Friday, June 26, 2009

Good grief, has it really been 6 weeks since my last post? I suppose I have been vaguely aware of the time passing, but in all honesty, I haven’t really had all that much to say. And I’m sure the last thing you’d want is for me to twitter on about nothing. The internet is full of that after all. Plus after my previous flurry of loud-mouthedness over adopting playwrights I’d hate for you to get sick of me.

But the good news is that there is now something to say. The launch of the Edinburgh Fringe 2009 brochure has released to the world my latest offering from Mulberry Theatre Company (the production arm of Mulberry School for Girls in east London where I have been part-time writer-in-residence for the past 3 years.)

Our latest show, The Unravelling, has already had a couple of press mentions (one in Lyn Gardner’s ‘pick of the fringe’ previews, and another from the ever-reliable Statler at View From The Stalls) which is always exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure when the show has barely started rehearsals. There’s also a page on my own website about it here.

This is the third year running that Mulberry Theatre Company have performed a new play of mine at Edinburgh, and for various reasons – some to do with funding, some to do with the timing of Ramadan next year, and some general refocusing of the company’s operations – I can reveal that it will be the last time we perform at the Fringe for a little while. I know, it's a bit sad. But I’ll still be working at the school next year, but not doing Edinburgh will free up considerable time and resources for both me and the other artists-in-residence to do other projects with the students a bit closer to home (watch this space…)

Anyway, we now have a trilogy of plays broadly charting the teenage female experience in east London. As we’ve done every year, we’re going to publish this latest one as a script programme booklet for sale in the foyer, then maybe commission all three in one edition for use in the school (and beyond, if anyone wants them.) I’ve been writing my programme note for this latest one, and been looking back a bit at how they evolved and how they compare. I thought it might be interesting to share some of those thoughts on here. In many ways, each year’s show has been a reaction to the previous year’s, and explored a different way of working with this age group.

2007’s Mehndi Night was very much born out of the fact that 98% of Mulberry’s students are of Bangladeshi heritage. In giving them a completely open brief for the play, they chose to draw upon their immediate experiences as second and third generation Bengali women, negotiating the pleasures and pains of a cross-cultural identity, in particular the competing (and often contradictory) demands of family, faith and modern society. The politics of belonging were explored through the personal stories of four sisters and three aunties, the night before a wedding. I tried to do justice to these characters by inflecting their dialogue with dashes of lyricism, which are such an important part of both traditional Bangladeshi and contemporary east London popular culture. The result was a heartfelt family drama about a rebel daughter returning to the roost after years of going it alone in the wider world.

I was asked to speak about the experience of developing this play at Birmingham Rep’s ‘Generations’ conference on theatre-making for young people in 2008. It was a really fascinating day, with practitioners in this field coming together from all over the country. In one of the workshops after my talk an interesting discussion started. A young black actress from south London began, in a friendly way, to challenge my approach in developing Mehndi Night. Wasn’t it a bit of an obvious play to do with a group of young Asian women – saris, samosas and weddings? Haven’t we seen this before? She claimed that we were trading off the girls’ “exoticism”, and setting them up as ‘the Other’. Why couldn’t they just be artists, and tell stories about whatever they want? Why do they have to do a play about ‘being Bengali’? You wouldn’t do a play about ‘being white’ with a group of white kids.

These comments were meant in a generous spirit of interrogating the process in order to develop it, and she did have a point. The whole package of the play was perfect for Edinburgh; the girls marketed the show on the Royal Mile looking glorious in full saris, the venue was decorated like a Bengali party space complete with free samosas, and the audience really seemed to enjoy being welcomed into what was ordinarily a private space hidden from view behind another culture. The critics loved it too, with Neil Cooper at The Herald likening it to a “stylised latter-day Muslim take on Jack Rosenthal's Barmitzvah Boy, which captured the Jewish East End so well”. But that young actress’s comments stayed with me.

In my defence, I did point out that the girls had a completely open brief, and that idea for the play was a unanimous decision. But this was my first year at Mulberry. I’ve since discovered, in working very closely with many students there over the years, that this idea is quite often the idea they come up with when you ask them ‘What do you want to write a play about?’ Negotiating inter-cultural conflict, often explored through the prism of domestic inter-generational conflict, features large in their thinking. (Either that, or – somewhat paradoxically – extreme issue-based subjects they know little or nothing about, which they’ve probably gleaned from soap operas.)

However, I’ve since come to realise that one of the responsibilities of a professional artist-in-residence (in a school anyway) is to encourage students to go beyond the obvious choices, beyond simply being versions of themselves onstage, or parroting back cheap TV storylines. It’s about helping them to develop an aesthetic that allows them to be ‘actors’ in the fullest sense of being able to take on any character and any story that interests them, with integrity, and to offer meaningful interpretations of their own on the subject in hand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enormously proud of Mehndi Night and it still stands up as a great little play with genuine moments of insight and originality – and so far as I know it can still claim a theatrical first as an all-female Bengali play. But one of the joys of long-term community arts residencies is being able to refine your developmental process, so that you as an artist are stretched and developed just as much as the participants.

2008’s Stolen Secrets was very much a reaction to Mehndi Night, in that we decided to move beyond autobiography and encourage the girls to focus on any local stories that took their interest. To do this, we asked them to be our eyes and ears around east London, to harvest characters, lines of dialogue, scenarios and settings from the local area. We scoured local newspapers and kept an ear to the ground for gossip. Our designer Kollodi created a beautiful set of ‘secret vaults’ - boxes with a deposit slot, for anonymous secrets from students and staff, to be placed around the school. I went into English and Drama classes to explain the process and solicit contributions. We then took the best of this material and over several weeks teased out, imagined, added and fictionalised until we ended up with a set of five ‘urban fairytales’ about the hidden side of east London.

In order to allow the girls to play characters that were completely unlike themselves, the written style had to shift to place them as narrators on the world outside their windows. As such, a direct-address, ensemble storytelling style emerged – something I have experimented with in my work for Half Moon Theatre, but only fully realised at Mulberry due to the larger cast sizes available to me. The resulting series of short plays owed as much to performance poetry as theatre, while their darkly grotesque content drew upon a great tradition of using east London’s landscape to map the darker side of the human soul. But perhaps the most exciting discovery of last year was the beauty and immediacy of the physical storytelling aesthetic with which directors Julia Voce and Camille Cettina responded to the text – along with the girls’ own incredibly focussed performances which rose so proudly to this challenge. Both these directors trained at LISPA, which has a strong European sensibility and trains its student devisors in creating stage worlds in the blink of an eye with nothing more than a group of bodies on stage.

There’s an acknowledged fault line in professional theatre between the playwright-led, text-based camp and the actor/devisor-led, physical theatre camp. Some recent articles suggest that playwrights in particular feel aggrieved, alleging that the latter are more to the tastes of arts funders, and are in some way undermining the traditional role of the writer. The two approaches are often presented as mutually exclusive. I don’t really share this view, and this is mostly down to my work at Mulberry. If anything, in student productions at least, these approaches have seemed to be mutually complementary, indeed even symbiotic to the point where neither can survive without the other. Young people often think best on their feet, yet having a professional writer in the room makes the best of the material they generate by shaping it into narrative threads. They do the inspiration and I do the perspiration – then hand it back them the following week in the form of script, for them to play with it further, generate more brilliant ideas, and the cycle starts all over again. In this way the end product is always a genuine collaboration. I couldn’t do without them, nor they me. Taking an active part as a playwright in a three-dimensional rehearsal room devising process in this way has been one of the greatest joys of doing Edinburgh for the past 3 years. The room fizzes with characters and scenarios from their world, and mine, but also an imaginative plain which we both share. It’s really excited me to see what can be achieved when these two approaches work together so happily. I don’t know what you’d call it, but I love it, and it works.

This year, our approach was slightly different again, and built upon what we learned from Stolen Secrets. The most successful of 2008’s five ‘urban fairytales’ was one entitled Make n Mend, about a mother and daughter running an east London clothes repair shop. This setting was so immediately embraced by the students, and the industry so germane to the fabric (sorry) of east London, that we decided to take it and give it to the following year’s group as the location for the 2009 play – with only the minor tweak that it is a fabric shop as well as a tailoring service, with all those rolls of cloth from which to wring stories and stage effects.

Deciding on a location for the story is probably the single most important decision we have to make during our process. Everything follows on from there – character, mood, status, territory and almost all the possibilities for action. As I tell the group, the location is like a silent character in the play. It’s also the part that takes longest for an inexperienced group to settle on – and the element about which they are often least well-equipped to make an informed artistic decision. Make that decision for them, and they then have an arena which not only are you certain will work, but which they can still populate with all their own ideas for characters and storylines.

The Unravelling is in many ways an existential fable about the power of the imagination; the challenges it sets its performers and production team are certainly the greatest so far. It builds upon the previous two years in that it places a metaphorical ‘handover’ between female generations at the heart of the story, as Mehndi Night did. Yet it also uses direct-address storytelling as the means by which the characters summon their imaginative worlds from the apparent emptiness around them, and in so doing, discover their power – the legacy of Stolen Secrets. Perhaps most importantly, it takes the Mulberry Theatre Company aesthetic to a whole new level, and showcases the heights that can be achieved when artists with complementary backgrounds work together with a committed large cast, backed at the highest levels by the school. Perhaps this is something to do with having the added layer to the artistic process of being responsible for creating a piece of work not just for its own sake, nor for the adult artists to show off their skills, but for the good of a group of fledgling artists still in their teens, to whose ideas we must do justice. It is certainly testament to what happens when schools invest long-term in developing meaningful relationships between artists and students.

It feels like an appropriate story to complete our trilogy. In celebrating the nature of creativity and its power to change lives, the play is itself an apt metaphor for Mulberry School and its extraordinary theatre company.

The Unravelling runs at The Space UK @ Venue 45 from 10-15 August 2009. Book online here or call 0131 226 0000.