Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Lilac Yosiphon: The Glass Will Shatter

By | Published on Friday 17 January 2020

As soon as I heard about ‘The Glass Will Shatter’ – which opens at Omnibus Theatre this week – I was interested in finding out more about it. It’s a piece that focuses on the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy and its potentially negative effects when implemented in schools.

The play is by Joe Marsh, has been produced by Althea Theatre, and is directed by the company’s artistic director Lilac Yosiphon. I put some questions to Lilac ahead of opening night.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of the show. Who are the central characters and what’s happening to them?
LY: The narrative of the show revolves around three characters, Rebecca, Jamilah and Amina. Jamilah is the head of department that Rebecca teaches in, and Amina is one of her students. The narrative of the show jumps back and forward in time to when Rebecca was a trainee teacher and was teaching Amina. It asks important questions about belonging and polarisation in UK, especially through the eyes of a British-Somali student. The events of the play are very much affected by the Prevent Policy and the pressure it puts on both teachers and students. You’ll have to come watch the show if you want to know what happens next.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
LY: Very much in the spirit of Althea Theatre’s work, the play explores our sense of belonging from a local and international point of view. This time, we focus on the experience of UK schools from British and Somali perspectives. In many ways, this focus allows for a bigger discussion about the experience of second and third generation migrants in the UK, who still very much feel themselves; as Afua Hirsch put it in her insightful book ‘Brit-ish’: more ‘ish’ than British. It especially focuses on the experience of the British-Somali community who, as the play mentions, are facing challenges being both black and Muslim and therefore being on the receiving end of two agendas. It also looks at the teaching crisis and the huge responsibility being put on teachers in comparison with sometimes very short training.

CM: Can you fill us in a bit about the counter terrorism and security act, what it aims to achieve?
Officially speaking, the national Prevent strategy aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The Prevent strategy identifies that young people are more likely to be vulnerable to extremist or terrorist narratives. This includes non-violent extremism which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit. The execution of such a broad policy can leave a lot of room for human error. Unconscious bias and misconceptions can have a huge bearing on how referrals are initiated, and a culture of heightened suspicion means that classrooms are less able to foster open and insightful discussion.

CM: So what effects do you think has it had on the education system?
LY: I think that specifically in the education system it is doing more harm than good. It is positioning teachers in a very tricky place and sends a message to students that the classroom isn’t a safe place for discussion. This is why, in January 2019. it was announced that the Prevent Strategy is to be independently reviewed after ministers gave into longstanding pressure to address concerns over its impact on communities.

Things do seem to be moving in a positive direction but it seems that it’s generating more polarisation than preventing radicalisation. It makes students, specifically Muslim students, feel unwelcome and it puts unnecessary pressure on teachers who are already overwhelmed with work. It can make the classroom into a scarier place rather than a place of trust, such as in the case of Ifhat Smith’s son, a thirteen-year-old boy, being asked if he liked Isis because he used the term ‘eco-terrorist’.

Rob Faure Walker, a secondary school teacher in Tower Hamlets and a PhD candidate investigating the impact of counter-extremism discourses in educational settings, has very eloquently referred to the danger of Prevent as ‘based on a false premise that the airing of extreme views is a predictor for violence’.

CM: What made you want to direct this piece?
LY: Alongside working as a theatre director I’ve also worked as a workshop facilitator and drama teacher since I was eighteen. My mother used to work as a teacher in schools for students with special educational needs and my grandparents worked as university professors. A play that looks at the impact this policy has on teachers felt very personal to me because I do very much believe that learning drama in school gave me a purpose and a sense a of self worth I didn’t have before. Learning theatre in that sense very much saved my life.

When I was a pupil, I felt that I didn’t belong in the classroom and it is this thought that made me feel like I don’t belong in the society around me. Maybe that’s why I teach today, to create a welcoming, kind and inclusive environment. This piece bravely looks at what happens when a classroom is the complete opposite of that and the long lasting effect that it might have on both students’ and teachers’ lives. It’s quite a powerful experience: an international Jewish director to be leading this dialogue in a rehearsal room with actresses and theatre makers from different faiths and heritages, it’s been a very profound experience.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the writer, and possibly his motivations for writing this…?
LY: Joe Marsh trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School before becoming a qualified teacher and he worked full-time as an English Teacher in a school in East London, so he experienced Prevent and saw how it affected trainee teachers in similar situations.

I think it made a real impact on him and it made him ask questions which found themselves in this play. He is incredibly generous writer and collaborator and he wrote this play because he felt these questions have to be addressed. Joe has been writer on attachment at the Finborough Theatre for the last few years and I’m quite chuffed for Althea Theatre to be producing his first full-length play.

We’ve collaborated with him before on a short piece he wrote for one of our scratch nights, InterScratch, and we are thrilled to present his work. ‘The Glass Will Shatter’ was long-listed for the Papatango Prize and Joe’s definitely a writer to look out for. He shared more about his experience in a blog he wrote for Omnibus which I would definitely recommend your readers to have a look at.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast?
LY: I can tell you a lot about my cast! Naima Swaleh, who’s playing Amina, had her stage debut playing Laura Wingfield in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ with Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre, and Alma Eno, who plays Jamilah, has recently performed in ‘Small Island’ at the National Theatre. Josephine Arden, who performed in ‘One Last Thing (For Now)’ at the Old Red Lion Theatre, is playing Rebecca and most recently she performed in both ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Death in Venice’ at the Royal Opera House. It is such a privilege and a joy to be working with them.

CM: Last time we spoke, you filled us in on Althea Theatre. This time, can we talk about you a bit? What is your background? Were you always aiming for a career in the theatre?
LY: I moved to London in 2012 to train as a theatre director at Mountview Academy Of Theatre Arts and I’m very honoured to be endorsed by Arts Council England as a Promising Exceptional Talent in the UK. I was, apparently, quite a performer from a young age, at least according to various members of my family, and I was lucky to go to a primary school which specialised in the arts.

My dad’s family is Persian and my mum’s family is Polish. My grandfather on my mum’s side migrated from Baghdad to tel Aviv and always identified himself as an Arab-Jew. My parents were both born in Israel and my mum and my brother still live there. I am somehow the amalgamation of all of these heritages with slightly more British vowels in my accent. But I still confuse a ‘lie in’ with a lion and have to ask why ‘doesn’t have a leg to stand on’ makes more sense than ‘doesn’t have any legs to stand on’.

And yes, looking back I suppose I was always aiming for a career in the theatre and I am lucky enough, despite various obstacles, to be a freelance director and an artistic director of a theatre company today.

CM: What have been your highlights of working in the arts thus far?
LY: Directing ‘One Last Thing (For Now)’ was definitely a highlight, as well as training in a vocational course in London. Touring Althea’s show ‘There’s No Place Like’ around the world, including a tour to America, has definitely been a high point, as well as forging really exciting collaborations which have been developing over the last few years.

‘Jericho’s Rose’, which I wrote and co-directed, was an incredible experience and an opportunity to explore the experience of displacement as well as my own family tree. I was one of the finalists for the JMK Award in 2019, and while we definitely don’t direct to win a prize, it’s definitely nice when your work is being recognised.

I’d also have to say that working in organisations such as the National Youth Theatre, Mountview and Identity has been a huge highlight of the last few years and has enriched my own practice, and still does.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
LY: Funding! I’m kidding, even though as an artistic director this is definitely one of the goals I aspire to – to have more funding. There are a few more plays that I’ve been developing with writers in the last few years that I’d love to bring to fruition.

I’d love for them to tour and for Althea to run workshops along the tour so we can get to know our audiences more and develop a relationship and a conversation. Althea has got a few projects in the pipeline and we’re working very hard to get them off the ground. And someday I’d want to run a building. I’d want to produce work which offers an inclusive representation of local and international voices, and engages with audiences from different backgrounds.

And I’d want to have a vegan cake named after me, I’m not sure which one, but open to suggestions.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this?
LY: I’ve been collaborating with Isabel Dixon on a work in progress of a play called ‘Heroes (We Could Be)’ which will be performed for three nights at the Vaults Festival. The play is an exploration of fallen idols, family secrets and the human price of forgiveness. It was selected to be published as one of the plays for the Vaults 5 Anthology by Nick Hern Books which is fantastic and well deserved because Isabel is a very talented writer. I’ve also been working as a trainee director with Graeae Theatre and I’m very excited to see how this collaboration develops in 2020.

‘The Glass Will Shatter’ is on at Omnibus Theatre from 21 Jan-8 Feb. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

LINKS: | |