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Best of British: new theatre in the age of Brexit

While 2019 might be the year of political uncertainty, one thing is for sure: Tamasha is firing on all cylinders. Our Artistic Director looks ahead to what’s in store for the company, if not the country…

2019 might have started with crisis and uncertainty at the political level, but it is a bumper year for Tamasha. It’s an odd feeling for the country to be in such dire straits while our company is booming, but if you can peel your eyes away from the political coverage, here is a good news story for a change.

Tamasha is small, we usually only produce one show per year. While we tour that show as far and wide as we can, usually for around 3 months, it’s still one show. Our current standstill funding settlement with Arts Council England, a cut in real terms, prevents us producing any more than this.

The scale of our producing arm is in contrast to our talent development arm, Tamasha Developing Artists (TDA), currently a thriving community of 2,000 (and counting) emerging artists from all walks of life. One of the perennial conundrums at Tamasha is how to cater for so many at the starts or midway points of their careers, all hungry for opportunities, when the professional employment on our own shows is necessarily limited by the scale and frequency of what we can afford to produce in any given year.

I try to be honest with our TDA artists about this. For example, at the start of each annual cohort of the Tamasha Playwrights group I am upfront about this imbalance, and that the chance of us being able to produce any one of their scripts is necessarily low. Not impossible – it does happen – but we try to manage their expectations.

Because of this, part of our training of new theatre artists includes the business of theatre, and especially how to raise their own funds to put themselves in the creative driving seat, rather than waiting for opportunities to be bestowed upon them from larger organisations. It’s an attempt to turn on its head the traditional commissioning model of theatre producing, which renders artists essentially passive. Tamasha asks instead: how can we support you to support yourselves?

Nevertheless, I’ve had an ambition for Tamasha to produce more ever since I was appointed five years ago. This is easier said than done on standstill funding, with touring costs increasing, and a climate of risk aversion around new plays. However, somehow, this year, we are producing not one but seven new shows. Seven! Plus a raft of innovative online projects via new strand Tamasha Digital. I still have to pinch myself sometimes. How have we done this?

Three ways: smart partnerships, strategic funding and by supporting independent artists. It’s taken several years for this detailed, patient work behind the scenes to really pay off, but this year it finally will.

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Nicholas Khan as Raf and Karan Gill as Shazad in Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray.

Last month, we opened our latest national tour, Approaching Empty by Ishy Din, a smart, funny and ultimately tragic story about two old friends running a minicab firm, but which doubles as a subtle allegory for our times, especially the UK’s ‘left behind’ former industrial heartlands which were so gutted by Thatcherism in the 1980s. Ishy’s thesis is that this is arguably where the Brexit vote has its roots. The play has been delighting London audiences at the newly-refurbished Kiln Theatre, ahead of a three–week ‘homecoming’ run at Live Theatre Newcastle, and a national tour until mid-April. While we’ve loved the response down here, we can’t wait to get on a train and see how the play is received by northern audiences, who in a way it is written for. Ishy is firmly establishing himself as the voice of his community, and is maturing into a seriously sophisticated writer of national importance.

Ordinarily, we’d be looking ahead to the end of this tour in April and starting pre-production for 2020’s show….but 2019 is no ordinary year. There are six other shows before the year is out!

Four of them are part of IGNITE, an Associate Producer training programme funded by the Arts Council’s Sustained Theatre strategic fund, which Tamasha spearheaded, in partnership with 7 regional theatres (Belgrade, Derby, Dukes, Mercury, Luton Hat Factory, Contact and Rich Mix), aimed at diversifying the offstage workforce of British theatre. This fund was commendably an open brief to submit initiatives, shaped and led by the smaller, diverse companies who do so much behind the scenes to nurture and launch new artists of colour, and the creative teams which support their visions.

IGNITE was conceived on the back of much discussion as a company. We concluded that if we’re serious about diversifying what ends up on the nation’s stages, then as a sector we need to put more effort into two main areas: playwrights and producers. Playwrights, because they decide whose lives are worth putting on stage in the first place. And producers make it happen.

There are various initiatives for playwrights, not least our own Tamasha Playwrights group, graduates of which have gone onto great things, including most recently accounting for two of the three writers, Rabiah Hussain and Ross Willis, just announced as the inaugural recipients of a £10,000 Royal Court Theatre / Kudos TV residency. And this year, we’re grateful to receive support from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation and Garfield Weston Foundation, which means we’re able to provide regional bursaries for Tamasha Playwrights as well.

For producers there is virtually nothing. To some extent this is understandable; it’s hard to teach producing as theory. Unlike playwriting, unless you have some actual money to spend you can’t really do it. The traditional way to become a producer is to borrow from the Bank of Mum and Dad to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. That necessarily imposes a filter.

Our pitch to the Arts Council’s Sustained fund was that Tamasha is going to take the place of those rich parents and raise the funds for a new generation without those means. We reached out to a consortium of seven venue partners, and together raised enough for four full-time producers to be embedded at four regional venues, with production funds attached.

Fast forward three years and a critical mass of new work around the country is the thrilling result, all hitting our stages in 2019.

At the Dukes Theatre Lancaster, Anna Nguyen is producing the world premiere of Glory by Nick Ahad – a seriously funny and timely new play set in the world of old school wrestling which, while no longer on prime time TV is, contrary to popular belief, alive and well and a thriving subculture in numerous parts of the country, especially the north-west. Set in a scruffy gym which has seen better days, Glory brings together four men at the end of the line who find solace and a newfound identity in a sport which traditionally overlooked and at worst actively caricatured non-white performers.

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Promo shot of Glory

Like Approaching Empty, Glory’s gritty world serves as a subtle state-of-the-nation allegory, though unlike Ishy Din, Nick Ahad finds reasons to be optimistic in his vision of Britain sloughing off the baggage of a racialized past to pass on the baton to a vibrant new generation who will make the sport – and by implication, the nation – their own. Catch it 21 February to 2 March at the Dukes, then on its own national tour to 13 April. (The Glory team might even be able to wave at the Approaching Empty team as they pass each other on the motorway….)

At Belgrade Coventry, longstanding collaborators of Tamasha, Lian Wilkinson has been leading on Under The Umbrella by Amy Ng, another new play, this time looking east to China, and closer to home to the Chinese student population, who are a large presence in Coventry. Under The Umbrella puts the spotlight on the phenomenon of ‘marriage markets’ – where parents of still-single children in their late 20s browse each other’s offspring’s CVs in order to find a marriage match before time runs out on a ‘leftover’ son or daughter. Set in Coventry and Guangzhou, this compelling new play by the acclaimed writer of Acceptance at Hampstead Theatre explores tradition, trauma and triumph in the art of finding love. Catch it from 2-16 March at the Belgrade before touring to 30 March.

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Promo shot of Under the Umbrella

At Derby Theatre, IGNITE producer Rafia Hussain has led on a raft of writer development initiatives while deepening the venue’s relationship with one writer in particular, Atiha Sen Gupta, with a timely revival of her 2009 debut What Fatima Did, giving the play its regional premiere. Fatima Merchant is feisty and strong-willed. At 17, she drinks, smokes and parties. On the eve of her 18th birthday, without word or warning or explanation, she adopts the hijab. Suddenly, to her friends and family she is no longer the Fatima they thought they knew. What Fatima Did is a funny and thought-provoking exploration of attitudes to identity, freedom and multiculturalism in contemporary Britain. The play has lost none of its relevance ten years on, and it’s great to see a new play having a continued afterlife. Catch it from 27 Feb-2 March at Derby Theatre.

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Promo shot of What Fatima Did…

Finally, at Mercury Colchester, producer Dilek Latif has taken on a mid-scale show with commercial potential – a long overdue revival of the Fats Waller 1920s-set jazz musical Ain’t Misbehavin’. Join extraordinary performers on a journey through an amazing period of American musical history, the Harlem Renaissance – an era where musicians were free to experiment with new styles and joints were jumping with dancers, singers and instrumentalists jamming to a new beat known as swing. The Great Depression didn’t stop them then and neither will Brexit now… Catch this feelgood musical at the Mercury from 15-30 March followed by a London run at Southwark Playhouse 19 April-1 June.

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Promo shot of Ain’t Misbehavin’

But there’s more…

After a busy spring we go straight into an early summer tour of a show by one of the independent artists we support throughout the year. Nyla Levy is an actor and writer, who you might recognise from recent roles in Diary Of A Hounslow Girl or Child of the Divide. Her first play, Does My Bomb Look Big In This? draws its inspiration from the Bethnal Green schoolgirls who left for Syria to join ISIS in 2016. During a development phase last year which Tamasha supported, Nyla conducted extensive research with young people in Luton and Tower Hamlets, and interviews with numerous experts including Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer who represented the Bethnal Green girls and their families. The result is a fast-paced, nuanced and surprisingly funny new play about the psychological impact of alienation from modern Britain, which renders some young Muslim girls especially vulnerable to online grooming. Does My Bomb Look Big In This? is a witty drama that exposes the fragmented nature of our society and how far we are from the myth of multicultural harmony. Tour dates are still being finalised but will include a rural touring week in north Yorkshire and a three-week run at Soho Theatre in early summer….

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Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Last up is a full production of a play we co-produced with Paines Plough last year in a stripped down R&D version, I Wanna Be Yours, the debut play by slam poet champion Zia Ahmed. After an ecstatic response from rural audiences last year, Zia has been putting the finishing touches to his quietly masterful two-hander about a Pakistani Londoner and a white girl from Yorkshire who fall in love and try to make things work against the odds. It’s one of the most subtle and sophisticated mappings of internal emotional worlds I’ve been involved with, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, with some gorgeous touches of magical realism from a thrilling new voice in British theatre. We can’t wait to show it off to a wider audience on Paines Plough’s small scale touring circuit in the autumn.

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I Wanna Be Yours

So that’s our plucky brood of seven – look out for them at a theatre near you.

But believe it or not, these are just our theatre productions. 2019 will also see the launch of Tamasha Digital, piloting a new strand of online-only work. Planned projects include a new theatre industry magazine show, Tell Dem, presented by rising star and founder of the Black Ticket Project Tobi Kyeremateng, featuring a panel of guests from across art forms discussing shows, news and trends within the UK theatre scene from the perspective of artists of colour.

We’re also piloting an experimental new audio walking tour, in which inner city communities are supported to give visitors to their area a personalised – and occasionally fantastical – walking tour experience to get them off the beaten track. First up is The Bengali Guide To Brick Lane in which we will revisit our old friends at Mulberry School and work with creative producer and former Tamasha Associate Company Afsana Begum to work up a trial episode. If we can crack the format, it could pave the way for other communities in other areas – The Pakistani Guide to Luton or The Punjabi Guide to Southall, anyone? After trialling it on our doorstep in London we could also start to look further afield to the places we tour.

As if this wasn’t enough, we’re also piloting a new viral video project via Whatsapp, testing out whether or not existing social media platforms can be harnessed to tell dramatic narratives.

We have five new audio dramas in development created by five Tamasha Playwrights graduates doing a residency in the History department of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

There’s also a partnership with HighTide coming up, involving an exciting new project from actress Taj Atwal, and a schools project Re-Fuel in which young people perform their own short plays on top of the Approaching Empty set.

Finally, hot on the heels of the success of 2018’s Hear Me Now compilation with Oberon, we have a new publication from Methuen, Migration Plays, making available for the first time some new plays for young people developed in collaboration with our friends at the Migration Museum.

Plus of course there’s our usual year-round roster of masterclasses and scratch nights...

Why have we gone all out across all our platforms in this way? Partly, the right partners, funding pots and opportunities have come along at the right time. But there is more to it than this. Tamasha has always had an important function over and above just our own touring productions – we are also a stepping stone into the industry for new talent. The roll call of names who have had their first break via Tamasha is impressive and growing with every passing year – Parminder Nagra, Jimi Mistry, Ayub Khan-Din, Chris Bisson, Raza Jaffrey, Sunetra Sarkar, Krupa Pattani, Ishy Din, Pooja Ghai, Iman Qureshi, Ross Willis, Rabiah Hussain, Danusia Samal… the list goes on. Tamasha isn’t just a theatre company, it’s a pipeline for the whole theatre industry. Yes, we do a lot of training, but in our experience the best way to train artists is to employ them, and produce their work.

We can’t do this on our own of course, and we owe big shout outs to our valued collaborators across the UK, as well as the dedicated Tamasha office team who work so hard to deliver all this behind the scenes.

As national political events continue to cast a shadow, and with the future less predictable than ever, it’s only by working collaboratively in this way that, as a sector, we can continue to keep the door open for the next generation, and to make drama which truly reflects the society in which we live.

Whatever else 2019 holds, it will be a good year for Tamasha, and a good year for the next generation in British theatre. We hope that you can join us to celebrate these achievements, and the values which underpin them, whatever rocky times lie ahead.


Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director – Tamasha

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“Approaching Empty is relevant because it’s about us, it’s about what our families went through and what impact this had on the younger generations.”

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Nicholas Prasad as Sully, Rina Fatania as Sameena and Kammy Darweish as Mansha in Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray.

Talking about Thatcher in the North East is like saying Lord Voldemort’s name at Hogwarts… or it is in my grandad’s company. His family were all miners and he saw first-hand how she starved a community into submission, left men without purpose and flattened economies here in the North East. I knew instantly when I read Approaching Empty that I had to be part of the production; listening to Mansha – his politics, his dreams, his distain of Thatcher is like hearing my grandad talk. The great thing about Ishy’s writing, however, is that he isn’t one sided – this is not a play of pure Thatcher bashing. Mansha may echo a lot of peoples feelings of her, but Raf, his counterpart and boss, argues Thatcher was a great visionary who saw the mines for what they were – unprofitable and from the past, and he, like many others, flourished in Thatcher’s capitalist economy.

Approaching Empty puts a spotlight on the the steelworks in Middlesbrough – many North Easterners will have memories of Redcar Steelworks. In fact, only last year I was part of a film, Blood Steel, directed by Tim Goodill, which focussed on the impact and effect closing the steelworks had on Redcar’s community. (Unemployment in 2017 jumped by 16.2% after the steelworks had been closed, making Redcar one of the poorest constituencies in the UK). It’s a community that has been abused by big companies and ignored by the government, leaving it with a broken economy.

Ishy writes about a North Eastern working class community that struggled after Thatcher’s Britain, and gives their stories a platform on a national stage without it being a caricature. The truth in his writing and his voice is because Ishy is one of us – he’s writing about his North East not as an outsider looking in – and you can see that in the play. Too often we get a “wey aye man” as some stereotypical menial comedy role in a show, but Ishy writes nuanced and beautiful characters who are heartbreaking and real. And as Ishy says, the comedy within Approaching Empty comes from playing the truth of the situation, not from playing it for laughs.

Approaching Empty is relevant because it’s about us, it’s about what our families went through and what impact this had on the younger generations. Did our families succeed or were they broken by Thatcher’s politics? What is it like to be the new generation in those families? Can we still chase our dreams or are we hindered by the fears of what our parents and grandparents went through? This is even more prevalent with those, who like me, are in the arts. When I first said to my grandad I wanted to be an actor/director you’d have thought I’d said I’d like to be a mermaid. It talks of multiple generations and their political/ethical outlooks. As an audience we start to look at our own lives and ask ourselves what would we have done differently if our family and livelihoods were at stake? Are we any different from the supposed “bad guys”?. It’s as important a play now as it would have been in 2013, because we’re a country who is heavily divided by politics and scared of economic collapse but we can make good choices for the future.

In Approaching Empty we join Mansha and Raf on the 8th April 2013, the day Thatcher died, in Raf’s taxi office where business is failing. We voyeuristically watch as Mansha, Raf and their families slowly fall apart through their choices and consequences, when good men make cut throat decisions which don’t always play out the way they had hoped.

Catch Approaching Empty at Live Theatre, Newcastle now until 23rd February, before it heads off on a national tour. All dates and booking information.

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Maanuv Thiara as Tany in Approaching Empty. Photo by Helen Murray.


By guest editor, Heather Carroll – Approaching Empty Assistant Director and proud North Easterner ❤️


Hear Me Now: go forth and fight for better

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Photo credits:  Toyin Dawudu.

Thursday 1 November 2018 saw around 200 people come together to celebrate Hear Me Now: a three-year journey that has seen 34 writers work with 85 actors to produce brand new audition monologues for actors of colour, published by Oberon Books. The anthology was edited by Titilola Dawudu in partnership with Tamasha.

Our Artistic Director, Fin Kennedy, gave the audience an introduction on the night. We share that speech with you now… enjoy x

Five years ago I started a grass roots political campaign called In Battalions. It lobbied the government about the effects of cuts to the Arts Council on the development of new plays and playwrights. It all started as an article on my blog which went viral, documenting some daft remarks by the then Culture Minister Ed Vaizey when I met him. The whole thing snowballed into quite a movement within the theatre industry. The report generated numerous depressing statistics about reductions to funding levels and consequent new play commissions – with a particular effect on diverse writers and their stories. These numbers turned out to be quite important. Prior to my report they simply weren’t documented, which made it hard to argue the case at government level, as anecdotal evidence is not terribly compelling. The stats we generated with In Battalions were subsequently quoted by newspapers, at industry conferences, and used by other campaigners and lobbyists including the Arts Council themselves.

I thought of this today because I received an email, five years on, from a member of the Writers’ Guild Theatre Committee to say that she had used the In Battalions report and its statistics only this week in a meeting in Parliament. It is still relevant, and still being used.

Numbers matter. Being in print matters.

Look around you tonight – we have the numbers. And we are in print.

Looking back, I realise that what the In Battalions report did was to act as a lightning rod for an entire sector to express a grievance, and lobby for better. Crucially, it armed a resistance movement with the second best weapon any resistance movement can utilise – facts.

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Photo credits:  Toyin Dawudu.

The principle behind Hear Me Now is the same – if we playwrights can arm our actor colleagues with killer material in auditions, we might, just might, be able to catalyse change. The representations in this book will soon be making an appearance in auditions around the UK. These characters live and breathe and are about to come to life. Casting directors won’t be able to escape – we are coming at them, and asking them to do better.

We help you find a home.

Photo credits:  Toyin Dawudu.

The second best weapon is facts. So what’s the first? Stories. Nothing can move the human heart like a story.

I’m sometimes asked if I think theatre can change the world. I don’t think it can. But it can change people. And people can change the world.

Actors, these are your stories. Your ammunition. A gift from your playwright comrades.

Go forth and fight for better.

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Photo credits:  Toyin Dawudu.

Hear Me Now is a unique collection of over 80 original audition pieces written by and for actors of colour. Published by Oberon Books, the anthology has been commissioned by Tamasha and edited by Titi Dawudu, with a foreword by Noma Dumezweni.

Order Hear Me Now, using the discount code HearMeNow10 and get your copy for £10 instead of the usual RRP of £14.99.


From East End Tales to Mano’s: a community theatre success story

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fin Kennedy
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


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.


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


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