Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Fin Kennedy and Erinn Dhesi: The Waves

By | Published on Friday 14 January 2022

You’re probably all very familiar with the work of the brilliant Tamasha Theatre, which was founded in 1989 to tell stories of the Asian diaspora, and which has gone from strength to strength ever since as a home for artists from the global majority.

We are always interested in hearing about their work, of course, generally of the theatrical type, but their latest project is a little different.

‘The Waves’ is a production by audio-drama company Holy Mountain in association with Tamasha, and is a series of audio plays created by writers from throughout the UK, which will be broadcast via London-based Resonance FM as well as a number of local radio stations across the country.

To find out more about ‘The Waves’, I spoke to Fin Kennedy, former Tamasha AD – who developed the project with Holy Mountain’s Boz Temple-Morris – and Erinn Dhesi, writer of one of the featured plays, ‘Queens’.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the nature of this project? Do the featured plays have a common theme?
FK: ‘The Waves’ is a series of five 25-minute audio dramas, each a standalone story by a different writer. Each play responds to the idea that the ongoing legacy of 400 years of British colonialism continues to exert an influence on our lives today, in all kinds of subtle and interesting ways.

This history is oddly absent from the British national curriculum, yet it affects the everyday lived experience of literally every British person today, white Brits included. So while ‘The Waves’ dramas are all set in the modern day and are not historical plays, all seek to address this missing piece of the jigsaw about Empire’s long and deep effects.

As we have seen so powerfully demonstrated in recent days around the conclusion of the Colston statue trial, all this is directly relevant today, not least to the so-called culture wars. ‘The Waves’ is British drama’s contribution to that debate, all told with modern, fresh, present day stories and settings.

CM: How were the different dramas, or creatives, selected to be part of the project?
FK: My co-creator Boz Temple-Morris and I wanted to develop an audio drama series which examined the modern legacy of Empire, but which used a writing team whose family heritages were directly affected by it and, crucially, from around the UK.

The series was developed while I was still Artistic Director at Tamasha, which is a small touring company with an unusually large trainee artist’s network. So we had a lot of early career writers and directors available to us with whom we could develop the idea.

Although Tamasha is based in London, the company tours all over the UK, so is well connected to regional theatres and other cultural organisations. However, these are generally in England, due to the ways Arts Council funding works, so we put a wider call out in Wales and Scotland, and which is how we found two of our writers, Kamala and Danielle.

I’m so glad we did because the result is a genuinely national radio series, with in fact London not included at all – for a change!

CM: What inspired the project? Why did you want to create work for radio?
FK: Boz and I have wanted to create a multi-writer series using wholly new talent for a long time.

In 2017, SOAS University Of London commissioned a podcast series from Tamasha called ‘Decolonising History’, a series of audio dramas inspired by a writing residency in their History department. The plays were brilliant, though all set in the past. Boz worked on it as a consultant, with me as dramaturg/producer, so I guess that’s where the seed was sown for ‘The Waves’. We wondered what a contemporary version of that might look like.

As for radio, I think I love it more than theatre! And I say that as a lifelong playwright. It’s the most liberating medium to write for because you can literally go anywhere and do anything – in and out of characters’ heads, back and forward in time, to outer space – and unlike TV it all costs the same. It’s just editing time and sound effects.

I also love radio’s intimacy with the audience, especially on headphones. It’s a one-to-one relationship between the story and the listener, a bit like a novelist. At its best, it’s the most emotionally affecting form of drama there is.

CM: Can we talk about the first one, which comes out this week: what story does it tell and what themes does it explore?
FK: ‘Queens’ by Erinn Dhesi is a strikingly imaginative take on the writer’s home town of Leamington Spa, through the prism of Surinder, a British Punjabi grandmother.

Diagnosed with dementia, Surinder has been using the Queen Victoria statue overlooking the high street as a portal into the past, in an attempt to access her memories. She ropes her sarcastic granddaughter Simran in to help her, and the two of them go on a spacetime-hopping journey through Surinder’s memories of her early life in the town, as a new arrival and young mother.

What drives the narrative so brilliantly is Surinder’s conviction that she was somehow responsible for her husband’s early death, a recurring memory for her. Simran helps her get to the truth. It’s a brilliantly dynamic idea for audio and Erinn is definitely one to watch – a super smart writer with big ambitions.

CM: Erinn, what was the inspiration for ‘Queens’? Where did the idea for it come from?
ED: The inspiration came from tapping into the history of Royal Leamington Spa itself.

There’s a ‘Royal’ in front of the name for a reason. The town used to be a popular ‘stay-cation’ spa town in Georgian/Victorian times for aristocrats. Queen Victoria stayed here herself for some time as a teenager and had enough affinity for the place and lobbied for it to have a ‘Royal’ status in 1838. It really is a beautiful town – regency buildings, sculpted gardens and a huge statue of Queen Victoria parked in the middle of it.

The statue was erected in 1903 when she died, and the inscription reads ‘she wrought her people lasting good’. It was this inscription – of a statue I have walked past aimlessly my whole life – that really got me thinking of what ‘lasting good’ she really left behind.

To many people that ‘lasting good’ means Empire and Britain’s standing in the world. Any critical glance at what that Empire truly entailed will let you know that it also came with displacement, sacrifice, pain. Often when I have people visit me here they can’t quite compute how somewhere so pretty can be a potential place of strife or hardship.

My own research uncovered countless stories of these contradictory depths, whether it was a landlord in the 1970s who explicitly advertised applications to his property with ‘positively no coloureds’ or overly enthusiastic reports in 1972 that the town was already a bastion of having conquered race relations because of the upwardly entrepreneurial Indian community ‘beating the odds’.

You have to be very ‘Oprah-what-is-the-truth?’ about these things if you want to be authentic. When you dig into the 60 plus years history of the Indian community here, you will find that behind these stories of ‘success’ are experiences of displacement, sacrifice and pain. ‘Queens’ taps into those hidden stories – from an honest, matriarchal and – sometimes – funny place.

CM: Is the writing of an audio drama significantly different to writing for the stage or writing prose? Does it require a different approach?
ED: It’s very different! It was my first chance to write an audio play and Holy Mountain and Tamasha were very generous in teaching us and giving great examples of what makes a listenable audio drama – from scripts to links to existing dramas from a range of sources.

You can’t rely on your audience seeing anything, so you had to concentrate so much more on dialogue and the sounds – it had to sound like Leamington and sound authentic to the Indian community.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the rest of the writers and how they came to be involved? What are their plays about?
FK: As I said, Tamasha and Holy Mountain searched far and wide to find a diverse writing team based outside London.

Some were members of the long-running Tamasha Playwrights group which I set up, and which was already training regional writers for some years.

The others, in Scotland and Wales in particular, we put out calls and did a bit of head-hunting. What we’ve ended up with is a seriously exciting roster of new talent which reads like a map of the UK!

‘We See No Colour’ by Danielle Fahiya in Cardiff follows two non-identical twin sisters of dual/multiple heritage, and different skin tones, as they enter a beauty pageant.

‘Grosvenor Road’ by Corinne Walker in Bristol uses split time periods to look at the fate of a former slum building housing a cafe, which was a focus of Caribbean anti-racist organisation in the 1970s and 80s. Sixty years later, it has been regenerated into expensive flats attractive to a white London couple, who are being shown around by a young, black estate agent.

‘Baby Mama’ by Stefanie Reynolds in Manchester catches up with mixed middle class couple Renee and James, on the day they move into an expensive flat within a former cotton factory in Ancoats, Manchester. With Renee heavily pregnant with their first child, workaholic James hires the apartment block’s cleaner to help Renee unpack, starting off an unlikely friendship between two black women of very different backgrounds and life experience.

‘Glory, Glory An Edinburgh Story’ by Kamala Santos in Edinburgh locates its action at a Hibs football team match, where Eric, an elderly Honduran-Scottish former lumberjack, spots his estranged granddaughter Jade taking part in racist behaviour towards black players. His ensuing intervention opens up a journey of discovery about Jade’s roots, telling a little-known story about a significant Caribbean presence in the Scotland Highlands during World War Two.

All of them present such rich and authentic lived histories, and complex moral worlds. Together they chart the subtle and ongoing legacy of 400 years of British imperialism.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves? How did your careers begin, and did you always want to work in the arts?
FK: I’m a playwright, dramaturg and producer. Until recently I was Artistic Director of touring theatre company Tamasha, which is how ‘The Waves’ was developed.

I also write my own plays, with a particular specialism in working in schools and writing for teenagers. I’ve been writing stories of different kinds ever since I could hold a pen, and got into theatre in school. I thought I wanted to act at first, then got interested in directing, then quickly realised that at the heart of it all is the written text.

It took a long time to work out how to break into playwriting. I got lucky by winning a playwriting award in 2005, but even so you need to have a lot of strings to your bow to survive as a freelance artist. My favourite kind of writing projects by far are ones which have social impact.

My proudest moment was winning a Scotsman Fringe First Award in 2009 for a play developed with Bangladeshi girls in an East London school. ‘The Waves’ is the same – new stories becoming part of the national conversation.

ED: I am a playwright and performer who likes to write about everything from British Asian life, to social media to ‘young people angst’. I grew up knowing I wanted to write but initially I wanted to try journalism. I quickly realised at eighteen, after a few internships, I was not suited to journalism because I tried to make everything funny or dramatic or both.

I joined Soho Theatre’s Mixed Comedy Lab in 2013 as a way to meet new people in London and I enjoyed it quite a lot, despite being too shy to do drama at school. I was invited to then participate in their Writers’ Lab the following year and it kicked off this journey of playwriting – it’s been amazing to see my writing progress and get more refined over time through schemes, groups and having the opportunity to write on stage.

CM: What aims and hopes do you have for the future?
ED: Write even more! For money! There is no golden ticket when it comes to writing though I do have some ‘lofty’ aims of having a full-length commission with a theatre and writing for TV. At the moment I’m trying to push myself with my ideas, connect with like-minded creatives and enjoy the process of writing more.

CM: What’s coming up next for you both after this?
FK: I stepped down from Tamasha last year to set up my new company Applied Stories. It’s a digital production company specialising in place-based audio drama with social impact. ‘The Waves’ is very much an example of how important place is in storytelling. Applied Stories is doing another project in Luton at the moment, a community project called Museum Of Stories. We’re also developing new audio formats for SOAS and the British Museum.

ED: I’m back to the drawing board to come up with some new ideas for theatre – with a focus on one-person shows – and trying to drum up interest in my original ideas for TV. If anyone wants to know more – hit me up!

‘The Waves’ series will be broadcast via London-based Resonance FM, and a large number of local radio stations across the UK, from 19 Jan. See the Tamasha website here for more information.

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