Posted: 29 November 2023

Artist Spotlight: Theatre-maker, LAYLA MADANAT

Layla is an Arab-British freelance creative and activist, dedicated to creating live relationships between arts projects and social justice causes. Since graduating with a Master’s in Gender, Development, and Globalisation, she has worked across the creative and charity sectors as a producer, dramaturg, director and researcher.

Most recently, she assisted Pooja Ghai on both The Empress (Royal Shakespeare Company) and Hakawatis (Shakespeare’s Globe and Tamasha). She was part of the 22/23 Stage One Bridge the Gap cohort, and was the 21/22 Peter Hall Emerging Artists’ Fellow at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Her documentary film, mosaic/فسيفساء, co-created with Eleanor Nawal, was selected for the BFI London Film Festival WIP Showcase and Sheffield Doc Fest in 2021, and has been exhibited across the UK since.

Her work has led her to be shortlisted for the 2021 Evening Standard Future Theatre Fund in the Directing/Theatre-Making category, and has had work shortlisted for Underbelly Untapped, VAULT Origins Award and the VAULT/Stagedoor People’s Choice Award.

She has worked in research for social impact organisations such as CEASE UK (Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation), Sikh Forgiveness and Spark Insights. She is an Associate Tutor on the MFA Acting at the Guildford School of Acting. Layla was previously Assistant Producer and Associate to the Artistic Director on Little Amal’s walk across Europe in 2021.

How did you get into theatre?

Unintentionally, or at least not consciously. I knew I loved storytelling, learning new things and social activism – and I took a series of freelance jobs that led me to a career in theatre. I’d always enjoyed theatre throughout school and university – and at the start of my career I worked jobs across classical music, charities/social justice, politics and then segued into theatre during the pandemic without realising it – I found a project linked to a subject I cared about, and a story that I knew wanted to be involved in (Little Amal 2021), and that opened the doors to theatre for me.

Who were your creative inspirations growing up?

I was a huge music geek growing up – and my favourite artists were the impressionist composers; Debussy, Faure, Satie etc. I was obsessed.

Then I got into musical theatre – and so as cliche as it sounds, Sondheim really opened my eyes to what theatre could be, and what stories could be told and how. When I was at University, I started coming across European theatre-makers and that’s when things clicked into place for me – watching the work of artists like Carly Wijs and the Krumple left a real mark.

What is the most challenging thing about being a creative freelancer and do you have any top-tips on how you deal with this?

Constantly being in flux, sometimes it’s hard to feel rooted and supported. Find a group of people who genuinely support you and champion you. I found Producers are brilliant at this across the industry – in supporting each other, offering advice and seeing each other as allies not competition. And then find mentors – people who are where you want to be, and they can help you find and make the right steps to get you there.

A play you wish you had directed?

The Second Woman at the Young Vic. It took the once-in-a-lifetime/different every night feel of theatre to new extremes – the sense of everyone in the experience together. I got there at 3am – it was incredible.

What was the last compliment you received?

Well – you’ve asked me to be artist of the month – so that’s a compliment there!

What’s a mantra you live by?

Best bit of advice I ever got – after every job I think “What do I want to try next?”, not “What should I do next?”. Try – and new experiences – that’s the joy of life.

What was the last play you saw?

Apart from the beautiful The Empress (which I was working on!) – Box of Delights at the RSC. It’s amazing to be part of a long season there as you’re exposed to so many different types of work.

How do you let off steam?

I use the most amazing app (Go Jauntly – shout out) and set myself a ridiculously long explorer walk. Once I walked from Kennington to Greenwich, it took about 6 hours – and the app lets you know all the trees you pass on the way, bonus.

I’m trying my best to balance the ways I intake news at the moment – as someone with a tie to Palestine it’s not easy to “let off steam”; but finding people who are in a similar position to you, who you can mourn with, activist with, and also find joy in our life and culture with; that means everything.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to do what you do?

Don’t let yourself be boxed into a label – you never have to do just one thing, or one role, or even work in one industry. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people doing what you want to do for advice – I’ve found people are much more willing to hold the door open than we think. And – DO form creative partnerships. Find early-career artists who you can collaborate with and grow through the industry together, take each other with you.

What’s coming up for Layla Madanat in 2024?

I’m directing Joe Kerridge’s play Succession theme is my ringtone at the Rose Theatre Studio in February – it’s so different to the work I’ve made before, but Joe and I are really aligned as a team, we’re always challenging each other to make the best work we can – so I’m really excited.

And then asides from that – I’ve kept the diary clear to be able to see what I can try next – so we’ll see.