Sunday, June 27, 2010

Direct from the Mulberry School paper this term:
Behind the scenes of the Silkworks

2010 marks the fourth anniversary of Mulberry achieving its School Specialism in the Arts. As Mulberry Theatre Company, Mulberry Films and Mulberry Radio prepare for the Silkworks festival at Southwark Playhouse, London, the school’s playwright-in-residence Fin Kennedy caught up with some of the students and staff involved in putting on this unique event.

“It was amazing, it’s just like – wow. Everyone’s just so over the top!” Rebekah Yasmin smiles and laughs as she remembers her experiences of Edinburgh’s famously exuberant Fringe Festival. “I was 15 at the time, so it was a pretty big deal.”

Rebekah was part of the original cast of Mehndi Night, the first show Mulberry took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. She’s 18 now, confident and articulate, and a far fry from the shy 15 year old I remember. “I was quite quiet, but you had to communicate with loads of people, not just on stage but out on the street flyering. It definitely made me come out of my shell a bit more.”

Rebekah’s hard at work studying for her A-levels now, and aside from the confidence I think I can also detect a quiet politicisation. She talks about Mehndi Night with pride, and a sense of how unusual it was in the context of a festival like Edinburgh. “People that go [to the Edinburgh Fringe]may not know everything about our culture, so it was cool to get to go and represent ourselves, and how we see it as well, not how the media see it. It was true to life, an Asian show by Asian people.”

Mulberry Theatre Company (MTC) made a point of doing very different shows each year. So while Mehndi Night was very firmly set among the Bengali women of Tower Hamlets, 2008’s Stolen Secrets was inspired by East London’s landscape and the secrets it contained. Last year, The Unravelling used a local fabric shop as a way into a fantastical world, and won MTC a prestigious Scotsman Fringe First award. Suhena Begum, 18, tells me more about the process of putting it together.

“We did a lot of work with fabrics in groups, and what you could make out of just fabrics on stage. That was really interesting. The one where we made the shape of the trees in Epping Forest, that was one we came up with by ourselves which made it into the final show. Camille [Cettina, the show’s director] really helped us but we also did a lot ourselves.”

Suhena remembers the strict schedule required to pull off such an ambitious production. “I remember having to wake up early! I just remember, like, long rehearsals – having fun, but also very tiring. It was so much hard work, not exactly stressful, but just doing the same thing over and over again to get it right.”

Being away from home for so long is also not without its challenges. As Suhena tells me, “I got really homesick, I was crying a lot. At that time I was so embarrassed because I was one of the eldest! I got over it after a couple of days, and overall it was great, but it made me realise how much I love my family. I missed them so much.”

Suhena talks glowingly me about how the rest of the cast stepped in as a substitute family during those tougher moments. “We all got on really well and really relied on each other, definitely. I think that was one of the reasons we were able to do so well in the final show.”

But it wasn’t all about acting. An important aspect of any production is the backstage jobs, such as stage management and design. Nowshim Sharmeli Prenom, now 16, worked closely with The Unravelling’s designer Barbara Fuchs, whose team was key to the success of the show.

She tells me “I was behind the scenes making sure all the props were in the right position, so that everything would happen on time. In the last bit of the play, we had to come out with shadow puppets, so timing was very important.”

Nowshin was also involved in the design and making of the set and costumes. “I learned how to cut the fabric for the dresses that we made. I was good at cutting, and I really liked working with Barbara and learning about dress-making.” As the title might suggest, there was a huge amount of fabric involved in the show. “I worked mostly on the big zombie fabric, I had to stitch furs onto it. It was really hard work because it was such a massive fabric, eight metres. I think I broke the needle of the machine several times!”

But in the end it all paid off, and might even have influenced Nowshin’s future. “I’m thinking of taking design further as a career. In the summer holidays I’m looking forward to doing a fashion course at Summer University and I might get a job in an architecture company for two weeks.”

Both Mehndi Night and The Unravelling are being revived for Silkworks, the school’s own festival it is holding at Southwark Playhouse this year. Nowshin, Tamanna and Suhena can't wait. “I’m looking forward to rehearsals and seeing all the cast again,” Suhena tells me, “Also getting into my character – playing the Mother again.” Performing closer to home also gives her the chance to put together her own invite list, which seems to be growing by the day, “I want to invite my Mum, and my brother. My sister’s seen it at least twice already so I think she’s bored of it. I’m gonna invite a couple of cousins. My friends, definitely…”

But this festival will give the school the chance to show off more than just its successes in theatre – Mulberry Films, Mulberry Radio and the school’s art and catering departments will all be contributing. I caught up with Tanya Singh, head of Mulberry Films to hear more about what they’re planning.

“One of the groups that I’ve been working with all year are making a new piece especially for the festival, showing on a loop on video monitors in the foyer area. We’ve started looking at some surrealist films and thinking about dream imagery. Personally this is something I’ve been wanting to do with them for a while, think about installations, so it’s a great opportunity.”

There will also be daily screenings of Mulberry Films’ very own documentary of last year’s Edinburgh success, filmed and edited by the students themselves.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mulberry Films will also be involved in developing the multimedia aspects of this year’s brand new stage play The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping. “We’re working to create some film as part of the overall design of a play, rather than a separate standalone piece.”

Urban Girl, as the new play has come to be known, is yet another new approach for MTC. Developed with a dedicated committee of Mulberry alumni, former students now in their 20s, meetings took place over 6 months to try out various ideas and storylines.

Chaired by MTC’s director Luke Kernaghan, these meetings were by turns lively, heated, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. “It felt as if we were one big family,” remembers Dipa Khatun, 20, “sitting around a table during dinner, discussing what's been going on in our lives.” Shunita Rahman, also 20, agrees, “All the stories and ideas were like little mosaic pieces. Each week we'd be eager to know how they were going to be arranged, it was very exciting.”

The play that came out of it is about four old friends from school who go on a camping trip during the University holidays. But they become lost in the middle of the forest, and a burning secret comes out which threatens to destroy their friendship forever.

Committee member Najiba Sultana, 21, says “The play represents Asian girls without it being derogatory to our culture in any way. It emphasises that we are a part of a larger community and that affected by similar things as other people in different cultures.” Nasima Begum, 23 agrees. “It challenges certain stereotypes that people have about the Bangladeshi community.”

What was interesting about working in this way was that the meetings were also a weekly space to carve out time to reflect, in the midst of the committee members’ busy modern lives. “It made me realise that there are some things in my life I take for granted,” Shunita tells me, “But that actually I'm so blessed with what I have, and more importantly, I'm happy with the person I am.” She continues, “I also realised that I'm much more confident than I thought I was and sharing personal experiences can help others reflect on their own lives.”

And that, perhaps, is the point of the arts themselves. In an increasingly isolated modern world, where most of our time is spent in front of a computer screen, coming together to share in one another’s lives is a rare and precious thing. It is the nearest thing we have to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Rebekah Yasmin’s advice for this year’s new cast of Mehndi Night sums it up: “Give it your all and don’t be shy. Some of the characters, like ShulĂ© the nosy neighbour who I played, they’re the characters you love to hate, but you have to portray them in a way that makes people hate you but love you at the same time. Because they’re still human, and they are like they are for a reason. A good play can show you why.”

Mehndi Night, The Unravelling and The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping play as part of the SILKWORKS Festival at Southwark Playhouse, 14-17 July 2010

Box office: 020 7407 0234 /

Join the SILKWORKS Facebook event page here.

All the plays will be published in July by Nick Hern Books as part of the forthcoming volume The Urban Girl’s Guide To Camping and other plays

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