Posted: 06 February 2019
Best of British: new theatre in the age of Brexit
While 2019 might be the year of political uncertainty, one thing is for sure: Tamasha is firing on all cylinders. Our Artistic Director looks ahead to what’s in store for the company, if not the country…
2019 might have started with crisis and uncertainty at the political level, but it is a bumper year for Tamasha. It’s an odd feeling for the country to be in such dire straits while our company is booming, but if you can peel your eyes away from the political coverage, here is a good news story for a change.
Tamasha is small, we usually only produce one show per year. While we tour that show as far and wide as we can, usually for around 3 months, it’s still one show. Our current standstill funding settlement with Arts Council England, a cut in real terms, prevents us producing any more than this.
The scale of our producing arm is in contrast to our talent development arm, Tamasha Developing Artists, currently a thriving community of 2,000 (and counting) emerging artists from all walks of life. One of the perennial conundrums at Tamasha is how to cater for so many at the starts or midway points of their careers, all hungry for opportunities, when the professional employment on our own shows is necessarily limited by the scale and frequency of what we can afford to produce in any given year.
I try to be honest with our artists about this. For example, at the start of each annual cohort of the Tamasha Playwrights group I am upfront about this imbalance, and that the chance of us being able to produce any one of their scripts is necessarily low. Not impossible – it does happen – but we try to manage their expectations.
Because of this, part of our training of new theatre artists includes the business of theatre, and especially how to raise their own funds to put themselves in the creative driving seat, rather than waiting for opportunities to be bestowed upon them from larger organisations. It’s an attempt to turn on its head the traditional commissioning model of theatre producing, which renders artists essentially passive. Tamasha asks instead: how can we support you to support yourselves?
Nevertheless, I’ve had an ambition for Tamasha to produce more ever since I was appointed five years ago. This is easier said than done on standstill funding, with touring costs increasing, and a climate of risk aversion around new plays. However, somehow, this year, we are producing not one but seven new shows. Seven! Plus a raft of innovative online projects via new strand Tamasha Digital. I still have to pinch myself sometimes. How have we done this?
Three ways: smart partnerships, strategic funding and by supporting independent artists. It’s taken several years for this detailed, patient work behind the scenes to really pay off, but this year it finally will.
Last month, we opened our latest national tour, APPROACHING EMPTY by Ishy Din, a smart, funny and ultimately tragic story about two old friends running a minicab firm, but which doubles as a subtle allegory for our times, especially the UK’s ‘left behind’ former industrial heartlands which were so gutted by Thatcherism in the 1980s. Ishy’s thesis is that this is arguably where the Brexit vote has its roots. The play has been delighting London audiences at the newly-refurbished Kiln Theatre, ahead of a three–week ‘homecoming’ run at Live Theatre Newcastle, and a national tour until mid-April. While we’ve loved the response down here, we can’t wait to get on a train and see how the play is received by northern audiences, who in a way it is written for. Ishy is firmly establishing himself as the voice of his community, and is maturing into a seriously sophisticated writer of national importance.
Ordinarily, we’d be looking ahead to the end of this tour in April and starting pre-production for 2020’s show….but 2019 is no ordinary year. There are six other shows before the year is out!
Four of them are part of IGNITE, an Associate Producer training programme funded by the Arts Council’s Sustained Theatre strategic fund, which Tamasha spearheaded, in partnership with 7 regional theatres (Belgrade, Derby, Dukes, Mercury, Luton Hat Factory, Contact and Rich Mix), aimed at diversifying the offstage workforce of British theatre. This fund was commendably an open brief to submit initiatives, shaped and led by the smaller, diverse companies who do so much behind the scenes to nurture and launch new artists of colour, and the creative teams which support their visions.
IGNITE was conceived on the back of much discussion as a company. We concluded that if we’re serious about diversifying what ends up on the nation’s stages, then as a sector we need to put more effort into two main areas: playwrights and producers. Playwrights, because they decide whose lives are worth putting on stage in the first place. And producers make it happen.
There are various initiatives for playwrights, not least our own Tamasha Playwrights group, graduates of which have gone onto great things, including most recently accounting for two of the three writers, Rabiah Hussain and Ross Willis, just announced as the inaugural recipients of a £10,000 Royal Court Theatre / Kudos TV residency. And this year, we’re grateful to receive support from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation and Garfield Weston Foundation, which means we’re able to provide regional bursaries for Tamasha Playwrights as well.
For producers there is virtually nothing. To some extent this is understandable; it’s hard to teach producing as theory. Unlike playwriting, unless you have some actual money to spend you can’t really do it. The traditional way to become a producer is to borrow from the Bank of Mum and Dad to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. That necessarily imposes a filter.
Our pitch to the Arts Council’s Sustained fund was that Tamasha is going to take the place of those rich parents and raise the funds for a new generation without those means. We reached out to a consortium of seven venue partners, and together raised enough for four full-time producers to be embedded at four regional venues, with production funds attached.
Fast forward three years and a critical mass of new work around the country is the thrilling result, all hitting our stages in 2019.
At the Dukes Theatre Lancaster, Anna Nguyen is producing the world premiere of GLORY by Nick Ahad – a seriously funny and timely new play set in the world of old school wrestling which, while no longer on prime time TV is, contrary to popular belief, alive and well and a thriving subculture in numerous parts of the country, especially the north-west. Set in a scruffy gym which has seen better days, GLORY brings together four men at the end of the line who find solace and a newfound identity in a sport which traditionally overlooked and at worst actively caricatured non-white performers.
Like APPROACHING EMPTY, GLORY’s gritty world serves as a subtle state-of-the-nation allegory, though unlike Ishy Din, Nick Ahad finds reasons to be optimistic in his vision of Britain sloughing off the baggage of a racialized past to pass on the baton to a vibrant new generation who will make the sport – and by implication, the nation – their own. Catch it 21 February to 2 March at the Dukes, then on its own national tour to 13 April. (The Glory team might even be able to wave at the APPROACHING EMPTY team as they pass each other on the motorway….)
At Belgrade Coventry, longstanding collaborators of Tamasha, Lian Wilkinson has been leading on UNDER THE UMBRELLA by Amy Ng, another new play, this time looking east to China, and closer to home to the Chinese student population, who are a large presence in Coventry. UNDER THE UMBRELLA puts the spotlight on the phenomenon of ‘marriage markets’ – where parents of still-single children in their late 20s browse each other’s offspring’s CVs in order to find a marriage match before time runs out on a ‘leftover’ son or daughter. Set in Coventry and Guangzhou, this compelling new play by the acclaimed writer of ACCEPTANCE at Hampstead Theatre explores tradition, trauma and triumph in the art of finding love. Catch it from 2-16 March at the Belgrade before touring to 30 March.
At Derby Theatre, IGNITE producer Rafia Hussain has led on a raft of writer development initiatives while deepening the venue’s relationship with one writer in particular, Atiha Sen Gupta, with a timely revival of her 2009 debut WHAT FATIMA DID, giving the play its regional premiere. Fatima Merchant is feisty and strong-willed. At 17, she drinks, smokes and parties. On the eve of her 18th birthday, without word or warning or explanation, she adopts the hijab. Suddenly, to her friends and family she is no longer the Fatima they thought they knew. WHAT FATIMA DID is a funny and thought-provoking exploration of attitudes to identity, freedom and multiculturalism in contemporary Britain. The play has lost none of its relevance ten years on, and it’s great to see a new play having a continued afterlife. Catch it from 27 Feb-2 March at Derby Theatre.
Finally, at Mercury Colchester, producer Dilek Latif has taken on a mid-scale show with commercial potential – a long overdue revival of the Fats Waller 1920s-set jazz musical AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’. Join extraordinary performers on a journey through an amazing period of American musical history, the Harlem Renaissance – an era where musicians were free to experiment with new styles and joints were jumping with dancers, singers and instrumentalists jamming to a new beat known as swing. The Great Depression didn’t stop them then and neither will Brexit now… Catch this feelgood musical at the Mercury from 15-30 March followed by a London run at Southwark Playhouse 19 April-1 June.
But there’s more…
After a busy spring we go straight into an early summer tour of a show by one of the independent artists we support throughout the year. Nyla Levy is an actor and writer, who you might recognise from recent roles in Diary Of A Hounslow Girl or Child of the Divide. Her first play, DOES MY BOMB LOOK BIG IN THIS? draws its inspiration from the Bethnal Green schoolgirls who left for Syria to join ISIS in 2016. During a development phase last year which Tamasha supported, Nyla conducted extensive research with young people in Luton and Tower Hamlets, and interviews with numerous experts including Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer who represented the Bethnal Green girls and their families. The result is a fast-paced, nuanced and surprisingly funny new play about the psychological impact of alienation from modern Britain, which renders some young Muslim girls especially vulnerable to online grooming. DOES MY BOMB LOOK BIG IN THIS? is a witty drama that exposes the fragmented nature of our society and how far we are from the myth of multicultural harmony. Tour dates are still being finalised but will include a rural touring week in north Yorkshire and a three-week run at Soho Theatre in early summer….
Last up is a full production of a play we co-produced with Paines Plough last year in a stripped down R&D version, I WANNA BE YOURS, the debut play by slam poet champion Zia Ahmed. After an ecstatic response from rural audiences last year, Zia has been putting the finishing touches to his quietly masterful two-hander about a Pakistani Londoner and a white girl from Yorkshire who fall in love and try to make things work against the odds. It’s one of the most subtle and sophisticated mappings of internal emotional worlds I’ve been involved with, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, with some gorgeous touches of magical realism from a thrilling new voice in British theatre. We can’t wait to show it off to a wider audience on Paines Plough’s small scale touring circuit in the autumn.
So that’s our plucky brood of seven – look out for them at a theatre near you.
But believe it or not, these are just our theatre productions. 2019 will also see the launch of Tamasha Digital, piloting a new strand of online-only work. Planned projects include a new theatre industry magazine show, TELL DEM, presented by rising star and founder of the Black Ticket Project Tobi Kyeremateng, featuring a panel of guests from across art forms discussing shows, news and trends within the UK theatre scene from the perspective of artists of colour.
We’re also piloting an experimental new audio walking tour, in which inner city communities are supported to give visitors to their area a personalised – and occasionally fantastical – walking tour experience to get them off the beaten track. First up is The Bengali Guide To Brick Lane in which we will revisit our old friends at Mulberry School and work with creative producer and former Tamasha Associate Company Afsana Begum to work up a trial episode. If we can crack the format, it could pave the way for other communities in other areas – THE PAKISTANI GUIDE TO LUTON or THE PUNJABI GUIDE TO SOUTHALL, anyone? After trialling it on our doorstep in London we could also start to look further afield to the places we tour.
As if this wasn’t enough, we’re also piloting a new viral video project via Whatsapp, testing out whether or not existing social media platforms can be harnessed to tell dramatic narratives.
We have five new audio dramas in development created by five Tamasha Playwrights graduates doing a residency in the History department of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
There’s also a partnership with HighTide coming up, involving an exciting new project from actress Taj Atwal, and a schools project Re-Fuel in which young people perform their own short plays on top of the APPROACHING EMPTY set.
Finally, hot on the heels of the success of 2018’s HEAR ME NOW compilation with Oberon, we have a new publication from Methuen, MIGRATION PLAYS, making available for the first time some new plays for young people developed in collaboration with our friends at the Migration Museum.
Plus of course there’s our usual year-round roster of masterclasses and scratch nights…
Why have we gone all out across all our platforms in this way? Partly, the right partners, funding pots and opportunities have come along at the right time. But there is more to it than this. Tamasha has always had an important function over and above just our own touring productions – we are also a stepping stone into the industry for new talent. The roll call of names who have had their first break via Tamasha is impressive and growing with every passing year – Parminder Nagra, Jimi Mistry, Ayub Khan-Din, Chris Bisson, Raza Jaffrey, Sunetra Sarkar, Krupa Pattani, Ishy Din, Pooja Ghai, Iman Qureshi, Ross Willis, Rabiah Hussain, Danusia Samal… the list goes on. Tamasha isn’t just a theatre company, it’s a pipeline for the whole theatre industry. Yes, we do a lot of training, but in our experience the best way to train artists is to employ them, and produce their work.
We can’t do this on our own of course, and we owe big shout outs to our valued collaborators across the UK, as well as the dedicated Tamasha office team who work so hard to deliver all this behind the scenes.
As national political events continue to cast a shadow, and with the future less predictable than ever, it’s only by working collaboratively in this way that, as a sector, we can continue to keep the door open for the next generation, and to make drama which truly reflects the society in which we live.
Whatever else 2019 holds, it will be a good year for Tamasha, and a good year for the next generation in British theatre. We hope that you can join us to celebrate these achievements, and the values which underpin them, whatever rocky times lie ahead.
Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director