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

Lyrical MC - Tamasha and Rewrite

Image taken from Lyrical MC – photo by Robert Workman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refuel - A Tamasha Schools Project

Rehearsals for Refuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tamasha Playwrights Intensive Play Writing Week

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:

Monday 8th February
10.30am-1pm  – Quiet writing time and one-to-ones with Fin Kennedy
2pm-5pm – Devising workshop with Complicite director and performer Clive Mendus

Tuesday
10am-1pm – Dawn King workshop and Q & A
2-6pm – Quiet writing time and one-to-ones with Dawn King

Wednesday
10am-1pm – Tanika Gupta workshop and Q & A
2-4.30pm – Quiet writing time and one-to-ones with Fin Kennedy
4.30-6pm – Dennis Kelly Q & A

Thursday
10am-1pm – Roy Williams workshop and Q & A
2-6pm – Quiet writing time and one-to-ones with Fin Kennedy

Friday
10am-6pm – Workshop readings of 10-15min script extracts with director Omar Elerian and 4 x actors.

For more information on Tamasha Playwrights click here.

 


Fin’s Speech at “The D Word” 11 May 2015 – Recipe for change: How to diversify new British theatre

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.
Thank you.


Fin Kennedy’s Westminster Media Forum Speech June 2014

The In Battalions report, published by Tamasha co-Artistic Director and playwright Fin Kennedy and researcher Helen Campbell Pickford in 2013, received widespread coverage and formed a significant part of the recent debate about arts funding cuts, in particular around theatres’ capacity to take risks on developing new plays and playwrights in an age of austerity. Below is a transcript of Fin Kennedy’s Westminster Media Forum speech on how we assess the cost versus the value of the arts, in order for the sector to better make its case to politicians and the public.

“I’ve been asked to speak today because last year I wrote a report entitled In Battalions, about the effect of cuts to the Arts Council on the British theatre industry’s capacity to develop new plays. The results made for grim reading. The report is available online so I won’t repeat its findings here. Instead I would like to address a philosophical point which I feel often gets overlooked in this debate, and that is about the difference between the cost of the arts to the public purse and the value the arts generate for public life.

There is a prevailing ideology you come across when this debate comes up. Phillip Pullman calls it ‘free market fundamentalism’. I prefer the softer term ‘market value’, because it is not a wholly illogical or unreasonable position. But it essentially states that if any play cannot attract enough paying theatregoers to cover its costs then it should be allowed to go to the wall. Let the market decide.

I’m in my first year of a new job – as Co-Artistic Director of a small-scale touring theatre company, Tamasha – and I’d like to offer a few reflections on this.

Small scale theatre tends to confound the market value principle, and here’s why.

A 90 minute new play with 3-5 actors will always play in what we call a studio or black box theatre – small auditoria of around 150 seats. So far, so cheap you might think.

But if you’re going to do things properly – which is what being a professional artist is all about – then costs begin long before show opens. Commissioning a playwright and developing the script is the first step – and can often take place years ahead of first night.

Once the show is cast there are the actors and other professionals such as the director, designer, company manager and stage manager. Then there are material costs, back office costs, producing costs, admin support, publicity – and if the show is required to tour, travel, accommodation and per diems.

All this means that even a modest four-hander play, with three weeks’ rehearsal, a three week run in London and four weeks’ touring can easily cost upwards of £100,000. Given what one can charge for shows of this scale – and even if the show does roaring business (a big if) it will make back on box office perhaps half what it cost – at best.

Small scale theatre is essentially economically unviable. It cannot exist without some kind of subsidy.

But the question we should be asking of such shows is not ‘Did it make money?’ but ‘Did it create value?’ – a far more amorphous concept, and one at which our sector is notoriously bad at successfully making its case.

I’d like to demonstrate the difference between cost and value with a brief example from my own company’s recent output.

My Name is… is a three-hander verbatim play written by my colleague Sudha Bhuchar. The play has just closed in London and Glasgow, where it received a clutch of rave reviews and in Scotland standing ovations. The play tells the real-life story of Molly Campbell, a mixed race Scottish-Pakistani girl who, in 2006, was reported as having been kidnapped by her father and forcibly taken to Pakistan. The truth turned out to be a lot more complicated.

My Name is… tells this family’s story in its own words. It has been a huge success, with audiences in tears, TV and radio interest, and a national tour booked for September and October. Even so, it will not make more money than it cost.

The value in a show like this is manifold. It tells the truth behind a story located along an important cultural fault line which exists in our society. It gives visibility to often-misunderstood or vilified minority groups. It creates understanding in audiences of other cultures with which many share their cities.

Performing in the show has been a stepping stone for all three of its actors, for one it was her professional debut and another has been nominated for an award.

The show was accompanied by workshops in inner city schools, exploring what it means to have a dual heritage in 21st century Britain.

In Scotland, Asian audience members urged me to remount the show for a longer Scottish tour because of the social and cultural community understanding such a show can create.

This makes it sound worthy – it wasn’t. It was funny and warm and heartfelt and human – and desperately sad.

But perhaps most movingly, the real Molly Campbell and her mother came to see it. They loved it. They came back – several times. They brought extended family. After the third time they had seen it, Molly herself said, “It was like going back in time and looking at us all … I got to see my mum and dad falling in love … I was just a little girl who was stuck but not knowing she was stuck and having to choose. I was scared in the beginning that people would blame me for what happened but watching myself being so innocent it’s finally hit me that I don’t have to carry that guilt anymore.”

If there is a price you can put on that, I have no idea what it might be.

My Name is… took five years to create. The project is a quintessential argument for public investment in the arts – ‘market value’ would never have come up with this show. Don’t get me wrong, now that it is a hit, Tamasha are doing everything in our power to exploit its success. It may, one day, break even. But it will never make a profit. Does this mean it is without value?

I’d like to close with a quote from Lorne Campbell, in a recent think piece for the Guardian about whether an obsession with value for money is trumping concerns of artistic quality.

“Perhaps this is the role of the cultural organisation now?” Cambpell writes, “To be the buffer between the market system we operate in and the non-market place that must be created if we are to begin to dream a new more equitable way for us to be as a society?”

So, I would repeat again: the question we should be asking of our publicly-supported theatre is not – or not only – ‘How much did it cost?’ but ‘How much value did it generate?’ for British society.

Thank you.”


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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