Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Natalie Ibu: i know all the secrets in my world

By | Published on Thursday 21 January 2016


‘i know all the secrets in my world’, which heads to Watford next week to start a UK tour, sounds amazing. “A play about what happens when speaking is impossible”, it’s presented by national touring theatre company tiata fahodzi, and it was created by the group’s artistic director, Natalie Ibu.
To find out more about the play, and the company behind it, I put some questions to Natalie, ahead of the imminent dates.

CM: Can you begin by telling us what the play is about? Whose story does it tell?
NI: ‘i know all the secrets in my world’ is a story about what it is to love and to lose. At the heart of our play are a father and son grieving the sudden and unexpected death of their wife/mother. We follow them as they try to grieve, try to find a language for the unspeakable, and explore what family looks like for them now. It delights in life’s contradictions – chaos in the silence, delicacy and femininity in the masculine, memory in the present. ‘i know all the secrets in my world’ is as much about love as it is about loss, and as joyful as it is heartbreaking.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
NI: This show is a love letter between father and son, men and women, the living and the dead. It explores masculinity, putting under the microscope how we – society and culture – nurture our men and boys, and whether we are truly equipping them for life, really nourishing all aspects of them.

CM: What inspired you to create a piece on these themes and topics?
NI: I started thinking about this play in 2008, thinking about a character who refused to speak. I was interested in finding a way – as a director – to author stories. I was always struck that 98% of communication is non-verbal, yet plays can sometimes be all about the 2%. How does a writer/director write the 98% – the unsaid, the unspoken? Well, she writes ‘i know all the secrets in my world’, it turns out.

CM: How did you go about creating it? Was there much research or preparation involved?
NI: This is the longest I’ve spent working on a play. It has – truly – been a labour of love. It started as a 10-minute piece really early in my career – an experiment really. Then I spent a week making a 30-minute piece in 2009 and then two weeks making a 45-minute version in 2012.

It was like a childhood sweetheart – you move on, see other people, but always think fondly of the one that got away, and now and then you think “remember X, I wonder where they are now, what if we hadn’t broken up…?” I directed other plays – sure – but I knew there was more to do, further to go with ‘i know all the secrets in my world’, and as I moved from my mid twenties to early thirties, the idea got richer, more complex, more inquisitive.

So, last year, I went back to the script and spent four weeks with actors, creatives and movement director Annie Lunnette Deakin-Foster, devising and engaging in research, meeting those who’d lost and therapists, reading a lot of articles, watching lots of YouTube videos, listening to a lot of podcasts (and that doesn’t stop – I feel like every day I discover another piece of research that sparks an idea or deepens my understanding of the play). And now we have a really dynamic 55-minute show that feels in some ways everything I imagined back in 2008 and yet more than I could have ever thought possible.

One of the reasons I adore what I do is because for a couple of months you become an expert of a very idiosyncratic world – the themes of the play seem to be everywhere you turn when you’re working on a new show. I get really excited disappearing into other people’s worlds and lives.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast of the show?
NI: The show has two male actors and a completely female production and creative team. That felt really important because whilst the mother is absent in our play, it’s all about a conversation between masculinity and femininity. It’s an absolute privilege to be surrounded by such talent – I feel very lucky to have all their minds focused on a story that, until last year, lived only in my imagination and 10 pages of script.

Solomon Israel plays Father – I saw him in his final showcase at LAMDA in 2011 and made a mental note, knowing that he was an exquisite talent that I wanted to work with at some point in the future. It’s a total delight to get to work with him three years on. Samuel Nicholas plays Son and this is his first professional show. He is a beautiful dancer and brings a wonderful playful energy to the story. Together they take you on a rollercoaster ride of lightness and darkness, love and grief.

CM: You’re the AD of tiata fahodzi. Can you tell us a bit about the company?
NI: tiata fahodzi is a national touring theatre company – so we’ll come to you – and was founded in 1997, committed to telling stories about the African diaspora in Britain. I took over the company last year and was particularly interested in exploring the developing diaspora because it felt like the diaspora was changing but the stories weren’t. What it means to be African and/or British is different now to 1997 and different for different people in different places. We refuse to oversimplify the African diaspora – the African in Africa or the African in inner city, poor London – and, instead, relish in the complexities and all the different versions of being a British African.

So over the next three years we’re particularly interested in exploring the mixed experience because Britain is full of people – whether African heritage or not – who feel in the middle, a bit of everything and yet somehow nothing at all. I like to think of us as being champions of multicultural Britain because – for an African heritage person in Britain – the experience is multi – rather than mono – cultured.

We’re making work that places the African heritage person at the heart of the story but is actually about really complex identity politics that we all share – no matter your particular combination of experience and heritage. ‘i know all the secrets in my world’ is enhanced by cultural specificity but not defined by it. It’s more concerned with what we share rather than what makes us different.

CM: What does your role as artistic director involve?
NI: Everything, all at once, all the time. Or, at least, sometimes it feels like that. As artistic director and CEO I’m responsible for the art and the business of the theatre company which – because I always wanted to be a maker and a manager – is a really wonderful honour because I get as excited about the how as I am about the what.

CM: Theatre in the UK, certainly the mainstream, seems to me to be extremely lacking in diversity. Do you feel as though much progress is being made in this regard?
NI: I want to believe we’ve made progress, I really do. But, I hear from those who have gone before, that we’re having the same conversations we had before I was even born.

I am in love with theatre and, like everything I think is wonderful, I want to share it with everyone – the Eastern European girl on the bus, my working class Glaswegian step-dad, the Asian sales assistant on the till in the supermarket, my mixed heritage cousin, all of them.

I can’t do that if theatre refuses to welcome and see everyone. For me, it’s really simple, diversity – of everything – makes the best work. So, we want to make world-class work? Great. Let’s find a squad of the very best people who are different to me – because I’ve got me covered. We – all – have a responsibility to make sure that every venue looks like the place it sits in so that what happens in that venue mirrors the richness and diversity of what happens outside the theatre doors.

I find it really frustrating that life/fact is far more complex and diverse than the fiction inspired by life.

CM: What’s next for you, and the company?
NI: Rehearsing and opening the play is really just the beginning, as ‘i know all the secrets in my world’ sees the company go on its largest – most far reaching – tour in its 18 year history. So we’ll be hitting the road with the show to meet and engage with our audiences: we’re producing social events for groups in the run up to the show, artist development activities, and are keen to share a drink and hear how people respond to the play. We’re a small company with big ambitions, so some time off is next on the to-do list, before we go into our summer season, co-producing a new play by award winning playwright Charlene James, with some extraordinary final year acting students at RADA.

‘i know all the secrets in my world’ is on at West Herts College Watford from 27-30 Jan. See the Watford Palace Theatre website here for more info and to book. The show returns to London in March, see the Albany website here for information on those dates.

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