Finding An Adventure

I started writing this blog as a way of chronicling my journey as a writer. Considering the last few years have contained several big beats in that story, I’ve been a little remiss in updating it so let me correct this now.

Today is the press night for An Adventure, the biggest piece of work I’ve created in my life.

I’m scared.

Am I still allowed to say that? At what point in what I know is a fairly blessed career does it come off as indulgence or dishonest? I tell myself that it would be worse if you weren’t scared and that if you ever find a point where you’re casual about it then you’ve probably lost some care for the work. But that doesn’t stop you wishing you weren’t.

I’ve had my issues with critics in the past, though I think they’re usually passionate about the job and they have the potential to be useful for a range of perspectives on the same piece. It’s not them that makes me scared, exactly. They like what they like and in that regard, as I said to actors yesterday, every night is press night. I suppose what really terrifies me is that now is the point where you have to own the big decisions you’ve made with such cockiness when everything was still a hypothetical. Previews are done, the show you’ve got now is the show that people see over the next five and a half (!) weeks. There are no more excuses.

So I want to reflect a little on the process that ended up with this show. The origins of it go way back to me being on my MA and wanting to write about Mau Mau Kenya, and particularly the interaction between Asian and black Kenyans during that time. What has found its way to the Bush is a much “messier” version of the play I would’ve written straight after finishing my MA. I learned an absolute tonne about how to write on the course, what a well-made play looks like but since then I’ve learned a lot about my tastes too. I love a dramatically taut piece of writing, with twists and and secrets and reversals and huge events and it’s a skillset that’s served me well in television. But with both film and theatre, I love sitting in a space and luxuriating in a work, with the characters. This play is something I wanted people to feel like they could let envelope them.

Having said that, I suspect that since it has almost the reverse trajectory of a classic dramatic build it will perhaps feel anticlimactic to some. This is entirely what I’m seeking to produce, a replication of the feeling of the characters in the play – a life slowing, shrinking, not quite working out how you expect. But it’s one of those aforementioned big decisions that you have to own and accept that it won’t land for some people (that doesn’t mean though, as already stated, that it isn’t scary).

More broadly, I think our creative endeavours are as often motivated by lack as they are by desire. A lack of a certain face on a stage. A certain story. A certain style. For me, it’s mostly roles that are my drive. Roles outlive you as a writer and to create them is to leave behind a vessel for other to refill with whatever they wish. This was the first place I felt that lack.

It made me want to create these two Asian characters as romantic leads, across a span of ages, where they are mighty and complex and – yes, even happy at times. Madani said when we were talking about the marketing images that “brown people are never smiling in posters” and that made me laugh. As someone who was made some definitely unsmiley moments for brown characters, I wanted to rebalance my output a little.

That desire for romantic leads I think comes from knowing that there is a lack of my own in that I’ve fucking awful at relationships and am staying well clear of them for a while, yet there is nothing more I adore in life than seeing people in love. One of my favourite things is hanging out with couples who are really into each other. It makes me hopeful for the world. And that’s the last lack – the hopeful narrative. I’ve tried to put as many stories that have a hopeful aspect to them into the world as I can, even if it’s work like Murdered By My Father where the hope comes after the fact in the way it might change a life for the better via either a phone call to a charity or a better informed police officer.

In creating a mythology of my grandparents’ lives, one that I can share with my kids and their kids one day (when I sort myself out), I aim to honour their hope more than anything else. After all, it’s their own mythology of the future rather than one of the past that makes immigrants so daring. Unlike native inhabits, they know there is nothing romantic in the past, but if they were to cast their eyes further to the horizon, there might yet be a chance to find a good story for themselves. Whenever I despair about where I am or what I’m doing, I like to remind myself that immigration is an act of hope. I exist because people had hope that if they could not change the world, they could at the very least change theirs. The last post on this website is my paternal grandfather’s eulogy. I’m gutted he never got to see this play, though my maternal grandfather, thankfully did. That he came out smiling took six years of worry off my shoulders.

A final thought – writing this play has aged me. There’s a head-wrecking meta-dynamic going on within in it, in that it spans a lifetime and I can tell the parts that were written by the younger version of me and the older one. While it’s meant to showcase the people whose lives I wanted to write about, it’s as much a conversation with myself, a document of my own process.

Which is really what this blog is meant to be. Must do better.

Recalibration

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a leap-out-of-bed-with-a-head-full-of-story kind of guy. I need to know why I’m writing what I’m writing in order to do it.

Of late, I’ve been a little unsure as to my “why”. My grandfather died recently and I thought I could find my way through grief by leaning into my play for the Bush Theatre which is based on a fictionalised version of my grandparents. However, I’ve just hit a wall and find it impossible to even begin to fictionalise someone whose removal from my reality I’ve not quite dealt with yet. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing next to nothing. I’d come very close to thinking that I might not care about writing anymore.

Then last night, I went to meet my friend Martin and he asked me what I was up to. I talked through some projects and then I hit that Bush play and I felt an urgency to explain everything I wanted to do in it. The thoughts rushed out of me and I realised I had been speaking, with some great deal of enthusiasm, about the form and content for about an hour. I walked home wanting to dig myself into those rewrites again.

Maybe this is a solution to the ennui when it hits you? It’s bad to talk about projects early on, but perhaps when you’re stuck in the doldrums it’s best to reduce our work to the simplest terms of what it is: Telling a story to a friend.

Why I Wrote True Brits

I’m fucking terrified.

True Brits opens tomorrow and as the writer it’s a funny sort of helplessness to that terror. At this point, pretty much nothing you can do will change anything, save for you pulling some “oh captain, my captain” speech out of your arse if necessary. I’ve hauled boxes with texts, sat it in final rehearsals and, to busy the writing side, I’ve responded to a fair few interviews. A question that comes up more often than I thought has been: “Why did you write this play?”. Each time I answered, I talked about wanting to capture certain feelings but it is a bit more complex than that and I wanted to elaborate on a few of them here. Not all of them are good-minded artistic or social reasons but I will try to be honest.

**Contains Minor Spoilers**

REASON 1) BROWN DUDES BEING NORMAL

Not just in the life of the character, but in the action of a piece of drama. I can’t tell you how sick I was of seeing entirely regressive families, drug dealers, terrorism, arranged marriages, honour killings etc. It was as if these were the only spheres you could have a main Asian character (no, that doctor character with a few lines every episode doesn’t count). Not that these don’t have a place or aren’t interesting to delve into but none of it chimed with the reality of my life or young people like me that I knew…at the very least, where was the funnies? Where was the getting on with it? Of course there’s a sort of confusing cultural violence to being an integrated kid of immigrant families. You get pulled every which way from a young age and after events such as 7/7 you are made to choose in lots of tiny little ways – but honestly, most of the time you just want to hang out with your mates and you don’t think about it. And I hadn’t really seen that reality portrayed (Ishy Din’s Snookered a notable exception) in a play.

It wasn’t until I watched a rehearsal yesterday that I remembered how much that frustration has fed itself into the form of the show. What you get for the first half is a slight mis-sell to the blurb. Yes, it talks about the Olympics for a bit, but it’s mainly just a kid doing what kids do. His background inflects Rahul’s life, there’s a little in every scene, but it never dominates until the second half. Even then, it’s much harder to be treated as a normal kid by those around you than it is for him or to, say, resist an urge to hop off to Syria or escape an arranged marriage.

Not, perhaps, the most radical thing in the world for most people – to have a character be normal – but I can’t stress how important this was to me to have snapshots of a complex emotional life in a different sort of Asian character that’s fun to be with in a theatrical space (mostly anyway…)

Following on from this…

REASON 2) BROWN DUDE BEING KINDA MIDDLE CLASS

It’s a small one this but I’m always amused when people tell me they’re glad that theatre’s trying to get past its “middle-class moment”: ask anyone of a minority background if it ever existed for them.

In timely fashion, Kayvan Novak has written about similar in the Guardian yesterday.  This in particular struck a chord for me:

I think I decided…that I was not prepared to have my identity dictated to me. That simply “being myself” was never going to satisfy me or get the job done. That the odds were stacked against me somehow, that the world was not about to adapt to me, but that I needed to adapt to the world. I had to fool the world into accepting me. I didn’t seem to fit the mould of my idols. My idols were all white or black, for a start, and working class, and northern, or American, drug addicts, rock stars, the same as anyone’s. But definitely not brown. I wanted to belong. But I never did. I was lost.

I felt all of this as a young man, and it was the loneliest place to be in since I had no way of expressing it to people who didn’t quite get it. Writing True Brits and seeing the responses to it have made me feel a little less lost and a lot less alone.

REASON 3) I WANTED BOTH THE FEAR AND THE HOPE TO EXIST IN THE CULTURAL MEMORY BECAUSE I THINK IT WILL, IN A TINY WAY, MAKE THIS COUNTRY A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE

So this is the wankiest of the three but I can’t say it wasn’t part of my process. I think a lot about how our cultural memories are affected by the arts. I’d wager the way a lot of people think about Vietnam is affected by the movies about it. It’s why there’s so much discussion around American Sniper. I hadn’t seen anything that captured what it was like to be a brown teen in this country but in London specifically after 7/7. Stuff like see-through backpacks, relentless stop and searches and people seeing a beard and moving seat will fall away from people’s minds as it probably should but you want to be able to look back and have some repository where it can be recalled. If you don’t, you’re not moving on from something, you’re just sort of erasing it. I wanted to be able to point to a piece of cultural work and go “I feel like a well-integrated fella but fuck me, sometimes it was bloody hard work to be the (relatively) nice guy that I am today, and likely harder than you might otherwise comprehend.”

BUT, and this is perhaps the most important thing behind this play for me. I am hopeful about my place in this country. In fact, in a slightly unfashionable way, I think I love it here. Not ironically, and not in a “God Bless America/All Hail The Motherland” way. Rather, like an album that catches your heart when you’re young and remains the soundtrack to your life, I feel it’s always going to be a part of me. I’ll always step off a plane after a holiday and whilst I’ll complain about the weather I’ll secretly want to wrap myself in the inevitable cold blast. It’s home.

Being repeatedly called a ‘paki’ as a kid, having my nose smashed in by various goons as a teenager, being told by sniffy posh bastards that I deserve airport searches as a young adult…this has all tested that feeling, but I’ve come out of it with a strong affection. I know this is not unproblematic. Britain’s ridden with problems, with corrosive ideologies, and its worse instincts are almost sort of an integral part of it. But I also know I want to be responsible for doing something about that. I want to do what I can to make it better. I think attempting to create a mostly harmonious ethnically and culturally diverse country is one of the nobler projects that can exist, we do do it relatively well here and y’know, it’s basically the future of the planet.

There’s a knobby, aggressive way to do this kind of thing (Bobby Jindal, I’m looking at you). But erasing difference will never sit properly. The post mass-immigration world is necessarily messy and confused and it’s hard to deal with that for some, but embracing and becoming comfortable with that confusion (confusion is a big part of True Brits) is the only way to go. Zadie Smith, a person far cleverer than me, frames this idea well in her lecture about Obama. Speaking in different tongues isn’t deceptive – it’s how we really operate, so seeking to polarise identity into “this is genuine, this is not” is how you end up with extremists in every sense. They claim to provide solidity and easy comprehension but really give nothing but a purist fantasy that isn’t honestly human. Confusion is scary, but it’s not a mush or a nothing, nor only endorsed by the tabloid-favourite “cosmopolitan, multicultural elite”. Being comfortable with confusion shouldn’t be something that’s out of the hands of, say, a white dude from Birmingham who’s had a trauma free upbringing. It goes all ways. To my mind, if something exists where you live, it’s all fair game to embrace and love and claim as a part of you. I feel like the reverse of that glorious Goodness Gracious Me sketch – Kebab shop? British. Italian Deli? British. Not wrap-it-in-a-flag British, just “you’re both here, you’re both each others to enjoy, and you’re both re-shaped by each other in a combination unique to where we are” kind of way where the British imagery and terminology becomes the platform on which to host all of that.
In the play the Olympics stands in for that desire because my experience of it was seeing people wanting to be able to love the smorgasbord country they lived in, and refreshingly without a lot of the jingoistic shit or old markers of ‘True’ Britishness. Welsh and don’t fancy singing the national anthem – fine. A black Muslim immigrant – super. Mixed-race from Sheffield – love it. Both sides of your family been here for yonks – fab. All of these are us and ours.
That’s what I hope the future of this place looks like and it’s what a lot of British Asians want and strongly believe too, if you look at the research. I don’t prescribe whether that hope is naive or worthwhile or necessarily interrogated enough – but it seems like a good place to start and I just needed to show it exists, even if it’s just to myself.

(If it doesn’t do it itself, skip to 12 minutes in).

True Brits Preview: 21st July 2014

True Brits had its first preview at the Park Theatre on Monday night. It’s by no means the end of the tinkering with the play (two more rehearsals) but between this and the play’s publication I think it’s time to call time on the “TBRD” tag. It’s now a big girl and out in the world.

As with every performance of everything I’ve ever had on ever, I was a total mess before hand. Darting around, greeting people, trying to sort comps lists, fighting down that feeling in my stomach that I’d written something no-one cares about whilst trying to tell myself that I didn’t care either when I really, REALLY did.

The Victoria Line was down and so we held the house for five minutes but we could delay no more and off the play went. I have a slightly odd thing of not really being able to look at a play I’ve written on opening night. Thus, sat in the rafters, I shut my eyes for the most of it and just listened to the audience reaction*. And it was…good? I think? A very friendly audience, no doubt, but a diverse one too and the response  was palpably positive and exuberant. In fact, perhaps *too* exuberant – there were a fair few “Oh, I didn’t realise that was funny” lines. But, y’know, I’d rather have that than it falling flat.

The day, I suppose, should mean a lot to me considering it’s nearly two years that I first sat down and went “I want to write about this.” It was also the first time that my family got a chance to see what is quite a personal play (and thankfully they liked it!). Maybe I’ll enjoy the nice moments down the line (the big applause for the actor, the little applause as I came down the stairs, the glowing comments, the many high-fives) retroactively in a few more days. I hope so. I think you have to take time to appreciate the good times in a career like this or you go crazy. For now though, on and on to more projects.

Tanith, the director is an absolute wonder. Martin & Jon, the tech/op & sound lifted and supported the performance beautifully. Zoe, an old school friend, spent an afternoon hammering bricks to give us the elegant touches of design that did so much with so little.

I am so proud of them all and grateful that they are my collaborators. I think this little passion project of mine could really end up being something and that’s only true because of them.

Here’s a photo of Sid. The actor. With some bricks. He didn’t smash those, but he smashed the performance. I can’t wait to see him up in Edinburgh as he melts into the role and owns it even more. What a send-off.

*(I’ve since found this quotation from a Lucy Prebble interview: “If you are a writer, watch your audience, not your actors. It will tell you the truth about whether you are telling the truth.Always thought she was great.)

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Carry On My Playword Son

(Sorry)

With True Brits out of my hands for a week or two, I’ve taken the opportunity to crack on with the second draft of Free Fall. It’s taken me a good long while to figure out what this play is truly about but I think I’ve nailed it now and that makes the process so much easier.

The play is an extension of a shorter piece of mine and (currently) comprises 4 long scenes played out over 75 odd minutes. One of the reasons this is is that I like to set myself challenges when I start a project and this is the culmination of an earlier challenge. You see, I used to have a problem with length (way-hay!). I just couldn’t figure out how to sustain a scene for beyond a couple of pages. So I made myself do it. In Ayodhya. In Bump. And I think I’m managing it to best effect yet in this play. I hope so.

One thing I know though, my next piece is definitely going to be a pacier bastard, chock full of snappy scenes. It’ll also have about eight characters instead of one or two. Never done anything like that – another challenge for sure.

Well Stacked

This time last year, I was just coming off of the buzz of seeing my first full(ish) length play put on its feet. The future seemed a bit hazy. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was meant to go from there. I didn’t like it.

Today, it’s meetings and projects galore. I don’t like it. But I’m bloody grateful.

It’s the reason I’ve been a bit quieter on here – my days are spent trying to stack projects like a pro – but I’ll be back to explain it all shortly.

It’s on my to-do list.

My increasingly epic to-do list.

West Country Trains, World Music Choirs, Wicked Auditions

A somewhat haphazard weekend has just passed, beginning with a little trip down to Exeter for the ten year anniversary of the Uni’s World Music Choir. The what? Yep, Exeter Uni’s (and Crediton’s) World Music Choir was one of the many things I threw myself into and it was wonderful accent to what was an otherwise fairly typical student experience. Though I didn’t spent that long back down there, I did all my favourite things: Few pints of ale named for moorland animals, a pasty from Oggy Oggy, a chat with an old housemate and sitting in a living room singing with a group of people I mostly didn’t know. The utter lack of cynicism gave me a bit hit of nostalgia as well a welcome beat away from life in London.

The train journey there and back was long but productive and I got decent headway into the full-length script for Free Fall.  I also officially became That Guy: sat on a train, writing on my Macbook, straining to see the screen with my oh-so trendy glasses. If I passed me by, I’d have hated me.

Keeping up the productive streak, today we held auditions for the first reading of True Brits. The quality was incredibly high, just like with The Iguanodon Queen, and like with that they all brought something different into the room. It made me both humble that people bother to give a thought to my work and annoyed that there wasn’t a way to use them all and we had to pick one. I know that sounds a bit luvvie, but there it is. Luckily, because we’ll do more than one reading, we’ll have the opportunity to work with more than the one chosen this time around. Maybe I should go all I’m Not There with it and have twenty different actors (including Cate Blanchett) playing the same guy…problem solved.

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