Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Rukhsana Ahmad: Homing Birds

By | Published on Friday 22 November 2019

You are probably all aware of the work of Kali Theatre, the renowned producing company that has specialised in developing and presenting new writing by South Asian women for more than twenty five years. This week they bring their latest production, ‘Homing Birds’, to Tara Theatre.

The play is by Rukhsana Ahmad, who co-founded Kali Theatre, though has taken a back seat in recent years. I spoke to her to find out more about the new piece, as well as about her career and her involvement with the company.

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘Homing Birds’ is about? Whose story does it tell, and where does the narrative take us?
RA: ‘Homing Birds’ is about a young settler’s emotional drive to reconnect with their roots and mother country in search of selfhood and belonging. The story is told from the point of view a bright doctor, Saeed, sent out to London as a child refugee after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Unmoored by the death of his loving adoptive mother, he wants to meet his birth family. An ambitious female politician visiting London lures him away from his bereft adoptive father and the safety of London. He sets off for Kabul with Doctors Without Borders.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
RA: Through a story about death and loss, the play exposes the gaps between memories and a gendered reality, focusing on the dynamics of identity and transformation through lived experience. As the story of someone recovering from the trauma of war and displacement unfolds, inevitably, it pulls in those subjects creating a layered backdrop. When Saeed returns to Kabul, he’s forced to experience real life hardships that ordinary citizens must face and confront the clash between political ideals and the reality on the ground.

CM: How would you describe it in terms of its style – is it a very realistic piece…?
RA: As an audience member, I often enjoy traditional styles of theatre and can live with naturalistic pieces, but, as a writer, I find it useful to combine non-naturalistic moments with realism to tell a story that extends over a long period of time. The play is my version of a very balanced mix, I think.

CM: What made you want to write about this subject matter?
RA: Having experienced some of the bitter realities of armed conflict between India and Pakistan in my early life, I am profoundly opposed to war. Then again, having settled here, I often worry about a future that threatens new Britons with a hostile environment, an atmosphere that creates divisions. I also know that settlers too nurse a nostalgia for the past, viewing it through rosy lenses. Examining those conflicts through a play gives one the opportunity to arrive at a position and understand the nuances of the debates that harry us all the time.

CM: How involved have you been with the production of the play? Have you been present in rehearsals?
RA: My involvement was always welcomed and productions on the smaller scale need the playwright to understand what is achievable in the theatre more carefully anyway; but I leave the actual business of directing to my amazingly supportive and imaginative director, Helena Bell. I was involved in the casting, shown the set and costume designs at an early stage and made suggestions for the music and, I reckon the visuals and lighting emanate from the text anyway.

However, I do feel the director must have the space to give the text its fullest exposition. It is an art that requires training and experience, and, above all, that, sensitivity to the words and the hidden tensions in the narrative. I attended many rehearsals but trusted, on the whole, to Helena, who understands the art of harmonizing all the scenic elements and how to achieve all the emotional dips and highs of the play. We’ve done a few projects in the past together; and I believe trust is the key to a successful collaboration, it’s been a happy process in which all the creative team have smiled all the way through.

CM: You are a co-founder of Kali Theatre, and ran it for some time, and are now a board member. Can you tell us a bit about how it came together originally? What motivated you? What aims did you have?
RA: Becoming a co-founder was easy for me. Rita Wolf, my co-founder, did all the hard work. It was her idea and her baby to begin with; as a fairly successful and dedicated actor she knew the industry well. She created the company to produce a play of mine and took it through the process of workshops and rehearsed readings without any subsidy or income for any one of us. But when the production happened the results were great. The company got plenty of attention; she achieved a great tour and an amazing profile for that first play. But since we could find no new scripts for Kali to produce the following year, we decided to offer play writing workshops and rehearsed readings, realizing how badly they were needed.

I took over the role of AD when the arrival of Rita’s real babies made her trips from New York impossible. Running a theatre company is not easy; it was hard work when I combined it with writing on a shoestring budget. I’d found a great board but when revenue funding finally came about after a decade on project funding, I decided to leave. I could not envisage being able to write alongside the AD role. I also recognized that that role would be delivered best by a director. We appointed Janet Steel to take over.

Kali’s published aims have remained the same over the past decades. That gives both Rita and me a real buzz and a huge sense of pride. The company has helped many Asian women to launch their careers as playwrights/writers. The loyal pursuit of those original aims and objectives by our last AD, Janet Steel, our Board and our management, has been admirable. Helena Bell’s leadership ensures the company’s growth and a brilliant future, as well as a faultless delivery of those aims.

CM: What have been the highlights of your involvement with Kali Theatre?
RA: It was an empowering experience for a writer to participate in the production process. Our first production of my first full-length play was hugely exciting but I also loved the year we stepped up from a being a purely development resource to becoming a full-fledged producer of new writing by other Asian women writers. That was made possible by the support of two men: the late Tony Craze, the London Arts Board’s New Writing officer, and Jatinder Verma of Tara Arts and the consistent support and loyalty of our most experienced board members.

CM: How did you end up becoming a writer? Was it what you always wanted to do?
RA: I certainly attempted writing a novel at a very young age. I think it was in imitation of the Brontes and Jo from ‘Little Women’. But, in a way, it also seemed easier to fit writing alongside raising a young family: being self-employed, I could work from home. Since I am a bit of a night owl, I believed I could do both.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
RA: I would love to be able to write during daylight hours rather than begin work late at night. I feel I do have a number of stories to tell; and, as a bicultural, bilingual person, I have that gift of double vision, which gives these stories depth and weight. With luck, I should be able to carry on writing for a few years yet.

CM: What’s coming up for you next? What plans do you have in the pipeline?
RA: There are always more writing plans afoot than I could realistically deliver. I would like to develop ‘Homing Birds’ either for radio or for TV film production and see where that gets me.

I need to finish some stories I began, which have been delayed this year… and a book to revise, which has been sadly neglected, I’m afraid. And I also want to work on a series of monologues that recount the stories of female politicians from the sub-continent…

‘Homing Birds’ is on at Tara Theatre from 26 Nov-7 Dec. See this page here for all the info and to book.

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