As ever when writing a speech, it’s hard to get started. Usually, I like to start with a funny personal anecdote that invokes laughter and warms up the audience. I realised that my struggle to begin was to do with being able to boldly declare ‘I am a dramaturg’. The word carries a weight and gravitas that is hard to ‘own’ and yet I know that is what I do, alongside being an actor/playwright/artistic director - essentially everything that is needed to put on the theatre I would like to see happen. There is now a term for it - SLASHER. That is what I am out of necessity. I am a SLASHER! In pursuit of humour, I decided to look up the definition of Dramaturgy in the Oxford Dictionary.
It is 1) ‘the art of theatrical production; the theory of dramatics and 2) the application of this.
Definition of Dramaturge is 1) a specialist in theatrical production and 2) a dramatist.
Should the word be spelt with an ‘e’ at the end or not? And is there a difference in meaning with the use of either spelling? I am afraid I don’t know the answer to either of those but I do know that I don’t see myself as a ‘specialist’ or ‘expert’- like a script doctor with a bag of magic balm that can be prescribed to enable writers to bring to life what in my career has often been their fragile first plays. Landmark contemporary classics that I have helped nurture like Ayub Khan Din’s East Is East now stand as a precedent to both inspire and scare the fledgling playwrights that I continue to work with over the years.
My relationship with dramaturgy and dramaturgs is visceral and personal. I would not be a writer at all if I had not been nurtured and supported by the most wonderful and generous people in my work. My collaborations with Tamasha co-founder Kristine Landon-Smith set me on an ongoing journey, where we always sought out dramaturgs like Richard Shannon, Carl Miller, Lin Coghlan, and through it all, my dearest mentor and friend, the late Philip Osment.
I am the unlikeliest theatre maker you could meet. I studied three out of what my sons call ‘The Asian Four’- Maths, Further Maths, and Biology. I was due to go to Imperial College to study Maths and decided to derail my journey at the age of eighteen without knowing what I was going to do. I did end up doing a degree in Maths and Sociology, while a chance encounter with Jatinder Verma and Tara Arts led me on another parallel journey. One with theatre that would literally end up saving me and many other second-generation British Asians from an existential crisis, even while to the horror of our parents, it led us to an uncertain path of financial insecurity that continues to plague me more than thirty-five years later. Through theatre, we realised how our connected post-colonial histories brought us to this country and we didn’t just rock up here. We read epics and literature from the sub-continent and toured the country with new works that provoked debate and challenged diverse audiences. There isn’t time to go into a long story about my personal journey but at its essence is the realisation that if I was going to forge a life in theatre and the arts, I need to invert the nagging personal censor which goads me daily with:
‘Who do you think you are to write this work?’
‘Who I am is why I must write this work.’
Lin Coghlan’s golden nugget resonates deeply. ‘Write the play that only you could have written’. Search for your authentic voice and never give up the pursuit. My journey into writing plays is inextricably linked with ‘Who I am’, and it is this journey that I bring into my role as dramaturg.
It’s no accident that my mixed heritage sons from a half Hindu - half Muslim background and Bhisham Sahni’ s short story, Pali, inspired me to write Child of the Divide about a lost Hindu boy who gets separated from his family during the mass displacement of people when India was partitioned. Richard Shannon helped me see that the three-act structure was appropriate in this piece: Pali gets lost; Pali is found by a Muslim childless family and raised as their son Altaaf; Pali reunites with his blood family, but he is now a ‘child of the divide’, changed and shaped by his experiences. Where does he fit in in the newly divided country which has narrowed minds? A recent visit to India and the deeply strained relations between India and Pakistan reminds me that the legacy of Partition is pernicious and lives on.
In trying to navigate how this personal story of Pali and his friends could elevate to telling the story of nearly 20 million refugees and up to two million dead, Richard encouraged me to look at the device of Greek chorus. I have not studied theatre academically, so had to research this, and I found myself writing some very self-conscious and clunky poetic chunks trying to represent the collective voice of women who had been through the harrowing experience of partition, been raped and left for dead and were looking for their lost children. The commission was from Polka Theatre and Tamasha and the brief was to write a play for children and families! Clearly this new material was inappropriate, but more to the point, it was clumsy. Again, Richard helped me to distil through what I had written, and I pared down the poetry and ended up discovering the ‘inner voices’ of the characters. When words fail them in the action of the play, they come out momentarily to share their deepest thoughts and open their hearts to the audience. When Pali questions his father about why they must leave their home, Manohar Lal implores:
How to tell my boy, the soil he stands on no longer welcomes him as a son?!
As if the parents in the audience could help him in his dilemma!
Or Shakur who finds Pali and sees him in the lap of his childless wife Zainab. In the silence of their fear of whether they can claim the boy, he shares with the audience:
Even in fear She looks more beautiful than before complete His little body clinging to her curves Pariah yet still A perfect fit.
I give this example as one of many, and as we are talking about the playwright as an activist engaged in applied theatre to excavate stories of compelling significance, I would like to share another story.
In 2006, Molly Campbell, a young girl who was of half white Scottish and half Pakistani Glaswegian background made the global headlines when she ran away from her home in Stornoway, and her bearded father, Sajad, dressed in a shalwar kameez was accused of kidnapping her. The headlines turned her story into an Islam vs the West clash of civilisations. Molly appeared in Lahore and declared to the world that she had gone of her own accord and that ‘My name is Misbah, not Molly’. I became fascinated by Molly’s story when reading an article in The Guardian by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott Clarke which looked at how Molly’s parents had fallen in love, and, in their words, ‘how a relationship that blossomed in the 80s on the streets of Glasgow between two young people without a religious bone in their bodies, had by 2007 disintegrated to the point where they were unable to agree on something as simple as their daughter’s name’. Serendipity stepped in and I managed to contact Sajad and Misbah in Lahore and Molly’s mother Louise in Stornoway, and with my family in tow went to Pakistan, and later Stornoway, and recorded interviews with all three. I personally transcribed the interviews and listened deeply to the material. The play eluded me for a few years as I found myself unable to write a ‘fictional’ piece that captured what the family had been through. The media had to be present, and I struggled to write a journalist character that could frame the story. With the patient guidance of Lin Coghlan, I finally realised what was staring me in the face. Lin helped me see that the protagonists in their own words was the heart of the piece. The simple device of the audience being me and the characters speaking directly to ‘me’ and challenging the media headlines they read out became the power of the play. This liberated me to edit freely and to let the characters ‘borrow’ each other’s words and invade in other’s worlds, and a quiet and cumulative story emerged from their verbatim testimonies. A story that resonated with ‘truth’ in the magic hands of Philip Osment as director. I felt a huge responsibility to the real family who were still fragile from being in the glare of the media and had trusted me. Lin who had personal experience of writing real-life stories, helped me to navigate this sensitively and even though I had changed the names, Louise and Molly came to the play several times and were moved to see their words being spoken by actors. They chose to be identified publicly and did interviews with me. Molly expressed that in her life she had not seen the period when her parents had been in ‘love’ and that by seeing the play she was able to see that she had been an ‘innocent’, unwittingly caught in the tug of love custody battle.
I have shared these examples as I hope you will see that dramaturgs have literally been a lifeline to me. These works and others would not have been what they are without them. It is, therefore, my own personal lived experience that I bring to the table when I in turn support writers as a dramaturg. I have always had to creatively produce my own work, and now see that content and context are inextricably linked, and I have had to take this responsibility on my shoulders. As writers of colour, it is a rare luxury to divorce the making of the art from the problem of putting it on. We must raise the funds, partners, promise new audiences and make a case for the relevance of our work which can be depleting creatively. I encourage writers to take that on. So, I see myself as a mentor and teacher while being an eternal student, cajoling and asking questions and not letting them off the hook with easy answers. All with an unflinching belief in the voice of the playwright and the promise that a play will emerge that captures the truth that only they could have written. I am stubborn on their behalf refusing to allow them to give up. I have helped them with Arts Council applications, ensuring there is a small budget line for the dramaturg! Mostly, I see my role as helping writers to unleash their confidence to push beyond self-doubt and self-censorship - something I still struggle with daily.
I recently worked with Nyla Levy on Does My Bomb Look Big in This? and Tuyen Do on Summer Rolls. Both grappled with who they are, and how they could tackle the big subjects they had chosen.
Nyla was inspired to write a fictional piece inspired by the three British Bengali schoolgirls who had fled to Syria. Shamima Begum’s story was and still is in the headlines, and part of my job was to reassure Nyla that as a mixed heritage Jewish/Muslim playwright, who had experienced racism in a cosy Wimbledon high school, she could legitimately access her own experiences when trying to get under the skin of her characters who lived in a different cultural context to hers. In the first outing, Nyla asked me to chair the post-show discussions and field any political storm that she was concerned getting inadvertently drawn into. As it happens the ‘truth’ of her piece lay in showing in the central character’s (which Nyla played) journey how her fractured family life and experience of racism made her vulnerable to being ‘groomed’ online, and led to the ultimate tragedy of her young life. Nyla managed to write a sophisticated piece which resounded with humour and heart, and has challenged reduced narratives and narrow perspectives. By humanising these young people, her play can contribute positively to the political debate and consideration of cases like that of Shamima Begum in the context of them being ‘children of Britain’ and not someone else’s problem.
When Philip Osment and I first read an early draft of Tuyen Do’s Summer Rolls, we knew that hers was a compelling new voice that needed to be nurtured. Tuyen came on our writers’ residency and shared her vulnerability about finding her voice and practice. As an actor, Kristine Landon-Smith had worked with her and inspired her to look at her Vietnamese heritage and language as something that made her whole, and a place to draw strength from rather than leave it outside the door when entering the rehearsal room. Summer Rolls examines the wound at the heart of one Vietnamese family but is a heartfelt portrayal of the British Vietnamese diaspora. It has taken Tuyen several years to bring this to fruition, and I have been on that journey with her as a dramaturg seeing her through many drafts and spurring her on to finish and produce the play which would also lead her to meet her partner in crime Tuyet Huynh and set up VanThanh Productions.
My discussions with Tuyen ranged from structure/ story/character/subtext to the language that she was exploring. A first draft was written bilingually, and we had to examine closely what role the Vietnamese language would play that would have coherence in the script. The central character Mai’s parents only speak Vietnamese, and to give them a fluency, Tuyen wrote them in an English that was full of metaphor and captured the rhythm of Vietnamese. There is much repetition and subtext. The character of Mother speaks volumes in a sentence like ‘when I look at your face it makes me want to cry’. In the end, only Mai ended up speaking in broken Vietnamese when talking to her family to highlight her inability to express herself to her parents. She picks up the camera and in capturing her family’s vulnerability, she uncovers the wound and legacy of war in her community and helps her family to heal through airing their buried secrets.
Summer Rolls opened at the Park Theatre this summer and was directed by Kristine Landon-Smith. Tuyen has won a place on Channel Four's emerging playwrights’ scheme and will be writing her next play in residence at Bristol Old Vic.
Does My Bomb Look Big In This? continues to have a future life with partner Tamasha, and Nyla’s career has been launched with a place in many writers’ rooms and a commission for TV.
This is really a snapshot of how I work and what I feel I can offer. Encouraging writers to read voraciously and be inspired by others' work. Blistering family plays like Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup With Barley, August Wilson’s work and his explicit mission of wanting to chronicle the Black American experience, Lynee Nottage’s plays and inspiration for her work. This list goes on. I steer playwrights to borrow structures, see how others have shaped plot and story and I am a sucker for sound bites and rousing speeches. Oprah Winfrey’s central messages to look at how the work you do is bigger than yourself, and how she will only undertake work that is of ‘service’ and creates ‘significance’. Julia Cameron’s book The Artist's Way which cuts down the writing process to simply turning up on your chair every day to fill the pages and let what she calls ‘the great creator’ work through you. I am not religious, but I have fleetingly experienced the euphoria and magic that can only emerge if you turn up and a piece of works seems to write itself, with more than a little help from the dramaturg angels.
And of course, there are tools and craft that I strive to learn and impart. I have had the privilege to attend the late Stephen Jeffrey’s three-day playwrighting workshop on 'Structure, story, character - how and what to write' and his genius left me mesmerised. His life’s teachings are in his treatise on playwrighting which is my ‘go-to’ Bible. As is Noel Greig’s book, Playwriting - both practical and inspirational. Noel, Philip, and Stephen are a huge loss to us all and their legacy has to be for us to continue to write and nurture others.
In 2017 I doggedly decided to remount Child of the Divide to mark the 70th anniversary of the partition of India. I was amazed as to how significant this became, and unusual partners like senior clergy, The National Archives, academics like Professor Sarah Ansari came on board. The play united survivors of Partition with young school children spoke to inter-faith dialogue and became part of a whole body of work that looked at the legacy and importance of teaching the Partition in British schools as a way of a shared history that unites us as citizens. As a twelve-year-old said recently in a meeting in parliament:
If your generation had given us our history, our generation would not have had Brexit.