to North America and issues relating to the burial of Muslim soldiers. The overall theme to focus our thinking about these documents was loyalty and dissent.

Maulana Sadr-ud-Din

Maulana Sadr-ud-Din. Image credit: Wikipedia

When we arrived at the National Archives, the documents were laid out in neat stacks on a long table. It was exciting to undo the ribbon that bound each bundle, open the folder cover and delve into a treasure trove of primary historical documents. The subject I settled on was the burial of Muslim soldiers. Two thick folders contained correspondence between the War Office and an imam named Maulana Sadr-ud-Din (pictured).

The imam was concerned about the lack of a dedicated burial ground for Muslim soldiers who died of their wounds in British hospitals. Over the course of 1914 and 1915, he battled with the authorities to get a cemetery close to Woking Mosque where he preached.

The record reveals a highly articulate man who knew what buttons to push in order to get what he wants. The British grew suspicious of him. He is described in one report as being an ‘agitator’.

The documents in the files range from handwritten letters to telegrams to typed up reports. This is ground zero of history. By reading the documents and putting them in chronological order you can get a blow by blow account of Sadr-ud-Din’s struggle (at least the early part of it). One of the most inspiring documents I found in the archive wasn’t a written text but a map of the land that was suggested for the burial ground.

Map of burial ground at Woking.

Map of burial ground at Woking. Image credit: WO 32/18578. With permission of The National Archives

In an excellent essay by Rachel Hasted that put the primary documents I was looking at into context, I read that the ground Sadr-ud-Din had finally been given was ‘waterlogged’ and not suitable for burial. I looked at the map above and pictured him standing on the muddy grounds, furious at the British officials who had short changed him and planning his next move. This helped to unlock much of the play.

By Hassan Abdulrazzak

Read more about Loyalty & Dissent here including reading the original scripts >

Watch out for the Loyalty & Dissent audio dramas, coming soon!


Refuel – Seeding the importance of self-expression in young people – Blog by Cheryl Ndione

Refuel - A Tamasha Schools Project

Pupils and teacher Kate Hibbert rehearse their Refuel piece ‘The Lady

The Refuel project was introduced to me as I had been working with Tamasha Artistic Director, Fin Kennedy, on two separate youth theatre projects earlier in the year. Refuel seemed like the perfect continuation of a blossoming working relationship as it seemed like a great opportunity to create something brand new from nothing, a prospect that is always exciting, and also a huge responsibility in that we were to represent Tamasha as creative ambassadors.

I was asked to read the play Approaching Empty by Ishy Din to contextualise the project. I was going to be working with a writer whose work I already enjoyed. We would have 6 sessions to experiment with ideas to create a brand new 20-minute script with a group of year 8 students from Swanlea School in East London. Already, the structured openness of the project meant we had to jump in with no expectations and see what happened. Instinctively, the writer and I knew that the way to elicit the best work out of a group of young people would be to really allow them to feel that their ideas were at the fore of the creation process.

Having the project funded by AMAL, an organisation interested in celebrating Muslim culture support us to deliver this work at a majority Muslim school, facilitated by myself and a Muslim writer, meant that diversity and authenticity were already inherent, and this meant I could get on with my work to make a play that was well pitched and relevant for school-aged pupils; without race or religion overtly having to frame the proceedings.

Most participants had either little or no experience of practical drama work. It was not easy to galvanise sceptical minds and unconvinced bodies into full and keen participation but the more I worked with the group, the more I realised what an honour it was to be part of what I’d had an inclination would be an important journey for all of us.

Working with Asif Khan as the project writer was incredibly smooth sailing. We met ahead of the first session and had a long rambling conversation about lots of unrelated things and then briefly caveated the meeting with loose plans for the first session. We both agreed that we trusted each other implicitly to do our jobs, but that there was room for fluidly and off-piste exercises depending on where the session was going. Eureka moment came when meticulous planning met the energy of play. This meant no pressure and lots of space for discovery. Hot seating initial character ideas saw some of the students reveal hidden traits that provided great inspiration for characters later embellished in the script.

Our first session was tough. Swanlea School has a very small drama department and very large class sizes. The students were apprehensive to say the very least. They were also a little embarrassed when I let them know that we would be starting each of our sessions together with a physical warm up.

Luckily, we had the full support of Kate Hibbert, the drama teacher at Swanlea, which meant I felt free to push the students way outside of their comfort zone, and I insisted that we wholeheartedly embraced the spirit of drama activity. The students were physically and vocally reserved so my task was clear from the outset; to get these students to wilfully explore and express themselves. With this as my focus, Asif was given the space to piece together the vast tapestry of ideas that were generated and natural attributes the group were able to share through exercises and discussions.

Refuel's the Lady by Tamasha

Students at Swanlea School rehearsing Refuel piece’ The Lady’

Over the course of the 6 sessions we saw growth within each and every one of the students. By the time Asif had created his first draft, we had their full energetic investment. We saw improved ability to vocally project and articulate creative ideas, and also a willingness to contribute when unprompted. One participant in particular started off completely inaudible. She was extremely softly spoken, and as English was a second language, she was often reluctant to speak up even when asked direct questions. During the final read-through of the script, this same participant insisted on a larger speaking role, so much so that we had to do a last minute recast to make sure she was happy.

The best thing about the project was that having Asif as the writer meant that the work was culturally relevant, which made the group feel truly at the centre of the work and got them excited about sharing a perceptive that they fully understood.

The main given that we had to work with was around the set. The play had to be set in a cab office as the text will play directly on top of the set of Approaching Empty, a touring theatre production by Tamasha.

Synopsis: The young people are at the cab office as they have been allowed by one of their fathers to use the space for a few hours so that they can hold their own Eid party. People start to arrive but the party is then interrupted by an unwelcome guest. As the plot thickens, we are in introduced to a ghost – the title character, The Lady.

A project like this is so important as it seeds in the importance of self-expression from a young age. It really felt like a powerful catalyst on the participants’ journeys to learning how to relate to themselves and finding ways to relate to each other and the world around them. It was wonderful seeing how validated and capable they felt after each session. Attendance gradually improved and the energy in the room was palpably engaged. It is important that self-expression is nurtured and it is also important that culturally relevant work is supported, as this gives the students a sense of belonging and provides a space for them to take agency over their own public representation. For me as a Director, I find the work truly inspiring as we all had to work from the unknown and take a leap of faith together, and in so doing, have created something that I think is of immense value.

Find out more and book to see all Refuel performances here.

Cheryl Ndione


The origins and legacy of REFUEL – A Tamasha Schools’ Playwriting Project by Iman Qureshi

Lyrical MC - Tamasha and Rewrite

Image taken from Lyrical MC – photo by Robert Workman

In the weeks following a number of terrorist attacks carried out crudely in the name of Islam, Fin Kennedy, artistic director at Tamasha Theatre, offered the Muslim writers on the Tamasha Playwrights group a space to come together and talk about being a Muslim writer in such a fraught political context.

So one cold January morning myself and three other Muslim playwrights met at Tamasha’s offices in Bethnal Green, and over cupcakes and coffee discussed how it felt to grapple with such issues in our work.

I felt stifled as a writer. If I were to write something, I felt I had a responsibility to answer for such horrors carried out in the name of my religion. But the problem was, I was as in the dark as anyone else about the drivers of such violence. My Islam was not the Islam of Salah Abdeslam, Khurram Butt, or Yahyah Farroukh.

I wanted to write other stories. Stories about Muslims that did not deal with so-called ‘Islamic extremism’ or terrorism, but rather about Muslims whose dating lives are disasters, who hate their jobs, who love trips to ikea, and like feeding stray cats. You know, regular human beings who are fully rounded, three dimensional characters.

And I wasn’t alone in feeling this. There was a general frustration amongst us Muslim writers about how we were constantly represented as Muslims. We only ever seemed to see certain types of Muslims beamed out at us from our screens, stages and news pages. And these ‘types’ rarely corresponded with the Muslims we knew personally – our friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances.

And so, Tamasha theatre decided to make a difference, by supporting us as writers to explore other aspects of Muslim identity in our work. And so, Refuel was born.

Refuel - A Tamasha Schools Project

Rehearsals for Refuel

Designed to support Tamasha’s forthcoming touring production Approaching Empty by Ishy Din, Refuel  paired four Muslim writers with an experienced director each and sent us into four Muslim majority schools across London to develop and write four fresh plays to accompany the main piece. The premise was simple – it must be set in a minicab office. Beyond that, sky was the limit.

Through a series of drama exercises, improvisation, character work, hot seating, real world interviews and discussions, and short writing tasks, I worked with the year 8 girls of Mulberry Girls School in Tower Hamlets to develop some concrete ideas for a play.

Each week we built on top of what we had created together the previous week. The characters we created in the first week, we had to place in a minicab office the second week with some dramatic interactions with other characters. The third week saw those dramatic scenes escalate into a more complex plot. Slowly, the forces of the play came together.

What was most thrilling for me as a writer was seeing the 11 year old girls go from wanting to write stories about Harry and Joe and Chloe and Kate, to becoming excited about writing stories about Khadija or Haleema. This switch from simply recreating the white majority they see on their TV screens at home, to actually representing their own lives and cultures and experiences in their ideas was really satisfying and I hope one of the lasting legacies of a project like this.

And this was where the real magic was – they’re humour, their sass, their depth really shone brightest when they began to mine their own experiences, or the banter they have with their own friends and family.

Our play gradually developed into an intergenerational story about three girls and their grandmother. It’s a story of aging, of not quite getting on with older generations, and of cultural gulfs that must be bridged within families which have migrants from different generations. It’s a story that is at once universal, but also intrinsically rooted in the Bengali culture. Everyone can relate to not giving their grandparents enough time, but yet not everyone’s grandmother is called Nani, eats brain cutlets, or tells stories of her village in Bangladesh.

The project has helped me as an emerging writer in many ways. Firstly, the opportunity to work with a brilliant and experienced director, Endy McKay in the classroom has taught me a huge amount about generating stories and ideas through performance. It’s also equipped me with a repertoire of ridiculously fun drama games which I hope I’ll have the opportunity to use soon.  Moreover, the support I had from Fin and Tamasha was completely invaluable and has meant that I’m now confidence enough and equipped with the skills to work on projects like this again. The production credit will hopefully put me in a good position to receive another similar commission in future.

But finally, working with young people in a collaborative and creative way is extremely liberating, because their imaginations are boundless. It was a pleasure to be let into their world for six short weeks, to hear their ideas, their jokes and their lingo. I think I learnt more from them than they ever could have from me, and based on our time together, I’ve got several stories percolating in the back of my mind. Perhaps they’ll pour out in the next play I write.

Find out more and book to see all Refuel performances here.


‘My Journey’ by Made In India Assistant Director Corey Campbell

Ulrika Krishnamurti as Aditi in Made in India - Credit Robert Day

Ulrika Krishnamurti as Aditi in Made In India – Photo by Robert Day

My road here, from growing up in Alum Rock to becoming a Tamasha Developing Artist, has been a long one. Like many from my area it began with me misbehaving and getting into trouble with the police. The first people to offer me a chance were West Midlands Mediation, a non-profit organisation from Birmingham, they found me and asked ‘what do you want to do?’ They told me that my behaviour was down to the fact that I didn’t know how to express myself. At the time I thought it was arty-farty nonsense, but what they were offering sounded better than prison so I decided to give it a go. Initially I got into music, I was taught to rap and MC and it gave me a full sense of release. That led to me taking part in the E4 School of Performing Arts show, but they didn’t have any music slots left and the only spaces were for actors. I thought that actors were all extroverts and, as someone with serious learning difficulties and social anxieties, it wasn’t a career I’d ever considered, but I just had to go for it.

During that time I got into trouble again. It was serious, with the prospect of a long sentence, but here’s where my story gets interesting. Through working with West Midlands Mediation I had met David Vann, the person who went on to become my guardian angel. David, someone who to me was strange looking with pierced nipples and crossed legs, turned up again at this potentially disastrous point in my life. He said, ‘you carry on down this road and we can see it’s about to lead you to a lifetime inside a square box. You’ve only got one option left, you’re going to come with me and I am going to sort you out. They’re not going to hear from you again and you’re not going to hear from them again.’

I was only 17 and thought that if David wanted to be my Good Samaritan I’d just run with it. It turned out that he was the head of the part-time courses at the Birmingham School of Acting. The first thing he did was put me on a course during the summer holiday, so that I couldn’t get into trouble. He helped me relearn to read, get my GCSEs and GNVQs, he paid for the courses and then when I was 20 he also helped get me into drama school. Once again it was David who filled in the forms and put in a good word for me. When I started at drama school I was a terrible actor, the worst there. Some of the other guys had been doing it their whole lives. So I dedicated my time there to becoming the best. David’s passion had always been Shakespeare and I fell in love with it too. Particular highlights were performing Coriolanus at The Globe as part of the Sam Wanamaker Festival and an adaption of the Tempest at the Matedero in Spain.

Made In India-Rehearsal-68-SMALL

Made In India rehearsal at The Belgrade Coventry

The most memorable moment of all though came during my very last show at drama school. I was playing the part of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera at The Crescent Theatre. At the very same time my Uncle had just been released from prison and he came straight to see me perform. As with all my family, he didn’t understand theatre etiquette so when the show finished he stormed up on stage, through the curtain and straight into the back stage area. We were both in bits, I was so pleased to see him and he was so proud of what I’d accomplished. It’s one of my strongest memories as it shows how what I’ve done has affected my whole family.

David died in October 2014 and it tore a massive whole in my heart. Since I was a boy I’ve been used to death, murders, cancers, all of that and it never fazed me at all. But this destroyed me. His passing made me determined to make my own theatre company, Strictly Arts. I remembered everything that David Vann had done for me and thought that I needed to be able to give the same kind of opportunity to other people. I have to be able to do that to honour the man who picked me up from nowhere and changed my whole life. He supported me through this very violent journey that I was taking, until I could finally be free.

Strictly Arts is now a springboard company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and I’m a creative associate there. The Belgrade took us on in 2015 and then in 2016 Tamasha agreed a co-producing partnership with The Belgrade Theatre Coventry for Made In India. As part of the TDA programme, Tamasha seek funding to offer a bursary to an emerging artist to become an Assistant Director for each of their national touring productions. The director Katie Posner and the Tamasha team were looking for an assistant and hadn’t been able to find anyone suitable. I came along, we got on really well and we successfully applied to the Regional Young Directors Scheme’s 3-month placement to become the Assistant Director. It’s another instance where my life in theatre has been a big stroke of luck, everything has just flipped into place, one thing after the other.

The full cast of Made in India - Credit Robert Day (2)

The full cast of Made In India – Photo by Robert Day

Being involved with Made In India has been very good for me. It’s an all-female cast, which isn’t something I’m used to, and that brings a very different dynamic. The characters are very strong and the actors also have strong opinions on the subject matter. My theatre company specialises in physical theatre and we therefore spend a lot of time being very boisterous, throwing each other around and testing our limits, whereas Made In India is much more text based. The read-through’s make for an interesting comparison. I’ve been an assistant a few times before but it can be a difficult role because you never know where you stand. Some directors really want you to be verbal and upfront, whereas others want you to be behind them to reinforce what they’re saying.

Working with Katie has been a great experience, especially seeing how subtle and organic she is as a director. Actors want to do what is right for their character but that doesn’t always fit with the way the director wants things to go. I’ve been in positions as an actor where a director has told me ‘listen, what you’re doing is crap, you’re going to have to change it,’ and that can destroy some people. Katie is very subtle in the way that she works actors round to seeing the process as she wants them to see it and helping them take decisions which suit the play, without ever telling them that’s the decision she wants them to make. She’s also fantastic at networking. Because I have these social anxieties, one of the things I fall down on is networking, and Katie has been talking to me about how to approach people in order to get what I need as both an artistic director and an actor.

One of the main reasons I wanted to be part of Tamasha’s Developing Artists programme was because Strictly Arts is now beginning to commission playwrights to write plays on our behalf and I’d never seen that process before. It was so helpful to be with the Made In India cast and the company, and have the writer Satinder Chohan in the room, discussing things tactfully and coming to such a great conclusion in the end.

Ulrika Krishnamurti as Aditi and Gina Isaac as Eva in Made in India - Credit Robert Day

Ulrika Krishnamurti as Aditi and Gina Isaac as Eva in Made In India – Photo by Robert Day

As part of my role I’ve been “seeing in” the shows in Edinburgh and Lancaster. It’s all about making sure the actors are comfortable and that the lighting is the way was during the opening run at The Belgrade, and making any necessary changes. Every space is different; some are naturally darker or have newer lights which are just ready to beam as the wattage is flying through them. Because the set uses a lot of screens it’s also about working with the actors on the transitions, helping them because the space has changed. At this point I’m not really interested in giving actors notes because the show is theirs and they’re doing a great job. I’m just making sure that the staging is working and the audience is getting the best possible show.

I’m also helping create a curtain raiser for the CREATE rural tour in April. It will be a 15-minute piece that people will see before the main Made In India show and I’ll be working with young people from the North East. I love working with young actors, especially those, like myself, who haven’t always known that this is the career they want. I didn’t know that this was something I actually wanted to do until I was put in the firing line to do it. One of the things that I try to standby is that I live, I learn, I progress and then I pass it on. I’ve lived, I’ve seen a whole lot of badness, then I learnt (thanks to David), I progressed in life and now it’s time to pass it on. Of course I want to keep learning too, but my whole existence is because of that one opportunity that he gave to me and if I can do the same for anybody else then I will.

Syreeta Kumar as Dr Gupta and Gina Isaac as Eva in Made in India - Credit Robert Day

Syreeta Kumar as Dr Gupta and Gina Isaac as Eva in Made In India – Photo by Robert Day

It’s great to be able to bring this show to rural places, and parts of the country that wouldn’t normally get to see it. It will be amazing to go and present this show to them and understand what they think or feel about the themes. Made In India is for anybody, woman or man, in particular anyone who has gone through surrogacy, the IVF process or has lost children; it affects people universally. The surrogacy industry in India is very unique, I didn’t know anything about it before, I had no clue that it even existed. It’s a massive industry for India, they’re making ridiculous amounts of money and many poor young women see it as their only lifeline and many are completely put through the mill. I still don’t know where I stand on it, it’s a really tough story.

I owe the RTYDS, Tamasha and The Belgrade a big thank you for all of their support. Not just for awarding the bursary but for seeing the potential in what I do and am trying to achieve. The fact that they have enabled me to work on Made In India means that they’ve seen some level of potential in me and that has given me a big lift. Everyone at Tamasha, especially Satinder and Katie, have given me such an invaluable experience. We need all the support that we can get in this life and I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped me. The biggest thank you, as always, is to David Vann.


Made In India – Interview with Designer Lydia Denno

A short interview with Made In India designer Lydia Denno about the inspiration behind the hit show’s design. By Corey Campbell:


Fundraising – it’s a Long Game

Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy has financially supported the London 21 consortium through their networks funding programme. Valerie Synmoie, Executive Director of Tamasha Theatre, and London 21 consortium lead writes about our training event. 

When I saw that the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme was offering small grants for fundraising training I immediately started drafting an application for the London 21 consortium.

London 21 is a group of five diverse performing arts companies – Tamasha (where I am the Executive Director), Border Crossings, Ice&Fire, Company of Angels, and CASA Festival. The consortium was established in 2013 when we successfully applied for one of the Arts Council’s Tier 3 Catalyst programme grants. With support from Catalyst over 2 years we were able to make significant in-roads into building individual and collective capacity and expertise in fundraising for our organisations, which has had a marked impact on all of us. At the end of the grant period one of the most rewarding outcomes was that all of the companies felt we had hugely benefited from the experience of collaborating and we agreed to continue meeting as a consortium to provide a level of peer support in relation to our individual fundraising ambitions.

The Arts Fundraising opportunity came at a really good time for London 21, we had been meeting regularly during 2015 and had begun to get a much better sense of the gaps in our understanding and knowledge. A key area for all of us was gaining a better sense of how to access so-called ‘high net worth’ individuals (or HNW’s for those in the know) – seemingly the “holy grail” to small organisations such as ours. We were especially keen to find ways to connect to the growing numbers of young diverse entrepreneurs and business people, who might find our work of particular interest. Alongside that we wanted to get a better sense of innovation in fundraising techniques – beyond the cultivation events and galas, which again can be quite challenging for smaller companies which don’t have dedicated development staff.

With the Arts Fundraising grant we commissioned fundraising consultant Adam Gallacher, who came highly recommended and seemed a good fit for our needs, given his work with cultural organisations that operate outside of the ‘mainstream’ (ie. ChickenShed and Cardboard Citizens). We also opened out the training opportunity to a range of other diverse companies – to share the learning and ensure others could benefit.

There were representatives from 10 companies in the end – the five London 21 companies, plus Tara, Kali, Yellow Earth, Theatre Témon, and Paper Gang. Adam did a great job in weaving together an interactive and accessible workshop for the whole group – we covered all the key bases of effective fundraising and looked in detail at ways to reach and engage new potential donors in creative ways.

The benefit of widening out participation was that we were able to share thinking and exchange ideas with a greater number of diverse / BAME-led companies which was really useful and enlightening. The downside however was that it did lead to a slight watering down of the focus to accommodate a larger and more diverse set of needs. That aside however, it was a hugely constructive day and we all took something away from it.

Perhaps for me the single most important thing for me was in reality something I already kind of knew – that there is no magic bullet for fundraising. It’s about setting a clear and focused strategy and meticulously following that through. There aren’t many quick wins – you have to be in it for the long game. And it’s important to be realistic – for example chasing HNW’s may not in fact be the best tactic for many smaller companies – instead we might be better to focus on our core supporters and consider how to cultivate low level regular giving across a broader group, which might in the end achieve the same end goal.

Thanks again to Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy for awarding us the training grant – it has benefitted 10 diverse organisations, which is fantastic!

This blog post was originally posted on http://artsfundraising.org.uk/ on 16th August, 2016.


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