Playwrighting Top Tips: Part Three

Part three of our Top Tips series comes from Nina Steiger, Senior Dramaturg at the National Theatre. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses and here, Nina talks about writing for digital media and the unexpected route her own career has taken. 

You started your career as a playwright. So, why is it that you do what you do? What was the trajectory of that?

Nina Steiger: I think the first ten to fifteen years of any career are about the balance between trying to find your feet, make money and get as close as you can to what you feel is the heat source in the room. For me, as a writer, I was like, “Oh my god, I like people who make theatre and it’s fun to take things from page to the stage”, and that was the heat for me as a writer, as well as a way to express my intelligence, problems and creativity. As I carried on, it became more about directing as that heat source felt stronger. It was as though it was the next level of authorship and a different level of control and interpretation. It was one that was creative, exposing and deeply connected to my interests and issues.

Then I started working at a theatre that worked with new writers, and I discovered that what I really loved was not the nuts and bolts of directing. Because from the time a play got cast and the script was locked, I pretty well lost interest, which is not a good thing for a director. Also, by the time the play had opened, I not only had lost interest, I wanted to leave. I actively never wanted to see the thing again or the people involved, and I took that as a sign that I was not meant to be a director. I’m joking of course, but what I mean is that from the time the script was locked, I felt the heat begin to diminish. For me, the magic was around the tussle for story and style and the possibilities in that.

Another sign early on was that I was often told when applying for jobs in theatres “Please don’t have aspirations as a writer or director yourself.” I very willingly dropped those aspirations to take on some really great jobs working with and for writers, and I didn’t significantly regret that compromise.

I feel that writing will always be there for me. I feel that expressing myself verbally and through images and ideas is something I adore. But I think that’s what helps me work with writers. I discovered that the greatest heat, for me, is understanding the soul of a play, what it could become, starting from this fragmented pencil written recipe that arrives on pages and is turned into a live event – to me, that is the ultimate excitement. That’s how I discovered what I was.

Nina Steiger

Do you have some examples of times where that’s worked well?

Nina Steiger: There are examples of where my talent-spotting, which is a big part of my job, has worked well. I have seen people soar into successful and secure careers, and quickly.

For example, one of the first writers I worked with at Soho Theatre was Matt Charman who had never written a play and was working as a valet sorting cars out, and he wrote a wonderful play about that. His writing has taken him to the top of the game. That’s a sign to me that I put the right person in the path of the right opportunity.

When I think it’s the best is when a piece of theatre has gone from a conversation with an artist over a coffee to something that really catches fire and begins to change the culture. One of the pieces I’m most proud of that I’ve worked on is by Bryony Kimmings, called Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model. It’s not a traditional play but very much a piece of theatre about the dearth of appropriate role models for young women and girls in our society and the way they’re sexualised. It’s the least didactic and preachy kind of evening.

That to me was one that went from “This is what I care about the most” to, within a year, it being on and changing the world around it. So, that’s a great example for me.

How does that theatre work link to digital media?

Nina Steiger: A lot of people who I work with in theatre don’t know that I’m wild about the convergence of dramatic writing and digital media. It’s not something I bring to bear every day in my job, in my work with various theatre companies or with artists. But I think it’s the most brilliant marriage. I always start with this question when I do workshops on this area: “How many people have been on the internet today? How many people were on the internet before they left their house to come out? How many people were on the internet before they got out of bed?” Now

some people are going to be like, “Isn’t that a bad thing?” And, that’s not what we’re debating, but it is a bad thing obviously.

However, I believe it’s also a really cool thing. I then will ask “How many people have one smart device on you right now? Two? Three?” There’s usually three or more – I’m talking about your phone, your iPad and your laptop or something like that. Because it’s not unusual that ordinary old us are wired up from the minute we wake up in the morning and, ready to go, we’re available. To me, that suggests something very interesting about the way there are performance spaces embedded in that – we are getting stories all day long and it’s a space that isn’t totally owned by artists yet but there’s an amazing opportunity there.

Then there’s this other side of it, which is, if that’s your life, it’s also the life of your audience. I feel I want to say “get in there you artists, and populate that really interesting over-inhabited but under-explored space”. So one of the things I thought was that, in theatre and in storytelling, we are so amazing at liveness and uniquenesss and experience, there is a real opportunity to bring the two together.

That’s how my interest started. What I hope my Masterclass exposes is that I’ve learnt a lot about theatre and storytelling and liveness through exploring what happens when digital media is part of it. I’ve learned a lot about what digital media can do through trying to apply what I know about theatre to it. That was the purpose that I thought I should bring to the fourweek investigation with the students, and what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass.

Thanks to Nina Steiger and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters.
You can still read parts One and Two on our blog. 

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Black Lives, Black Words

Black Lives, Black Words premiered in Chicago in July 2015. This international project has since explored the Black diaspora’s experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Toronto and now London. Over sixty Black writers from the UK, USA, and Canada have each written a short play to address Black issues today. This blog is taken from the introduction to the book, written by Madani Younis, the Artistic Director of The Bush theatre where the pieces were performed last month.


It’s on us. It’s always been on us.

From Claudia Jones to Michael X, from Frank Crichlow to Darcus Howe to Doreen and Neville Lawrence, there is a rich and fierce tradition of resistance that has defined the past century in this great city.

2016 was a significant year in the UK. Following the Brexit vote to take us out of the European Union, few of us could have predicted the steep rise in racially motivated hate crime, or the vitriol that was unleashed on the ‘immigrant’, a term which became a dangerous and charged catch-all and scapegoat. And a term that, in the eyes of the dominant right-wing media, is almost always defined as non-white. That exists outside the bubble of privilege and power occupied by wealthy, white Europeans.

It has been a 12 months in which our world seems to have shrunk around us, to have become smaller and more insular. Many of us who had always called this country home, suddenly began to question what home really meant.

Eight years ago, when the first presidency of an African American was in its infancy, many looked forward to a new horizon, to a post-racial reality. Instead, the list of Black lives violently ended, of justice miscarried, has only grown longer and more terrible. Against this backdrop, we’ve seen a rise of right-wing thought in both volume and acceptability, from the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant rhetoric of a new breed of populist politician through the proliferation of the Alt-Right, to the very different president now squatting in the White House.

Black Lives Matter is different in both form and function from the civil rights movements of the past. As Jeff Chang notes in his extraordinary book We Gon’ Be Alright, this was not a movement which formed around one forceful, charismatic male voice. It was started by three women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. It is an insurgent movement; a reaction; a disruption. It has a sense of urgency, of crisis and of place. It represents the latest form in a continuum of struggle that stretches back as far as slavery, a new, horizontal, open source resistance.

It speaks to an American reality, a 21st century reality, to the prison-industrial complex, urban poverty, and the frustration of an underclass who found themselves left in limbo and threatened by systemic violence even under Obama.

I have been struck by how the media perception of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen it framed as a negative force for change, and I would fervently argue that instead it gives a voice to the voiceless in political debate, debate no longer centred on New York, Washington DC and the Houses of Parliament. That it opens up a creative space for Black activists and artists to fashion and articulate a response.

In a year in which the Bush Theatre has been nomadic, in which we’ve spent the last 12 months working in and alongside the lives and communities of West London, it seems appropriate that we return to Black Lives Black Words. Initiated in 2015 by poet, playwright and producer Reginald Edmund, Black Lives Black Words is a conversation held across continents, where we come together to speak to the vital question of what is the value of Black lives in America, the UK and across the world.

Madani Younis, Artistic Director of The Bush theatre

I was 15 years old when Stephen Lawrence was murdered, a Black British teenager killed in a racially motivated attack. The ripples of that watershed moment in media and public perception of Black lives in the UK flowed through my late teens and my early 20’s. The Macpherson Report, the growing awareness of institutional police racism, the killing of Christopher Alder, and of Mark Duggan, and the subsequent 2012 London riots. Since 1990, a tenth of identified deaths in police custody were people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. There is a concussive effect of turning on the news each day and seeing men and women who look like you portrayed so negatively, and violently. There is a concussive effect to daily reminders that in the eyes of some, you do not belong, and your voice is not welcome. So it is no surprise to me that we have seen the emergence of our own Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and across Europe, as a vital shared form of resistance to a conservativism that is wrecking lives and silencing dissent.

As a theatre, we have always existed in Shepherd’s Bush, on one of the country’s most multicultural roads, but also a place of extreme contrast, where some of the city’s greatest deprivation exists a street or two away from its most valuable housing. And these are extremes which so often break down across racial and class lines.

When we first welcomed Reginald and Black Lives Black Words to our theatre, where together with Artistic Directors of the Future they brought these vital voices to the UK, we felt a kinship with their concerns and their strategies. So it seemed only appropriate that now, as we prepare to re-open our building on the Uxbridge Road, that we should mark that with a statement about the kind of work we want to enable, the kind of voices we want to amplify, the kind of world we want to live in. To return to the words of Jeff Chang

The horizon towards which we move always recedes before us. The revolution is never complete. … All that signified progress may in time be turned against us. But redemption is there for us if we are always in the process of finding love and grace.’

– Madani Younis, March 2017


You can find out more about Black Lives, Black Words HERE, and more about Black Lives Matter HERE. With thanks to Reginald Edmund and Madani Younis.

 

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting: Part Three

Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader for the MA Dramatic Writing at Central St Martins, and head of the new ‘The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting’ competition, has kindly come back as a guest blogger for Oberon Books to update us on the next stage of the competition, what’s coming up for the winning playwrights, and how you can get your hands on the lesson plans and the wonderful writing they inspired… 

I’m pleased to be writing to let you know that The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, the new competition from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions has announced the production of the winners’ play.

The winners’ play will be on the theme of what it means to be a student in the UK today, drawing inspiration from the Cultural Learning Alliance’s recent figures showing a decline in the number of students studying the arts at school level, the announcement of the end of the Creative Writing A level last year and the forthcoming debate on whether arts subject should be part of the EBACC, scheduled for July 4th in the Houses of Parliament.

The winners, hard at work on their play

The winners, hard at work on their play

The production will take place as part of a Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting day at this year’s London Writers’ Week, and the day will also feature free workshops with Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre Rob Drummer on how we can create a more diverse theatre industry and Senior Editor of Oberon Books George Spender on how theatre publishing works, continuing the competition’s aim to provide access to the leading training coming out of the industry for writers everywhere to benefit form.

Winners include Vee Tames, a 17 year old student from Colchester who used the lesson plans from the competition to write her first play, Titilola Ige, a MA student from Croydon who also works in a charity for young people, Monique Geragthy, an undergraduate student from Queen Mary’s University who also used the lesson plans to write her fist play, and emerging writers Miriam Battye from Salford and Mufaro Makubika from Nottingham.

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

We’re delighted to be launching stage two of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting competition. We hope the day on July 5th will provide an opportunity to showcase the work of the winners of The Student Guide to Writing, alongside a second opportunity to offer free workshops and access to the leading training, this time on why its important to provide access and how theatre publishing works. Rob’s workshop will also offer tips on rewriting and where to send your work so all entrants to the competition can get further free advice.

We’re also particularly excited about the theme of the play – with the forthcoming debate on EBACC, we’re pleased to be giving the student winners a chance to have their say on this subject matter via their winners’ play, in-keeping with the theme of the competition to empower students and young people and encourage more diverse voices to be heard by providing access to the leading training coming out of the industry.

Lesson Plan writer - Fin Kennedy

Lesson Plan writer – Fin Kennedy

Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company and one of the lesson plan writers said: “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting provides important access to the leading playwriting training coming out of the industry and I am delighted to be involved. The innovative online format empowers writers, teachers and groups across the UK to take the initiative and start writing, whatever their circumstances, using new media to democratize vocational training. The implications for access and diversity are very exciting indeed, and I hope it inspires other initiatives of this kind”.

Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers’ programme said: “Craft, diversity and well told stories from a vast range of perspectives, experiences and individual voices capturing what it means to be human – these are my passions. Hence, The Student Guide to Writing felt like a great match.  The more people we can inspire to add their voice to the canon, the more we increase the chances of creating a more open, enlightened, incisive, insightful and equitable world for us all to play a part in.”

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Vee Tames, schools winner: “Writing for the stage had always been something I wanted to try for a long time. However, I lacked the knowledge to know where to begin and the particular demands of the form. The lesson plans were very concise and provided you with exercises you could use immediately to spark ideas and clarify each element of your work such as structure, dialogue and character. The competition deadline itself is what gave me that final boost of encouragement to enter! I was pleased when I found out I won the Schools Category with my first ever play; it is immensely gratifying and such a confidence boost.”

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Miriam Battye, emerging/general category winner: “I want to be a really great writer, the best I possibly can be. I’ve been given sage advice to just read, read and read. It’s a foolproof way to get better. Studying is much the same thing. It’s just getting as much stuff in your head so you’ve got more thoughts to work with.

Mufaro Makubika, emering/general winner: “This was a great opportunity to learn about craft from highly respected industry figures. It’s a fantastic honour. To me, all a playwright wants to do is get their work out and work more.”

 

For more information on the day or to book tickets, please go to: https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/festival/the-student-guide-to-writing-playwriting-day/

Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” is also available to pre-order at http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing and “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting” will be published at the end of 2016, which will include the lesson plans and winning writers’ work in one volume to provide permanent access to the lesson plans and the leading training for the first time. We hope you will join us in July to see the winner’s work and for the second stage of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting and the opportunity to get further advice and feedback on your plays.

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting – part two

Video

The winners of ‘The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting’ competition, which has been running since January, have just been chosen! I’ll hand over to Jennifer Tuckett of Central St Martins to tell you more and to announce the names of the winners. 

I’m pleased to be writing to announce the winners of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, the new competition from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, the MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions.

Entries were received from all over the UK for the competition, which provided writers with the opportunity to follow lesson plans written by those leading the way in the industry prior to sending in their play.

Workshop1There are 5 winners chosen from 4 categories: schools, Universities, emerging writer and general writer.

University entries included entries from Edinburgh, Manchester, Aberystwyth, York, Leeds, Reading, Greenwich, East Anglia, RADA, Birkbeck, Brunel, Central School of Speech and Drama, Durham, Central Saint Martins, Open College of the Arts, Queen Mary, Bangor, Cambridge, University of the Arts London and others. Schools entries included entries from schools in Colchester, Rugby, London and others. Emerging and general entries were sent from all over the UK.

One of the things we were most pleased about was how many entrants commented on how useful the lesson plans had been, which are written by those who have led the way in the industry in terms of playwriting training, including Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme, Fin Kennedy, founder of Schoolwrights, Lucy Kerbel, founder of the Platform project for writing for young girls, Rob Drummer, Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre, Steve Winter, Director of the Kevin Spacey Foundation, and others.

As much of the training coming out of the industry hasn’t been published, it can be hard to know what is being taught and thought about, especially if you’re not based in London, so we’re delighted to be able to provide access to some of this training for the first time.

The Student Guide to Writing photoThe impact this can have is massive as well – for example at a University where I used to work I saw student numbers studying playwriting rise from 0 when I joined the University (which had attempted to teach playwriting before to no success) to 8 in the modules’ first year to 40 in the modules’ second year to 80 in the modules’ third year, with many of the graduates winning awards or securing attachment programmes at professional theatres.

And, so, without further ado, the winners from The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting are….

Schools category: Vee Thomas, Colchester Grammar School

University category: Titilola Dawudu, Central Saint Martins, and Monique Geraghty, Queen Mary, University of London

Emerging/general category: Mufaro Makubika, based in Nottingham, and Miriam Battye, based in Salford, Greater Manchester

According to Rob Drummer, Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre: “The breadth and quality of submissions has been inspiring and the five very different and deserving winners have written with real vibrancy. I was impressed and heartened to see so many writers asking big questions of the world we live in and am looking forward to getting to know them and their plays over the coming months. The Bush is proud to partner on a competition that reflects the plurality of our culture and shines a light on stories and writers that aren’t always visible. I can’t wait to join in celebrating all the winners at London Writers’ Week in July.”

George Spender, Senior Editor at Oberon Books, said: “It’s a delight to see so many entries, and for all these writers to be engaging intelligently with these lesson plans. The diversity, scope, and ambition of these winning plays is to be applauded.”

The personal favourite things I noticed from the entries were: ideas/plays that were about something (often this was an exploration of a theme or idea that it felt the writer was passionate about – I think Rob’s and Ola’s advice in lesson plan one and two to think about what issues you are passionate about and what would be the one play you’d write before you die was excellent advice), use of structure/plays that held our attention the whole way through, and use of theatricality/plays that used the stage/the medium of theatre in exciting ways.

Workshop2The winner’s work will be shown as part of London Writers Week at Central Saint Martins in July, whose full schedule will be announced in early May.

Following this, the lesson plans and winners’ work will be published by Oberon Books at the end of 2016, in addition to another volume “Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” which will provide key advice across all forms of dramatic writing from those leading the way in the industry.

For more information on the competition or to sign up for the mailing list to be kept informed on the forthcoming production, please go to: www.thestudentguidetowriting.com

Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” is also available to pre-order at http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing and “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting” will be published at the end of 2016, which will include the lesson plans and winning writers’ work in one volume to provide permanent access to the lesson plans and the leading training for the first time. In the meantime, below is a highlights film from the launch event, which hopefully provides some more useful advice. We hope you will join us in July to see the winner’s work and for the final free workshop on The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting and chance to get feedback on your plays.

Jennifer Tuckett

The Student Guide to Playwriting

Jennifer Tuckett is Course Leader for Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martin’s new MA Dramatic Writing. Previously, she founded the UK’s first formally industry partnered MA in Playwriting and last year was a finalist for the Women of the Future Arts and Culture Award.
We asked Jennifer to write a piece for our blog about a new playwriting competition and accompanying book which she’s helped spearhead, and explain how you can get involved. 

scene 1I’m really delighted to be asked to write a blog about The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting.

Jennifer Tuckett

Jennifer Tuckett

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting is the first in a new competition series from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, the MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions and has now launched at thestudentguidetowriting.com

We’re really excited about the competition series, which we hope will provide access for the first time to the leading dramatic writing training coming out of the industry.

Writers can enter from schools, universities, or elsewhere (as we want to encourage anyone to be a student of playwriting) or teachers can teach the lesson plans in class.

All you have to do is follow the lesson plans then send your work in. Five winners will then be chosen to attend a bootcamp on playwriting at Central Saint Martins, see their work showcased at London Writers Week and the lesson plans and winning work will then be published by Oberon Books!

An outline of the first competition’s shape and contents can be found below:

10 leading professionals have now committed to writing lesson plans as part of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, to provide access to their training.

The lesson plans will be published via the website www.thestudentguidetowriting.com

Lesson plans will be released from January to March 2016 and will be:

Lesson Plan One: Starting Out – Rob Drummer, Associate Dramaturg, Bush Theatre

Lesson Plan Two: Ideas – Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s world famous young writers programme

John Yorke

John Yorke

Lesson Plan Three: Structure – John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers Academy, one of the most influential writing training programmes in the industry in recent years, and author of the best selling book on storytelling Into the Woods

Lesson Plan Four: Scenes – Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader of MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins

Lesson Plan Five: Characterisation – Rebecca Lenkiewicz, playwright and mentor from the Bush Theatre

Finn Kennedy

Finn Kennedy

Lesson Plan Six: Dialogue – Fin Kennedy, founder of Schoolwrights and Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company

Lesson Plan Seven: Theatricality – Steve Winter, co-founder of the Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays and TS Eliot Exchange and Director of the Kevin Spacey Foundation

Lesson Plan Eight: Rewriting – Caroline Jester, former Dramaturg at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and author of Playwriting Across the Curriculum

Lesson Plan Nine: Staging Your Work – Caroline Horton, writer, director, actor and mentor from the Bush Theatre

Lesson Plan Ten: Final Advice – Lucy Kerbel – founder of Tonic Theatre and creator of Platform

Students and their teachers can follow the lesson plans to build up a play week by week.

At the end of the project the lesson plans and winning work will be published by Oberon Books to provide a book for use by students and teachers in schools and Universities across the UK to improve dramatic writing training the UK and provide permanent access to the leading training.

Please note there are four categories of winner: a schools category, a college and University category, an emerging writer category and anyone (two prizes will be awarded in this category) as the competition wants to recognize and encourage anyone to be a student of playwriting.

Rob Drummer BUSH

Rob Drummer

Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre Rob Drummer said: “We’re delighted to be partnering The Student Guide to Writing which forms part of our efforts to inspire and develop playwrights from a diverse range of backgrounds and to engage audiences nationally in new theatre writing.”

Senior Editor at Oberon Books George Spender, said: “All of us at Oberon are thrilled to be a part of this extremely exciting project that will no doubt have a tremendous influence on the next generation of writers and theatre makers.”

Jennifer Tuckett

Jennifer Tuckett

Course Leader of MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins Jennifer Tuckett said: “The Student Guide to Writing is a new series designed to provide access to the best dramatic writing training in the UK. Teachers can use the lesson plans in classes or students can follow the lesson plans on their own. The winning student work will be published along with the lessons in a book published by Oberon Books as a permanent legacy of the project. We are thrilled about the partnership between Central Saint Martins, the Bush Theatre and Oberon Books on competition one, all of whom are leading the way in the UK.”

For further information please see www.thestudentguidetowriting.com

As part of the new partnership with Oberon Books, there will also be a second book for writers for theatre, film, television, radio and digital media offering more advanced advice from the industry across all forms of dramatic writing and offering access to the leading training coming out of the industry in all forms of dramatic writing for the first time: http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing

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“Politics is life” – Juliet Gilkes Romeo talks diversity, progress and playwriting

Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play Upper Cut tackles the struggle for racial diversity in British politics. Here, Juliet tells Oberon about her inspiration, her research, and her hopes for how the play can influence the wider discussion. Upper Cut is on at Southwark Playhouse until 7 February.

Your play Upper Cut is loosely based on real events at the dawn of ‘New Labour’ in the mid-90s. Can you tell us any more about what inspired you to write this play?

There are currently just 27 Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) MPs out of a total of 650. I find this slightly shocking that the mother of parliaments is still so unrepresentative and I Upper Cut by Juliet Gilkes Romerowanted to know why? When Director Lotte Wakeham and actress Emma Dennis Edwards asked me to write a play about the black political landscape my answer was an immediate yes.

Upper Cut is seen from the perspective of a black female politician and unravels the fight for diversityand black representation through today’s coalition politics, the hope and rebirth of New Labour and straight into the troubled heart of a Labour party struggling under the might of Thatcher’s Tory revolution.

To understand present and past I had to re-examine an era when there were no black or Asian MPs in the House of Commons and why. It’s exciting to be the first new political play in a year where the general election could be the most unpredictable votein living memory.

I was very conscious of this while researching Upper Cut and believe the main three political parties will be forced to re-evaluate and finally embrace Britain’s diverse voters and the racial mix of Parliament.

The campaign group Operation Black Vote was established in 1996, the summer before New Labour’s landslide election victory.  How do you assess the progress made since then, specifically in terms of BME representation and political participation?

The progress is slow. Despite the triumph of 1987, there are currently just nine African and Afro-Caribbean MPs. Five of them are Labour MPs, a number that has barely increased since the late 1980s.

I admire their achievement in entering the House of Commons but I do feel a sense of disappointment that the figure is so low. I think this is best summed up by Diane Abbot. In the 2013 document ‘One Nation Labour, Black Representation Across The Party’ she  says “If you had told me that, 26 years later, the numbers of African and Afro-Caribbean Labour members of parliament would scarcely be any greater, I would have been shocked. We thought that we were opening a door, through which many others would flood through.”

OBV

© Operation Black Vote – http://www.obv.org.uk/

We clearly need to see more BME MPs and I am hopeful that my play will contribute positively and passionately to this debate. One of the black activists I interviewed as part of my research is now competing to be a Labour candidate in a North London seat.  I wish him well!

You were formerly a reporter and broadcast journalist for the BBC. How has this informed your playwriting career?

I think the years I have spent as a journalist have defined my playwriting.  Journalism has taught me to truly listen to what others have to say and because I’ve had the privilege of reporting overseas I am very drawn to writing stories outside of the traditional western perspective and indeed the ‘establishment’ wherever that may be.
When travelling through countries such as Ethiopia, Cuba and Haiti (and often alone) I learnt not to have any preconceived ideas about what I wanted to see or hear.
I have tackled subjects including genocide in Darfur, why we go to war, revolution and now the status of British parliamentary politics. I am always trying to surprise myself and hopefully the audience.

Upper Cut draws occasional similarities between the underrepresentation of women in politics to that of BME individuals; do you think these are issues that need to be treated with equal concern?

Absolutely. The Labour party transformed parliamentary politics through All Women Shortlists. It’s extraordinary when you consider that back in 1995 an industrial tribunal ruled the Labour party had broken the law by imposing the scheme.  But nothing else worked before then and it was a battle worth fighting and continues to this day.

What I find ironic is that the same constructive effort to reverse the under representation of women in politics is not used to do the same for ethnic diversity in Parliament. Why is the strategy good for one group and not for another? The Conservatives did manage to secure more minority MPs in 2010 by placing some on a candidates’ A-list. But the three main parties are still falling painfully short of reflecting the racial mix of the constituents they claim to represent.

The use of music in Upper Cut seems particularly significant – can you explain a little bit more about your song choices and their relationship to the script?

Music influences political movements and culture and I wanted certain tracks to reflect the evolution of Upper Cut’s unfolding years.

There are ten tracks in all but briefly It’s A Man’s World but sung by Cher ironically echoes the simmering tensions over  the selection of female  parliamentary candidates in the ‘90s. It attributes all the efforts of the modern world to men while almost grudgingly recognising that such progress would ‘mean nothing without a woman or a girl’.

Steel Pulse and Prodigal Son was a must.  During the ‘80s the band closely allied themselves to Rock Against Racism, a movement set-up to oppose racial conflict. Prodigal Son is very much Michael’s anthem. The paradox is that as he grows older he moves away from his roots and identity.

Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood mirrors the opposing and entrenched political positions adopted by Karen and Barry. Their ideological fight unleashes a ‘cold war’ between them that lasts a while. During the ‘80s fears about global nuclear conflict and warring adversaries were at a peak.  Young Gifted and Black speaks for itself and is used in Scene 8 to underscore the idealism and hope of two you black activists determined to transform the landscape of British politics but in different directions.

Your play also explores the relationship that young people have with politics and politicians. What do you think can be done to help young people, in particular those from minority backgrounds, engage with current politics?

Politics should be compulsory on the school curriculum. I hope that doesn’t sound draconian but politics is life and if young people do not understand how democracy and parliament work they will never feel the motivation to visit a ballot box. Understanding politics should be as important as learning to read regardless of ethnic background.

Michael’s character appears to strive for a government that does not need to consciously acknowledge its election of black MPs, whilst Karen wants to keep fighting for black power by pushing for initiatives and schemes – is either solution preferable?

I do not claim to have the answer but deliberately set up the question, in the hope that the tension between idealism and political pragmatism makes for a politically compelling play.  I think both Karen and Michael have their strong and weak points and I would happily have my last supper with both and argue with them until the end of time! Barry too!