Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Darren Donohue, Natalie Chan et al: I And The Village

By | Published on Friday 21 May 2021

It’s been brilliant to see venues reopening this month, even if the performances have to be socially distanced, and to see the arts community able to welcome their audiences back to well loved venues.

I was especially pleased to hear about the opening this week of Clapham’s Bread & Roses Theatre, not least because it’s a great venue, but also because its first live offering sounds like such a good one.

‘I And The Village’ is an in-house production by the Bread & Roses Theatre Company. I spoke to the whole team about the show, and about the venue, with a couple of specific contributions from producer Natalie Chan and playwright Darren Donohue.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of ‘I And The Village’? What story does it tell?
Team: This beautifully written play takes us inside the reality of being a female asylum seeker in Ireland and the UK. Asylum Accommodation Centres are designed to provide temporary housing for people seeking safety. In truth, these people are tucked away there for years and years, waiting to restart their lives. ‘I And The Village’ invites you inside to meet three wonderful women who will make you laugh, grieve, connect, and ultimately wonder why you never knew they were there before.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
Team: How easy it is to be alive, a survivor, yet invisible to the real world. ‘I And The Village’ captures what it is to be caught between two lives, neither of them in the present. The subtle stage presence of the novel, ‘Moby Dick’, reminds us that what we seek to achieve, or overcome, may fundamentally be what destroys us.

CM: What was the inspiration for the play?
DD: Ireland has a rich history of immigration plays, but back in 2015, I wanted to write about people coming to settle here. I was concerned for some time about the Direct Provision system. There was a centre across from the theatre where I worked in my home town. But to locals, it held an air of mystery, the residents didn’t visibly socialise and no one mentioned or acknowledged the centre’s existence. It was almost as though the centre and its residents were invisible.

Indeed, as I began to actively investigate DP, the reality was that none of my family or friends knew anything about the system’s failings, and they were appalled when I laid the facts of DP before them. I felt compelled to use my platform to raise awareness about this brutal system operating in plain sight.

I contacted the Irish Refugee Council and they put me in touch with residents hoping to highlight their experience of Direct Provision. Together, we talked through the play. I’d talk about the characters and their backstories and they’d advise me in relation to the feasibility of certain storylines. The play worked as a bridge and a safety net, a bridge between us to discuss their journeys, but also a safety net, as we never spotlighted their experiences directly. In this way, the work acted as a springboard into discussing much of what ended up being the experiences of Jeta, Keicha, and Hannah.

In recent years there’s been progress regarding Direct Provision reform/replacement. But unfortunately, the system still operates today. And with recovery from the pandemic and a housing crisis taking centre stage in Irish politics, Direct Provision reform/replacement may, once again, be kicked down the road.

CM: It’s a winner of the Bread & Roses Playwriting Award – can you tell us about that award and how it works?
Team: So we open submissions to the award every two years, and welcome submissions from writers based in Europe who have a full length – at least 60 minutes – play that’s not previously been produced or published, with at least half the material for female or non-binary roles, and who want to have that play produced here at the Bread & Roses Theatre. It takes us about nine months to read the submissions: we received over 500 in the last round for 2019/20. Each script is read and selected by the theatre’s team and an extended panel of readers. [Click here if you want to find out more].

CM: Can you tell us about the cast and other creatives involved in the production?
Team: We feel so lucky to have such a stunning cast, reflecting the authenticity and bringing exceptional talent to this production. Chido Kunene, playing Jeta, is a Zimbabwean native and has lived in the UK most of her life. She said she sees a little of herself in the role. Funke Adeleke, playing Keicha, is a powerful actor who’s worked with Graeae, Clean Break, Royal Shakespeare Company and more. Laide Sonola, playing Hannah, trained at Mountview and has worked on a variety of productions in London and the UK. Mark Rush, as Carl, is Irish and has also performed and toured around the UK.

We have an equally brilliant creative team. Of particular note is researcher and dramaturg Matilda Velevitch. Outside of working with us, Matilda has worked supporting refugees and asylum seekers in France, Belgium and the UK since 2016 and has an in-depth knowledge of both the asylum process, and the detrimental effects on vulnerable people arriving in the UK and Ireland, seeking refuge. She is currently developing a refugee textile project for Platforma Arts Festival 2021 and Studio oOf Sanctuary. We feel so privileged to have her on board.

We’re also very excited to be able to take on an Assistant Director, Tom Ward, and Assistant Producer, Daniel Cartlidge, on the production.

CM: How long has this production been in the planning stages? Was it stymied by lockdown at all?
Team: Gosh, so we announced the winners of the Bread & Roses Playwriting Award in 2019 and we were planning on premiering in October 2020, we then got pushed back twice before confirming the current run of dates – 25 May – 5 Jun, hence yes, in short, it definitely has been stymied and it’s now been over two years in the planning!

CM: How easy has it been to plan and rehearse the show during the lockdown period?
NC: I joined the team in December 2020 and it was around that time the play moved from ‘development’ into ‘pre-production’ stage where we have dates confirmed. So luckily, because many of our colleagues across the theatre industry have already been navigating this for some time, it felt manageable and that we’re able to pick up the phone/email other people for advice to help if necessary.

We started rehearsing in April 2021, which is when restrictions started to ease, so I think mentally it felt easier. There are definitely challenges, but if I had to plan for every scenario and come up with a contingency plan before committing to say yes we’re making a show, it probably wouldn’t happen. So we were honest and upfront with our whole team that there would be challenges, and we might not have answers but we’d communicate, work together to find solutions, and that’s the approach we’ve been taking.

CM: Can you tell us about Bread & Roses Theatre – how long has it been running and what are its aims and ethos?
Team: The in-house Bread & Roses Theatre Company, founded in summer 2012, has been running a regular new writing night since October that year, in what was initially nothing more than the upstairs function room at The Bread & Roses Pub. Following these first regular theatre performances at the venue, other companies and groups started enquiring about the space and putting up scratch performances and showcases. Hence the idea of creating a permanent pub theatre at the venue was born.

After some major refurbishing work of the space and the investment in lights and stages – all sponsored by the fabulous Bread & Roses Pub – the theatre was then officially launched in November 2014.

We’ve gone on to produce many in-house productions, and the annual Clapham Fringe Festival, as well as welcoming countless visiting productions every year and continuing. Our aims and ethos have always been to champion underrepresented voices, distinctive work and the development of new work and opportunities, as well as providing a platform to empower emerging creatives to bring work from page to stage. We’re proud to have embedded this in all aspects of our work:

We remain one of the few venues in London that offer 50/50 box office split with visiting companies and no hidden fees. And from the Playwriting Circle, which exists for writers to test out scratch materials, to the Bread & Roses Playwriting Award, we’re consistently seeking out new voices.

Our Emerging Director and Producer Scheme offers an opportunity for an aspiring director and producer to be attached to the theatre for a year, gaining experience from the creative process to venue management. And our Emerging Company Award offers a springboard opportunity for companies to develop their projects in the form of financial support to pay company members and rehearsal space.

CM: The entire industry has suffered from the effects of COVID19 – how has the Bread & Roses Theatre managed during this difficult time?
Team: We are very very grateful for the two rounds of Cultural Recovery Fund support from DCMS and the Arts Council, as well as support from Lambeth Economic Resilience Fund, Unity Theatre Trust, The Royal Victoria Hall Foundation and everyone who donated to our online appeal, enabling us to keep going during a very challenging time. Without artists, our theatre space wouldn’t mean anything, so we’ve tried our best to use some of this money for our emerging companies award, supporting our Emerging Director Tom Ward and Emerging Producer Rosie Sharp to develop their own work as well as engaging a brilliant team of creatives to bring ‘I And The Village’ to you.

CM: What can we expect from the venue in the future?
Team: We’re fully programmed until Spring 2022 with some exciting work to show to audiences, so watch this space with a full line-up due to be announced soon.

‘I And The Village’ is on from 26 May-5 Jun, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.