What is your responsibility as a writer to the work and writers that have come before you?- Daniel York Loh
A couple of years ago I attended an Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF) event at the Young Vic where Madani Younis was the keynote…
One of the toughest, unexpected challenges I’ve grapple with in my relatively short career as a writer is the concept of neutral narratives. These are stories which are broadly accepted as universal, to be able to reflect the soul of vast swathes of the country (if not the world), as opposed to others that are broadly considered – let’s be generous – niche. In the realm of Serious Theatre, the most visible of these is the “state of the nation” plays. Big Plays With Big Themes. They demand attention. They demand an audience. They usually get it. As such, they have the opportunity to define mainstream tastes and expectation.
By what is surely sheer coincidence, the vast majority of these stories circle around heroes who are white, often male and usually relatively well-off. I’ve nothing against those heroes or those for whom they deeply matter. However, the predominance of these narratives means that it’s people like this that you are trained, unknowingly, to see yourself in. Stories of others, by others aren’t neutral or considered mainstream – they have categories. How many times have you heard a piece of theatre labelled by identity category? A gay play. An Asian play. A woman’s play (Women may be 51% of the population but their work is still too often considered a niche).
As a cultural minority, you grow up accepting a majority narrative as being able to speak for you. Majorities do not grow up with the reverse – minority stories are there to bolster their own rather than be taken as another lens on their own lives. I’ve seen writers struggle immensely with this and too often the solution, depressingly, is to consciously reject their backgrounds in order to find an acceptance as someone who can write “more” than what their natural condition and curiosities might lead them to.
So one of the most thrilling developments for me in recent years is watching new theatre writing that pushes at this consensus and asks exactly what nation we’re all talking about and who gets to decide what state it’s in. In doing so, it’s also questioning whose stories get to stand in for the whole, who gets to be the analogue for aspiration, who gets to be identified with, who gets to define the mainstream.
This development has the potential to create a profound shift in our ability to empathise with others and thus better understand the world around us. But only if we can bring a wide audiences to this work and get them to let it into their souls. There are big barriers to this: The big ones for me are overcoming pre-existing empathetic biases and a narrow communal base of knowledge.
An example that I often use is this: If you want to tell a story about white British soldiers in World War Two, there are plenty of ways for you to approach it without losing the audience. You can zoom right in to a single moment, you can create a romance, or even throw in some zombies and the audience will come along with you, focusing on the characters you present, because there is a relatively decent shared understanding of the basics of that war. (There is of course a problem with shared understandings in that they are so often warped beyond reality – but that’s for another essay).
If you want to write about people or events far beyond that base, you confront audiences who are expecting the play to be entirely *about* those events, for the work to exist to teach them about it, rather than be focused on the drama of the lives of the characters within it. One of the most common things I hear from people coming out of An Adventure, my most recent play at the Bush Theatre, is “I didn’t know anything about that”. In many ways I’m proud of this, in another I wonder how much of the running time they’ve spent filing questions in their head and if that took them out of the experience.
There are other barriers too which merit their own discussion: Language, cultural differences creating unexpected reactions. Sometimes it can be tougher to sell these stories, especially if a theatre’s audience is relatively homogenous. Sometimes you might have to contend with reviewers who don’t understand or plainly reject the specificities that are important to you. Sometimes people will reject how you tell “their” story. All of these can sting.
For what it’s worth, I believe the best method of trying to navigate past those barriers is through bending towards the characters’ emotions, in the hope it will connect and lead an audience through what you want to present them with. From my London-centric view, some of the great successes from minority writers of the last year or so – Misty, Nine Night and Barbershop Chronicles, were all unapologetic in their specificity and unrelenting in their humanity. A sharp focus on feelings, even whilst sometimes playing with form, is – I believe – a large part of what allowed them to find the much deserved wide audiences they did.
But maybe the title of this article is a bit of a trick. Because you can never really write stories for a mainstream audience. You can only write stories that become mainstream. It’s less about forcing yourself into an accepted model and more about decentralising what is accepted. For me, audiences are still the key to that and by broadening who comes to see the work in the first place – which, through the efforts of diligent, passionate advocates, is beginning to happen – I am optimistic that we can nudge a wider range of people to not only come out for and engage with minority stories but to let those stories tell them who they are as well.
Vinay’s debut play, True Brits, opened at the Edinburgh Fringe 2014, transferred to the Bush Theatre and went on to headline the 2015 Vault Festival.
His television debut Murdered By My Father was commissioned for BBC3 and later repeated on BBC1. It won the Royal Television Society award for Best Single Drama before going on to be nominated for three BAFTAs and Vinay was named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit for his work.
He has since written for Paines Plough, ITV, Channel 4 and the BFI, as well as contributing to the bestselling collection of essays, The Good Immigrant. His latest play, An Adventure, ran at Bush Theatre in October 2018. He is currently developing projects for the BBC and his forthcoming episode of Doctor Who, Demons of the Punjab, airs on Sunday November 11th.