Theatre meant a chance to delay homework by one night and pack an extra packet of crisps in your lunchbox for the bus home

I meant to write a different blog post, I’ve been meaning to for ages – something about the sexualisation of Muslim women and how islamophobia colludes with the patriarchal imagination to dominates us in ways specific… But it’s a complex piece to write. And I feel a different thought flowing through me today so let’s go with that instead.

I’ve been thinking a lot about theatre. That’s absurd really because it’s not something I ever thought about before. Not until I was commissioned to write a short play for Theatre Uncut very recently. I initially felt thrown – how could I write a play? But I did, I wrote it, wrote it feeling a complete fraud, knowing I’ve barely been to a theatre let alone read a play outside of school.  And essentially I wrote a play about writing the play, about those difficulties of writing the play, of not knowing how to write a play, of wanting to say so much but feeling trapped, of feeling a fraud and not as valid as other writers might… and I’ve been thinking about that, and why that is. Whenever I do, this memory flashes into my head of a woman I remember from a panel event I went to last year. She said she wrote plays for the radio. She was from Scotland and had this smart blond cut of hair and she said that when she had heard about the girls from Bethnal Green who went to Syria she felt so moved and fascinated that she wanted to write a play about them. And I remember feeling almost personally affronted that nobody laughed out loud at that.

I have been to theatres; it would be a lie to say I haven’t. I think theatre was one of those many things my mother grouped with piano lessons and private schools – tickets to a childhood she didn’t get, tickets to success, success as access to the things white people got, specifically the things middle-class white people got: the treatment white middle-class people got… And I get that, why wouldn’t she chase that level of anonymity? I went to see the Wizard of Oz for one of my childhood birthdays – I don’t actually remember this moment in my own memories but my mother tells me how she surprised me and how I glowed. Since then, I think, theatre has always been a special occasion. It’s not something you do for fun, it’s not something you go to to mull over new ideas or critique, you go to see old magical tales you already love and you go once in a blue moon. I could count on my hands the things I’ve seen in theatres – mainly musicals: the Wizard of Oz, the Hobbit, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Lion King, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The School of Rock. Theatre was a place for the surreal, a surreal place; a place for school trips and the chance to delay homework by one night and pack an extra packet of crisps in your lunchbox for the bus home.

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Since I wrote my monologue for Theatre Uncut and actually, even before that, I received a few emails asking for my involvement in or help with writing or reviewing scripts for plays/musicals. This also surprised me due to my complete lack of involvement in theatre, playwriting, and the like. I know the theatre world is not completely devoid of people of colour and Muslims either, so I was cautious to call tokenism right away. However, my most recent experience with these sorts of emails left me with the feeling that my asset to the arts would be the one skill I haven’t actually worked on – my skin colour and visible Muslimness. I was being asked to review scripts written by non-Muslims, about Muslims, in order to validate them. There’s something particularly devastating about knowing that middle-class white people are going into theatres watching stories written by middle-class white people about Muslims. In almost all cases the writers and directors are intent on “unsettling the liberal racism of the likes of themselves”… and yet, my only editorial advice would be to scrap your current play, go write about something you know about, or pay me to write a whole new play.

And yet, I teeter there, too.

Today at the launch of Theatre Uncut’s plays several people asked me would I go into playwriting now? I tried to treat the question seriously, as, I suppose it was. Part of me revels at the idea that I could write plays without ever reading the hailed writers and perhaps there is something subversive in this – learn and hone my art through the dramas of the non-literate writers in my own life, or those who never thought to pen their tales. But a bigger part of me just baulks at the idea. To me, theatre is still a place of the surreal, or at least, a place of the non-real. And I say that as someone who has had the bizarre privilege of spending a majority of the past months performing poetry in lots of different venues to lots of different  audiences. But I say this, because it is due to this that I have thought a lot lot lot about performance, and audiences, and writing. I have come to settle on the idea that for me, there is no purpose to an interaction with an audience that simply “entertains”. I refuse to tell a story that people can go home feeling content about, I refuse to tell a story that doesn’t see the privilege of telling it’s own story whilst people are neglected and abused and being murdered every moment of every day. If my audience is white and middle-class I only want to unsettle them. I plan out sets especially for this purpose, I write poems that challenge and disrupt – when my audience is more filled with those who share my experiences, I see my work as geared more at validation.

In light of all this thinking, when asked whether I would “go into playwriting” I jump ahead to the next logical question: for who? My own Theatre Uncut play grapples with this very dilemma through my personal monologuing, but it’s one I can’t move away from. To ask if I would write more plays without asking whether more Muslims will be in theatres to watch them is to ask a silly question. To ask if I would give more of myself to be consumed without asking how I want people to listen, is a semi-formed question.

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illustration from: https://michaelnorthrop.net/?p=3668

Today I performed my play to a packed room of theatre people. Everybody introduced themselves with a theatre after their surname. Standing with my back against a wall at the start I remember a tweet I saw on the internet about the perks of free wine at theatre events. I’m sure it’s appealing, but not the incentive for me I guess. I asked if there was somewhere I could pray and of course everyone was very accommodating; but it got me thinking. When I ask whether more Muslims will be in theatres to watch my imaginary plays I also want to ask whether theatres are the places for such plays and people to be watched. I recently asked my poc Instagram followers about their experiences of theatre and got stories of extremes, but also, the most overwhelming experience – that of hypervisibility: feeling so obvious, so looked at, so obviously out of place. Of course, many people wrote to me saying they didn’t care and they’d take up the space they deserved… but sometimes I wonder if the onus to rectify exclusion should lie with the excluded…

I met many friendly people today and am grateful to have got to share my writing and challenge with an audience. But I also spent much of the afternoon in the back of my brain. Hearing references to plays, people, arts, lives and venues I didn’t know. References that I tried not to make me feel ashamed for not knowing, that took my mind to safer reactions like thinking about high school friends, and high school trips and my siblings’ joking faces… It was a different language – and perhaps all professions that are new to us, are. But this one seemed particularly alien. Alien and yet keen to have me. Alien and yet keen to mention how bad empire was in my presence. Keen to have me but I have to be smart to the being had. How to not be tokenised and consumed under the demand for accessibility? I suppose a more important question is why do we want theatre to be accessible? Why is it that you want more Muslim writers? More people of colour? Why is it? Really ask what the motive is and who it’s for.

There’s something that will never get old about performing a piece (in this case a play) you wrote to an audience who don’t know that experience. You draw them in then spit them out and tell them they can’t know it. But then you also thank them after, for the opportunity and for having you, and isn’t it exciting? Isn’t it exciting that the power dynamic doesn’t fundamentally shift? That you ask permission to challenge someone and thank them afterwards for it? And what about after, when someone interviews you and asks why it’s important that women get the mic and you wonder if they realised how much your play was about coloniality and islamophobia?

I guess it’s just difficult thinking about theatre and its value when it’s something that has never had any particular value in my own life. It’s difficult to understand whether or not to nod or groan or how to react when people say telling stories through theatre is fundamentally important – when you’ve got by with never seeing or hearing those stories; and when the implication feels like it’s saying it’s important for white middle-class people to access more stories. I know this is a reductive interpretation of what is being said, I know people want to fundamentally change who gets to tell and consume stories and want theatre to be a place to imagine wider – and I know it is, I know theatre has been for many people and that there are all sorts of organic and grassroots theatres out there… but still, I can only write of what I have experienced, and that is that even those theatres are not places I have spent time in.

I keep hearing the desire for access, for wider participation, cheaper tickets, more diverse writers and directors etc etc and I guess I don’t know enough about the scene. I have no idea what the current issues are, I have no idea what’s being changed, I have no idea who’s who or what great leaps are being made (and I’m sure they are). But I can say this one thing – the fact that I don’t know that, because I’m not on the inside (and yet look at all my privilege, look at all this cultural and social capital I have gained in the last year, look at the people I now know… and even then…), says a lot to me.

All I can say of what I’ve glimpsed so far is that theatre is so so white… so so white and more than that it’s so so middle class. It’s so so middle class and more than that it’s so so exclusive, so exclusive, so strange, so bewildering. How does anyone feel a home in it? It’s a language and culture and rubbing shoulders and champagne in hands and no prayer rooms, and yes everyone is lovely, and yes everyone is accommodating, and yes everyone is thoughtful and kind and welcoming and happy to have you and wants to hear from you, and yes theatre needs to be more accessible, theatre needs to be more accessible – don’t you know? Don’t you know don’t you know don’t you know? Yes, yes, yes it does.

 

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