A welcome to the ‘Letters to Fellow Writers’ series by Chinonyerem Odimba
In an introduction to a brand new six part series in partnership with tiata fahodzi @TiataFahodzi Artistic Director and Chief Executive Chinonyerem Odimba to invites us…
This letter is addressed to a specific group of writers and theatre makers, namely those who have arrived to the UK as refugees.
Dear fellow artist,
I don’t know the circumstances that lead you to leave your country. Perhaps it was the fear of the unwanted knock on your door, the “request” that you answer some questions put to you by government officials. Your work may have put you in direct danger. You critiqued the regime, you made light of the dear leader. Or the circumstances were not so dramatic. Maybe it wasn’t the work you were making specifically that lead you to exile but the very idea of you, someone who is independent of mind and spirit, someone who is unwilling to report on colleagues. Or it may not have been the government that was out to get you but some militia group that decided you were an unwanted element and threatened to eliminate you. The paths to exile are many.
You live to make theatre. Navigating through all the difficulties to make theatre in your country was like clearing some unimaginable obstacle course. You had to write a script that conveyed what you wanted to say without getting you killed, you had to get funding, get a venue, hire actors you could trust, get past the censor, spread the word about your show. All these things you managed to do somehow and get your work seen. You made a name for yourself in your country or perhaps you were beginning to. It was exhilarating. You were bitten by the theatre bug. You don’t need to read an academic work about the value of theatre because you get theatre in your bones.
You had a support network around you. People who shared your vision, who wanted to see the same changes in society you dreamt about. Friends who dug deep in their pockets or gave up their time to make your show happen. Friends that have now fled like you or remain behind, silenced.
And now you are stranded on this Island called Britain. Are you Prospero or Caliban? This will become apparent as time goes by. You are aching to make theatre again. But what if English is not your first language? This will present a considerable obstacle. Getting funding from the arts council is difficult enough if English is your first language let alone your second, third or fourth. Getting to know the theatre landscape in the UK will take you some time, not to mention money as attending theatre shows is expensive.
One fellow Iraqi theatre maker I know made theatre by saving money from her day job and funding her productions herself. She relied on volunteer amateur Iraqi actors and put on performances in Arabic in front of an Iraqi audience. She was lucky if she managed to break even. Most of the time, she lost money. The mainstream British theatre scene of course has no idea she even exists because these performances were not subtitled (no money for that) so there was no way to have them reviewed by an English newspaper. They were a true labour of love. But effectively she was making Iraqi theatre in London and relying on reviews in the Arabic speaking media to spread the word. I wonder how many exile communities run their theatre activities in this way?
This form of community-based theatre may not appeal to you. What you want is to reach a mainstream audience. Perhaps you are aching to write about what lead you to exile, what happened to your country. And you want to engage a big theatre with your work. Here you will run into a problem. I will call it ‘catching the zeitgeist train’. If you are an Afghani playwright for example and you have just fled your country after the shambolic withdraw of American troops, then you will have a window of opportunity to get your story on a British stage, very likely on a London stage as the provinces rarely commission that sort of play. If your play is poetic, weird, doesn’t address the issue of withdrawals of American troops head on then your chances of getting the play on may diminish. This is a marketing issue. Theatres need to be able to say to their audience: interested in Afghanistan? Here’s a play for you. I have seen plays about troubled regions of the world that are poetic, weird, odd, unexpected but they tended to have a different marketing strategy. For example, Amir Nizar Zubai’s In the Penal Colony, took Kafka’s well known story and set it in Palestine. This made the play easy for the Young Vic theatre to market because the audience interested in Kafka is vast.
The other problem of catching the zeitgeist train is that a British or an American author, very likely white, could beat you to the finish line. Such an author is probably writing the big play about the shambolic withdrawal of American troops as I write these words. They will be better connected than you and have access to bigger theatres. Their play being put on might make the theatre reluctant to take on your play. After all no theatre is going to program two plays back-to-back about Afghanistan. If you are up against a big name, you will lose that fight. But remember you will lose it with that particular theatre. Others might still be interested in your story so don’t give up.
But can you really catch the zeitgeist train? You might be far too traumatised to put pen to paper right now or stare at a blank page on your computer screen. The story you want to tell might take two years to write or five or ten. The trauma of what you went through needs to be processed, understood, contextualised. The idea of catching the zeitgeist train might be anathema to you. The sad and somewhat harsh truth is that very few venues are going to wait ten years for your Afghanistan play. By then the entire world might be burning and theatres will want plays that reflect that. Artistic directors will tell you differently. We want your good play about Afghanistan at any time, they might say. Take that with a pinch of salt.
There are exiled theatre artists who have successfully bucked the zeitgeist. The Belarus Free Theatre being perhaps the most shinning example. Founded by Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin, the Belarus Free Theatre was championed by the likes of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Vaclav Havel. Attacked in their home country, they were hosted by the Young Vic theatre where many of their plays premiered in the UK. Sometimes their productions captured the zeitgeist but not always. They have earned the right to put on what they like by the sheer excellence of their work. However, such an embrace of exiled theatre practitioners is rare and I know no example of refugee artists from the global south who have received such a warm welcome in the UK.
The most important thing you can do once you arrive in London is to heal. Give yourself time before wading into the theatre world. A good start, particularly if you are a playwright, is to find a writing program to join. Again, language is an obstacle as most of these programs require written samples in English. If English is not your first language, then collaborating with
a translator will become essential. Eventually you will reach a point when you are ready to write or devise the play you want to see. If you want to see it, if you are aching to see it, then chances are so will others.
The theatre scene in the UK might not always be the most hospitable, it might show you tremendous indifference at first, but you have faced worst adversity having had to leave your country. Something that you should aim to do, once you’ve settled in the UK and had time to heal, is to forge alliances with other theatre makers. You might be lucky and find a theatre that is willing to take a chance on your play but if you knock on doors and they don’t open then the other way of achieving your goal is to build alliances from the bottom up. Find a producer that backs your vision, a director, an actor or a group of actors, a designer, a musician. I believe in you because like you I came as a refugee to this country. I’ve had tremendous successes and heart-breaking setbacks. But I’m still here, still fighting. The last thing I want to say to you is that I look forward to seeing your work.
Hassan Abdulrazzak’s plays include The Special Relationship (Soho Theatre, 2020), And Here I Am (Arcola Theatre, 2017 and UK tour; Europe, Middle East and Africa tour, 2018-2019), Love, Bombs and Apples (Arcola Theatre, 2016 and UK tour; Golden Thread, San Francisco, 2018 followed by a second UK tour; Kennedy Centre, Washington DC, 2019), The Prophet (Gate theatre, 2012) and Baghdad Wedding (Soho Theatre, London 2007; BBC Radio 3, 2008; Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney 2009; Akvarious productions, Delhi & Mumbai 2010).
He had translated numerous Arabic language plays including Chronicles of a City We Never Knew by Wael Qadour (reading at the Gate Theatre 2019), Voluntary Work by Laila Soliman (reading at The Royal Court Theatre 2012) and 603 by Imad Farajin (reading at the Royal Court Theatre 2008).
He has adapted Baghdad Wedding into a feature film for Focus Features, wrote an original screenplay called Cutting Season about FGM for New Century. He has also written four episodes for HWJN, an upcoming TV series commissioned by O3 and Image Nation pro-ductions.
He is the recipient of George Devine, Meyer-Whitworth, Pearson theatre awards as well as the Arab British Centre Award for Culture. Love, Bombs and Apples won the Bay Area the-atre award for outstanding production in 2018. And Here I Am won best monodrama at Sharm El Sheikh International Theatre Festival For Youth in 2019. He was a Sundance Theatre Lab Fellow in 2020. He is also a Golden Thread Productions Resident Artist.