Later this month, on Saturday 28 July, Rightful Place Theatre Company perform the world premiere of Mano’s by Guleraana Mir at Rich Mix. Performed by an all-female community cast of British Bangladeshi women from Tower Hamlets, the play is set in a female-run car mechanics in East London, and has been developed in collaboration with its cast since October last year.
I’ve seen the show and it’s great – smart, funny and subtly subversive – with its multi-generational cast having complete ownership of the story and production. I found its opening night quite moving; the project is particularly close to my heart because, for me at least, the show has roots stretching as far back as 2004. It represents the latest iteration of a long personal history, now embedded at Tamasha, of co-creating new plays with Bengali women and girls linked to Mulberry School for Girls on Commercial Road, E1. It’s a strand of work which it is no exaggeration to say made me the artist I am today, and has left a legacy of theatre-making in the heart of a particularly under-represented community. I’m proud that this work continues to be supported by Tamasha. It also makes for a particularly compelling case study in the power of applied drama in community settings.
Rightful Place is a theatre company based at Mulberry School for Girls with a remit to work with the school’s female alumni and other local women like the mothers of current students. Set up and run by Creative Producer Afsana Begum, herself a Mulberry alumna and employee, Rightful Place was a Tamasha associate company in 2016. Mano’s is their first Arts Council funded show – a big vote of confidence in this unique community company. It’s also testament to what can be achieved with long-term collaborations between professional theatre artists and the diverse communities on their doorstep, when that relationship is entered into as equal creative partners.
It all started back in 2004 – I’d just had my debut professional production at Soho Theatre and was under commission at Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in Limehouse, developing my first play for teenagers. Half Moon have an immersive process to develop their writers, sending them into local schools to run separate projects with local young people, as a way of getting to know the venue’s target audience. I was sent into Mulberry to run a 10-week after school theatre club, in which I worked with a group of Year 10 girls to develop a series of short, lyrical ensemble plays inspired by local newspaper articles, which became East End Tales. My main play for Half Moon, Locked In, set in an East London pirate station, later performed in the school, and the Deputy Head Jill Tuffee, herself a drama teacher, spotted an opportunity. Mulberry was applying for specialist arts status, an initiative under the last Labour government to offer schools who excel in a certain subject area to apply for an uplift in funding for professionals from that field to work in the school part-time.
Mulberry is an exceptional place. Founded as Tower Hamlets Girls’ School in the 1960s, it has been a fixture of the local community for generations. For most of that time, it has achieved extraordinary academic results in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, regularly sending its girls to Oxford and Cambridge, and counting among its many alumni the current local MP Rushanara Ali. It’s no accident that Michelle Obama chose the school to launch her girls education charity on her last visit to the UK as First Lady.
Mulberry has achieved all this by putting a commitment to creative arts, and especially drama, at the heart of the curriculum. It isn’t selective, or a faith school or free school, but a state comprehensive whose student intake has tracked the changing face of East London, and is currently 96% Muslim students of Bangladeshi heritage. When I became their first Writer-in-Residence in 2006, the focus on creativity was undergoing a renewed vigour with a new Headteacher, Vanessa Ogden, working alongside the newly-promoted Jill Tuffee, ensuring a commitment to drama and professional arts collaborations from the Senior Leadership Team.
My brief as Writer-in-Residence was twofold: firstly, to work alongside the school’s Drama and English teachers in timetabled classes to improve results by developing bespoke classes in devising, theatre criticism, textual analysis and to bring in other theatre professional such as actors, directors or other writers involved with shows the students had seen. And secondly, to run a range of extra-curricular projects to stretch and develop the school’s creative practice and raise its profile in this area.
This second objective was particularly open. An after-school Playwriting Club for students was an obvious first choice, but when a staff member stopped me while I was photocopying scripts to ask if I could run the same for teachers, I did that too. (It turns out that teachers make excellent playwrights.)
But the highest profile project came out of my desire to write something new for the students myself. In typical Mulberry fashion Jill Tuffee seized on the idea and suggested we take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. I costed it up and shortly afterwards a budget was approved – we were going to Edinburgh. That first show, Mehndi Night in 2007, became the first of six shows I wrote for the school, four of which premiered at Edinburgh. The process was fully collaborative, with weekly sessions starting in January and the play emerging over many months of workshops and discussions, with all students treated as creative equals in the process and bespoke parts for everyone who wanted to act.
In 2009 we won a Scotsman Fringe First award for our show The Unravelling, which really put our work on the map. The Scotsman, The Guardian and The Herald were particularly supportive. In 2010 we held our own festival at Southwark Playhouse and my publisher Nick Hern Books published my first four plays in an anthology, The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping and other plays. A second anthology, The Domino Effect and other plays for teenagers, followed in 2015. Mulberry’s Fringe First plaque still sits in the school’s reception and is probably the proudest moment of my playwriting career. It had been a privilege to be welcomed into the Mulberry community and to give a voice to their young women, against the odds of anyone from their background featuring on Britain’s professional stages. (Incidentally, Mulberry are returning to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 for the first time in four years with Cry God for England, Harry and St George! – a new show developed entirely independently of me – which is great!)
There was a wider sea change taking place locally too. When I first started at Mulberry, there was real anxiety about the community’s reaction to their young women performing publically, around which there can be cultural sensitivities. Fourteen years ago, hardly any parents came to see the school’s shows (we would always perform the Edinburgh show locally in the autumn term). But with each show we did, more and more parents turned out to support, year on year. The impact on their daughters was obvious – they’d start in January full of shyness and nerves, but come August could hold a sold-out auditorium in the palm of their hands as they totally owned the stage. This new-found confidence permeated every area of their lives. It was a joy to see.
There were wider personal effects too. In returning to school year after year I was able to keep track of students who had been to Edinburgh with us in previous years. They all said what a profound effect it had had, the confidence it had given them in life and work, and what a unique experience it had been for young people who had rarely left Tower Hamlets, and which they would remember for the rest of their lives, empowering them in job interviews and other challenging situations, irrespective of whether or not they went into an arts career. By now the parents were fully on board too, with a coach-load coming to Southwark Playhouse in 2010, to Soho Theatre in 2011, and some even making the trip to Edinburgh with us in 2014. But perhaps most excitingly, construction work had started on the school’s very own theatre on-site – a state-of-the-art 150-seat studio, ensuring the means of production were now fully within the community’s control (and which was where I saw Mano’s last month).
But back in 2010 things were not so rosy. One of my measures of success for what I had started at Mulberry was whether it had a life beyond my involvement. I had always been clear that ultimately I wanted the work to become locally-owned and led, for Mulberry Theatre Company to be able to self-represent, run fully by local Bengali women. Back then, that seemed like a pipe dream. A general election that year saw the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government come to power, and one of the first things they did was scrap the Specialist Schools scheme which paid for my salary. Mulberry and I had to become more creative about how we were going to work together.
It was around this time that Tamasha, under then-Artistic Directors Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith, were advertising for Associate Artists through the Tamasha Developing Artists (TDA) programme. When I rang up the office and asked what they wanted these Associate Artists to do, Tamasha rather brilliantly said “Suggest something”. So I suggested a pilot playwrights-in-schools training scheme, opening Mulberry up to a new generation of diverse emerging writers sourced via an open call to the TDA network. We were swamped with applications – it turns out playwrights are crying out to do this work. After an initial pilot phase, the project eventually became Schoolwrights, which for a while was Tamasha’s flagship education programme: TDA writers would co-create new short plays in Mulberry and four other schools, and stage these performances at Rich Mix and Soho Theatre.
Shortly afterwards, Kristine Landon-Smith stepped down, and before going, rang me up to invite me to apply for her job. No-one was more surprised than me when I actually got it – but my appointment opened up a whole new phase in the relationship between Mulberry School and the professional theatre industry. I wasn’t on my own any more but had the infrastructure of an Arts Council funded touring company with an extraordinary track record of championing British Asian artists and stories at the grass roots. All of a sudden, things were looking up.
What’s more, Mulberry had been nurturing a new champion. Afsana Begum had started as Administrative Assistant in the school in 2008, and been a crucial Company Manager behind the scenes on our 2008 and 2009 Edinburgh trips, as well as on the 2010 Southwark Playhouse festival. A brilliant all-rounder, Afsana acts, directs, writes and designs sets and costumes as well as creative producing. A local resident and alumna of the school, she had been quietly absorbing everything she needed to know about theatre production to take the school’s work into a new and exciting phase.
When Afsana set up Rightful Place, it was initially in her own time as a focus for herself and her peers locally to take part in workshops and create work informally, to keep their creativity alive while engaged in parenting or non-arts jobs since leaving school. When Tamasha started an Associate Company attachment scheme in 2016, Rightful Place was one of the first we reached out to. Over a year, we made staff time and expertise available to advise Afsana on her company’s development, brokering industry introductions, structuring her ideas into achievable projects and making her first Arts Council funding application.
Alongside this, I had set up Tamasha Playwrights, a consolidation of my years spent teaching on Playwriting Masters degrees into a writer-led collective and engine room for new ideas and diverse writer training at the heart of Tamasha. Tamasha Playwrights has gone from strength to strength, with Asif Khan, Yolanda Mercy, Iman Qureshi, Matilda Ibini, Amy Ng, Rabiah Hussain and Guleraana Mir among its alumni. The group was a natural first port of call to find a writer when Afsana secured her first Arts Council grant to commission a new play.
And so it was that Mano’s was born. It’s a proper family affair, written by a Tamasha Playwright, with direction from another Tamasha artist Mina Barber, support from our office staff and our landlords Rich Mix, and even some former Mulberry students who have been to Edinburgh among its cast and crew. Guleraana and Mina have done us proud, and are carrying a very important torch for me personally.
This is why I was a bit emotional at their opening last month. Rightful Place producing Mano’s is the achievement of a long-held ambition, a sign that professional theatre practice is becoming locally owned and led by the women of Tower Hamlets. It’s an extraordinary evolution for the parents of students to be creating their own work, and for their daughters to be coming to see them, rather than the other way around.
So if you are free on Saturday 28 July, do come along and support them. In a way, this show has been 14 years in the making, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. But I have a suspicion that Rightful Place theatre company might be influencing the professional theatre scene for a lot longer than that.
Artistic Director, Tamasha
Mano’s by Guleraana Mir, directed by Mina Barber and produced by Afsana Begum for Rightful Place Theatre Company performs at Rich Mix on Sat 28 July, 6.45pm. More info and tickets here