Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Octopus of Dramaturgy: Afsaneh Gray @ Edfringe 2016

Venue: Assembly George Sq Theatre (Venue 8)
Dates and Times: 13.45 (60 mins) 4 – 28 August (not 15)

Set in a world where 'Britishness' is state defined, three women decide to resist definition altogether. 

And form a punk band. 

An anarchic new comedy by Afsaneh Gray (2014 Royal Court studio group), presented by Paper Tiger Productions and Fine Mess Theatre.

What was the inspiration for this performance?
I was inspired to write the play by a number of conversations I was having with friends of mine with similarly mixed-up backgrounds (I’m half-Jewish, half-Iranian). 

We were getting fed up of being asked to represent our communities – communities we felt did not exist, in any monochrome, homogeneous sense, and that, even if they did exist, we would not feel qualified to represent. One friend, for example, had been invited into the rehearsal room of a play set in a country that her parents were from, but felt profoundly uncomfortable in the role of ‘the authentic voice’. 

First of all, her religion was different from that of the characters in the play. Second of all, she had never lived in the country of her parents’ origin. It struck me that our experience – the experience of those who don’t quite fit into a white Britishness but also don’t quite fit into anything else – is rarely seen or explored. 

And yet ‘mixed race’ is the fastest growing ethnicity in the UK. And, as rhetoric around immigration and terrorism is becoming increasingly rabid, a new kind of anxiety over Britishness and national identity has crept in that makes our position feel less secure than it did when I was growing up.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
I had previously worked with the director, Pia Furtado, on an opera I wrote the text for, about the media treatment of the death of Jade Goody. At that point somebody had recommended her. I was really impressed and wanted to work with her again. I initially asked her to help out on Octopus as a dramaturg and then asked her if she wanted to direct the Edinburgh show. 

I’m also working with Kyle Richardson from Fine Mess Theatre, who’s co-producing. He asked me to contribute to a scratch night at Camden People’s Theatre about a year ago and that’s when I wrote the beginning of Octopus. He then set up a week of a development and a reading at Greenwich Theatre. So he’s supported the project from the start and wanted to help see it through to production. 

We’re still casting at the moment but we do have one cast member confirmed. Dilek Rose was in that original scratch night and has been in every development workshop we’ve done since. She’s perfect in that part so we’re thrilled she’s able to come to Edinburgh with us.

How did you become interested in making performance?
I just started writing plays. I was doing a degree in Medicine at the time and I hated it. I was waiting for a friend who was late and I didn’t have a book. I started hearing a conversation in my head between two people and it sounded kind of interesting. I didn’t have any paper on me but I had a receipt. 

I scribbled all over it and then when I got home I wrote it up and then wrote the rest and it turned into a full-length play. It was a bit rubbish, but the Soho Theatre liked it enough to invite me onto their Young Writers’ Programme. 

My parents were into theatre and my brother’s a director, so it’s not like it came completely out of nowhere. But it kind of did in the context of what I was doing at the time.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
This will be my first proper run of a full-length play, so no, it won’t be typical! It’s all very new and exciting. I’ve had lots of shorts produced but that’s usually for a few nights or maximum a week. I’ve never had a three week rehearsal period or such a long run…

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I hope the audience will laugh, see themselves in the play (I think that’s where a lot of laughter comes from), they’re very welcome to cry (somebody did at the Greenwich Theatre reading), but most of all I hope they leave with a sense of anger and purpose.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
I’m trying to write a decent play. That’s my bit. But so much of it is going to come down to Pia and the cast. I know Pia understands the play completely, and what I want to do with it, so it’s safe in her hands.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
Yes. It’s trad theatre, in the sense that I’m writing it, somebody else is directing it, some other people are acting it. But it also fits into a tradition of satire and absurdist theatre, mixed up with a dash of British character-driven realism.

As far as Sarah, Sara and Scheherazade are concerned, they have nothing in common. And yet they’ve all been called in for an interview to determine how British they are; a new requirement for those who are considered to have ‘non-indigenous heritage’. Sara looks kind of Asian. 

Scheherazade looks kind of Middle Eastern. And Sarah is kind of white and has no idea why she’s here. She also keeps bursting into song. But by the end of the play it becomes clear that these three women are all what Scheherazade thinks of as ‘octopuses’ – mixed race and mixed up with it. And maybe that’s true of Britishness too.

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