Posted: 25 October 2023
“These stories are far bigger than just what you see in front of you.” Interview with Mel Pennant and Anastasia Osei-Kuffour
One is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist, with her play, A Black Fella Walks into a Bar, shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award. The other is a writer, director, producer and poet, having trained as a director through the Young Vic Directors Programme and the National Theatre Directors’ course.
Together, they are the dynamic creative duo behind our latest audio play, A STORY TOLD THREE TIMES AND STILL UNFINISHED. And here they are to tell you more about this project.
How did A STORY TOLD THREE TIMES AND STILL UNFINISHED come about?
Mel: I’ve been involved with two projects before with Tamasha and The National Archives and I felt really privileged to be approached on this project. It felt like a really big responsibility to do everything that needed to be done to tell this story and there was a long time when I wasn’t writing and just really thinking about it – trying to think about how I could convey all of the conflicts and all of the responsibility in this space. Looking at the archive material – it didn’t really align with what I had understood this story to be, so I spent a long time trying to get my head around it. And then I think the breakthrough for me came by just thinking about getting some of that conflict on the page. The other breakthrough was the brilliant workshops that we took part in – to think about what was the context that I could explore this in.
The development of this play was shaped through the stories and testimonies of Caribbean people from London Bristol – tell us more about that.
Mel: I should say that they were amazing spaces. As we’ve had some time away from them and being able to look again at the material we got from them, I think they were really amazing spaces and I’m really grateful to the communities that came and shared their stories with us. Many of them were really emotional and there was a theme that just kept going throughout – it wasn’t a thing that we put on the table, it was one that was there in the room and in all of the workshops – and that was around the effects of migration and the fractures that migration had created for families.
I don’t think before those workshops that I’d ever thought about it in that way, I’d never thought about what migration meant for those that were left behind – for those who looked after children, aunties and grandparents – while parents came to this country to make a better life. Those workshops really opened up that space for me and I felt that I had an obligation to try and tell that story – it’s so emotional. I don’t know whether I could do it justice, but I really wanted to try.
Anastasia: I was in those workshops with you and I just remember that emotional aspect of what it means to tell those stories and the trauma and memories that rise up when you’re asked about them. What I love is that there is so much of that within the audio drama and it actually talks about and raises a point about what it means to ask people for their stories, what it means to ask people to talk about the most sensitive parts of their history. And it felt like a real privilege to hear those stories, which were so emotional.
What drew you to this project?
Anastasia: I’ve worked with Mel before and worked with Tamasha and a lot of other projects that were inspired by The National Archives and National Archive material and I just love stories that are based on real life – true stories, stories based on facts and creating a story around it and imagining what it might have been like for people who are represented in the records. So when I was contacted about this, I already knew it was something I’m interested in and that I’d love to do. I also love working with Mel’s writing – it’s always so very sensitive and discerning and potent, so I was excited about that. It also felt like the subject matter of this project was important, it felt like we were going to think about what was necessary to say about the Windrush Generation. So I was excited about hearing the stories and also finding out what story there was to tell about the Windrush generation.
How do you actually go about directing a play like this?
Anastasia: I think I’ve got quite a detail-oriented mind and so I get really excited by all the ways that I can create a picture in the listener’s mind. I was really excited about the full picture Mel’s words were conjuring up and thinking about all of the sounds that we can create alongside it to give the listener the full picture of what’s happening. There’s also a lot of dreamscape aspects to this audio drama, so thinking about how we can make it more dreamlike and more like the listener’s experiencing what the storyteller’s experiencing. So I think it’s about thinking very specifically about our way of telling the story and how you can be detailed in that.
What do you want audiences to take away from A STORY TOLD THREE TIMES AND STILL UNFINISHED?
Anastasia: I think it will resonate with quite a few people and for people who are part of the Windrush Generation or descendents of the Windrush Generation. I think they will listen to it, find that it’s familiar and that it has things in it that chimes with their personal stories. For the wider audiences, I would love people to just reflect on what it means to tell stories, the cost sometimes it can have to make someone tell their story and also hopefully a greater reverence for people who are up for telling us their own story no matter how painful it might be. I also love that it raises the issue of whether it’s right to force people to tell their stories – sometimes it’s better to let people tell their stories if they want to, but also not tell their stories if they don’t want to.
Mel: I think one of the things this play explores is – what is the story? And that these stories are far bigger than just what you see in front of you and I think that is the exploration of the material in The National Archives and that that material is actually a very important part of this story too. And that it is all of our stories in essence and I really hope there is a sense of that in this play and that the play creates a discussion point in that space.