Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?
I am a writer. I create stories that examine human behaviour. I am fascinated by people and how they interact with each other. People are complex beings and take from them, and put characters in various situations and ask what does this story say about who we are, where we are coming from and are going. This is my art.
Your new play, Ode to Leeds has just completed its debut run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. What inspired you to write this piece? How has the process of creating a play with so many additional audience engagement elements been?
Ode to Leeds was inspired by my time as a member of Leeds Young Authors (LYA). What I took away from LYA was a safe space to write and relationships with young people during a time (adolescence) when we were all trying to figure out who we were and our roles in society. The poetry was our common ground and our tool for expression. We each brought our own histories to the group, learnt from each other and the workshop leaders and, left feeling transformed.
In the play, you have five characters for whom this confluence of poetry, young people, Leeds and live stories lead to unexpected shifts in relationships, a questioning of self and the purpose of the art form in their lives.
Audience engagement is key. Not only during the run but in how the play is marketed to them and what they gain after the production has ended. What was important for Ode to Leeds was celebrating the poetry and the people of Leeds. This speaks to all ages, genders, races and ethnicities.
Khadijah Ibrahiim (Artistic Director of Leeds Young Authors) and West Yorkshire Playhouse developed a programme called The Movement. It allowed for the city to engage with the poetry in different ways. Be it, writing their own poetry on the walls of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, attending an open mic night (The Sunday Practise), artists’ development weekend (The Takeover), community workshops and Q&A’s with LYA alumni, director and cast.
This level of detail is important, especially with new writing. It enables the audience to build a relationship with new work and artists. When a theatre or organisation is supporting new work, they act as bridge between the work and the audience. It is crucial for them to establish honest and sustainable relationships on both sides.
Back in February, your play Weathered Estates was performed in Hull and was based on a Euripides’ text. What did you enjoy and what did you find challenging when working with an ancient text?
What I enjoy about working with existing texts is that I’m not starting on a blank page. I get to examine how another writer built their story. Euripides’s work is rich in poetry. But it took time for me to connect to it. It was my first time working with the ancient text. To better equip myself, I met with an Emeritus Professor of Drama who’s written extensively on Greek Theatre. I researched Euripides and the political context of Women of Troy. Understanding the critical framework was key for me. It enabled me to break down the play and rebuild it considering a contemporary audience, a Hull-based setting, a chorus made up of students and, a collaborator (the Roaring Girls) whose work is autobiographical and employs devising techniques.
You are often described as a ‘poet turned playwright’. Do you feel this is an accurate description of where you are at artistically? What sparked your interest in playwriting? Does one inform the other?
I’m both. I didn’t pick one up and abandon the other. What is key for me is story. How do poetry and theatre, respectively treat story. Poetry for me cuts straight through to feeling. With playwriting, I found a collaborative space. A team builds the world that we invite an audience to watch. I am fascinated by the processes of both forms. So I spend time learning how poetry and theatre can co-exist. This is who I am artistically.
In 2012, I wrote a one-woman play, Home has Died , it was a poem that I combined theatrical elements to. Boi Boi is Dead (2015) relied on poetry being the foundation of the character, Boi Boi’s songs. Nine Lives (2014) begins with a poem. It runs throughout the play. In-between the stanzas you find monologues. Together they tell the story of an asylum seeker and the community he is placed in. Ode to Leeds (2017), to date, I feel marries the two worlds best. It took a while to get to this script. But I know that there is more that I can get out of poetry and theatre.
Back in 2013, we published your poem In Gogo’s House in Sweet Tongues: Crocus Book of Food Poems. What advice would you give to emerging poets who are trying to get their work published? What advice would you offer to poets who are trying to get into playwriting?
For poets and playwrights I’d first of all say, write. Focus on the work, get it completed even if it is just a first draft.
If you need support to do so, seek out organisations, development schemes and other writers. Get advice from them. Ask how they got started, where did they go, who did they meet. If they signpost you to a person or organisation further afield, send that person or place an introductory email telling them about who you are, your work and ask if you can send a sample. If you can’t travel to meet them, ask if you can Skype.
In terms of publishing, get into the habit of submitting work. Be it in pamphlets, competitions or anthologies. It is nerve-wracking but it will also teach you disciplines, like editing your work. If the competition has a theme, use it to provoke new ideas within your work. You will start to analyse the body of work that you have.
If you are thinking about making the transition into playwriting, go and see plays. Watch a range of plays and performances. Read plays and look at how they are structured. Learn the rules of playwriting, so when you want to experiment you know what you are breaking away from.
What’s next for you in your writing career?
I am developing a new play for the Leeds West Indian Carnival 50th Anniversary. I will also be directing the play. It is my first directing credit. After years of working with directors and having done short directing courses, it seemed about time to take the next step and direct. It will showcase at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Seven Arts Center and Mandela Center in Leeds.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Sum up your experience thus far in one word