WEEK FIVE- The Driving Question. Theatre as a Gesture of Enquiry by Chinonyerem Odimba

One of the first bewildering terms I heard when I started writing was ‘find your voice’. It took me a long time to understand this – I was frankly quite happy with my voice, which was now an intriguing mix of North London cockney, Bristolian burr, with the occasional love of Nigerian colloquialisms. But the more I wrote plays, the more I started to understand that the writer’s voice isn’t just about what kind of stories they tell, or how they choose to tell those stories, but also about that voice can be one born out of an endless curiosity. An enquiring voice that doesn’t claim to have answers but is desperate to share questions about the world we live in with audiences. Wanting to shine a light on things that we do not see, or choose not to see.

“the quality of life depends on the questions you ask” – August Wilson

The gesture of enquiry is one that has led me to write the plays that I do. I find writing stories from this place exciting because it feels like I am entering the story from the same place an audience might. I am meeting the story in the same way.

In my play Amongst The Reeds, this was very much the process I used. It is a play about 2 young women who are hiding from the ever-encroaching immigration law. With their fears ever presence, it is also about asking how do we find the smallest comfort and companionship.

Asking questions, doing research and learning that your characters have questions too, are some ways we can start to reach a point of drilling down to the driving question of any play.

 

Exercise 1. Question Everything

 This feels like the more obvious one. But asking questions of the world of the story is one of my first gestures of enquiry.

The questions in the box are very generic but help me to shape so much about the story I want to tell including characters, the world of the play, and finding the complexity/nuances in the story.

 

WHAT QUESTIONS DO I HAVE ABOUT THIS THING?

 

  • Who does it affect?
  • Where does it exist?
  • Who knows about it?
  • Why do I care?
WHAT QUESTIONS DO I HAVE ABOUT HOW THE REAL WORLD SEES THIS THING?

 

  • Is it seen or unseen?
  • Who talks about it?
  • Do people care?
WHAT QUESTIONS DO I HAVE ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO INHABIT THIS THING?

 

  • What do they look like?
  • What’s the bets thing about them?
  • What’s the worst thing about them?
  • Do I know anyone that might inhabit this world?
WHAT DO I THINK I KNOW ABOUT THIS ALREADY?

 

  • I know what it means to be newly arrived in a country.
  • I know what it is to be a young girl in London
  • I know that Nigerians have the one of the biggest numbers of girls being exploited and trafficked in the world.

What this exercise allows us to do is be really clear about the places to go to find the material needed to start to writing the play  – whether that is personal testimonials, expert opinion, or imagery of the world.

 

Exercise 2 – Research Wisely

Research is sometimes a strange beast in playwriting. You are ultimately responsible for telling the story you want to tell, but sometimes stories require us to know the facts and perceived ‘knowns’ in order to disrupt or question them. But research should never take over the ticking heartbeat of a play.

When researching it is best to be really clear about your source materials and how you intend to use them – again by posing questions. So when researching the play, I wanted to find out as much as I could about the legal implications of being a young person with no legal status in the UK, as well as the reality of rough sleeping – when you are a young person that doesn’t want to be seen.

For research, break it down it down to 3 clear lines of enquiry – 3 lines down an A4 page/document works for this exercise.

 

  • Real world

These are primary and secondary sources of research – first-hand personal accounts of what is being interrogated, whilst secondary sources are things like published research, newspaper articles, documentary films, exhibitions etc. For Amongst the Reeds, as well as talking to immigration lawyers, I attended local Asylum seeker meetings, read accounts of women in detention and how they were captured, and spoke to academics who were actively working to better the British immigration laws.

So in the case of this play questions like – How does this system prey on you even at your most vulnerable? What are the tangible places where we can see the system at work? How does the system differ when we are talking of people under 18 years old?

 

  • Story space

The story space is the other things that your story might touch upon. The questions that exist in the story that you want to tell that have been prompted by the characters as they come to exist. So questions such – what are the numbers of homeless young women in the UK? What does the Vietnamese culture in the UK look like?

 

  • Imaginative space

This is a harder space to quantify. The questions asked in this space are more about the rules of the imaginative/theatrical world that characters inhabit. Questions such as – where can you hide in a busy city? What are the visual narratives inspiring this world? And how does surviving on the streets change when characters are afraid of daylight?

ONI:                You would do dat? Run out dere?

                        Juss like dat? /

GILLIAN:        I didn’t say that Oni.

                        I want to imagine /

ONI:                But you think about it for ar second?

                        You want to try /

GILLIAN:        No /

ONI:                I think you should Gill-li-an. Go on try it.

                        Go to de door and juss open it. 

                        Go down de stairs out into de street.

                        Walk down de street like you ar juss anodder parson going about deer business. Maybe for one day or two. Maybe more. But one day                          juss like dat /

GILLIAN:        I don’t say I want to /

 ONI:                If you go out dere you know what will happen.

GILLIAN:        I know.                       

                        Just to imagine / 

ONI:                Before seven? Before time? Before de dark? 

GILLIAN:        I know / 

ONI:                It won’t matter what you see. 

                        Dey will see you.

 GILLIAN:        Yes but when was the last time you sat outside eating ice-cream?

                        On the first real day of summer /

ONI:                I do not like summer.

 

Exercise 3 – Characters have questions too!

For this exercise, using your character biographies (necessary work!), write 1-3 sentences about what the play is about from each character’s point of view, as if the story is all about them. Allow characters to ask the burning questions they have about the world they are in.

 

One last thing…some tips on how to find the driving question(s) of your play

 

  • Ask yourself questions about why you are telling this story. What excites you, the playwright, about the possibilities of the story? What moves you?
  • Do you think others have the same question(s) about it? Or is your story trying to question the collective understanding?
  • Why is this play important? Why does it deserve to be witnessed?
  • In 3 short sentences try to pin down what it is you want the play to say.
  • Is any one dramatic element (Theme, Character, Plot, Language, Style) leading the story?  Why?
  • Play ‘interviewer’ with your characters.
  • How is the structure informing and serving the story/questions you have?
  • Keep interrogating even after the writing has started by giving each of your acts/scenes a title/heading in the form of a question.
  • Be open to your driving question changing.
  • Be playful– Not all questions are serious ones!

 

SCRIPT EXTRACT – AMONGST THE REEDS

PART ONE – SCENE 2.

That Day. 

GILLIAN peers out of the dirty slats of a broken window blind. She is in semi-darkness. A strong ray of light pushes into the darkness.

A beat. 

GILLIAN:      It is like a…

It is like when…

Everything…

Everything is making a sound.

Stretching up, waking up.

GILLIAN stares hard at the outside world –

And the smell of it…

Can you smell it?

Imagine that.

The smell of grass and the road melting.

I am almost smelling it…

Or the smell of flowers,

Big yellow flowers.

And their small petals,

Like the perfume your mother is wearing.

I miss the smell of things opening and reaching for the light.

I miss those things and if I could just see…

 (Beat)

Should I go to see?

Feel it?

I want to reach out to the light too.

Like those flowers.

Oni?

Should I go?

 

ONI appears out of a dark corner of the room –                   

 

Oni?

Oni say something.

Should we go?

 

ONI:                Stay here wiff me.

GILLIAN:      If I see it…

Then I will…

 

ONI:                What? What will change Gill-li-an?

GILLIAN:      Can you not smell it? Do you not want to put your head on the grass and feel the heat on your face? That warmness on your face and the sound of bees and flies in your ears /

ONI:                I do not like bees /

GILLIAN:      Can you not hear the ice cream van?

Listen.

It is getting closer.

Do you not want to just run out there before…

Before it goes…

Can you hear that?

(Beat)

The silence after…

Like the sound of happiness leaving and no one knows what to do.

I want to run after it /

 

ONI:                You would do dat? Run out dere?

Juss like dat? /

 

GILLIAN:      I didn’t say that Oni.

I want to imagine /

 

ONI:                But you think about it for ar second?

You want to try /

 

GILLIAN:      No /

 

ONI:                I think you should Gill-li-an. Go on try it.

Go to de door and juss open it.

Go down de stairs out into de street.

Walk down de street like you ar juss anodder parson going about deer business. Maybe for one day or two. Maybe more. But one day juss like dat /

 

GILLIAN:      I don’t say I want to /

 

ONI:                If you go out dere you know what will happen.

 

GILLIAN:      I know.

Just to imagine /

 

ONI:                Before seven? Before time? Before de dark?

 

GILLIAN:      I know /

 

ONI:                It won’t matter what you see.

Dey will see you.

 

GILLIAN:      Yes but when was the last time you sat outside eating ice-cream?

On the first real day of summer /

 

ONI:                I do not like summer.

(Beat)

Move away from de window Gill-li-an.

Move from dere /

 

GILLIAN:      Why? Why are you always telling me what to do?

 

ONI:                Think of de baby.

 

GILLIAN:      I just want to imagine /

 

ONI:                I am bored of all your talking /

 

GILLIAN:      I am bored of you!

(Short beat)

No one can see me.

 

GILLIAN takes a seat at the table –                 

(Beat)

ONI moves towards her –

 

ONI:                What is your name?

 

GILLIAN:        Gillian /

 

ONI:                Nice name. My name is Oni. O-Nee.

 

                        Can you pronounce?

 

                        It means born on holy ground.

 

                        Because I was born outside de church. My modder was praying in church one Sunday and den suddenly I want to come out. When she                          went outside to get some air, I juss dropped out dere on de ground. My fadder was dere and said it was like I came out running.

 

GILLIAN lets a little smile slip –

 

Is baby’s fadder here?

 

GILLIAN:        He is coming for us.

 

ONI:                He is young like you?

 

GILLIAN:        I am not a child /

 

Chinonyerem Odimba is a Nigeria-born, Bristol based playwright and poet. Her work for theatre includes The Bird Woman of Lewisham at the Arcola; Rainy Season, and His Name is Ishmael for Bristol Old Vic; Joanne for

Clean Break, and Amongst the Reeds for Clean Break and The Yard. More recently she has written a modern retelling of Twist for Theatre Centre which had a UK tour in Autumn 2017, Medea at Bristol Old Vic, and We Too, Are Giants for Kiln Theatre (formerly Tricycle Theatre).

TV includes Scotch Bonnet for BBC Three andA Blues for Nia for the BBC and Eclipse Theatre. Her first radio play, written in collaboration, The Last flag was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in May 2018.

Her work has been shortlisted for several awards including the Adrienne Benham Award and the Alfred Fagon awards. In 2015 her unproduced play Wild is De Wind was shortlisted to the final ten for the Bruntwood Playwriting Award. She is the joint winner for the 2018 Sonia Friedman Award (Channel 4 Playwright Bursary) for a new play for Talawa Theatre.

Chinonyerem Odimba is currently under commission for Eclipse Theatre’s ‘Revolution Mix’ at Bristol Old Vic, and is working on a new community play at Kiln Theatre. Chinonyerem Odimba is the Writer-in-Residence at Live Theatre/Northumbria University for 2018/2019.

 

For more on theatre as a gesture of enquiry please see our 2017 archived content  Joanne Murray Smith’s and  April de Angelis‘ livestream workshop and Judge and director Lyndsey Turner on ‘What If’

1 Mar 2019

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