Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Helena Bell: Kali Theatre presents War Plays

By | Published on Thursday 3 May 2018

Coming to Tristan Bates Theatre this month is a short festival on the theme of war, featuring the staged readings of new plays accompanied by a number of discussions. It’s produced by Kali Theatre, which, as I’m sure many will know, is a company dedicated to highlighting the work of South Asian women.

To find out more about War Plays I spoke to Helena Bell, the company’s artistic director.

CM: Can you start by telling us what prompted you to put this season together? What was the inspiration?
HB: I wanted to give a platform to the experienced South Asian playwrights I knew were out there. It’s always so much more difficult to get second and third plays on once you’ve had your first produced and are not the ‘new’ voice anymore. 2018 marks the end of the First World War but I felt something around Human Rights was more fitting for Kali and I was hugely moved and inspired when I read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. I was struck by its incredibly progressive, utopian vision with the uplifting message of equality for all (particularly pertinent to Kali who work with women writers of South Asian descent – often the most marginalised of voices). I thought it would be exactly the right moment for Kali to mark the 70th anniversary of UDHR and frame our themed Festival within a positive context – showing how far we’ve come, but with constant human rights transgressions, how much further we need to go!

CM: Obviously the common theme is war, but which wars, and which areas of the world, are they focused on?
HB: The focus is largely on wars fought in areas of South East Asia as our writers are all of South Asian descent, however ‘Noor’ is set during the Second World War in occupied France. The other plays are set both within the UK and contemporary Afghanistan, Iraq and Tibet, Bangladesh in 1971 and Sri Lanka during the 3O year conflict there.

CM: How did you go about selecting what plays would get a staged reading?
HB: We invited experienced playwrights to submit a 50 minute script anonymously to an all female panel of writers, directors and literary managers and collectively selected the scripts to go forwards for development. There is one writer – Nushin Arbabzadah – who although a published writer is not yet a recognised playwright. ‘Afghan Girls Don’t Cry’ is Nushin’s first play but offers such a unique perspective and clear talent that we decided to give her an honorary slot in the programme.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the content of the plays?
HB: They all look at the human cost of war for women and tell individual and sometimes deeply personal stories. Some of our writers have first hand experience of the war zones they dramatise while others have some connection to the country through their descent.

CM: As well as the readings, you’re also holding some discussion events – can you tell us a bit about those?
HB: Yes, we have two ‘Speak Out’ events The first, on Afghanistan, is to be hosted by human rights journalist Nadene Ghouri alongside award winning photojournalist Kate Holt. Both these women have covered war zones across the world and we’ll be exhibiting some of Kate’s incredible photos to accompany each play reading. Nadene and Kate will be talking about their war experiences and joined by Dr Ayesha Ahmad and Elaha Walizadeh to talk about the impact of war on survivors.

Our second ‘Speak Out’ event focuses on what it means to be female and a refugee in a foreign country. The event is in response to Nimmi Harasgama’s play ‘My Homemade Kite’, which looks at a Sri Lankan refugee’s plight in the UK and we’ll have panel members joining us who work with female refugees both globally and in the UK.

CM: What are you especially looking forward to?
HB: Working with this incredibly talented team of 70 strong writers, directors, actors, designers and stage management to produce this festival of new work.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Kali Theatre? How and when was it set up?
HB: Kali was founded in 1991 by the actor Rita Wolf and the writer Rukhsana Ahmad to tell stories written by South Asian women writers. At that time there were barely any playwrights from this background and so now in 2018 it’s hugely heartening to see how much Kali has contributed to changing that landscape but yet how much there is still to do to bring real equality of opportunity.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the company in the future?
HB: To find, develop and launch the next generation of theatre artists and to continue to develop and produce thought provoking, quality work to an expanding audience both nationally and internationally.

CM: What’s coming up next, after this?
HB: A new play – ‘Sundowning’ by the hugely talented rising star Nessah Muthy, which opens and tours in the Autumn of 2018.

A call out to new, aspiring playwrights to submit scripts for our national Discovery Programme and an Actor’s Summer School Weekend in partnership with Drama Studio, London for talented aspiring South Asian actors who want to pursue a professional career.


The War Plays season is on at Tristan Bates Theatre from 8-19 May. See this page here for more information.

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