Four years ago, when I was appointed Artistic Director of Tamasha there were two things I was clear about. I will never write a Tamasha full production. The company simply isn’t there to support writers like me. And second, I am not a director and never will be. These two things essentially underpinned my pitch for the job.
Because I’ll never write the plays for Tamasha, we’ll always need to commission new writers. Because I don’t direct, we’ll always need external directors. My role is much more behind-the-scenes, as a dramaturg and creative producer, working to put others centre stage – much as I did when I first came to Tamasha’s notice for my work over several years as writer-in-residence at Mulberry School for Girls, where I specialised in co-creating new plays with British-Bangladeshi girls in Tower Hamlets; and subsequently via Schoolwrights for Tamasha. My job is to put the structures in place for others to shine.
It was against this background that the idea for Tamasha Playwrights took shape. I’d taught for many years on playwriting Masters degrees at Goldsmiths, Central Saint Martins and elsewhere, and it seemed an easy thing to be able to offer in-house at Tamasha. In the first instance, it wouldn’t even need any external funding. All it would take is my time and the office after work, which was empty from 6pm. The TDA mailing list contained a large number of diverse emerging playwrights, all hungry for opportunities, mostly broke, hardly any with formal training, and all seeing Tamasha as a safe and welcoming entry point into a profession and industry which can sometimes feel alienating and a closed shop.
Tamasha has historically always had this function, as a stepping stone into the mainstream for diverse new talent. Many of those involved in our shows are at the early stages of their careers, and the roll call of those who have gone on to become household names is impressive and growing, from Ayub Khan-Din and Jimi Mistry, to Parminder Nagra and Nina Wadia, Sunetra Sarker, Chris Bisson and Nabil Elouahabi. More recently, rising fast behind them are Krupa Pattani, Kiran Sonia Sarwar, Ishy Din, Emteaz Hussain, Diyan Zora, Pooja Ghai, Arun Ghosh, Prema Mehta and Satinder Chohan. Others who’ve taken part in Tamasha workshops and other training opportunities include Nadia Fall and Madani Younis, now Artistic Directors of major London theatres, as well as prominent artists such as Suba Das, Pravesh Kumar, Samir Bhamra, Rachna Jahdev and Dominic Hingorani. Tamasha has a long and proud history of changing the face of the professional British theatre landscape.
Having had to survive as a freelance playwright myself for almost 15 years, I knew just how tough it was – and I was in the relatively privileged position of being white, male, middle class, university educated and experienced about the pitching, fundraising and commissioning processes. I had personally struggled, at one point even considering giving up writing altogether. For every one of me, how many others must have fallen by the wayside, and their diverse stories fallen with them
At the time, in 2014, I was fresh from the unexpected success of a grass roots political campaign, In Battalions, which challenged the government about the effects of its funding cuts to the Arts Council on new plays and playwrights, especially those from under-represented backgrounds. I was only too aware of the amount of opportunities for entry level writers which were closing down. Yet, of all the theatre artists, playwrights are surely the lifeblood of the industry. They’re also critical to diversity – everything starts with the writer and their vision. They decide whose lives to a put a frame around in the first place, which has a direct impact on what ends up on the nation’s stages.
In conversation with Tamasha colleagues, and in particular outgoing Artistic Director Sudha Bhuchar, we conceived of an approach to training diverse emerging playwrights in the best tradition of Tamasha’s support for new theatre artists, with core staffing costs that could be covered in-house. What we came up with was really quite simple – so simple that I have sometimes wondered why more theatres don’t offer it.
Tamasha Playwrights is a year-long attachment programme of weekly evening sessions in our office, in the model of a writer-led collective, with open applications and free to attend. All writers need to do is send us a CV, letter of application and one full-length play as a writing sample, though it doesn’t have to have been produced. (The submissions window is every September, sign up for the TDA mailing list to be notified.)
Tamasha Playwrights is not a taught course. In our model, every session is by majority request from the participants. In every first session we ask “What do you need? What is holding you back?” and use the answers to plan our year together. In practice, this can mean practical writing workshops on any aspect of the craft, from dramatic structure, to character and dialogue, or stagecraft techniques around using location, managing stage time, writing non-naturalistically or writing for radio. There’s an expectation that this learning will be put into practice, with each writer writing a wholly new play; we set deadlines, offer feedback on drafts and run a ‘group dramaturgy’ process of 30-minute slots where individual writers get the benefit of the whole group discussing and analysing their play.
We also offer more holistic training, about how to maintain a freelance career. One always-popular session is on how to apply to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts scheme (now the National Lottery Project Grants). We also offer training in self-producing, on how to structure a budget for a show and how to manage a small-scale production of your own – the artist as producer. Then there’s the sessions about earning a living between commissions, free training in teaching playwriting in schools and youth theatres, and co-creating work with young people as a writer-in-residence.
There’s also the opportunity for group members to suggest projects to us, and lead on their development with our support, such as looking over a funding application, providing a supportive quote, and office space, marketing or dramaturgy as support-in-kind. We try to offer each and every Tamasha Playwright at least one substantial opportunity during their time with us, whether it’s showcasing some work at a scratch night, taking part in one of our own projects like Hear Me Now, delivering some schools workshops, or working with us on partner-led projects like Loyalty and Dissent with the National Archives or Barbican Box.
At the end of their time with us, writers join ‘the Tamafia’, a secret group of agents and sleeper cells out there in the industry who we might call on at any time to conduct a mission for us. Just like the real mafia you can never truly leave… In all seriousness, we do stay in touch with everyone and as news of our group spreads year on year we find ourselves acting more and more like a writer’s agency, championing our graduates to other companies, forwarding opportunities and call-outs, or being approached by other companies looking to diversify their collaborators. The different year groups also stay in touch with one another long after their time with us and, among other things, become an active network of supportive readers of one another’s plays.
Apart from all the practical things above, there is one other principle behind our group, perhaps the most important one. It is something I have been at times quite painfully aware of during my time as a freelance writer. It is the need to be able to call somewhere Home. To have a company and community of artists and peers who, although they may not be a main source of employment or income, are an artistic community and lodestar, a place of succour and shelter from the chill winds and from the cold hard reality of surviving in the arts marketplace. A place where your creativity can be nourished, your craft developed and your voice heard.
The reason for running Tamasha Playwrights is more circumspect than merely looking for plays we can produce. It’s about investing in a stable of diverse artists we can draw on for a variety of projects, matching them to different strands of our work where we can, particularly community and young people’s projects, and championing them within the industry. We also sometimes get approached by schools or other organisations looking for writers who better reflect the make-up of our nation than those who tend to get the higher profile breaks. Inner city schools want role models for their students; The Migration Museum wanted writers with migration experiences in their immediate family; The National Archives wanted writers able to engage on a personal level with untold diverse histories buried deep in the government records. Tamasha Playwrights is fast becoming the go-to group for a wide range of organisations undertaking creative arts projects with a diverse flavour.
For me personally, more than anything, it’s about investing in a new generation of playwrights capable of taking on the big issues of the day, through the prism of their own diversity – though also capable of writing beyond their own lived experience if they wish to.
It’s about setting up a pipeline for these writers to go out into the industry and beyond, and tell stories and make theatre which looks a bit more like the world around us. It’s about playwrights playing a critical social and democratic function, as one of the main and most important artists in a society, because they curate a space where that society can truly reflect on itself, in all its diverse, messy and contradictory glory – where audiences from all walks of life can meet, walk a mile in one another’s shoes, stop, think, feel and hopefully understand one another a little more than they did when they stepped into that auditorium. In a world where we seem more atomised into warring tribes than ever before, this is surely more important than ever.
Four years in, and our initial hunch about the need for and success of our model of writer-led writer training is starting to be confirmed. In the past 12 months, a flurry of Tamasha Playwrights have had significant breaks within the industry – and it’s really thrilling to see.
Currently, Acceptance by Amy Ng, her debut professional production, is running its full length run at Hampstead Theatre. It’s a story about a gifted Chinese music student who makes a life-changing allegation at an American university. Amy is also under commission at the RSC and Belgrade Coventry. This summer, Rabiah Hussain’s Spun opens for its full run at the Arcola, her second full commission after a monologue for Theatre Absolute in Coventry. Spun charts the relationship of two young, female British-Pakistani best friends and the personal and professional fallout of the 7/7 London bombings. Last year, Asif Khan had a hugely successful tour of his play Combustion, about the effects of a child abuse scandal on the Muslim men working in a garage in a northern British town. Asif also secured a place on the BBC Comedy Lab and has just been announced as one of the recipients of a £10,000 Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme bursary to spend a year on attachment at Watford Palace. Guleraana Mir is producing a tour of her own play Coconut after a successful Grants for the Arts application; Coconut is a comedy about a Muslim woman and white British man who converts to marry her. Guleraana is also under commission at Rightful Place, a new theatre company set up as a vehicle for alumni of Mulberry School (and a former Tamasha Associate Company). Others have made the shortlists for some major awards, including Mel Pennant for the 2017 Alfred Fagon award for her play A Black Fella Walks Into A Bar… a tense two-hander between two mothers, one of whose son is accused of murdering the other in a hate crime. Also this year, Iman Qureshi was shortlisted for the Tony Craze award for The Funeral Director, about a Muslim funeral business taken to court for turning away a gay couple, and the impact on the owner’s own marriage. Prior to that Iman delivered a searingly innovative youth theatre play, Side Effects for East London company and Tamasha Associate Company, Purple Moon Drama, about a drug trial which gives black and Asian young people visions of their ancestors’ past lives. Yet more have got live commissions such as Ayesha Siddiqi at Derby Theatre for Asylum, about a British-Pakistani family who take in a Syrian refugee; Ross Willis and Mahad Ali at Theatre 503, both for plays they first developed on our programme, and Matilda Ibini a residency at the National Theatre. Yolanda Mercy, also a performer, is currently on an international British Council funded tour of Nigeria with her solo coming-of-age show Quarter Life Crisis, a hit at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, which started life under different auspices in our group. A radio version has just been announced as one of the inaugural drama commissions by BBC Radio 1Extra. Many others have been taken on by leading literary agents and we await news of their future successes… All these and more feel like British theatre’s new wave, and this country’s stories of the future.
Despite all this, Tamasha Playwrights remains an initiative delivered with no external funding, offered using Tamasha’s core resources of my time and our empty office. In one sense, this means the group’s future is protected; as we have found, we can always offer it using only the infrastructure we already have. But we have found some limitations. Because the group has no cash budget, we can’t offer travel costs which makes attendance expensive for those living far from our office base in East London. As a national touring company, we have a commitment to nurturing new talent from across the UK, and a genuine need to find and champion regional voices. We have had group members take part from as far afield as Bristol and Manchester, travelling at their own expense every week, such is the value to them of what we’re offering. We’re hoping we might find a funder to help us cover the costs of this, so we can have more writers from further afield who don’t have to foot this bill at a formative stage of their careers.
We’d like to showcase the group’s work more, ideally with a week-long festival of full length readings. The one scratch night we can currently stretch to can really only accommodate 4 or 5 short pieces – choosing which ones get on is always tricky.
We’d like a budget to commission more work, including in innovative new formats such as audio dramas for online podcast, something we have a longstanding ambition to achieve via nascent new strand Tamasha Digital.
We’d like to set up an agency of ‘diverse writers for hire’ – aimed at schools and youth theatres in the first instance, but perhaps developing into a little business which might generate some income for the group through commission.
We’d like to found a Tamasha Playwrights North at a regional venue, to export the model, training and paying graduating members to lead on setting up and running regional branches so that not everything has to take place in our London office.
In time, we’d like to look at replicating the model with other disciplines, such as Tamasha Directors, Tamasha Designers, or Tamasha Stage Managers (we already have a new Producer scheme, including our Sustained Theatre Regional Associate Producers programme – Ignite).
But all that is for the future. We’ll get there, even in the current tough fundraising environment we’re confident that Tamasha Playwrights’ ongoing success speaks for itself and will continue to attract attention (though if you are interested or know any potential sponsors, please do get in touch).
In the meantime, we’ll keep on keeping on. The opportunities will keep multiplying, and we’ll continue to work behind the scenes to put the next generation of diverse playwrights centre stage.
Apart from anything else, Tuesday nights in the Tamasha office are the highlight of my week.