Category Archives: Schoolwrites

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

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Schoolwrights: A new playwrights-in-schools training scheme

Photo by Phil Adams

Schoolwrights is a new scheme which has just started in MulberrySchool, run by playwright-in-residence Fin Kennedy, new co-Artistic Director of Tamasha. It is a training scheme designed to equip a new generation of young professional playwrights with the skills to become writers-in-residence in urban state schools.

Six professional playwrights have been recruited. They include Alia Bano, who won the Evening Standard’s ‘Most Promising Playwright’ award in 2011, Morna Regan, winner of the Irish Times best new play award 2013, and Rachel Delahay, whose play Routes is currently selling out the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.

All six writers will receive training and development over the course of a year the end result  polished productions which will be presented at leading new writing venue Soho Theatre, Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, as well as touring to each school.

The scheme is a partnership between Mulberry School, Tamasha Theatre Company, playwright Fin Kennedy and OffWestEnd.com, the leading listings site for off-West End theatres. Fin Kennedy has been MulberrySchool’s writer-in-residence for six years and has just been appointed co-Artistic Director of Tamasha.

The ambition is for Schoolwrights to become an annual rolling programme of playwrights-in-schools training, sharing the expertise in this field which Mulberry has developed over the years and it aims to establish a permanent two-way street between the theatre industry and London schools.

Schoolwrights blog by Fin Kennedy (cross-posted from www.finkennedy.blogspot.com)

This is a piece I have been meaning to write for some time, but after last week’s exciting news I thought I would wait a while so that it gets a bit of its own space.

The first public mention of Schoolwrights was actually in the Tamasha press release about my appointment, but regular readers may recall that it is a scheme I have been working out how to run (and how to pay for) for some time. The background is the long association I have with MulberrySchool in East London, stretching back almost ten years now, and taking in seven plays, three Edinburgh premieres, a Fringe First Award, our own London fringe festival and a published play volume.

Each year Mulberry and I have sought to evolve this work in some way, to produce bigger, more ambitious projects, to offer new opportunities to students, and to find new ways for theatre artists to work with them. In 2010, the SpecialistSchools and Aacademies scheme, under which much of this work was financed, was scrapped by the incoming coalition government. So, in 2011, I applied to Tamasha to work as their Associate Artist, in order to continue this work in a new form, and share the costs with a new partner.

The pilot playwrights-in-schools training scheme which we set up together attempted to test out a new model. It went phenomenally well. Even though the scheme was barely able to offer much more than expenses, we had over 60 writers apply for 8 places, proof of the strong demand among playwrights for some sort of managed training around working in schools.  The 8 writers we ended up working with, who included Sabrina Mahfouz, Tim Cowbury, Neela Dolezalova and Amman Brar, each wote touching, funny, quirky and heartbreaking 15-minute plays which Mulberry’s students presented at Soho Theatre.

To their immense credit, Tamasha really put their money where their mouth is. After the project was finished, they commissioned me to conduct a feasability study into how the scheme might be extended across the school year and be rolled out to more than one school, and even how it might become and annual programme of managed training with different cohorts of writers each year. I spoke to schools, colleges, new writing companies and playwrights across London, and put together several draft budgets for how the scheme might operate at different scales.

I’ve been very lucky in the partners this idea has inspired. My friend and longtime collaborator Sofie Mason, who runs listings site www.OffWestEnd.com entirely from private donations, and with whom I set up the Adopt-A-Playwright scheme, offered to back Schoolwrights and help me with fundraising.

Sofie once worked in opera so knows a lot of wealthy people. She specilaises in getting private individuals to donate to the arts. (Adopt-A-Playwright, for example, is run along a Roman or medieval patronage model in which private donors rally round one emerging playwright per year and donate funds to a pot to buy them out of their day job so they can write a first draft).

Sofie introduced me to a former hedge fund manager, Paul Wedge, and took me round to his house to talk more about my idea. This is what I think of as ‘proper’ fundraising! Not an Arts Council form in sight, just you, your idea, and a potential donor sat across the table. It was scary. But I must have done something right because at the end of the evening he pledged £6,000.

That first chunk was absolutely key. With an amount like that in the bank, we were able to go to further trusts and foundations and show that the scheme had some chance of becoming a reailty. Sofie marshalled a few of her contacts and between us we were able to raise further funds from The Writers’ Guild Foundation, the Herbert Smith Trust, and the Mackintosh Foundation. Tamasha also continued to support the scheme by pledging £1,500 of their own.

But towards the start of this year we were still £9,500 short, so I bit the bullet and put in a couple of weeks applying to ACE’s Grants for the Arts. It was the right time to do so – at that point we could show that the majority of the funding had been raised elsewhere but that we could not run the scheme without a top-up. We were successful. In total, we raised £26,000 in two years – a longer wait than we would have liked, but it was worth it.

So what is Schoolwrights?

Schoolwrights is a professional training scheme which sends playwrights into inner city schools, focusing initially on schools in East London. Playwrights are recruited from within the theatre industry and embark on a managed period of training to equip them with the skills to become writers-in-residence in an urban state school. They will have regular, direct contact with the school’s students, working with them to generate creative ideas for stories, and write a short play (15 minutes) in response. This first phase takes place at Mulberry, which is very well-placed to offer itself as a training base for this sort of work. It’s also a lovely, supportive school full of friendly, well-behaved kids, in which to cut your teeth if you’re doing this for the first time.

From now until Christmas is Phase One; a discrete term of work at Mulberry which doubles up as a training phase. I train the writers and pass on a whole host of creative exercises I’ve developed over the years, and support them developing session plans to generate the ideas they need to write the play for their group.

In January, the writers start a new residency in a second, nearby school, this time with more autonomy. They will work in pairs to support one another, though each will write their own short play with their own group of students. In total we have six writers who will work across three further schools. Each will deliver a further 15 minute play at the end of this second residency.

After Easter break, we will hopefully have twelve short plays developed across the four schools, each of which has those students’ voices at its heart. Each school will take responsibility for rehearsing these up with their students, in polished productions directed by their teachers. There is money in the budget for a masterclass for teachers with a high profile theatre director, as well as follow-up sessions where the director will observe rehearsals and give the teachers some notes. All the productions will be off-book and there is a small budget for set, costume and props.

The twelve short plays will then embark on a mini-tour in June 2014. Clearly, twelve 15-minute plays is too much for one evening, so we will present them in different combinations; once in each school’s own theatre, then at Rich Mix in Whitechapel who have generously donated their entire upper floor for one whole Saturday so that we can make something of a festival out of presenting all twelve across the day. And finally Soho Theatre have also offered to continue to support us, this time (we hope) on their main stage.

One of the key principles of Schoolwrights is parity of esteem between the venues and professionals involved. The same plays are presented in East London school theatres, at local professional venue Rich Mix, and at leading new writing theatre Soho. And for the professionals involved, everyone can learn from everyone else: playwrights from experienced Drama teachers, and the teachers from a professional writer and their process. Asking the teachers to direct the productions, rather than bringing in someone external, provides a professional development opportunity which many teachers are eager for, but all too rarely receive due to the pressures of delivering the curriculum.

I’m thrilled with the calibre of writers we have managed to attract. Since they are all now contracted and confirmed, and had their first day in Mulberry last week, I can exclusively reveal that they are:

  • ·         Alia Bano, acclaimed writers of Shades and winner of the 2011 Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award.
  • ·         Rachel Delahay, whose play Routes is currently selling out the Royal Court upstairs
  • ·         Rex Obano, 2010 Alfred Fagon award shortlisted
  • ·         Jane Wainwright, Royal Court Supergroup and BBCWritersAcademy member
  • ·         Morna Regan, 2012 Irish Times Best Play award winner
  • ·         Abi Zakarian, 2012 Soho Theatre attachment scheme.

I admit that this year I made personal approaches rather than solicit open applications, just due to the workload that generates. But in years to come I hope to be able to open the scheme up to unsolicited applicants.

I’m also due to have a conversation with my publisher Nick Hern Books around digital publishing. With the twelve plays next year, plus the eight from the pilot scheme, we will potentially have twenty 15-minute plays written with, for and about London’s young people. I have a theory (backed up by every teacher I speak to) that there is a gap in the market for good quality, well-structured plays which can be read from beginning to end within one school lesson – with time to spare to then discuss and analyse them. And schools which might not be able to afford to commission them from scratch may well be able to stretch to a few pounds to download them as a professionally-typeset digital collection. This could potentially be a really happy marriage – quality plays for schools, available nationwide, structured to support teaching and learning, plus a steady trickle of income for writers.

Schoolwrights is a new way of working. It is a manifestation of one possible solution to the problems surrounding new play Research and Development identified in my In Battalions report. One silver lining amidst the gloom is that fewer resouces to go around means we will need to work together more, in particular with community partners. If we can find ways to stretch and develop our artists, which simultaneously benefit members of the community organisations which host them, then we might be onto a winning formula. And what’s more, we’ll make some great theatre together along the way.

Sofie Mason, Tamasha and I have every intention of making Schoolwrights an annual programme; the UK’s first centrally-managed, quality-controlled playwrights-in-schools training. We will need to be very on the ball around fundraising, but I hope that after this first year it will be easier to showcase what we have achieved, and inspire donors accordingly.

And at some stage, we will need an audience too. I hope to see you among them next June.

http://www.finkennedy.co.uk


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