How would you describe your current job and what do you like best about it?
I am an actor, a writer and a theatre maker and what’s brilliant about it is the constant shift of focus, context and energy between the three.
What do you consider your best work and why?
I am most proud of Some Other Mother, which is being produced in association with Stellar Quines and touring in June 2013. I first started thinking about writing it in 2007 when I began working as an activist and community worker with women asylum seekers and their children living in Glasgow. Over the years we’ve told many stories together – imaged and true – and I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to translate the essence of these stories onto the stage. In 2010, I won the Playwrights Studio New Writers Award and began figuring out which story was mine to tell. The play is about how the UK asylum system is utterly traumatizing – regardless of the outcome of an individual claim. It isn’t a documentary or a celebration of community spirit: it is an impassioned call to action because the time for community action to make a more just, welcoming and inclusive society is perhaps more urgent now than it has been in my lifetime. If this can be translated to stage this June then I will be even more delighted than I already am in the words on the page.
And of course there is Chalk Farm which I co-wrote with Kieran Hurley in response to the media and social response to the 2011 English riots. The play is an uncompromising exploration of ‘Broken Britain’ and together I think we have written an excellent play, which I have great fortune to also perform. The joy that comes from performing a piece, which so perfectly expresses my own politics in all of their complexities, is as yet unparalleled. We are redrafting the script at the moment as we prepare to take it into a new production with the phenomenal theatre company ThickSkin as part of the Made in Scotland programme 2013 at this year’s Edinburgh Festival and I’m really looking forward to it.
What was your first ever job?
When I was 18 and in actor training at Webber Douglas in London I worked in a pub on the King’s Road. I remember this being a source of envy for a friend who believed the pub was a popular drinking hole for celebrities. Unfortunately any excitement about that reality was totally wasted on me because I grew up in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia; my main access to British popular culture from 1979 until 1997 was when I was at ‘home’ every summer with my mother’s elderly father on the Isle of Lewis – so I never knew who anyone famous was inside or outside that pub. I got a lot of free drinks though.
What was the contact/opportunity/job offer that you feel has made the most difference to your career?
In 2008 Jackie Wylie and LJ Finlay-Walsh at the Arches offered me free space and collaboration opportunities to experiment with performance. It was through one of those opportunities that I met my long-term collaborator and partner, Kieran Hurley. Since then we have collaborated to various degrees on Some Other Mother, Beats, Hitch, Rantin, The YelloWing and Chalk Farm. We share a love for theatre and performance, but crucially also for life, equality and a desire for social change. This long term collaborative relationship has deepened my trust in others and, crucially, myself as a performer and writer, helping me find the strength and courage to make the kind of work that I make.
What’s the biggest opportunity that you missed or wished you had taken up but didn’t?
I’ve stood at multiple career related cross roads. I am ultimately delighted that the roads I’ve chosen have led me down a path which is open enough to allow me to work as an actor and writer and maker of work that I believe is worthwhile and has meaning in the world beyond my own relationship with it.
What’s your favourite theatre production?
Woooft! That’s a hard one. It felt like for years I was going to the theatre all the time and constantly being disappointed and frustrated. That has stopped over the last couple of years. Perhaps because I am more open to artists taking risks, perhaps because I am working more consistently and so less artistically frustrated and definitely because some amazing work is being made in Scotland at the moment. But if I’m going to choose one it has to be Headlong and the Citizens’ production of Angels in America. The amazing thing about that production, for me, was mainly that it was the pivotal moment when I fell head over heels in love with the work of Tony Kushner – and Harper! I hope I get to play her one day.
What do you like best about working in theatre?
I think theatre is political whether it has an overt political objective or not. Any form that seeks to ‘hold up a mirror to nature’ is subjective. But there’s a quote that excites me far more than Shakespeare’s – it’s Bertolt Brecht: ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ I’d say I like it best when I’m one of the ones holding that hammer – as long as I’m on board with the direction the mirror is being shaped in.
What advice would you give emerging female practitioners in theatre today?
A director once gave me a piece of unofficial advice in a moment of grief-drenched honesty. It wasn’t until I also experienced great loss that this advice began to hit home. In some ways I wish I’d heeded it sooner, but I’m certainly glad of it now. The advice was: Acting and theatre and all that is great. But life is better.
Who would your Stellar Quine of the month be and why?
My Stellar Quine of the month would be Catrin Evans who is directing Some Other Mother. I met Catrin in 2007 when we were both active campaigners for the rights of asylum seekers and in the very early stages of our journeys into making political theatre. She is now one of Scotland’s leading directors of new writing. Working with her on Some Other Mother since last year has enabled me to truly discover the play within the millions of drafts it has been through. Catrin works incredibly hard, is absolutely committed and incredibly generous. I find her inspirational.
Catrin also designed the participation project that accompanies Some Other Mother with the production’s composer and sound designer, MJ McCarthy, and myself. We are working with two women’s groups in Glasgow: LINKES Women’s Group, which I have been working with for six years, and The Women’s Creative Company, which is a part of Catrin’s company A Moment’s Peace. Through the project we have created a CD of lullabies, game songs and stories from the wide range of languages and nationalities of women who participate in these groups. MJ is also using what we have collected as the basis for his composition so that all sound in the production will literally be the sound of women who live in Glasgow, or will have been influenced in some way by them.
I am always moved by the power of women coming together and working on this project with both LINKES Women’s Group and The Women’s Creative Company has been an incredibly moving experience. Women of all backgrounds and experience, humbly coming together in a more focussed space to creatively explore their collective experience of mother and sisterhood. Each week I am struck by the courage, love and strength of these women and so I’m sure Catrin won’t mind if she shares her Stellar Quine of the month with all of the women we’ve worked with this month. I feel deeply honoured to be working with all of them.