A short interview with Made In India designer Lydia Denno about the inspiration behind the hit show’s design. By Corey Campbell:
Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy has financially supported the London 21 consortium through their networks funding programme. Valerie Synmoie, Executive Director of Tamasha Theatre, and London 21 consortium lead writes about our training event.
When I saw that the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme was offering small grants for fundraising training I immediately started drafting an application for the London 21 consortium.
London 21 is a group of five diverse performing arts companies – Tamasha (where I am the Executive Director), Border Crossings, Ice&Fire, Company of Angels, and CASA Festival. The consortium was established in 2013 when we successfully applied for one of the Arts Council’s Tier 3 Catalyst programme grants. With support from Catalyst over 2 years we were able to make significant in-roads into building individual and collective capacity and expertise in fundraising for our organisations, which has had a marked impact on all of us. At the end of the grant period one of the most rewarding outcomes was that all of the companies felt we had hugely benefited from the experience of collaborating and we agreed to continue meeting as a consortium to provide a level of peer support in relation to our individual fundraising ambitions.
The Arts Fundraising opportunity came at a really good time for London 21, we had been meeting regularly during 2015 and had begun to get a much better sense of the gaps in our understanding and knowledge. A key area for all of us was gaining a better sense of how to access so-called ‘high net worth’ individuals (or HNW’s for those in the know) – seemingly the “holy grail” to small organisations such as ours. We were especially keen to find ways to connect to the growing numbers of young diverse entrepreneurs and business people, who might find our work of particular interest. Alongside that we wanted to get a better sense of innovation in fundraising techniques – beyond the cultivation events and galas, which again can be quite challenging for smaller companies which don’t have dedicated development staff.
With the Arts Fundraising grant we commissioned fundraising consultant Adam Gallacher, who came highly recommended and seemed a good fit for our needs, given his work with cultural organisations that operate outside of the ‘mainstream’ (ie. ChickenShed and Cardboard Citizens). We also opened out the training opportunity to a range of other diverse companies – to share the learning and ensure others could benefit.
There were representatives from 10 companies in the end – the five London 21 companies, plus Tara, Kali, Yellow Earth, Theatre Témon, and Paper Gang. Adam did a great job in weaving together an interactive and accessible workshop for the whole group – we covered all the key bases of effective fundraising and looked in detail at ways to reach and engage new potential donors in creative ways.
The benefit of widening out participation was that we were able to share thinking and exchange ideas with a greater number of diverse / BAME-led companies which was really useful and enlightening. The downside however was that it did lead to a slight watering down of the focus to accommodate a larger and more diverse set of needs. That aside however, it was a hugely constructive day and we all took something away from it.
Perhaps for me the single most important thing for me was in reality something I already kind of knew – that there is no magic bullet for fundraising. It’s about setting a clear and focused strategy and meticulously following that through. There aren’t many quick wins – you have to be in it for the long game. And it’s important to be realistic – for example chasing HNW’s may not in fact be the best tactic for many smaller companies – instead we might be better to focus on our core supporters and consider how to cultivate low level regular giving across a broader group, which might in the end achieve the same end goal.
Thanks again to Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy for awarding us the training grant – it has benefitted 10 diverse organisations, which is fantastic!
This blog post was originally posted on http://artsfundraising.org.uk/ on 16th August, 2016.
Tamasha celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. It was quite a landmark. The list of our award-winning productions, and the careers we have launched along the way, is starting to become an embarrassment of riches. From excoriating early shows about the Indian underclass such as Untouchable and Women of the Dust, to pioneering plays about the British diasporas such as East Is East and Balti Kings, to hit musicals like Strictly Dandia and Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral, to serious literary adaptations like A Fine Balance, and more latterly gritty but witty urban dramas from a new generation such as Snookered and Blood, alongside heart-wrenching verbatim plays from true life tales such as My Name is… Tamasha has been at the cutting edge of diverse new British drama for a quarter of a century.
Our alumni from Ayub Khan-Din to Raza Jaffrey have taken up their rightful places as stars of stage, screen and beyond. Tamasha finds the diverse new talent which others can’t – and launches them into the mainstream.
The latest show we are backing is an exciting new development in Tamasha’s ever-evolving portfolio of work. Split/Mixed by Ery Nzaramba represents a widening of our traditional focus on new work by and about the British South Asian diasporas, towards a championing of diversity in all its forms. An African tale about one boy’s childhood and flight from Rwanda in 1994, Split/Mixed nevertheless speaks to our company’s perennial themes of migration, community and identity – and Ery himself is a recent alumnus of our Tamasha Developing Artists programme. At a time when migration is never out of the news, Split/Mixed could not be more relevant.
I first met Ery Nzaramba when he enrolled on an Arvon playwriting course on which I was a tutor. I was immediately struck by his talent as a writer, and unsurprised to learn that he was already a trained actor of some experience. (If you’re quick you can catch him starring in Battlefield at the Young Vic until 27 February, an adaptation of the Mahabarata, and the legendary director Peter Brooks’ latest world tour.)
When Ery mentioned he was developing a show inspired by his youth in Rwanda, my interest was piqued. After helping Ery secure a one-off performance last year at Soho Theatre – including three curtain calls and a standing ovation – I was sold.
Split/Mixed is theatre in its purest form – stripped down, one person in a space, enchanting us with a tale. Tamasha does big, but we also do small. And smaller shows are a great match for Edinburgh.
Split/Mixed is an additional show to Tamasha’s main, annual national tour – that will be Mother India by Satinder Chohan, going into rehearsal at Belgrade Coventry at the end of this year for a January opening and Spring national tour. Touring is expensive and there won’t be much left over. But Split/Mixed is too good a show for us not to back – so we’re trying a new approach, to see if we can assemble a team of private sponsors around the show in order to expand our capacity to support the best diverse new work. At a special fundraising performance at the May fair Hotel on 29 January, we raised £2,600. The subsequent online crowdfunding campaign we have just launched aims to raise a further £5,000.
Taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is not cheap – but it is a good investment. As THE industry showcase for the British theatre and media sectors, new work can get noticed in a way impossible at other times of year. Producers really do ‘go shopping’ at Edinburgh, and London transfers and TV adaptation opportunities abound. It’s this that we need your help with. In this era of cuts to the arts, Tamasha’s capacity is sadly constrained. But Split/Mixed deserves a wider audience.
We estimate that doing this properly, going to Edinburgh for the whole month, and to do so professionally – without asking favours of Ery and his team – will cost in the region of £25,000. The show already has 200 supporters, who gave so generously after being moved by Ery’s story at the May fair Hotel fundraiser. But we have some way to go. Please check out our Crowdfunder page for more about Ery, Split/Mixed and Tamasha and if you can, help us get this amazing show the platform it so richly deserves.
Tamasha is proud to put its weight behind Ery’s beautiful and moving play – and we hope you will too. Please dig deep to help us give Split/Mixed the launch pad it deserves, at the world’s biggest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this summer.
You could be part of the next piece of Tamasha history.
Tamasha Playwrights is a writer-led collective founded in October 2014 by Artistic Director Fin Kennedy and formed of 8 emerging playwrights from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Refreshed yearly, the aims of Tamasha Playwrights ranges from offering long-term career development to providing showcase opportunities to promote the writers and their work to the professional theatre industry.
This year, for the first time, both cohorts of the playwrights groups will be taking part in an intensive play writing week. Between Monday and Friday at the Tricycle Theatre, the week features quiet writing time as well as 5 leading playwrights and theatre makers as visiting tutors, alongside one-to-one advice sessions with Dawn King and Tamasha Artistic Director Fin Kennedy. Omar Elerian of the Bush Theatre will also direct a company of actors in workshop readings of the writers’ work.
In the spirit of Tamasha Playwrights as a writer-led collective everything is scheduled by demand from the group themselves.
The schedule for the week:
10am-1pm – Dawn King workshop and Q & A
2-6pm – Quiet writing time and one-to-ones with Dawn King
10am-1pm – Roy Williams workshop and Q & A
2-6pm – Quiet writing time and one-to-ones with Fin Kennedy
10am-6pm – Workshop readings of 10-15min script extracts with director Omar Elerian and 4 x actors.
Are you a former Mulberry student or a female resident of Tower Hamlets?
Become an acting-member of a all-female theatre group
No previous experience required, just commitment and willingness to give it a go!
An exciting opportunity for former Mulberry School students and women residing in Tower Hamlets to come together, be creative and explore the world of theatre. Whether you would simply like to take up a hobby, grow in confidence, develop your interpersonal skills and make new friends; Mulberry ATC is a fantastic resource.
The Mulberry Alumni Theatre Company (Mulberry ATC) was established in January 2014 and is driven and led by Mulberry Alumni. The company is currently seeking new acting members to join the group and take part in staging a production.
Members will work with a Theatre Director every Tuesday (6pm to 9pm) from 1st March 2016 sessions to rehearse the production for 12 weeks for two evening performances on Thursday 26th and Friday 27th May 2016 at the Mulberry & Bigland Green Centre (MBGC) theatre.
Members will be required to attend taster workshops in February (dates and times listed below), weekly rehearsals every Tuesday from 1st March 2016 from 6pm to 9pm, including some extra evening rehearsals during the performance week.
To become an acting member Email firstname.lastname@example.org and come along to a taster workshop at the Mulberry & Bigland Green Centre (MBGC) Theatre on the dates and times listed below;
- Thurs 11th Feb* 6pm to 9pm
- Wed 17th Feb* (half term) 6pm to 9pm
- Wed 24th Feb* 6pm to 9pm
At Mulberry ATC, we stand for diversity, creativity and personal growth. Our members develop a range of skills and performance experiences which will enable them to bring energy to their work, develop interpersonal skills, and enhance trust in their own creative thinking. Members will;
- Participate productively in shared group experienceParticipate productively in shared group experienceParticipate productively in shared group experienceBuild on their confidence/ public speaking skills.
- Participate creatively and productively in a shared group experience.
- Learn, and explore techniques used by professional actors.
- Develop performance skills.
- Work with professional theatre practitioners/ artists.
- Take part in various drama workshops.
- Have access to subsidised tickets to watch theatre productions at least 4 times a year.
- Make new friends in a positive, dynamic and fun environment.
Rehearsal dates (Tuesdays)
Dates: 1st March – 17th May 2016 (12 weeks)
Time: 6pm to 9pm
Location: Mulberry & Bigland Green Centre (MBGC) Theatre
- 01st, 8th, 15th, 22nd & *29th March
- *05th, 12th, 19th, & 26th April
- 03rd, 10th & 17th, May
*Easter Half term (2 weeks)
Production week – from Sat 21st May 2016
- Sat 21st May: 11am to 6pm (full day rehearsal)
- Tues 24th: 6pm to 9pm (Technical rehearsal)
- Wed 25th: 6pm to 9pm (Dress rehearsal)
- Thurs 26th: 6pm to 9pm (performance 1 to begin at 7pm)
- Fri 27th: 6pm to 9pm (performance 2 to begin at 7pm)
To become a member/ for further information please contact;
Afsana Begum: Artistic Producer
Phone: 07469 790 410
We welcome members who would like to take on non-acting roles whether in costume/ set design, marketing or front of house during the performance night. Please enquire about any particular non-acting roles you would like to be involved in.
Mulberry & Bigland Green Centre Theatre
Cannon St Rd,
Map and directions to the MBGC
The Mulberry & Bigland Green Centre is located on Bigland Street, behind Mulberry School for Girls between Cannon Street Road and Watney Market. The MBGC is approximately 5 minutes’ walk from Shadwell DLR and Over-ground stations and approximately 15 minutes’ walk from Whitechapel Tube station.
Directions to MBGC from Shadwell DLR:
Exit down the stairs and turn right out of the DLR Station on to Watney Street. After approximately 50 metres turn left on to Bigland Street. Follow the road around and continue walking for about three minutes past Bigland Green Primary School until you reach the MBGC gate on your right. The centre is set back from the road.
Directions to MBGC from London Over ground/ Shadwell Tube:
Exit the station on to Cable Street and turn left. Take the next left on to Watney Street, past the DLR Station and then follow the directions above.
Extra rehearsal times during Easter Half Term (to be agreed with director & group)
- Wed 30th March
- Wed 6th April
About Mulberry ATC
An all-female theatre company established in January 2014 driven and led by Mulberry Alumni. The company aims to bridge the important gap between education and the wider professional theatre industry for BAME women, representing a new generation of female theatre makers from the local community of Tower Hamlets.
Its remit is to offer a creative space at the Mulberry & Bigland Green Centre (MBGC) for BAME women in the local community of Tower Hamlets, who enjoy drama, to collaboratively make new and original performances. The group meet weekly to take part in workshops, rehearse for two annual showcase, and work with professional theatre practitioners.
Workshops with leading female Theatre Directors
Josie Rourke; Artistic Director of Donmar Warehouse
Date: Thursday 4th Feb 2016
Location: Donmar Warehouse
Time: 4.45pm (prompt start)
Take part in a workshop with Josie Rourke from 5pm to 7pm before you watch her latest production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at 7.30pm for only £10!
Date, time & Location to be confirmed
Vicky Featherstone; Artistic Director of The Royal Court Theatre
Date, time & Location to be confirmed
Date, time & Location to be confirmed
Hello and welcome.
That rather sweary audio playing as you came in was some writing by none other than the legendarily sweary Ishy Din (who else) from a new site specific community project, Taxi Tales which Tamasha has been piloting with Ishy this year. Real minicab drivers performing monologues in their vehicles. The full audio is available on our website and we hope to be rolling it out bigger and better next year.
So, Tamasha theatre company is 25 years old. You may cheer.
They say at 25 you can no longer blame your parents for anything; you start to grow up. You might go out a little less, stay in a little more, take work a little more seriously, and of course start to go to lots of weddings. You might even be thinking about settling down yourself.
It’s true that this year, 2015, Tamasha did take a big leap, leaving its parents Kristine and Sudha behind and embarking on a new and, so far at least, exciting new relationship… with me.
But can a theatre company’s life stages really be so easily compared to a person’s? I thought it would be fun to find out.
You could say Tamasha was born in India – 1989’s debut play is set there. Untouchable, adapted by Kris and Sudha from the novel by Mulk Raj Anand, hit hard at the treatment of India’s lowest classes. Set over one day in the life of 17-year old latrine cleaner Bakha, it laid bare his daily struggle for survival amid the hypocrisies of the high caste Hindus. Here, Tamasha is full of the rage of youth at the injustices of the world.
In 1991 Tamasha moved house, into a new block of flats where House of the Sun is set, where we meet Sindhi refugees fleeing partition. A second generation has since grown up, hypnotised by the bright lights of Bombay, rebelling against a generation desperate to hold onto the old ways. A restless, adolescent Tamasha is starting to look to the future.
In Women of the Dust in 1992 we see a more overtly politicised company exposing exploitation of illiterate village women on Delhi’s construction sites – and the male bosses who keep them oppressed. This one toured India itself – Tamasha was spreading her wings.
1994 and Tamasha has got married – or at least turned her attention to marriage. A Shaft of Sunlight explored the conflicts that exist in a mixed Hindu-Muslim marriage, against the explosive backdrop of the same fault line within Indian politics.
1995 and Tamasha has migrated – to Birmingham, of course – to have babies, or not. Ruth Carter’s play A Yearning took as its subject a childless young bride from India, who soon discovers the community that was once nurturing becomes increasingly stifling.
Children did finally arrive – seven of them in fact, and from a mixed marriage – in 1995’s smash hit East Is East. Nazir, Abdul, Tariq, Maneer, Saleem, Meenah, and Sajid and their parents George and Ella Khan became seared on the nation’s memory, and Tamasha the proud parent basking in the success of her riotous brood.
1997 saw a sea change in the company’s profile, with A Tainted Dawn invited to open the Edinburgh International Festival, with music by Nitin Sawhney. Tamasha was all grown-up, and revelling in her success.
1998 saw a return to her Indian homeland with the riot of colour and song that was Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral – winner of the Barclays Theatre Award for Best New Musical. Tamasha the young adult was celebrating life.
Hard work and the slog of making a living took over in 1999, with Balti Kings, a faithful recreation of the ruthless kitchens of Birmingham’s curry houses where price wars rage and fortunes are won or lost on the back of the nation’s most popular food. This was Tamasha the businessman, surviving in the cold hard marketplace of Britain’s inner city subcultures.
2001 took a darker turn, with Tamasha’s first affair – and a murderous one at that. Ghostdancing by Deepak Verma saw an adulterous couple commit an act that would haunt them forever.
From 2002 onwards we see an interesting new focus on comedy, Tamasha discovering her funny bone. Ryman and the Sheikh, Strictly Dandia, AlI I Want Is a British Passport and The Trouble With Asian Men took on – respectively – the absurdity of Asian TV channels, inter-communal rivalry in North London dance competitions, satirising Mohammed Al-Fayed and hysterical confessional interviews with a variety of modern Asian males.
But serious political commentary was never far away and A Fine Balance in 2006 and Child of the Divide in 2007 once again took on the chaos and danger of a newly-modern India living in the shadow of partition.
From 2008 onwards we thrillingly start to see some of Tamasha’s real-world children coming through – the first fruits of the company’s pioneering Tamasha Developing Artists programme. Lyrical MC put London’s school students centre stage while Sweet Cider became the debut production by Emteaz Hussain, who so brilliantly puts East Midlands young people centre stage, both then and in her follow-up this year, the extraordinary Blood. Em is a brilliant embodiement of Tamasha’s commitment to new talent and shows a company with a big heart, eager to share its success by nurturing a new generation.
From this point on, Tamasha becomes very much a family home, with two generations living side by side, the ‘parents’ who can produce slick and timely adaptations like 2009’s Wuthering Heights or 2010’s The House of Bilquis Bibi, alongside energetic new offspring like Nimmi Harasgama and her one-woman show Auntie Netta’s Holiday for Asylum; the soon-to-be legendary writer of Snookered, Ishy Din, and the brilliant young actors, assistant directors and designers, all graduates of the TDA programme, taking centre stage in the most recent shows such as The Arrival, My Name Is… and Blood.
So what have we learned from putting this unusually accomplished 25-year old on the psychiatrist’s couch? If you were to meet Tamasha, out there in the foyer, what would she be like?
Well, I think you’d find a softly spoken 25-year old, modest about her achievements, and eager to put those of her children into the limelight instead. You’d find a political heart, angry at the injustices of the world, but with a sophisticated set of skills to get her points across – intellectual analysis, humour, empathy, irony, wearing her heart on her sleeve but with the quick wit of a first-rate mind – and not afraid to turn that analysis onto her own community and hold them to account.
A young woman capable of straddling cultures with the ease of those with mixed heritage; a feminist, a fighter, with no time for chauvinism, hypocrisy or the abuse of power.
She would be a lover of language, and literature, of high art and low; fascinated by people, cultures, dialects and seeking out those overlooked by everyone else.
But most of all I think you’d find someone motivated by love, and by hope. Love for the world, its people, the mad, teeming, glorious mess that is humanity – and an unshakeable hope that we can, should and will do better, if only we were to understand one another more fully, and that theatre is the crucible where we meet to do just that.
It would be an unusually complex, accomplished and wordly 25-year old, if only you could meet her. But the good news is, you can. She is here tonight. She is each and every one of you, of us, her constituent parts.
So I’d like you to join me in raising your glass, and wishing Happy Birthday to the Tamasha on your left, the Tamasha on your right, the Tamashas in front and behind you.
We are all 25 tonight.
Happy birthday, Tamasha.
By Fin Kennedy, co-Artistic Director, Tamasha
Tamasha is a national touring theatre company which puts the voices of established and emerging culturally diverse artists centre stage. 2015 is out 25 anniversary; we’ve been building new audiences and developing new artists across the UK during that time.
I’m going to focus on the text-based new writing sector, and diversity within a BAME context, because those are the worlds I know best – plus I only have 15 mins.
So, how to diversify new British theatre?
In answering this question, we need to first examine the existing infrastructure of new play development, and in particular the key ‘choke points’ in a new play’s journey from concept to production. By choke points I mean the points in the system where a key decision is made about that creative idea’s future, and whether it continues its journey to the next stage on the road to being presented in front of a live audience, or falls by the wayside, never to see the light of day. The points where a creative project can be killed off – however inadvertently – by the decisions of one or two people.
My expertise in this area, by the way, is not only as a professional playwright of 15 years standing, but as a professional playwright who, I realised with some resignation the other day, as I filed yet another rejection letter, has written as many plays which have never been produced as ones which have. And let’s be clear here, plays which remain unproduced do not, in my view, exist – even if they were commissioned and the writer got paid. Theatre lives and breathes in the auditorium; the page is just a blueprint for that event. Unproduced scripts are like the ghosts of unborn children. The smile across the dancefloor which forever goes unnoticed.
I also have the dubious distinction of having had a play rejected by every theatre in London – which then went on to win a big award. That play, How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, is now my best known work, and produced around the world. It’s also one of the most performed plays in the UK by students, amateurs and fringe groups, and in terms of popularity at least seems well on its way to becoming a mini modern classic of existential angst. Yet choke point after choke point meant it almost never saw the light of day. This back story led one critic at the play’s world premiere to wonder ‘how much other gold dust falls between the cracks of British theatre’. I myself have often wondered that if I – a middle class, resourceful, white male graduate – found it this hard to have a playwriting career, how many others without my cultural capital, industry nouse and sheer, over-inflated sense of importance also fell by the wayside before they got anywhere near a professional stage?
So, let’s start at the start. A playwright has an idea for a play.
No, it doesn’t start there. In that imagining, a playwright already exists to have an idea at all. How does one become a playwright? This is a question which preoccupied me for years when I was starting out. I’d done a Drama degree, but it wasn’t as if you opened the jobs page in a newspaper and saw ‘Playwrights wanted’ ads. The whole process is a lot more mysterious than that.
I’d argue the journey begins as early as primary school – with family expectations and encouragement to take part in creative arts activities at all. Choke point number 1. Not much we can do about that, you might say. But actually, if parents from under-represented communities more routinely see themselves reflected on stage they might be more likely to encourage their kids to take part in an activity which actively appears to welcome and reflect them. (A brief aside – someone on Tamasha’s Board is quite senior within the BBC. He told me which BBC department gets the most diverse job applicants. Any guesses? It is News. Why? Because they most routinely put black and brown faces on screen. It really is that simple – but if we get it right, this quickly becomes a virtuous circle.)
But we’re jumping ahead – we’re still in school. The past five years of government meddling – free schools and academies, the English baccalaureate, a relentless focus on league tables, measurable outcomes and economic applications for learning as the sole arbiter of its worth have all served to seriously downgrade arts subjects in British schools. Choke point number 2. Not much we can do about that either – or is there? Several industry-led campaigns from What Next (www.whatnextculture.co.uk), to My Theatre Matters (www.mytheatrematters.com) , to my own In Battalions campaign (www.finkennedy.co.uk/in-battalions) have had some success in moving this issue up the political agenda. The dust is still settling from last week’s election, making this a good time to collectively keep up the pressure. It starts with writing to your MP.
So you’ve got a young person’s interest and attention, you’ve got their school to champion and value the act of making theatre – backed by a government which values the arts – so we’re already in a slight fantasy land. But in any case the next choke point is that diverse young person’s exposure to learning the craft of playwriting. Choke point number 3. Playwriting is first and foremost the act of deciding whose lives are worth putting a frame around. This is why I think if we’re serious about diversifying theatre we need to put our efforts into two key areas: diversifying playwrights and diversifying producers (I’ll come onto producers later). But these are the two key roles who make fundamental decisions about what ends up on our stages.
So how do we educate that generation in the skills of this trade? Yes, many theatres run young writers’ schemes – many of them very good. But is a working-class Bangladeshi girl from East London going to trek across town on her own to take part in a Royal Court group? I’ve tried to make her, and she won’t. Multiple barriers exist around independent access to these offers, everything from no independent culture of theatregoing through to concerns around safety and appropriateness – and even access to transport. Choke point number 4. These need to be tackled via an ongoing dialogue with parents and young people, but the simplest solution for now is to take the offer to them – run our new writers’ schemes in schools. Many of us already do, but it can be piecemeal and ad hoc. The single best way to welcome new, diverse young voices into our profession is to open that doorway and keep it open. A model of long-term commitment to one or two key schools, strategically chosen, rather than a scattergun approach doing one-off workshops all over the country. Going back year on year to win trust and build relationships, augmenting playwriting courses with ticket offers, masterclasses, platform discussions and careers days.
Easier said than done and of course there are funding implications. But this is in and of itself another choke point – number 5.
Sajid Javid, the last Conservative Culture Secretary, was the first to put an emphasis on diversity in the arts. This is to be welcomed. The unfortunate irony was that Mr Javid came at the tail end of a government which had consistently slashed support for the Arts Council, including the single biggest cut for a generation, the direct result of which was the closure of access points for new talent as terrified theatres contracted around their main stages to save costs. If there is one argument for the reinstatement of arts funding in the next parliament, it is about keeping the doors open to a plurality of voices by having the resources to undertake the necessary long–term R and D this requires. My own In Battalions research showed theatres across the UK curtailing education work, closing youth theatres, cancelling open access workshops and writers’ residencies through which outreach might be undertaken – all as a direct result of funding cuts to Arts Council England. If Mr Javid means what he says, I hope he will be making our case, whatever department he ends up in.
So a diverse young person has had some cultural education, they’ve attended some workshops and written something, they’re ready to go and hungry for some feedback. Finally we get to theatres themselves. Those which still have literary departments are increasingly reconsidering how best to spend their ever-more-limited resources in the service of finding new plays to produce. Even in less austere times the ratio of unsolicited scripts being picked up for production was so tiny as to barely make it worth anyone’s while. I’ve been a script reader, and the pay is low, if indeed it is paid at all. I was a pushy, middle-class 21-year old, on a panel with others from very similar backgrounds. Yet I was the first and often only point of contact many new writers ever had with that theatre. Diversity and remuneration for script readers is choke point number 6.
But let’s say you impress our bratty script reader and get asked in for a meeting. What then? If the theatre in question still runs such pre-austerity luxuries as workshops, play readings and attachment schemes, our writer is expected to demonstrate knowledge of this opaque ladder of opportunity and pitch his or her ideas accordingly – with articulacy, passion and persuasion – striking just the right balance of ambition and humility. Imagine doing that while trembling with fear, and a sense of unworthiness. Pitching your work – and indeed yourself (a.k.a. social and cultural capital) is choke point number 7.
But let’s say one of those opportunities comes your way, perhaps an attachment, perhaps a seed commission – and our writer starts getting paid (a bit) to write. What then? Then begins the long road (years) of ‘development’ – seed commissions, meetings, competition entries, shorts nights, attending the right press nights and writers’ groups – all while holding down a non-arts day job while writing in the evenings and at weekends. The holy grail is to start to tip this balance – to consistently make enough from the writing to go down to 4 days a week temping, then 3, then 2 – until the promised land of Full-Time Playwright finally arrives – and all within a narrow window within which our writer can afford to take a few risks, before kids and mortgages make such risks irresponsible. I never reached that point in 15 years. Writing plays to commission has only ever been, at best, one third of my annual income. Choke point number 8.
But let’s say our writer’s play proceeds to full commission – at Writers’ Guild rates – Hallelujah! What then? Drafts, dramaturgy, meetings, notes, rewrites, deadlines, more drafts, more dramaturgy, more meetings, more notes, more rewrites. This is when a commissioned play is most vulnerable. A difference of vision. A cultural misunderstanding. Subjective taste masquerading as objective dramaturgy. All it takes is a whisper – ‘Not for us’ – and the whole thing vanishes in a puff of smoke. Choke point number 9.
But let’s say it doesn’t. Let’s say our diverse new playwright makes it through these hurdles and her play arrives at the fabled Programming Meeting – sometimes known as going ‘onto the grid’ – like a medieval torture method, or the gut-churning denouement to a reality TV show. It is here that the theatre’s Artistic Director, the literary manager and assorted Associates – all subject to the same cultural, educational and economic filtering processes within their own careers – make a final decision on whether or not to put not-inconsiderable resources into producing this diverse new play. One of the key decisions here (other than ‘Is it any good?’) is ‘Does it have an audience?’ But imagine you are the first of your kind. The question ‘Does this have an audience?’ requires a certain leap of faith. And any artistic director will tell you how long it takes to build up audiences for diverse new work. Choke point number 10.
So we’ve made it to production, and a celebratory drink on press night looking back at the past few years. There is one final choke point. Once a diverse new play gets staged, the critical reception it receives is a key factor in that production’s success, and indeed in whether it manages to prove itself, to prove the question mark around audiences, which in turn dictates whether other, similarly diverse work will get commissioned and produced in future. No-one is asking critics to be over-generous to diverse new plays out of the goodness of their hearts, but the diversity of those critics themselves is a whole other issue – though sadly not one we have time to go into here. Choke point number 11.
So looking back at this journey of a play from inception to production, it’s clear we’re talking about root and branch reform of almost every stage of new play production – from exposure to arts and culture in childhood, to coming into contact with professional opportunities during key life stages, to the decisions of funders we never meet, the make up of script readers, literary managers, artistic directors, dramaturgs and even critics – all decide a diverse new play’s ultimate fate.
Where to start in terms of reform?
Well, what about with writers doing it for themselves? I’ve long been of the view that the traditional commissioning model of new play production renders writers – of all backgrounds – almost wholly passive. I’m not a writer who has been fortunate enough to have one or two companies get behind me early on in my career and produce play after play after play. That used to annoy me. Looking back, I realise it made me a better artist. It made me more resourceful, less passive, less reliant on one theatre and its house style, or the largesse of one or two powerful individuals. Most importantly, it forced me to look outside the theatre industry as I struggled to sustain a career – and this led me into schools, and what was to become a ten year association with one school in particular, Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, in the heart of East London’s Bangladeshi community. That relationship not only stimulated the creativity of that host community through the workshops and courses I ran, but also stretched and developed me as an artist, as I acquired a methodology to write with, for and about diverse communities far removed from my own, and to do so with integrity, authenticity and legitimacy. Ten years on, that work has led (directly and indirectly) to the founding of three new theatre companies – two in a school and one in a social services department – four trips to Edinburgh, a Scotsman Fringe First, a festival at Southwark Playhouse, the building of a new 150-seat studio theatre on an East London school campus and seven published plays for young people, with diverse large casts, which schools across the country now regularly perform.
This experience turned me into my own producer – and ultimately an artistic director. It is an experience I now seek to pass on to a new generation of writers. In my current job running Tamasha, I am proud to say these are by and large BAME writers, and a majority young women (some are in the audience today). I’d like to leave you with a few new initiatives we are trialling which I hope might take some of my accidental learning into a new, more strategic phase.
There are four real projects and two fantasy ones.
Tamasha Playwrights is currently an unfunded pilot though very much real – a new in-house playwright-led collective which meets in our offices after work. Not only do we examine the craft of playwriting itself, but also how the industry works; with visits from producers and literary managers, sessions on fundraising, budgeting and how to get their own projects off the ground. The idea is to put these playwrights in the creative driving seat, to become their own producers, reclaiming the power from the long and labyrinthine road of literary departments and opaque producing infrastructures. We’re also training them in how to sustain a playwriting career between commissions. This autumn we will be launching Tamasha Playwrights as an agency of diverse playwrights-for-hire, available for schools workshops, teacher training and bespoke young people’s commissions for colleges or youth theatres. Every year we will refresh this group, and add to the agency a new crop of diverse playwriting role models.
Schoolwrights is an even larger initiative which Tamasha piloted when I was Associate Artist as far back as 2010. As the UK’s first centrally-managed and quality-controlled playwrights-in-schools training scheme, Schoolwrights lasts a whole school year and draws up to 6 local schools together into a network of placement organisations for playwriting residencies, in which diverse, emerging playwrights co-create new plays with inner city young people, for performance in professional venues in productions directed by their teachers. Schoolwrights isn’t cheap, but it is potentially game-changing. Parity of esteem runs throughout – everyone learns from everyone else. We are currently fundraising for a three-year amount to run Schoolwrights both in London and regionally from 2016-19.
Tamasha’s third real project is Taxi Tales, a site specific community project on which one of our star playwrights, Ishy Din is leading. Ishy is a Middlesbrough minicab driver turned playwright, whose career Tamasha launched in 2012 with a national tour of Snookered. Ishy is now in hot demand, developing several theatre commissions as well as TV and film. But he’s always wanted to bring it all back home, and this year, with our help, he has – with a project which involves working with real minicab drivers in Middlesbrough to develop monologues for the drivers to perform to customers in their cabs. There’ll be a London show, and workshops about the process, on Friday 10 July – ask me afterwards for more details.
Our final real-world project comes from my long-time collaborators Mulberry School, who this year founded an Alumni Theatre Company – an ‘old girls network’ of former students making new work, run entirely by and for the Bangladeshi young women of the area. This entirely spontaneous, grass roots initiative has sprung up after twenty-five years of extra-curricular creative arts work, with which I have been involved for the last ten. Its existence excited me hugely because it is a sign that the work is taking root in the community, which suggests it is becoming locally-owned and therefore, hopefully, permanent. Tamasha has agreed to professionally mentor the Alumni Theatre Company, making our expertise and connections available to them on demand as they grow. It is a straightforward thing for any professional theatre company to make a little of salaried staff time available in this way, and I would encourage them to do so where opportunities such as this emerge.
And finally, the fantasies. The first is actually inspired by Mulberry’s Alumni company. If I had all the money in the world, I would build ‘Tamasha 2’ – a shadow national touring company, fully operational alongside ours, with shared offices and entirely staffed with new, diverse theatre artists at the starts of their careers, all of them on a salary for a year, and mentored by a core member of Tamasha staff. There would be a shadow Artistic Director, shadow Exec Director, shadow Marketing and Comms, producing, finance, development – all working together to create their own touring production, perhaps thematically linked to ours, and touring alongside it in a double bill. The costs would be high of course, but a sustained investment of this kind would be an apprenticeship like no other, and meaningfully train and launch five or six professional theatre careers, every year, for as long as it ran.
Perhaps more realistic in the current climate is the final dream: an Introduction to Producing course for diverse young people. In my first Artistic Director job, I’ve been on a steep learning curve this past 18 months, getting on top of co-producing agreements, box office guarantees, tour booking, fundraising and all the other assorted but often invisible back office functions of a theatre company which are as critical to making the work as the work itself. Whenever I learn anything new like this my experience in schools starts to channel my Inner Teacher to ask: How could I teach this to someone else in an eight-week scheme of work?
Yes, some similar-ish schemes exist, I’m thinking of the National’s Step Change programme or the Society of London Theatre’s Stage One initiative – but none are BAME-specific, and none aimed at an age group young enough to still be considering which career is for them. An Introduction to Theatre Producing module aimed at 16-18 year olds is surely not impossible to envisage, or even for an exam board to take on. With its mixture of arts and economics it could form part of not only a Drama A-level or BTEC but also Business Studies, Economics or even Maths too.
If you feel this is worth a further conversation, come and find me. It is something I would love for Tamasha to help set up.
I’ll leave it there, but for one final Thank You to our hosts Nitrobeat and the Unicorn. If this becomes an annual event, I hope to be back to deliver and update. I also hope that it won’t be too long before we move on from talking about the D-Word to the E-Word: Equality.