Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Ailin Conant: Creating ‘Nineveh’

By | Published on Friday 19 April 2013


Acclaimed producing group Theatre Temoin opened ‘Nineveh’ at Riverside Studios this week.

The play, an exploration of the trauma of combat, is inspired by the stories of ex-combatants from around the world, stories which were collected by the company, in locations such as Rwanda and Kashmir during their two year ‘Return Project’.

We spoke to director Ailin Conant about the creation of the show.

CM: ‘Nineveh’ is inspired by the testimonies of international soldiers. What made you want to focus on this theme?
AC: A few years back, I was working on a modern reworking of ‘The Odyssey’. As we searched for an apt framework with the “soldier’s fight to get home after war” epic, we realised there were huge parallels with post traumatic stress disorder and the modern soldier’s battle with inner demons. This was in 2010 when hundreds of kids were coming back to the UK and US after multiple tours in the middle east, and PTSD was very current. We toured the piece in the UK and USA, and as part of this tour we workshopped the play itself with US military veterans. The vets had amazing stories and the workshops made me curious to know more about soldier’s experiences, so I applied for a fellowship to spend a year working with soldiers around the world.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about ‘The Return Project’?
AC: ‘The Return Project’ is the name I gave to my fellowship year. It was a series of projects, connected by theme, and the fact that they were all used as the basis for inspiration to write ‘Nineveh.’ The projects themselves were bespoke to each country and context; I basically just showed up in a country and followed my nose to whatever opportunity presented itself to me there.

In Lebanon I worked with ex-commanders from opposing sides of the civil war to write a farce which will tour to 20 high schools in Lebanon over the next 2 years. In Israel my friend Orna and I interviewed several disabled veterans and created a verbatim theatre piece which was presented as a reading at the Cameri and at vet’s centre Beit Halochem. In Rwanda I worked with 34 recently demobilized child soldiers to devise a play about their experiences, which was presented at Ishyo Arts Centre in Kigali.

In Kashmir I did very little on paper, truth be told. I think by then I was exhausted by trauma narratives, so I was a little less headstrong about seeking them out. It was also very much a conflict (as opposed to post-conflict) situation, so people were very much on edge about the subject matter. I worked with my friend Nandita at an orphanage for girls affected by armed conflict, and devised a play with some young men at a local college, and mostly tried to lay low. There was one day when the organisation we were staying with was directly targeted in a public statement released by the head of the separatist party…we almost skipped town at that point. But that is a story for a different interview…

CM: You worked with playwright Julia Pascal to create the show; what did that creative process involve?
AC: A lot of chatting and coffees and laughing and soul-searching. I came through London for a week or two to decompress between each 2-month stint abroad, and I looked forward to my chats with Julia, which were really a time of reflection and digestion for me. Then there was the “post-travel” bit of the process, which was – again – a lot of chat and brainstorming. Julia would go away and write drafts and then come back to me and I’d feed in thoughts and she’d respond with further drafts. I’ve been so lucky working with Julia; I learn a huge amount from her every day, and I feel like we’ve developed a way of working that is respectful, direct, and clear. I trust her immensely.

CM: You are an artistic director of Theatre Temoin. How did the company come together, how does it work, and what are its aims?
AC: The company was co-founded by myself and Julia Yevnine in 2007 when we were living in France just after finishing our training at LISPA (The London International School of Performing Arts). We were working on a farce about immigration and the plight of undocumented workers in France, and concurrently volunteering at the CIMADE, which is an NGO that offers legal advice to the “sans papiers” or undocumented immigrants. The crazy stuff we saw while volunteering was maddening! We didn’t have to search very far for ludicrous material for our farce. I think the company, and our ethos of creating socially engaged theatre that is edgy and fun but is also process-driven and rooted in practical experience and research, was really born out of that project. We moved our base back to London in 2008, and have produced the bulk of our work here.

CM: Why have you chosen to stage the show at Riverside Studios?
AC: The two main venues we were in conversations with in the lead-up to Nineveh were the Gate and Riverside. It was important to us that we take the piece somewhere with an audience that was hungry for work that had an international focus and a strong physical/visual element. What’s crucial is an audience that is a bit wild and “up for it”; we want to reach a crowd that is willing to roll their sleeves up and muck in with a heavier theme, but isn’t looking for some kind of message-heavy verbatim political piece either, as that’s definitely not our style. We take a theme like mental health or post-war trauma and then play with it. We get to know a subject inside-out and then become a bit irreverent with it.

CM: What’s next for ‘Nineveh’ after the Riverside run?
AC: UK touring, to start. There’s talk of bringing the piece back to the places that inspired it (like the Cameri), but this wouldn’t be until 2015 or 2016. Before then there’s our national UK audience to consider. We’re particularly interested in taking the piece to theatres in areas with higher concentrations of ex-servicemen (Salisbury Playhouse, for example). We would also love to tour to prisons, as various studies have suggest that ex-servicemen make up between 3% and 10% of the British Prison Population, with former soldier being the highest occupational culture claimed by prisoners. It is likely that many of these inmates are grappling with undiagnosed PTSD to varying degrees as a direct result of their service.

CM: What else does Theatre Temoin have in the pipeline?
AC: ‘The Fantasist’ kicks off its UK Tour in May to follow up on its brilliantly received tour of Ireland in March. Again, a piece that sounds heavy on paper but is engaging and fun on stage. Manic Depression and Puppets… need I say more?

Nineveh runs at Riverside Studios until 12 May. Find more information and book tickets on the venue website, here

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Photo: Idil Sukan