Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Joe Sellman-Leava: Labels

By | Published on Thursday 23 February 2017

When Joe Sellman-Leava performed ‘Labels’ up at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015, our reviewer was fairly blown away by it, giving it a glowing 5/5 review. The show was universally admired in Fringe-land, winning a number of awards and receiving much critical praise.
So, when I discovered that Joe would be performing it at the Vault Festival this month, I was keen to talk to him, about the play, his career and the company that he is co-director of, Worklight Theatre.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the format of the show? Do you regard it as theatre? Spoken word?
JS-L: It is, first and foremost, a piece of theatre, though there are elements of spoken word and poetry, as well as comedy.

Humour was a valuable tool in balancing light and dark subject matter within the piece, which felt like an important thing to get right, given the subject matter. Additionally, describing the comedy in the show has helped us reach audiences that may not otherwise have come to see it: and this too was vital to Worklight: trying to attract people who don’t necessarily consider themselves theatre goers.

CM: Is the show entirely autobiographical?
JS-L: Yes, with one or two small details adjusted for the sake of a joke! Some stories have been embellished, condensed, or presented in the form of a poem for example, but it’s all true.

CM: What themes does the show broach? Are there political elements to it?
JS-L: The central themes are home, family and identity. It places the personal experiences of racism that my father had growing up, compared to my own, against the political backdrop from then to now. Impressions of political voices, from Enoch Powell to Nigel Farage, Idi Amin to Donald Trump, are peppered throughout the show.

CM: Immigration is something you address in the show, isn’t it? Did the fact that this has been such a big issue in recent years inspire you to do this?
JS-L: Yes, absolutely. I started writing it in 2009, when the migration wasn’t anywhere near as central an issue as it is today, but was busy with other projects so it remained a short, unfinished piece. In early 2015, immigration was suddenly at the forefront of every political conversation and debate, far-rich politics was reserving, and the refugee crisis was worsening. I felt ‘Labels’ had something, however small, to offer to the conversation, and it felt like now or never if it was going to get finished and tour.

CM: What made you decide to tell your story in this way? Why a one-man show rather than an ensemble piece?
JS-L: As immigration and multiculturalism became increasingly contentious issues, I felt there was a lack of positive stories, from and about migrants and their children and grandchildren. Because I’ve lived one of those stories, and because everything in ‘Labels’ is true, a one-person show felt like the right format. If we could get a room full of strangers to spend an hour with me, make them laugh, make them cry and share my story, then everyone in that room will have walked in someone else shoes for a time, even if it ultimately doesn’t change their minds about some of the issues.

CM: How do you feel your dual heritage has affected you, and the course of your life?
JS-L: For the most part, I don’t think it’s made a huge difference compared to lots of other British families, and this is part of the show: “I’m a person, not so different from you, I promise!” That said, clearly there have been effects – occasional racial slurs shouted at me, the odd disbelieving look if I answer: “Devon” to the question “where are you from?” And it might have taken me slightly longer to get through border control when we’ve toured the show abroad!

CM: You had a great run with this show up in Edinburgh a couple of years ago (our reviewer really loved it!), and won awards and acclaim, but it’s been on tour since then. Has the show changed or developed much in the intervening time?
JS-L: Thanks, I think your reviewer was there the day my brother proposed to his girlfriend at the end! We were all thrilled and surprised at the reaction in Edinburgh 2015, and it’s been a real joy to tour the show as far and wide as we have. We have made small changes to the show along the way – Donald Trump made his way into it in early 2016, as he gained ground in the Republican Primaries, and Brexit is acknowledged with a (literal) throwaway joke. That said, we’ve avoided making huge overhauls because we always used current political events as illustrations of the deeper things those events say about human behaviour.

CM: This isn’t the first show you have devised, is it? Can you tell us a bit about the others you’ve created?
JS-L: Worklight devised two shows before this one: ‘How to Start a Riot’, which explored crowd psychology and the UK riots of 2011, and ‘I Think I’m a Feminist’, which tried to ask what the male role might be within contemporary feminism. In both cases we used hand-held lighting such as torches and mini-projectors as storytelling devices, and made social science a part of the drama. This mixture of head and heart, of personal and political, of micro and macro, is of real interest to us.

CM: Have you always wanted to perform? What drew you to this kind of career?
JS-L: Not always. I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while… not sure what happened to that! I think I began to think seriously about trying to make this my career when I was about 17: by then I’d learned more about collaborating on productions, and the challenge of it – the bonds you make with people, the thrill of a breakthrough after wading through the mud of a difficult rehearsal – I just wanted to keep going!

CM: What hopes and plans do you have for the future? Where do you see yourself headed?
JS-L: I’m writing and performing a new solo show called ‘Monster’, and co-writing a play called ‘Fix’, with Worklight’s other co-director, Michael Woodman. ‘Labels’ is also touring for a bit longer. I have a few other ideas for projects but they might have to wait for now! Ultimately I want to keep making work that moves people and makes them think about and talk to one another.

CM: What’s coming up next, for you, and for Worklight Theatre?
JS-L: We’re pretty busy getting ready to take our new shows ‘Monster’ and ‘Fix’ to Edinburgh, where they’ll launch officially, and planning the touring that will happen afterwards. ‘Fix’ is about behavioural addictions, and is being directed by Katharina Reinthaller – the director and dramaturg of ‘Labels’ – and she, Michael and I have been researching and developing it for ages, so we can’t wait to get it on its feet and in front of audiences!

‘Labels’ is on at Vault Festival from 1-5 Mar, see this page here for all the details.

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Photo: Ben Borely