Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I'm pretty flat out (again) this month on a new play, so not able to blog as much as I do normally. But here's a titbit to keep you happy - the text of my little speech at the academic conference I went to last week. The panel I spoke on was called Fast and Dirty or In Deep: What is Creative Research? So that's why it focuses on research. For those of you that know me or my work, it probably won't tell you anything new, but for those that don't it might be an interesting summary.

It's not all that academic, it just sort of describes what I do, but I that seems to interest academics so that's why they shoved me up there. In fact it's your lucky day because this is an extended version - on the day I was limited to 10 minutes so there wasn't time to read the extract from Mehndi Night. There were three other speakers too and all sorts of interesting debates afterwards, but obviously I didn't write all those down so can't put them here. But sometimes they transcribe these things and put them online so if you're interested keep an eye on the conference website to see if anything pops up.

Anyway here's the speech. It picks up from Liz Tomlin's introduction of me, which mentions at the end that I'm a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths and Boston University:

"Thanks Liz. I’d forgotten about that last bit, it sounds very grand, like I stand and deliver lectures which I don’t do at all; they’re more workshops as my approach is very practical. But it’s lovely to be asked here today to such an academic occasion. The standard of speakers has been remarkably high and the quality of debate and ideas flying around so impressive that I feel rather humbled. I’m reluctant to over-intellectualise what I do, partly because other people do it better than me (many of whom are here today) and partly because I don’t feel there’s any great secret to playwriting. That said, I suppose part of me is also slightly nervous about analysing things in case I inadvertently kill something off important and can no longer do it.

But the fact remains that I am a very research-led writer. Someone recently described me as ‘method writer’ and before that someone else called me an ‘investigative playwright’. But whatever you choose to call it, every play I’ve written has involved an extensive research period, usually taking months, and usually somewhat obsessive. But this research has taken different forms, and evolved as my own craft has evolved, tempered and shaped by experience. Over the years I’ve crystallised my own ideas about the nature and purpose of ‘creative research’, and thinking back over this process in preparation for today, it occurred to me that it contains a sort of narrative of its own. So I thought it might be relevant to talk a bit about each of my plays in chronological order to show this process in action. The good news is that as I’m still a relatively young writer I’ve only done about four plays, so it’ll be a mercifully brief potted history.

My first play PROTECTION was about a team of social workers. My Mum is a social worker so I had the benefit (if you can call it that) of having grown up with social work as an offstage presence in my life, but I knew very little about what it actually involved, so I set off to find out. At this stage I was very influenced by the process which David Hare outlined in his book Asking Around, about researching his state of the nation trilogy at the National in the early 90s. It seemed necessary to immerse oneself in a world in order to pursue some sort of objective factual truth, and to undertake lots of interviews. That very much appealed to me at the time because in another life I would have been an investigative journalist, but it also seemed to provide a sort of crutch to bridge the gap between my inexperience and my creative ambitions. As an audience member I’ve always had a hunger to see plays which offer me unique insights into other worlds, and naturally these are also the kinds of plays I want to write. But in practice this has always meant writing about subjects I know very little about, and so a period of factual research has to come first. In PROTECTION this was very much about getting to grips with child protection law and quite dry procedural issues. But one recurring theme that this part of the process did unearth was the destructive impact which private sector management techniques were having in the public sector. Strategies originally designed to manage money and resources were being applied to people; social workers, clients, care home staff. This was to go on to become the political heart of the play.

Then the interviews with social workers added the next level. I spoke to idealistic trainees, cynical seasoned workers at the coal face, weary team managers, old school social workers approaching retirement, social policy lecturers and local government officials. I spent a day in a care home talking to the residential staff and meeting some of the kids. The worker’s personal stories about the emotional impact of such gruelling and often distressing work are what gave the play its emotional heart and lifted it above documentary. Their beliefs, impulses and struggles provided archetypal drives for characters, and imbued the play with credible motives for action, which then underpinned all my imaginative work from there on in. But another happy side effect to the interviews grew out of my obsession about typing them up word for word. For an hour’s interview this takes roughly four hours and is painful in the extreme, but its benefits are immeasurable. The act of committing to paper every nuance, hesitation, tangential thought, and grammatical quirk of an interviewee somehow ‘locked’ their way of speaking into my mind in such a way that I found I was able to reproduce it at will when I came to write dialogue. (This technique was to become invaluable in later plays when I was tackling inner city subcultures with their own pantheon of slang and idiosyncrasy.) So the three elements of factual, emotional, and linguistic research combined to create – I hope - an authentic piece of social realist theatre.

Things were very different for my second play HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY AND NEVER BE FOUND. If PROTECTION was a literalist piece of social realism, with a schematic research process, HOW TO DISAPPEAR was a nightmarish netherworld of skewed timelines and characters waking up dead. The research and writing process were to be the most emotionally harrowing I’ve ever undertaken, a process perhaps mirrored by the play also losing its way in the theatre industry before being plucked from obscurity by the John Whiting Award. Things started well. I knew I wanted to write a play about people who go missing, and I approached the National Missing Person’s Helpline, and the Met Police ‘Mispers’ Unit both of whom agreed to see me and were very helpful. But when it came to contacting some actual missing people, I found they were, understandably, a bit difficult to find. I asked the Helpline if I could advertise on their website, for interviewees who’d gone missing and come back. I asked the Met if they’d show me the Thames Ledger – a book recording the details of every corpse that has been retrieved from the Thames for the past 200 years. Both turned me down flat. The Met said to me ‘You have to remember that everyone in that book is someone’s husband, wife, brother or son.’ I’d encountered a moral issue here which wasn’t relevant to my previous play. Whereas with PROTECTION social workers were only too happy to speak to me, this was because I was shining a light into a misunderstood profession and to some extent fighting their corner. But with missing persons there was no getting away from the fact that I was, in effect, saying ‘Tell me your tales of trauma and breakdown so that I can go away and make money out of them’.

It was at this point that I had to make a leap – I had to fall back on my own imagination and trust myself to make it up. I see this now as a fourth form of creative research, what I’d term ‘empathic research’. It involves a lot of day trips to resonant sites within the play (Southend in the case of HOW TO DISAPPEAR) and standing looking at the sea listening to miserable music and trying to imagine wanting to throw yourself in. It involves visiting homeless hostels and arguing with priests about the meaning of life. It involves staring at blank Word documents for 7 or 8 hours before finally committing a blast of frustration and rage to the page from someplace only accessible when the writer is at as low an ebb as the character. It involves hearing that character’s name spoken in public and looking up for a moment because you think someone is talking to you.

As it turned out it is perhaps the most potent form of research for a dramatist, but it took me exhausting the other avenues before I was forced to rely on it to fill the hole in the middle of my play. But like emotional memory it’s also the most traumatic. It’s also of course, the most alchemical, and the form that least lends itself to analysis and explanation. It is the way in which playwrights access the metaphysical.

The last two plays I want to talk about are both for teenagers, and both went through broadly similar processes as each other, but which were different again from PROTECTION and HOW TO DISAPPEAR.

LOCKED IN was my play set in a pirate radio station and written almost entirely in hip hop verse. And MEHNDI NIGHT was my play written for Bengali girls as part of my residency this year at Mulberry School in east London. I have an ongoing and very fruitful relationship with Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in Limehouse, who have an interesting process which they take their writers through. It begins with writing up an idea for a play for 14-17 year olds as a prose treatment, then deciding with the director on a couple of 5 minute sections to write up as full scenes. These are redrafted a little and then used as a stimulus text for a project they run called Careers In Theatre. This is a taster day run for about 80 Year 11 students from across the Borough and involves them producing a play-in-a-day inspired by the 5 minute text. It is ostensibly about career pathways for students about to leave school, but it also doubles up as a fascinating way of test-driving early ideas with their target audience. In allowing the students free reign to create their own performance inspired by the text and not restricted by it, it allows a writer access to the imaginations of groups of young people who may be very different to oneself. It’s an extraordinary way of blowing open an idea and (although they might not realise it) allowing the young people it is for and about to make their own mark on the play at a formative stage. But it’s also like walking into a room full of living breathing characters from the play, because of course Half Moon want plays about east London teenagers, so the target audience and characters are one and the same. I suppose it is a form of experiential or collaborative research.

Developing MEHNDI NIGHT at Mulberry School with Bengali teenage girls took the principles of Careers In Theatre and applied them over a much longer period. A group of ten fifteen year old girls met once a week after school from January through to August with me and our director Jools Voce. The luxury of time in this case meant I was able to take my cue from the group in a much more meaningful way, and to ask them what they’d like me to write a play about for them. In this sense I was very much ‘their’ writer; we’d identify broad themes that interest them, Jools would devise all sorts of imaginative exercises to generate material along this theme, I’d then go away and shape their ideas into a rough story outline or sketch, then bring them back and read through them. We’d hear their criticisms and suggestions for changes, and repeat the process until we’d settled on one idea that everyone was equally excited about.

This became very much a project about identity and self-representation for the girls. As a group they were fully aware that they did not feature much in the mainstream media, and early on we encouraged them to take the opportunity of performing in Edinburgh as a way of speaking to a mainstream adult audience about themselves and their life experiences. I think out of all the plays I’ve written it’s the one I’m most proud of. It was certainly the most rewarding. It was such a privilege to be allowed into those kids lives and culture with such honesty and generosity of spirit. I don’t know what you’d call it as a form of research, perhaps a sociologist would call it ethnographic, but I can tell you its certainly the most fun, and feels effortless once its underway.

The story we came up with revolves around a mehndi party, a traditional Bengali celebration the night before a wedding, roughly the equivalent of a hen night. Half way through the festivities there’s a knock at the door and a long lost sister turns up, who had been banished from the family four year previously for going off into east London’s music scene and becoming a rapper. Her arrival splits the group in half and the rest of the play looks at whether the family will allow her to come back, and the various perspectives for and against what she did. Within this simple structure we managed to look at an array of issues facing third generation Muslim girls in the modern world – with a level of detail and emotional truth that I could never have accessed working alone.

I’d like to finish by reading the speech at the heart of play where Ripa, the long lost sister, speaks to the assembled women to put her case.

First up I want to apologise
To Mum, Nilufa and all you guys
I hope you don’t think that I’m being unwise
Don’t wanna scandalise your mehndi
Want you to know I don’t mean to offend you

Four years ago we all know what I did
I selfishly followed my heart not my head
Defied your advice and went out on my own
Knowing the price that I’d pay was my home
I hurt you all bad and it’s been a long time
I know it won’t heal with a couple of rhymes

So I wanted a career as a pro MC
Cos there ain’t a Bengali what flows like me
Took my chances on my own in the music industry
Swear down, it was hard
Missed my family bare
But I paid it no regard
Pretended like I didn’t care
Grafted and prayed
Cos Ripa’s deep not shallow
Knowing no-one’s self-made
Man they owe it all to Allah
Yeah my faith’s for real
It’s as solid as my rhymes
And if rhyming’s unIslamic
That makes Arabic a crime

But I had this debate with Dad four years ago
Don’t want it all again it interrupts my flow
I’m back here tonight for my sister Nilufa
I’ve missed you big sister
And this is the proof
Been struggling now on my own for four years
I’ve missed you, I’m tired, my eyes hurt from the tears

But I’m older and wiser, I realise the cost
Of throwing this away, of the scale of my loss
Cos what is it in life that keeps us in place?
Like the anchor of a ship – it’s community, it’s faith.

Yeah I’ve had my bit of fun and now I see my life ahead of me
Turn to face the sun cos now it’s time to make a better me
And I ain’t gonna get it in the music industry
Cos Britain ain’t ready for a Muslim MC

Ain’t even gonna tell you what I did to get by
But I lived to tell the tale, I’m here, I survived
Now I want my own mehndi, marriage, feeling connected
Husband, kids, all the things I once rejected
I wanna grow up, settle down, have a few little Me’s
Cos when a man supports his wife is when a woman’s truly free
Yeah let the men do the work, pay the bills, get bored
Cos we’ve got a job that’s really more important
Raising the next generation
Cos if you educate a woman then you educate a nation
Passing on faith and wisdom
Showing there’s more than a place in the system

Yeah I want my Bengali identity back
Cos without it, I’m nothing, and it’s holding me back
Women performing? Yeah tell me about it
Want my sari and scarf, I’m naked without it
Wearing this, I’m judged for my mind not my looks
My words taken serious, like in some book

Mum all I ever wanted was to feel like your equal
You’ve had your life, and now I’m the sequel
I know that right now you’re feelin the friction
But I want you to know there ain’t no contradiction
You’ve always written me off as a dreamer
But what you’re looking at now is a modern Muslima.

After one particularly electrifying performance, the girls were clearing up and a rather earnest journalist came up to them and started grilling them about: What is it you’re actually saying here? That women should be in the home? That they should or shouldn’t perform? They debated the point with him for a while, but clearly still suspicious, he asked them if this was their work or if someone had written it for them. And about five of them in this big group just turned to him and said: “No, we wrote it.”

And that’s the greatest compliment they could have given me.

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