Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Helena Bell and Satinder Chohan: HOME

By | Published on Friday 8 October 2021

Coming up at Tara Theatre is Kali Theatre’s ‘HOME’, a weeks-worth of readings of cutting edge, nearly-ready plays from women writers of South Asian descent. It feels like a fabulous opportunity to see and hear new work at its earliest stages.

I’ve been following the work of Kali Theatre for years and am always really interested to hear about what they are doing.

To find out more about ‘HOME’, I spoke to Kali Theatre AD Helena Bell, and to Satinder Chohan, whose play ‘Empire Of The Mind’ is one of the shows being staged as part of it.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘HOME’? What’s the aim of the strand?
HB: ‘HOME’ audiences can expect to get a first look at some incredibly strong plays by some outstanding playwrights. They are performed at Tara Theatre by a lovely cast, as script in hand performances.

The aim is for our writers to see the impact of their plays on an audience and learn what might be needed in the final development towards a rehearsal ready draft. I hope that theatregoers and theatremakers who know these writers’ previous plays, and those new to their work, will be interested to see what they are up to.

For me personally, I expect to be thrilled to be in the same room as a Kali audience for the first time since the pandemic!

CM: Are the plays connected in any way? Are there common themes?
HB: The plays are connected loosely through the theme of ‘HOME’ and how South Asian women writers connect to and view that concept in the UK right now. So the stories and characters in our play are weaved around themes including everything from the environment and LBGTQ issues, to nationhood, colonialism, immigration and terrorism.

CM: Can you tell us about the playwrights involved? Are they established playwrights or are they new talent..?
HB: Four of the writers are established writers who have had earlier plays produced by Kali, and by other leading theatre companies, and have experienced great success during their careers so far, with accolades including an Evening Standard Award, Critics Circle Award and Bruntwood Prize.

They are also writing for radio, TV and film including ‘The Archers’ and ‘Coronation Street’ and making a major contribution to increased diversity within UK drama writing. Among these mid-career writers, we are also excited to showcase the more emerging talent of Maeve Scullion, from our 2018 DISCOVERY programme.

CM: So can we talk in more detail about one of the plays with one of the playwrights? Satinder, can you tell me about your play, ‘Empire Of The Mind’. What story does it tell?
SC: ‘Empire Of The Mind’ feels like a big play with an epic reach, so I’m still feverishly developing the overall story and working out where it’s going and where it will end up.

The play opens with Indian convicts Indu and Leena being taken on board the SS Maharaja to the penal colony of the Andaman Islands in the early 1930s, where they are being jailed for their crimes. British officer Victor Portman is also on board – he is moonlighting as an imperial dream collector and tries to enlist them and other ‘natives’ for his research.

As characters pursue dreams and morph through generational incarnations, linked by a crime committed in the past, the play shifts between interlocking worlds, dream worlds, time frames and lifetimes, journeying from an early 20th century colonial past to its fallout in a 21st century psychotic British present – a Brexit/COVID Britain still romanticising a halcyon imperial past, having never fully dealt with its loss of Empire.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
SC: It is a state of the nation play about Britain’s fractured national identity, its Empire and imperial legacy. The play explores the darker side of a ‘civilising mission’ spreading democracy, freedom and British values – the darker side of a glorified imperial history largely ignored in our society, our schools and on our stages through a national collective amnesia.

Using dreams and psychology to explore individual and national psyches, the play dramatises the colonising processes, conflicts and crimes of the past. It’s also very much a play about the ‘end of forgetting’ – an Andamanese Onge tribal phrase – and the ‘beginning of remembering’, individually and collectively.

CM: What inspired it? What made you want to write a play on this topic?
SC: As a child of immigrants, I have grown up acutely aware of this British collective amnesia – the way our immigrant histories have been suppressed, the way the darker, more genocidal, destructive, rapacious side of British imperial history has been institutionally denied and contorted to spin a more glorified history.

My own conflicted sense of British Asian identity is rooted in this amnesia, which also repeatedly fails to make connections between colonialism and global immigration in this country – instead viciously scapegoating immigrants for British ills. So I wanted to address Empire in a way that doesn’t shy away from ugly, violent history; a play attempting a more grown-up, honest debate about Empire and immigration, so we can learn more about who we are and how we relate to one another in 21st century Britain – in a way not possible growing up as a child of immigrants.

I first had this idea back in 2010 for a writing residency. Back then, I didn’t really have the dramatic tools for such an epic subject. Having almost visited there, I was fascinated with the Andamans and knew it had this incredible history – a penal colony that was also an island paradise and prison of sorts for the Britishers, not just for the Indian convicts sent there. My idea always felt too dark and heavy, until I recently found out about the British imperial dream collectors – the missing creative piece I needed for the play.

In 1931, British anthropologist Charles Seligman contacted a team of officials across the Empire, from India, Malaya, China to Nigeria, Uganda, Australia and the Solomon Islands, to collect dreams from colonial ‘natives’. Within prevailing hierarchies, the simple ‘native’ mind was still perceived as ‘alien’, ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’, and natives were believed to lack the deep inner lives of white superiors. Seligman wanted to see if – Freudian – dream concepts and symbols were universal or culturally determined.

In 1932, Seligman’s findings led him to declare that, ‘The savage mind and the mind of Westernised civilised man are essentially alike’. However, as much as natives also flew, fell, died, had sex and lost their teeth in their dreams, colonial rulers were often cast as oppressive patriarchal figures. Their dreams further revealed a deep fear and resentment of the imperial British, who ignored these ‘psychic wounds of colonialism’ – and a more worrying latent, eventual growing resistance to their rule. ‘Empire Of The Mind’ tries to spin a dream yarn around all that!

CM: Helena, how did you put the full programme together? Did you select, or commission? How were decisions made as to what would be staged?
HB: We have core commissioned all these mid-career writers from the treatments they submitted for the plays they wanted to write. Although they were given ‘HOME’ as the starting point, they have all created very different plays in terms of story and form.

CM: Is this something that will be repeated in the future?
HB: The format of the festival will be repeated with a different theme. Every other year we present a differently themed London festival showcasing work by established writers. Our next Festival will be in 2023 and the theme is ‘INTERNATIONAL’ plays.

CM: Can you tell us about how you have been celebrating Kali Theatre’s thirtieth anniversary?
HB: It was hugely important to us and exciting to see the release by Methuen Drama of ‘THIRTY’, an anthology of monologues and duologues produced by Kali over the last 30 years. Aimed at at South Asian and mixed heritage actors for use in auditions and workshops, we hope it will be indispensable to many.

We also launched a script shop on our website so that most of Kali’s previous full length plays can now be accessed. And in June we held a major UK wide symposium in partnership with Central School Of Speech And Drama, plus national theatre venues, that welcomed 100 industry delegates to discuss the position of South Asian writers and artists today.

The symposium had a series of exciting guest speakers including broadcaster Samira Ahmed, and looked back at the artistic landscape thirty years ago and the situation today. We’ve also had a short documentary film made by BBC film maker Shiroma Silva.

CM: How has Kali been affected by the pandemic? How have you steered your way through this period?
HB: We’ve been really busy throughout! We’ve kept up the profiles of our artists by commissioning fifteen writers – through invitation and open call outs – to produce fifteen online monologues – ‘SOLOS’ – for actors to self record. These ‘SOLOS’ have had over 8000 views, so have been a great way for Kali to reach a wider online audience over the pandemic. We’ve also produced three podcasts, plus of course edited and published ‘THIRTY’ alongside much dramaturgy and script development work for our two programmes ‘FESTIVAL’ and ‘DISCOVERY’.

CM: What hopes and aims for the company do you have in the future?
HB: That we can all build bigger and better post pandemic. We are looking forward to sharing and implementing the practical recommendations identified at our symposium.

CM: What’s coming up next for the company?
HB: ‘DISCOVERY 21/22’ has just been launched in partnership with Hampstead Theatre, Oldham Coliseum and Leeds Playhouse, with twelve new aspiring playwrights who are now on the journey of developing their craft through workshops and dramaturgy. In the Spring of 2022 we will showcase the work of these writers in each of their venues.

‘HOME’ takes place at Tara Theatre from 12-16 Oct. For more information, and to book, see this page here.

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