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Feature: Straight from the director’s mouth – 27 mins with Gbolahan Obisasan

Posted on 08 March 2014 by Rachel St John

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s cleverly titled play We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915, took the US by storm, becoming part of a growing trend of exploring Africa, its past and its culture. The show has now been brought to London’s Bush Theatre, where actor turned writer/director Gbolahan Obisesan is taking charge of the show.

“I actually found out about the show whilst researching another play,” Obisesan says. “I had been receiving newsletters from Jackie’s agent and I saw the name of the play in one of them and found it intriguing. I eventually read the play and was moved; it was funny, challenging but very tragic.”

Drury’s play is about six young actors in their 20s, three black and three white, who are doing a presentation about the first genocide of the twentieth century. With themes such as race, identity, belonging and culture within the performance, it’s no wonder Obisesan jumped at the chance to get involved. Not many plays bring up the eye-opening reality of such a historic tragedy in a modern day context.

“I really wanted to put the play in front of a British audience and see how they’d respond to it,” Obisesan continues. “In the same way that Jackie Drury intended to engage the audience in the script, I wished to do the same with the production over here – making it poignant and relevant to the audience on a high level. I was excited to get into the rehearsal process with the actors, unlocking and unpicking the play so that it would work theatrically. The play explores an obscure historical event that deals with a lot of issues which the well-intended characters deal with. They become challenged, battered and broken on the legacy of what happened as they look into their human sense of identity.”

Obisesan, a London-based director, originally started out as a member of the National Youth Theatre wanting to be an actor. I asked how he transitioned into writing and directing so successfully. The National Youth theatre started up a programme called Short Nights where it challenged members to write a play. As a result, Obisesan wrote his first play, Roadside, about a young man dealing with addiction and mental illness. “People responded positively to it and I also directed it. It was then I wanted to learn more about what I could offer actors, but I also had more stories within me that I wanted to explore and share through the medium of theatre.” From there, he began looking for outlets to further explore this creative side – and became part of the Soho and Royal Court writers’ groups whilst undertaking an introduction to directing course at the Young Vic. “I was keen to find out which I felt a stronger pull towards without limiting my potential by focusing on just one.”

Which does he prefer, I wonder? Cue another chuckle: “In a way, I think they go hand in hand. Part of my motivation is to remain visible and to not feel limited. I’ve been lucky enough for people to acknowledge me as a writer and a director. As a director, you need to communicate the play to actors and decipher the message. With writing, it’s about sculpting characters, the narrative, and elements of the drama and its structure which may be helpful for the director. So to me, both are valued and they feed off one another. If a writing job comes up, I’ll take it. If a directing job comes up and it’s a play I really want to do I’ll probably take it as well.” He went on to describe himself as a “hired gun”, going where the money is. “You don’t want to be struggling or on benefits and there’s an integrity about making a living whilst having freedom, so the balance of writing and directing for me depends on where the work is coming from.”

Although he had a busy press day ahead, I took time to ask what advice he would offer to directors and theatre makers who are just starting out: “One of the biggest challenges for directors starting out is breaking into the industry, so just jump in with both feet and immerse yourself, rather than half exploring it. Take every opportunity you can and ensure that you’re being creatively challenged whilst learning about the things you’re lacking. If you have a sense of what you want to achieve and where you want to go, you’re more likely to find yourself gaining momentum and not stagnating.” Because from there, he continued, you can find opportunities to match your dreams.

All this is easier if you live in or close to London – but what if you don’t? “Remain visible,” he advises. “Get involved with your local theatre the best way you can – even if it means writing a letter with regards to what you’re interested in. They might be able to lead you in the right direction or support you by making the theatre more open to you. When it comes to being taken seriously, how you present yourself on a professional level is very important. So make adjustments if you need to. It could be your sense of style, how you communicate or your attitude in how you relate to things. As long as you can present strong ideas and back them up there’s no reason they won’t take you seriously.”

We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915 is at the Bush Theatre until 12 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush’s website


Rachel St John

Rachel St John

Rachel is an aspiring playwright and theatre enthusiast who graduated from Kingston University in 2012. She currently works as a freelance writer and part-time babysitter, and is a regular volunteer at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.

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Feature: From social worker to playwright – the making of Carthage

Posted on 29 January 2014 by Richard Walls

Rehearsals for CARTHAGE. Photo Credit Darren BellIf Chris Thompson has any nerves ahead of the opening of his first play Carthage at the Finborough Theatre this week, he isn’t showing them. “It’s extremely exciting. I’m still pinching myself.”

Extremely exciting is right. Not only has the play won him a Channel 4 Playwright’s Scheme bursary (formerly the Pearson Playwright Award) and a residency at the Finborough, his second play Albion will be premiering at the Bush Theatre later this year. Despite his growing prestige Thompson is philosophical on its rewards. “It feels good not to be lonely professionally anymore. As a writer you’re lonely.”

Having worked in social services for over twelve years, the writer tag is taking some getting used to. Describing Carthage as a deeply personal response to his career, the play explores the fallout arising from the death of a young boy in care as well as the culpability of those who were tasked with protecting him. Though not based on any specific case, the play draws heavily on the emotional complexity that accompanies a career in the social services. “I remember being scared,” says Thompson. “I remember crying in the toilets not wanting to do a visit to check up on a child. I don’t feel sorry for myself, though. You have this privileged insight into people’s lives.”

Thompson stresses that heavy themes don’t make for a heavy play. On the contrary, the play is fused with the humour that has allowed him to navigate his way through his years as a social worker. “The play has turned out to be very funny and rehearsals have been hilarious.” Director Robert Hastie agrees, citing “lovely moments of small victories” for the characters in the play as providing a deft contrast with the play’s darker moments. “What’s beautiful about Chris’s writing is the comfort these characters take in each other when confronted with such adversity.”

Hastie first met both play and playwright over a year ago when asked to direct a reading of an earlier version for the 2012 Vibrant Festival. “I immediately fell for it. I just loved it and count myself very lucky that it came my way.”

Thompson asks whether Hastie has ever found it difficult working with him, given that he has no prior background in the arts, but Hastie refuses to let such modesty go unchecked: “I’ve never met anyone so curious as to what theatre can and should be, and that challenge has really enriched my understanding of what we do.”

The curiosity with which both men approach the work goes hand in hand with a deep-seated trust and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Asked how he has found the collaborative aspects of being in the rehearsal room, Thompson is both assured and relaxed: “I’m very comfortable with the process of it all. You have to let go.”

Getting to this point hasn’t always been easy. Hastie speaks of how earlier on in the process his main challenge was in making Thompson comfortable with speaking on an emotional level about his thoughts and his experiences, to which Thompson quips that, as a social worker, he’s dead inside, before going on to express his gratitude: “I used to go to the theatre all the time, and love what I saw, but social work killed that for me. It’s not that the plays were bad, but that I’ve seen so many bleak and horrible things. But in being spoken to like a writer – and in being treated like one – Rob’s really brought me out of my shell.”

Rehearsals for CARTHAGE. Photo Credit Darren Bell (2)

Now both men eagerly await what their audiences are going to bring to and take away from the work. Both stress that the play is not about social workers per se, but rather one which takes a wider societal view interrogating the systems we put in place and rely upon, and what happens when they fail. These are questions for the audience to wrestle with during the play and after. “It doesn’t feel a judgemental play to me,” says Thompson. “I think everyone has to leave with their own sense of the complexities and the greyness.”

Thompson is hesitant about imparting too much advice to aspiring writers but he strongly believes we should keep numerous avenues and routes into the profession open because people need time to find their voices. “As a writer, do something else other than theatre: listen to people, watch people, meet people, see people.”

Hastie argues that aspiring directors need to ensure they are engaging with writers and not just their texts – or the texts of dead writers. “There isn’t a theatre without that first creative spark. It doesn’t need to be a writer, but while there are great writers like Chris out there you would be foolish not to get to know them. Use that spark. There are as many ways of making good plays as there are good plays.”

Carthage is at the Finborough Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets visit the Finborough’s website

Rehearsal photos (c) Darren Bell. 

Richard Walls

Richard Walls

Richard is a playwright and recent graduate of the MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London. He is currently under commission to Theatre Absolute.

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Feature: Cuckoo at the Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 13 January 2014 by Laura Turner

suhalya el-bushraOpening this week at the Unicorn Theatre is a new play by Hollyoaks writer Suhayla El-Bushra, whose play Pigeons recently ran at the Royal Court Theatre. Cuckoo is, in her own words, “a play about an unlikely friendship between two teenage girls, Jenny and Nadine, and how this friendship is tested when Jenny becomes jealous of the relationship that develops between Nadine and Jenny’s mum, Erica. Although it’s about teenagers it also raises questions about parenting – how responsible should we be for children whose own parents have failed or are unable look after them?”

What inspired you to write this piece?

I was working in a Pupil Referral Unit with teenage girls who had been excluded from mainstream education. I had worked there for some time, mainly with boys, but I had come back from maternity leave and there were suddenly a lot more girls attending. I was intrigued by the way their behaviour was different from the boys. They were much more charming and sweet – but then would go out and get arrested for beating people up after school. I wanted to explore what it was that made girls go out and commit acts of violence; young women aren’t ‘supposed’ or expected to be aggressive, so I was interested in female anger – where it comes from and what happens when it’s suppressed. I had also recently become a mother, so I think I was subconsciously looking at that through Erica’s character – at the devotion and sacrifice involved in having a child, but also the resentment that can stem from that.

There must have been challenges in writing that story. 

I hadn’t written a play before – I’d only written feature film scripts – so I was getting my head around writing for a different medium. The first draft had loads of scenes, several locations and a cast of about 20, but it was also structured like a screenplay. It took me a while to work out what would and wouldn’t work on stage, but luckily I had the chance to work with some actors and a director on the characters and the story quite early on in the process, so I learnt a huge amount doing that.

I started Cuckoo a long time ago and kept coming back to it at various stages, with long gaps in between. I spent time developing it in Brighton, but after I’d written the second draft I had the chance to work on it some more with Nathan Curry (who’s directing it now) for a couple of days at the National Theatre Studio with some professional actors. So that really moved it on as well. And it’s great that Nathan has been on board since then, partly because he’s a brilliant director, but it also meant that when we started rehearsals I knew he already had a very strong understanding of what the play was about.

Having written for TV shows such as Hollyoaks, just how different is writing for the stage?

In terms of form, that’s a tough one to answer, because for every rule you can find about the difference between writing for stage and screen, you can also find an example that breaks that rule. For me, the main difference is about the process. There are usually a lot fewer people involved in putting on a play than there is in creating a TV series or a feature film, so it tends to be you, a director and some actors in a rehearsal room trying things out. It’s a very immediate and direct way of working. In TV you might work on a script with script editors and producers without meeting the actors and director, so you do miss out on that part of the process and you can feel a bit detached from the end product when you finally see it.

How do you balance the young girls’ stories with the role of the mother in the play?

I think it’s definitely more the girls’ story, although Erica is so important in terms of driving the plot. It’s her behaviour that influences the girls’ actions, but the focus is more on the effect that has on the girls than on her. There’s a slight imbalance in that there’s less explanation for Erica’s behaviour: it’s very clear what’s motivating the girls, whereas the actress playing Erica has to do a lot more digging, but it is in there.

What do you draw on as a writer?

Anything and everything. Books, articles, things I overhear on the bus. I think you can’t help but put some of your own personal experience into whatever you write though, even if you try really hard to avoid it.

Why is the Unicorn the right home for this play?

I think the fact that, as well as staging work for young audiences, they’re also keen to put on plays that explore our relationship with young people, as Cuckoo does, makes it the right home. I’m very proud that it’s being staged at The Unicorn as I’ve seen some brilliant work there recently.

I’ve been involved with both [rehearsals and casting]. I think it’s vital for writers to sit in on rehearsals and understand that process. I don’t ever feel like I have a huge amount to offer by that stage of the proceedings, but it’s interesting to see how it takes shape. I think you learn a lot and that it definitely informs the next thing you write.

Cuckoo plays at the Unicorn Theatre from 14 to 25 January. For tickets and more information, visit the Unicorn Theatre website.

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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Guest blog: Winning the Bruntwood Prize – “a big and brilliant shock”

Posted on 29 November 2013 by A Younger Theatre

5. Anna Jordan winner of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2013. Photo Joel Chester Fildes

Winning the Bruntwood Prize has got to be the single most exciting moment of my life so far. I was so proud to be shortlisted that I promised myself that was enough, having my work read by people like David Eldridge and Marianne Elliot. I didn’t dare entertain the thought that I would win. So it was a big and brilliant shock.

Writing is certainly a long game. I started in 2007 with a one-act play about two strangers meeting on the roof of a tower block. Finishing a play gave me an incredible sense of ownership and creative power – as an actor I had been used to depending on agents or casting directors but here I was in control of my creativity. I got such lovely feedback on my first couple of plays I thought surely it wouldn’t be long before I could carve out a paid career for myself as a writer. But I was wrong. I’m still not there yet, but I hope that’s about to change.

With YEN I challenged myself to tackle large, uncomfortable and painful subjects whilst, I hope, maintaining truthful characters which the audience will fall in love with. I’m interested in exploring what young people have to deal in today’s world; the sex-saturated media, celebrity worship, lack of sex education and the constant presence of online pornography. Someone once wrote “Write about what keeps you awake at night”. And that does. I can’t imagine how I would have made it through my teenage years with all the pressures young people have to deal with now. I take my hat off to them.

If I could give advice to aspiring writers, young and old, it would be to write from the heart; write about what interests you and excites you. See research as part of the process – not something you have to get over with before the real work starts. My friend Chris Urch, who was awarded one of the judges’ prizes at Bruntwood for his play Rolling Stone, wrote recently that while developing a play it is important to hear your words spoken and I would totally advocate this. I am so grateful to all the actors I’ve worked with over the years who have given their time to help develop my work. I would never have made it to this point without them.

The Bruntwood Award is a fantastic initiative. Plays are entered under a pseudonym so your writing is all you are judged on. 60% of this year’s shortlist and the last three winners of the overall prize have been women, interesting when only 17% of published playwrights are female. There is no age limit and I do not have to um and ahh about whether I consider myself an “emerging” playwright or not. I hope that this is going to be the beginning of many new things; next year Epsilon Productions is putting on my play Chicken Shop and I hope to take something to the Fringe. And of course in 2015 there will be the full production of YEN at The Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. But at present, I am just trying to get my head round the last week… And it’s an absolute pleasure.

Anna Jordan is the 2013 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting winner for her fourth play YEN. Anna trained as an actor at LAMDA before she started writing. Her work has been performed at the Bush Theatre, Soho Theatre and Riverside Studios in London. She is also a freelance director, acting tutor and Artistic Director of award-winning Without a Paddle Theatre. 

 Photo (c) Joel Chester Fildes.



A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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