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Crisis, Creativity and Hope

In little more than a week, it’s already become a cliche to say we are living in unprecedented times.

In my last entry on this blog, barely three months ago, I was mourning the defeat of progressive values in the December general election, and looking ahead to five years of opposition, as the UK slid into a post-Brexit malaise of small-minded ethnonationalism.

All that has changed. The coronavirus crisis is a bitter blow to a country already battered by three years of infighting, and the costs and consequences will of course be severe. But there’s also a stark kind of poetry in being thrown headlong into something which forces us to put our recent domestic dramas into some kind of perspective.

It’s my belief that, despite the huge and painful costs of what we are all going through, the very fact of being united in a shared trauma, and being forced to pull together, is what will endure, long after we have buried our loved ones and defeated this virus. Don’t get me wrong, Brexit has still happened, and may yet get worse, in addition to whatever social consequences coronavirus brings. (And the price is already high, just ask any British East Asian).

But biology, illness and mortality do not discriminate. Whatever we end up facing, we will face together, no longer the same country. We will have rediscovered our collective spirit. And in that lies hope.

It’s easy to be despairing. Plenty I know are, and even I’ve had my moments. But despair is not a plan. And it is the job of those of us in the creative industries, most especially the publicly-funded arts (and theatre specifically as its most collective, collaborative form) to find hope in unlikely places, and describe imaginative ways forward. Art creates meaning from suffering.

Let’s start with politics. I was brought up by a single parent mum, a 60s hippy turned social worker. Some of my earliest memories are being taken on CND anti-nuclear marches, to collectivist communes, wacky outdoor performance art festivals, or surreptitiously putting up posters around my school to resist the first wave of state school privatisation (which started in the late 1980s). So it’s no surprise that politics has always been an abiding personal interest.

It’s also the prism through which I view my work and creative output. I believe theatre, and narrative storytelling in particular, is not just an essential part of a democracy, but a way of understanding ourselves – our species, our histories, the forces which have shaped our world – and in so doing creating a space in which to imagine new and different futures.

But even we storytellers would have had trouble imagining all this. It just goes to show how close we are, at any given time, to the possibility of radical, world-shifting change. If I’d been sent a play to read about the events we are living through today, it would have been hard to suspend disbelief. Yet here we are.

Consider, for a moment, the irony of the most hard right Tory government in history becoming the most extreme socialists the UK has ever seen, effectively nationalising the entire British economy. (Its nearest fictional parallel would be Channel 4’s 1988 drama A Very British Coup, which in hindsight is way off the mark!).

The implications of this cannot be understated. There is now a huge question mark over the free market orthodoxy which has governed our lives and shaped our society for decades, namely, that the ideal organising principle of our society should be the wholesale marketisation of every aspect of our lives. Nature appears to have intervened. The free market can’t fix coronavirus – only the state can.

As we are creatures of short lifespans, who live mostly in the present tense, it’s easy to forget that the collective will and action of a people expressed through a state long pre-dates the no-tax, no-state ultra capitalist model of doing the same through market forces. We are being forced to reconsider cutthroat competition with one another as the basis of our social contract. Instead, it is (for the most part) bring replaced by a renewed faith in community, collectivism and cooperation.

Every day brings new developments as we rediscover this age old love of the state as a force for positive social change – from proper funding for the NHS, to state-run railways, to a reprieve for the BBC (a Tory war against it was just gathering pace), to collective organising around education, health, food, culture, and a long overdue recognition that ‘low-skilled workers’ like cleaners, bin collectors, delivery drivers , fruit and veg pickers, and supermarket cashiers are actually essential services which keep our society functioning. Even my street, in a typically atomised London commuter town of busy people mostly ignoring each other, now has a ‘shared library’ in the form of a storage box for swapping kids books and novels.

This is a tectonic shift in our thinking. We will emerge, blinking, into a different world. It’s going to be difficult to go back to how things were.

I predict that this new world will include a resurgence of enthusiasm for public institutions, including the arts. The theatre industry might have been temporarily forced to fall silent, but it’s striking that in times of crisis, we nevertheless fall back on creativity and culture – whether it’s Netflix binges, streaming theatre, online live gigs and listening parties, or taking the opportunity of more free time to write, draw, learn an instrument or another language. Even home schooling our kids is making us more creative. Many cultural organisations are falling over themselves to share fantastic content free of charge. Although not a sustainable model, its short term generosity is responding to a huge demand as we consume music, art, stories – most especially stories – to comfort ourselves and find meaning (that word again) at a frightening time.

Of course, this is against a background of great individual hardships. My heart goes out to those in overcrowded households, care homes, prisons, the disabled, the homeless, the elderly, NHS staff and young people due to sit their exams this summer, to name just a few. These are also the groups we’re going to have to work out how to look after better, once all this is over. Coronavirus is showing up political decisions for what they truly are, pulling away the fig leaf that some things are simply not possible or affordable. Just look how quickly rough sleepers can be housed once the government really put their minds to it.

Closer to home, at Tamasha, we are in touch with many early-career artists whose livelihoods have been pulled out from under them, or who are suddenly having to care for older relatives.

One in particular, a current member of the Tamasha Playwrights group, Shaan Sahota, is a junior doctor in Southall. Although a gynaecological specialist, she has been posted to frontline coronavirus intensive care. Shaan writes:

“My work life has changed quite dramatically since we last spoke – I was ‘redeployed’ to corona critical care last week, all my annual leave has been delayed for the foreseeable, the legal limits on my hours have been lifted by my union and my work rota has changed a lot … Hospitals are a really sad place to be right now, and we aren’t used to the kind of decisions and deaths we are seeing. And it’s one thing to be brave for yourself, but I know we are all afraid we might be putting our families at risk.”

Shaan Sahota

Naturally, her first draft for us is going to have to wait. I can’t help wondering what it will be like after what she is experiencing now.

Another of our writers, Satinder Chohan, author of 2017’s Made In India has different challenges:

“You’ve got childcare and I’ve got high risk elderly parent care! That weird parent-child role reversal that kicks in during one’s later years…now banning them from going out, rather than vice versa. It’s hard to keep my Dad locked in, calm and my Mum’s borderline dementia means we have to keep explaining why she can no longer go to the Gurdwara…Everything a bit uphill at the mo but slowly pushing through, trying to reconfigure, like everyone.”

However, she ends on a positive note:

“With all that’s going on, I think you’re right there’s a real opportunity for a much changed world. While everything has been so absolutely messed up on a political level, I honestly think Earth/mother nature has had enough of us. It’s really enforcing a break we wouldn’t give it, slowing us down, forcing us indoors to retreat, reflect, reset, take care of our bodies, our selves, each other and of course, to take care of the most vulnerable among us.”

Satinder Chohan

We may not be able to control these catastrophic events, but we can control our reaction to them.

One silver lining is surely the chance to catch up on fantastic work you might have missed due to the relentless pace of modern life. As the biggest single employer of dramatic writers in the country, BBC Radio 4 has a new drama out every single day, with each available on iPlayer for 30 days. That’s in addition to a slew of exciting online-only content for new platform BBC Sounds, which I’d been wishing for ages i had the time to explore.

Indie companies are following suit. One of our longtime collaborators Holy Mountain, is releasing audio drama content from their back catalogue every day for the foreseeable future, including some radio plays by yours truly.

As a touring company, Tamasha is less reliant than venues on box office and bar income, so we are relatively lucky. But if our venue partners go bust all around us that is of course bad news.

The Arts Council have been fantastic, announcing within days of the shutdown a £160 million rescue package for companies in danger of going under, and including a strand for non-NPOs and ‘creative practitioners’. This includes writers, translators, producers, editors, educators, directors, designers, choreographers, composers and visual artists working in the publicly funded culture sector.

Individuals can apply for one-off grants of up to £2,500. Check out the details of how to apply announced this week, or download the full eligibility criteria here.

At Tamasha, the office team are working remotely, but we are still here and luckily were mostly preparing for a year of R&D on a couple of new projects, much of which can continue during the lockdown. Sadly, our 30th anniversary celebrations have had to be put on hold.

But one project in particular can still take place online – our first open call for an Introduction to Publishing course run in collaboration with our friends at Hachette. Think you’ve got a novel in you? Now is the time to pitch us! We will read applications and recruit the group as normal, with sessions pencilled for the autumn, all being well. Applications are open now, with a 5th May deadline.

Intro to Publishing

Our Tamasha Digital pilot year last year was timely. Our online content for your listening pleasure now includes Decolonising History, Tell Dem, Loyalty and Dissent, and the original Taxi Tales audio monologues. We’re also looking into securing the relevant permissions for another webcast of our two livestreamed shows Made In India and Approaching Empty.

Decolonising History

Our regular groups Tamasha Playwrights and Tamasha Directors have moved online, prompting us to consider what else we could do remotely. For example, workshops for those who can’t get to our office base in East London, or developing more Hear Me Now audition monologues by pairing up actors and writers to develop new characters online. Watch this space and check the company’s social media for future initiatives.

We are of course a small player in a much larger cultural landscape. It’s been heartening to see such a groundswell of imaginative online creativity – and not just in theatre. A previously profit-driven model has been temporarily abandoned in favour of a community-spirited giveaway, with numerous apps, games, learning resources and other membership schemes being offered for free.

True, none of this particularly helps individual artists looking to create new work, or replace lost commissions. This is why, behind the scenes, we are trying to marshal our sector to start a round of commissioning. It’s harder than it sounds when finances across the sector are in freefall, with companies nervous about committing to new spending without knowing what the future holds. But in principle at least, now is a great time to commission new work which can be developed solo – playwriting in particular, and we hope to have some more news on that front soon.

I’d like to end with a book recommendation of my own. In fact, I have just bought a copy for each member of the Tamasha team. Just before coronavirus hit, I was reading Hope In The Dark by Rebecca Solnit.

I started reading it feeling a bit despairing about the general election and Brexit, and the book’s relentless optimism was quite infectious. Solnit’s whole theory is that because the future is always unknown, and unknowable, therein lies hope. She’s brilliant at picking examples from recent history where unexpectedly positive side effects came out of distressing social upheavals. I remember thinking ‘Well that’s all well and good but what are the chances of a great social upheaval in Brexit Britain to overturn our current hard-right political hegemony?” Then coronavirus did exactly that, and the book seems more relevant than ever. It’s only a few quid on Kindle, and if you’re in any doubt you can read the introduction online for free here.

In her foreword, written to accompany the second edition, Solnit looks back at her original text, written in 2003, and the changes since. She writes:

“If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it is that the unimaginable is ordinary … We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.”

Hang in there. We’ll get through this together. Once the collective suffering is over, the collective change begins.

Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director


The new patriotism

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post for the Tamasha blog called Best of British: New theatre in the age of Brexit. The piece looked forward to the busy year ahead; with no less than 7 productions or co-productions and 3 digital projects scheduled to launch. At the time, the UK was also due to leave the European Union on 31 March.

One year on and, after a short breather for the Christmas holidays, we’re once more looking forward to the year ahead – with the added excitement that 2020 also marks the start of Tamasha’s 30th anniversary year.

The political backdrop remains as dire as it ever was. The result of the December general election is likely to have serious consequences for arts funding, as it will for the whole future of the UK. The only positive seems to be that at least now we know where we stand.

It’s an odd contradiction to be enjoying such a boom as a company while the social and political context for so many in our country remains so bleak.

Still, our 30th anniversary celebrations will take place regardless, and I hope might give Tamasha’s community of artists and supporters some winter cheer at a difficult time.

In what might become an annual tradition, I wanted to look forward to the year ahead once more, announce a few plans, make an appeal for collaborators in our forthcoming fundraising efforts, and reflect on how the cultural sector should respond to the new political reality in which we find ourselves.

2020 so far has lead seamlessly on from 2019, with our seventh and final show of the year, I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed, our co-production with Paines Plough, finishing its triumphant run at the Bush Theatre studio on Sat 18 January. It’s a gorgeous jewel of a show, beautifully directed by Anna Himali-Howard with stunning sound, movement and fully integrated BSL. As a contemporary cross-cultural love story, I Wanna Be Yours perfectly showcases Tamasha’s belief that the personal is always political, and small lives emblematic of the society we live in. Do catch it before it ends.

I Wanna Be Yours. Photo: The Other Richard

After I Wanna Be Yours closes, our official first event of 2020 is barely a fortnight later.

Hear Me Now: LoveSexIdentityAmbition is a week-long festival of monologues taken from the book Hear Me Now: Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour, co-created and edited by Titi Dawudu, and published by Oberon.

As well as performances of several of the monologues, each night the audience will be invited to participate in discussions by a dynamic, high-energy host around what stories for women of colour are being told in the theatre, and how many more stories there’s still left to tell.

Hear Me Now. Illustration: EmKayHaytch

The festival represents the first iteration of a longstanding ambition to do more with the extraordinarily fresh, funny and poignant material contained in the Hear Me Now anthology – with plans to commission a second volume and possibly even a full length show. Watch this space… In the meantime, LoveSexIdentityAmbition plays at Theatre 503 from 4th to 8th February. Book your tickets now.

Festivities officially launching our 30th will start in the Spring, with a re-brand – a new logo and website fit for a grown-up company turning 30. Tamasha will be getting a makeover! Keep an eye out.

In the meantime, many of you will be aware of our flagship writer attachment scheme Tamasha Playwrights, now in its sixth year. The group goes from strength to strength, with a strong track record of launching careers. This year, for the first time, we’ve secured some funding to cover the travel costs of regional writers, bursaries to write, and perhaps most significantly to train the group as workshop leaders, then pay them to deliver playwriting workshops in inner city schools – role models for the next generation of new talent.

Tamasha Playwrights Scratch Night 2019.

I’m pleased to say we’ve also been awarded funding for a second group, Tamasha Directors, a monthly group run by the incomparable Sita Thomas in the same artist-led format of bespoke sessions responsive to the group’s needs. We’re hopeful it will go on to similar successes, contributing to and diversifying the talent pool in the same way its sister group has for playwrights.

Sita Thomas

One of the questions any theatre company grapples with is how to preserve and capture the legacy of its past, when theatre itself is so ephemeral as a form. Since I got this job we’ve been looking for a home for the Tamasha archive – three decades of groundbreaking British theatre history. Well, I’m pleased to say that our brilliant Executive Director Valerie Synmoie has secured a partnership with the Bishopsgate Institute to host this valuable record of 30 years of this company’s extraordinary history and shows. Currently gathering dust in storage, it will soon to be made publically available for the first time. The Bishopsgate Institute holds important historical collections about London, the labour movement, free thought, as well as the history of protest and campaigning. And now political theatre too – we’re proud to be working with them.

Our first full production of 2020 is soon to be announced, but I can reveal will be a debut play by a regional writer who first came to our attention via Graeae’s pioneering Write to Play scheme. The show will be a co-production with Graeae and the Bush, opening in July…. Watch this space for more.

Throughout 2019, we’ve been in a pilot year for Tamasha Digital, testing out various formats for creating online work, including arts and culture discussion show Tell Dem, an interactive smartphone adventure around Brick Lane, We Are Shadows, created with the local Bangladeshi community and with our friends at Coney, and Decolonising History, five audio dramas for SOAS University of London.

It was a pilot year well spent, because Tamasha is fast becoming the go-to independent production company for cultural and historical organisations looking to commission audio podcast dramas.

The first half of this year sees us returning to collaborate with the National Archives. We’ll be working once again with researcher, historian and lecturer Iqbal Singh on two more specially commissioned audio dramas, this time looking at early 20th century migration to British port cities, by Arab and Indian sailors settling there. Let superstar writers Satinder Chohan and Hassan Abdulrazzak transport you to another era, and how it shaped our country today.

Iqbal’s already come up with a title for us – Once British, Always British – a direct quote from a letter in the Archives by an Arab hostel owner to the India Office, protesting how ostensibly ‘British’ citizens from elsewhere in the Empire were being treated once they settled here. (I like how it sounds cheekily Brexit-y until you read a bit closer….)

The second half of 2020 will see our first digital project for schools, The Power of Persuasion, a series of dramatized podcasts about staying safe online, a spin-off from Nyla Levy’s extraordinary hit show Does My Bomb Look Big In This? which sold out Soho Theatre last year. This year we’ll be putting that learning into practice in a tangible way, using our storytelling expertise to address a gap in provision around educating young people about the ways in which they can be targeted by groomers online, in an effort to inoculate them against it. But crucially, doing so in a fun, interactive, character-led format with all the wit and irreverence of Nyla’s original play.

Does My Bomb Look Big In This? Photo: Bettina Adela

Alongside all of this, we’ll be leveraging some of the digital work already generated during our pilot year – particularly the audio dramas from our Decolonising History project at SOAS – with some further ‘gathered listening’ events in London and beyond, including potentially for private commission.

Our Brick Lane walking tour We Are Shadows remains live, for anyone to play at any time. We’ll be using the opportunity of having this permanent presence to curate timed tours with specific groups – journalists, students, tourists, teachers – showcasing how arts and culture can get under the skin of a rapidly changing area, and preserve the voices of the communities most affected.

We Are Shadows: Brick Lane. Photo: Bettina Adela

And these are just the confirmed events. We’ve ambitions to raise money for much, much more – including a 30th anniversary scratch night of new commissions, celebrating the company’s achievements, a brand new digital storytelling project taking place entirely on WhatsApp, and numerous other projects for 2020 and beyond.

Fundraising is a constant challenge, of course, and our anniversary a unique opportunity to grow our community of supporters, directly contributing to our long-term financial sustainability.

Our plan, throughout this year, is to offer up a range of Tamasha projects for groups of sponsors of all levels to cluster around – inviting individuals to contribute directly to the project which most inspires them, becoming its champions, in exchange for exclusive access to the creative team and their process.

After making donations of their own, we’ll ask sponsors to advocate for others in their networks to do the same – harnessing the power and structure of social media to forge emotional connections with donors who remain attached to and updated about the project which they care most about, right up until opening night.

If this sounds a bit labour-intensive, that’s because it is. We’re going to need some help – and are asking all our supporters to drop us a line if you’re up for getting involved.

We’ll need some champions to align themselves with one or more of the projects for which we want to secure sponsorship, and donate a bit of time to help promote them, perhaps shooting a short video, speaking at some of our events or meeting with potential donors in low key socials at the Tamasha office, to describe in tangible terms your relationship with the company, the effect it has had on your life, work and career and – hopefully – inspiring them to help us continue that work. And as with any good partnership, we want also want to hear from you, what you think might be the best way to engage with those you know, and think might support our work.

Tamasha has always been not just a theatre company, but a movement.

On which note, I can’t finish without acknowledging the political climate in which we’re attempting to achieve all of this.

The result of the December general election will have as yet unknown but undoubtedly serious consequences for arts funding, as it will for the whole future of the UK. It sadly also ensures that the values that most of us hold dear will be in opposition for the foreseeable future.

Progressives have – for now – lost the political battle. We will need to draw on each other for support more than ever. Just a glance at social media is enough to see what has been unleashed; the increased levels of open hostility towards minority groups from a newly-emboldened far right.

At Tamasha this is personal. ‘Minority groups’ means our friends, family, colleagues and collaborators. We want you to know that we stand with you. Tamasha is one of your key hubs for the push back against this.

If there’s one glimmer of hope, it’s that progressives have always had the upper hand in the cultural arena. What we do, and how and where we do it, has the power to shape hearts and minds at the grass roots. It’s a fact that almost all progressive political achievements – from universal suffrage, to the welfare state, to same-sex marriage – started life as cultural movements, changes in the hearts and minds of the population, sparked by outrage at injustice.

Pushing back against the prevailing perception of Britain as a small-minded island of imperial fantasists is no different.

Because there is another Britain, waiting in the wings. In fact it’s never really gone away.

It’s the Britain of protest and political struggle. Of tolerance, social justice, and the willingness to fight for what is right. It’s the Britain of the suffragettes and the Chartists, of the NHS and Notting Hill Carnival; of the Iraq War march, trades unions, and the People’s Vote movement.

It’s the Britain of Stormzy and Banksy, of Shami Chakrabarti and Mary Beard, of Kindertransport and Glastonbury.

Closer to home, it’s the Britain of Kwame and Lynette and debbie and Roy and Roy and Bryony and Tanika and Inua and Indhu and Ishy and Matthew and Michael and Dawn and Amanda and Suba and Sudha and Kris and Jatinder – we have the power.

While our allies in politics begin the years-long struggle to regain a seat at the top table, those of us on the ground are primed and ready to go.

Our sector knows how to do Opposition. It’s all we’ve ever known.

This is the new patriotism in Brexit Britain – arts and culture as the conscience of the nation, refusing to let our country go to the wall, and certainly not without a fight.

In his own similar list of the British progressive tradition, rapper and historian Akala included the little known “John Brown Women’s Society from Sheffield, who refused to make manacles for factories which supported slavery, but because they were poor, and women to boot, their names have vanished into history.”

Our work, our storytelling expertise, is a tool – a weapon, even – to put this other Britain centre stage, to ensure that history does not overlook the ordinary people with whom political change always starts. In doing so, we multiply their power.

As the Brexit debacle calcifies into a hard new reality, this nation is going to have to have some difficult conversations with itself. But conversations are what we do.

Make no mistake, this is now a generational struggle. Difficult times are ahead. One of Tamasha’s board members, Anshu Srivastava, an architect, likes to say that Tamasha is at once a port, and a harbour – somewhere to shelter from the storm outside, but also to recuperate and recharge, to get back out there and continue the fight.

Change will be slow, and incremental, one heart at a time. But we – the storytellers – can be at the vanguard.

I hope you’ll join us in 2020, giving what you can – time, money or both – to sow the seeds of a more progressive Britain.

It starts with the stories we tell. It starts with Tamasha.

Fin Kennedy 

 

If you would like to volunteer some time to help Tamasha fundraise during their 30th anniversary year, please drop us a line to register your interest.


Q&A with Ragevan Vasan (I WANNA BE YOURS)

Ragevan Vasan

What is I WANNA BE YOURS about?

RV: Ella and Haseeb. They recount their relationship and personal experiences with the help of Rachael (and sometimes to her).

How did you get into theatre?

My parents forced me into elocution classes as a kid (their experience as immigrants made them think that speaking well could give you confidence and a better chance in life). I’m not sure if it’s still a thing but it was quite popular in the British Sri-Lankan community during the late 90s-early 00s.

But actually, those classes taught me how to read and introduced me to drama, which became my favourite subject at school. I wasn’t a popular kid but when it came to Drama, people would tackle me to the floor to shotgun pairing up with me. Fights would break out, the teacher wouldn’t know what to do. It was havoc, but I was low-key gassed (with bruised ribs).

I didn’t know much about theatre until I was 15. My art teacher gave me a free ticket to see a play which an ex-student of hers was in. It was Danny Mays and the play was upstairs at the Royal Court; they had transformed the space into a dingy hotel room. My mind was blown, I was like ‘rah wow this is a thing? Look at how real it all is. People actually do this for a job? I’m in!’

Saying that, I resisted the theatre for a bit, I thought it was risky. I came back round though cos it made me feel good.

How did you get involved with Tamasha?

RV: When I was around 15 and discovering theatre for the first time I decided one day to google ‘asian theatre company’. ‘Tamasha’ came up and I was like ‘cool- I want to work with these guys. This is the kind of theatre I could take my family too, they’d love it!’

I owe a lot to Tamasha. They were kind of my first ventures into the industry. The company has so many opportunities which I constantly signed up for. I remember taking part in some acting workshop (with directors Iqbal Khan and Kristine Landon-Smith). They were both very encouraging and those sessions were always inspiring. I also signed up to be an ‘observer’ in the development of a Tamasha play. I got to sit in the room and watch the writer, director and some actors develop the play and pitch in my own ideas/thoughts as well. It was such a brilliant way of dismantling the alienation which you can sometimes feel when you don’t know anything about the process of putting on a professional play.  I feel very fortunate to finally be in a Tamasha play, my 15 year old self would be psyched.

What attracted you to the role of HASEEB?

RV: When I read race specific parts, a lot of the time I come away thinking, ‘yeah that didn’t make me feel good about being brown’. But Haseeb is the most emotionally complex character I’ve had the chance to play. He gets to fall in love and the love is reciprocated (also refreshing), and he experiences all the nuance that comes with being in love. It’s also so honest about how we experience race. I remember reading it thinking ‘er this Zia is a brave brother, can you really say this? Have they actually given you the green light on this one?’

What has working alongside Rachael been like?

RV: It’s the first time I’ve been involved in integrated BSL and it’s been flippin wicked. Rachael’s mesmerising to watch. She was there from the start of rehearsals. It was challenging at first because we could see the potential. We weren’t interested in her sole purpose being interpreting, it felt detached from us. We wanted to all tell this story together and once we truly surrendered to that, we found flo.

Ragevan as Haseeb with BSL Performer, Rachael Merry. I WANNA BE YOURS. Photo: The Other Richard

We were also lead by Anna Himali Howard (our director) who is a brilliant collaborator; she understands actors and we created a working language very quickly. It was a very open room where we could communicate any difficulties about the BSL process with ease. I hope all actors get an opportunity to work with BSL because so much of drama is about the difficulty of communicating one’s truth. Having Rachael there makes it so much richer (and easier; she does half my job for me). I’ve probably forgotten how to act without it.

Do you ha​ve a favourite moment in the play?

RV: Nah, too hard to pick.

What was touring I WANNA BE YOURS like for you?

RV: A blur. But a great blur. Performing in a different city everyday for 6 weeks isn’t as tough as I thought it would be (but a lot of that is down to Alice; big up our company manager). The venues were welcoming and excited to have us.

We rehearsed and opened in London and I was nervous about going to cities around the country which were predominately white and saying some of the things my character says. ​To be made aware of your race, to be called ‘white’- it can be quite confronting if you haven’t experienced that before.

A lot of the play speaks directly to the audience and I don’t buy it when people say ‘you never know what the audiences are thinking’. When you look at someone directly in the eye, you can tell whether they’re vibe-ing you or not, and it can completely shift your energy in how you tell that story. And that can feel problematic. Sometimes there would be an underlying feeling of ‘ok, maybe I have to explain myself here’ but that instinctively felt wrong. Like, why am I apologising through these lines? Why am I feeling like I have to re-interpret this text? Ok, there’s one person here who gets it so I’m gravitating towards you but now I’m feeling like I’m not sharing the story. I don’t want to be a spokesperson and the play doesn’t want me to do that either so why am I suddenly feeling that now I’m in an environment which feels a bit detached?

Anna really helped me with that and it always came back to the character’s truth. Getting to make direct connections with audience members is a massive gift. That’s why this show has never once felt the same, which keeps me sane and constantly inspired.

I WANNA BE YOURS. Photo: The Other Richard

I also learnt a lot from conversations we would have with people after the show. Something which came up a lot (and continues to) is how refreshing it is to see the play tackling race and discrimination without anger and with subtlety, tenderness (those kind of words). I sort of get it and I’d think ‘ok, let’s not challenge that because that is your experience’ but ultimately, I think it reveals more about the person and how they want race to be portrayed. Like it is only palatable when communicated in a certain way? What does that say about the way we choose to listen to and interpret ideas surrounding race?

I will admit I absolutely loved being out of London for a bit though. It was calm. I think I might need to move by the sea or into the woods.

Did you have a favourite venue on tour?

RV: Remember that blur I told you about…We did perform in a record-shop-by-day-theatre-by-night in Ventor, Isle of Wight. That place was sick. The audience were sitting on sofas and arm-chairs; it kind of blended into our set seamlessly. It felt very communal.

How does it feel to be bringing the play to the Bush?

RV: For me, it feels like a homecoming. A lot of this play speaks about London and living in this city so if you know, you know (however, I’ve discovered that north-south wars exist in all cities. People are fierce over their territories. We are animals). The Bush studio is very intimate and we’re in thrust; I can see everyone in most directions, there’s no hiding, but that’s completely right for this story. The play feels very clear in this space.

Sam’s or Morley’s?

RV: Sam’s. Morley’s lack spice. Come at me.

 

And ICYMI: Ragevan has just been nominated for an Offie for his performance in I WANNA BE YOURS as Haseeb. We wish him the best of luck and our fingers are crossed! You got this 🙏🏾

I WANNA BE YOURS is playing at the Bush Theatre until 18 January 2020. Tickets are still available, but you gotta run.


Q&A with Zia Ahmed

We asked playwright Zia Ahmed a few questions about I Wanna Be Yours – currently touring nationwide and coming to the Bush Theatre 04 December – 18 January.

Zia

1. How did the commission of I Wanna Be Yours come about?

hello – so in 2016 i saw an open call out for paines plough’s come to where i’m from which tamasha was working with them on for the london leg

you had to write a monologue about where you’re from + read it yourself no actors

this felt like doing a spoken word piece so thought why not apply?

i got picked for the north-west london event at the kiln [ then tricycle ]

read on a cool line up with writers gabriel bisset smith che walker karla williams

+ my sister too mediah ahmed

paines plough kept in touch with me after + applied for the channel 4 playwright scheme

which we got + i spent 2017 with them + this was the play i started writing as part of it

tamasha came in looking for a play for a week long rural arts tour in 2018 around various schools + village halls in north yorkshire which they co-produced with paines plough + off the back of that tour we ended up with the current tour + bush run

2. Tell us what I Wanna Be Yours is about

i wanna be yours is about haseeb + ella going through their relationship from first meeting to the present. they tell the story to and with rachael who follows their story with them + all the people + spaces they have to navigate together + apart

3. Now tell us what it’s really about! Is it a love story or a political play or both? If both how do you achieve that balance?

Emily Stott and Ragevan Vasan in I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed. Directed by Anna Himali Howard. ©The Other Richard

it’s about haseeb + ella navigating through the world as a couple + by themselves

it’s about what home means to both of them

it’s about the things they experience on their own they bring into their relationship

+ the things they experience as a couple impact them as individuals

everything is everything

love does not exist in a vacuum

love is affected by the real world

your race your class your gender your region your faith your work

these inform how you love how you loved how you’ve been loved how you want love how you want to love

+ love includes it all

a love story can’t be apolitical

for me balance comes having everything as one

overlapping connected + not separated into

this part is love

this part is political

this part is + so on

4. How did you decide to become a poet and playwright? And which came first?

poetry is probably the path that got me to this play

but theatre led me to that path in the first place

i was part of youth theatre groups

heat&light at hampstead [ got closed down ]

then oval house drama company

at royal court i met sabrina mahfouz [ sabrinamahfouz.com ] at a writer’s group

she invited us to come to a uk slam

that was my first experience of performance poetry

saw my mate sean mahoney [ seanysense.com ] perform as part of roundhouse poetry collective

[ which is still going + open for anyone under 25 to apply to ]

off the back of seeing sean i applied for the next year

ended up going to theatre less + spoken word nights more

watching + writing + performing

i love[d] the form of it writing + performing your own work

+ the immediacy + intimacy + variety of voices within it all

then the come to where i’m from call out came

it feels like i’ve come full circle

but this time round both poems + plays are drawing at the same time

Emily Stott, Ragevan Vasan and Rachael Merry in I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed. Directed by Anna Himali Howard. ©The Other Richard

5. How does your background as a poet feed into your playwriting? You’re also a Poetry Slam champion – how does being a performer inform the way you write characters?

being part of the roundhouse poetry collective

one of the first pieces of advice from steven camden aka polarbear [ bearstories.org ] was

‘write for the sound of your own mouth’

[ maybe paraphrased but it’s how i remember it now ]

he made clear to us from the start he wasn’t trying to tell us how to write A Good Poem

but for us to write poems which were in our voice for our voice

it was always about us saying what we want to say

i’ve tried to keep that in mind when i write anything

so while this play has characters who don’t speak like i do

it will say things i want to be talked about

there are bits with are obviously rhythmic

but there’s not much punctuation in the script

cos i wanted the director + the actors work out rhythms

a rhythm that is more for themselves

+ it feels more fun that way

seeing the choices they make

6. How much of your own experience mirrors Haseeb’s?

Ragevan Vasan and Rachael Merry in I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed. Directed by Anna Himali Howard. ©The Other Richard

haseeb is a british pakistani poet from north west london

the character is me + the character is fictionalised

experiences i’ve had are fed into haseeb’s story

also experiences i’ve imagined + experiences i didn’t have

so no matter how much or how little is actual happenings

it’s all things i’ve wanted to talk about + dissect

it’s all based on real feelings + impulses for conversations

which i hope can be had with people who watch the play

7. What else are you working on right now?

working on a commission for hopefully a second play

+ i am also on tour with sarathy korwar at the moment

two poems i wrote are part of tracks he’s made

which i’m performing at his shows

he’s an amazing musician + v excited i get to be part of it


This week on the I Wanna Be Yours tour: BSL performer Rachael Merry

Rachael Merry – photo by Rebecca Need-Menear

1. Tell us what I Wanna Be Yours is about.

The play explores the relationship between Ella and Haseeb, and the obstacles that come their way as they navigate societal reaction to their perceived differences. It is a powerful and hugely pertinent story.

2. Why did you decide to work in theatre?

Theatre and performing arts is where I started, having grown up taking part in dance and musical theatre. It was therefore a natural progression to marry my work within the Deaf community with my skills as a performer. I feel incredibly lucky to be working within such a niche area of the industry.

3. What attracted you to this role?

From my first reading of the script, I was overwhelmed by the poetic beauty and richness of the language. The story itself is incredibly powerful and one that needs to be told. I am thrilled to be one of the people involved in making this piece accessible to the Deaf community. I was very aware of the challenge it posed, however was really excited by the visual possibilities within the imagery and how they could be shown through BSL.

Rachael Merry in I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed. Directed by Anna Himali Howard. ©The Other Richard

4. Talk us through the creative decision to name your character Rachael – do you feel like you are playing yourself on stage?

In my role as the interpreter within this story; I am myself. It seemed fitting for me to keep my own name as I am just another person receiving this story from Ella and Haseeb along with the audience. I think this decision has allowed my character to be integral to the piece without interrupting their journey.

5. What was the rehearsal process like?

Incredibly challenging, but also a lot of fun! As a company we have been learning together how the integration may work so in the early stages this involved a lot of play and exploration. Too often, BSL interpretation and access is a last minute thought, added on to an existing piece. It was great to be part of the story from the very beginning and explore how my character and the addition of BSL integration becomes part of the narrative. I worked with two Deaf BSL consultants for both the rehearsal and tech periods which was vital for playing with the language and achieving the correct translation. The play is heavily metaphorical and very dialogue heavy so it was extremely important to have Deaf artists involved at every stage.

6. Do you have a favourite moment in the play?

I don’t want to give too much away! But for me my favourite moments occur when I can hand over the visual storytelling to Ella and Haseeb and my role takes a back seat as their connection is beautiful to watch. There’s also physical movement and some snippets of dance which are a lot of fun!

7. Is there anything particularly special about the way BSL is integrated into I Wanna Be Yours

For me, Anna’s vision, patience and determination for this piece to be a 3-hander has made a huge difference to the connection between the three of us on stage, and I really hope this translates for the Deaf community. Both Em and Ragevan (Ella and Haseeb) have been absolutely incredible to work with and it definitely makes a difference to the final piece. The BSL access is integral to the narrative and is rooted in the telling of the story. I’m really exited to see how it is received and hope we can get as many Deaf audience members as possible to witness this story.

8. Can you tell us about the work you do outside of theatre? 

I am incredibly lucky in that most of my work is connected in some way to theatre and access. As an actor and interpreter I work within a few different areas including workshop facilitation, education and different areas of performance.

9. What do you think Theatres should be doing in order to reach more D/deaf audiences / BSL users? 

The climate is definitely changing and it is wonderful to see more and more Deaf actors and professionals working within on and offstage roles. The more the industry continues to open up to this the better; ensuring access and equality is considered from the start and no longer an afterthought.

Emily Stott and Ragevan Vasan in I Wanna Be Yours by Zia Ahmed. Directed by Anna Himali Howard. ©The Other Richard

I Wanna Be Yours is touring nationwide until December. Are we touring near you?


Decolonising History – What Does That Even Mean?

Actress, writer and singer,  Danusia Samal (Out of Sorts, Busking It), was one of five playwrights who took up residence in the History department of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
Danusia’s audio drama, The Museum, is inspired by what she found, having attended classes and engaged with the students and teachers. Here, Danusia shares the experiences of her ten-day SOAS residency.  

Playwright, Danusia Samal

I was thrilled when back in 2018, Tamasha invited myself and a few other writers to SOAS University to discuss a potential new project. They wanted to create a series of short audio dramas written in collaboration with the university. The theme would be “Decolonising History”.

Having recently started exploring my own cultural history, the idea of ‘decolonising’ really gripped me. Knowing family and friends who have attended SOAS, I saw it as a place where I could learn and gain access to knowledge from all over the world, to things we don’t normally see, hear or learn in traditional British education or the media. When the project was confirmed and I was asked to join in, I was over the moon. Decolonise! Smash the patriarchy! I am going to write something revolutionary!

Having trained at drama school, I’ve never done an academic degree or been part of a university. I loved having my SOAS staff pass (“look at me mum, I’m a University professor!”) and being able to use the library, explore campus, and take in the atmosphere of what I felt was quite a unique university. This must be what it’s like to be an intellectual.

As participants in the project, we were encouraged to enrol on courses on the BA History Course. We could attend lectures, access online resources, and meet and talk to staff and students. ‘Decolonising History’ was always an interesting discussion starter: “What is it? What does it mean to you?”

I became very interested in the conflicts that arose from this question – internal university politics, the struggle of being taught Eastern history by almost entirely Caucasian staff, the inherent colonialism and discrimination in academia, and what, if anything, could be done to solve it.

I also loved being able to go to lectures on things I knew nothing about, learning something completely unfamiliar. Like the other writers on the project, I threw myself into getting everything I could out of the SOAS experience. I filled notebooks with notes, took out hundreds of books, wrote questionnaires for the students, conducted interviews…

That’s when the really big question arose: What the hell am I gonna write about? A particular period in history? My own cultural history? The experience of learning history? Where will it be set? Africa? The Middle East? East Asia? South Asia? The Carribbean? Europe? Do I set it in Britain? At SOAS? And for all my research, am I any wiser about what ‘decolonising history’ actually means and how it can be done?

Like many of the other writers on the project, (I hope they don’t mind me saying this) I fretted and fretted about all of the above. Deadlines loomed nearer and I didn’t have a single idea with dramatic potential. How could I do justice to all the brilliant conversations I’d had, the books I’d read, the lectures I’d attended?

Thankfully, inspiration came. In April, I was lucky enough to attend two one-day workshops: one on writing for radio with Tamasha, and another on story structure with John Yorke. Both of these helped me massively. I began to realise the obvious – I can’t tackle every aspect of this huge issue with one 20-minute audio play. But I can try my best to tell a good story, drawing on not just what I’ve learned at SOAS, but my emotional experiences of being there. If the biography I read on Steve Biko does not end up in my Tamasha audio play, perhaps something I took from it will. Nothing I’m learning is wasted, even if the material does not end up in the final piece. But I can only write a play about ‘decolonising’ as I understand and experience it.

I began to think about storytelling, how in many cultures this is how history is shared, whereas in Britain we preserve the past by making museums and filling them with artefacts.

I then thought about classic stories: Adventures, heists, thrillers. What about exploring how other cultures handle their artefacts through one of these mediums? This is how ‘The Museum’ came about. Set between a university like SOAS and a small village in Syria, it tells the story of Rima, who believes her father’s Museum was unjustly stolen by an English professor, and what she does to get it back.

After a cobbled together draft 1, I worked with Tamasha on honing the idea and creating a dramatic conflict that would translate to audio. We had discussions, redrafts, and I continued to visit SOAS and have chats with students. I was still keen to set some of the play in a university setting.

Then came the exciting bit. After a couple of months of redrafting, we gave our finished plays to Tamasha to be recorded as audio dramas by a group of talented actors. Sitting in the studio, I was thrilled to hear the story come to life. It seemed to make sense! It seemed to contain a lot of the debates I’d had about history without having to cite reams of research I’d done! It maybe even seemed to begin to explore the idea of ‘decolonising history’… but I’ll leave it to audiences to decide that.

 

Illustration by Erin Aniker

Danusia’s audio drama, The Museum, will be played to a live audience at a gathering listening event in Rich Mix, London on Wednesday 30 October. Book your tickets now. Part of Decolonising History – a Tamasha Digital Project for SOAS.

 


Decolonising History: A Student’s Perspective

Decolonising History, a Tamasha Digital project for SOAS, is a thrilling collection of audio dramas created to analyse the concept and viability of decolonisation, as well as SOAS’ history.
Through its efforts to decolonise its curriculum, as well as by contributing key voices in debates regarding the subject, SOAS has led the charge for decolonisation for a long time. However, this is also due to its past as a training college for officers of the British Empire – its own contribution towards colonialism. This series of plays challenges SOAS to look at its own past, so that it can look to the future. One student involved with Decolonising History is Indira Varma, who has just graduated with a BA in History and South Asian Studies. Here’s her experience of working with Tamasha on this project, as well as her time at SOAS.

Indira Varma

The narrative through which the South Asian diaspora has engaged with their history has often been deeply skewed and biased.

Often, the understanding is that the Empire enriched and benefited South Asia in the long term – something which a lot of Indians today believe. My own father even believes that without the British and their infrastructure, South Asian development would have been slowed by 100 years, even though there is significant proof to show that pre-colonial Indian legal and governing systems were much more diverse and advanced than their Western counterparts.

Media has also played an important role in this narrative; films like The Viceroy’s House and shows such as Indian Summer whitewash and glorify the history of the Empire to the general public, usually only providing one perspective on the matter and altering the stance many Brits take towards colonialism and the British Raj.

There is a lack of accountability and honesty in Britain’s mainstream representation of the Empire. This is why it is extremely important for the playwrights from Tamasha to bring historical debates outside of an academic setting – above all, to give an honest reflection on British rule. Being able to have engaging and insightful discussions with Satinder and Guleraana (Decolonising History writers Chohan and Mir) outside of a classroom setting was a very interesting way to gain new perspectives on South Asian history.

A desire to study a decolonised history is one of the main reasons why myself and so many other South Asians have chosen to study at an institution like SOAS. Honest about its own involvement in the histories of colonialism, SOAS has provided me with a multi-dimensional and intimate learning experience. Ranging from the variety of how history is taught to the perspectives from which history is seen, there is no other place that could have taught me about my own country in a more personal and honest way.

Only through the decolonisation of history and acceptance of Britain’s role in many atrocities committed throughout the colonial era, can there be a deeper understanding of the multifaceted and diverse South Asian subcontinent.

Illustration by Erin Aniker

The five audio dramas will be playing to a live audience at ‘gathered listening’ events in theatres and cultural spaces across the UK. Full dates and information

 


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