I never went to the theatre growing up. The first play I watched was in secondary school when, instead of the usual talk about bike safety or something along those lines, a company performed Macbeth in the assembly hall. I remember being fascinated by the way the witches were hanging off moving makeshift gates and shouting out the infamous, “Double, double toil and trouble,” lines. They were clad in black, whilst sound and light worked together beautifully to create a lightning effect. But there is little else I can remember from the production, as I found it difficult to follow at the time. It was Shakespeare after all.
The first time I stepped into a theatre was for A-Level English Literature, when we went on a class trip to watch The Woman in Black. I loved the feeling of being part of an audience, all of us reacting to the same thing in unison. In particular, I remember when the Woman in Black brushed past us as she walked silently through the audience, prompting us all to scream and jump out of our seats. We couldn’t stop talking about it on the way back home.
I wish I could say this was the moment I was inspired to watch more plays and even think about writing them. But the truth is, apart from a couple of Shakespeare productions during university – again, for a literature module – I didn’t start going to the theatre until much later. By the time I completed university, I’d probably been to the theatre about three or four times. To me theatre was expensive, middle class and didn’t reflect my experience of the world.
What always strikes me when speaking to writers, directors or other creatives working in theatre is the influence and fascination they felt with it growing up. Either their parents took them often to watch plays, or their schools, and so their interest sparked from a young age. It’s something I realised on more than one occasion that I would have benefited from.
I grew up in Newham, which we may now associate with Westfield and the Olympic Stadium, but in reality, is still one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. My parents are immigrants from Pakistan, so theatre was alien to them. And to me, theatre was the West End. Large scale plays with stories that were either classics, musicals or about middle-class marriages. I didn’t even know fringe theatre existed until much later.
Today, I’m really proud to say my debut play, Spun, has a run at Arcola Theatre. It is the story of two best friends, who are also British Pakistani and grew up in Newham. We meet them just as they’re about to leave university and take their first steps into the world of work. It’s a play I felt I had to write because I wanted to explore the stories in the ‘middle’ for those from the British Asian Muslim community. It’s not about extremes – no one goes to Syria, becomes a terrorist or even an activist. It’s the simple story of two best friends trying to stay rooted against the political and social backdrop of their time. It’s the kind of reflection of my community I wish I had seen on stage or screen when I was younger.
I know I’ve been incredibly lucky to have found theatre as I grew older, and to have the opportunity to write the stories I’ve always wanted to see. But I can’t help but think about the number of years it has taken me to finally understand the industry, and how many talented people we may have missed out on because they were unable to navigate it. If theatre was part of their lives from a young age, through school and extra-curricular activities, this could’ve been very different.
Of course, there is a bigger debate about why schools and theatres need to work together to reach those from working-class and minority backgrounds. Diversity and representation have become important topics, but if we are to achieve them in theatre, we need new ways of reaching out to those who would normally never experience it. There are currently some wonderful initiatives that are doing just this. Led by Tobi Kyeremateng, The Black Ticket Project is a truly inspiring project raising funds to support more young people from the Black British communities to see plays such as the Barbershop Chronicles and Nine Night at The National Theatre, and its success gives me hope that we can also run similar funds for those from British Asian working-class communities. Tamasha Theatre has run multiple projects, including Re-Fuel and Schoolwrights, to engage those from Muslim communities and areas of higher deprivation. Tamasha can also credit itself with the support it gave to Mulberry Theatre Company at Mulberry School, a predominantly British Bangladeshi girl’s school. Tara Arts and Kali Theatre also have educational programmes successfully engaging British Asian audiences to see more plays and learn about how theatres work.
But these initiatives come from a relatively small section of the industry, and aren’t being led by the UK’s biggest and most well-funded venues. We need all theatres and arts organisations to work with key people in different communities to engage and inspire young people to visit the theatre, and see their stories reflected on the stage. These programmes need to be more mainstream, and engaging diverse audiences needs to be a priority for all theatres.
Theatre is beautiful because it aims to reflect the world we live in. But if we are to attract new audiences, we must reach out to those whose voices have always been ignored. Maybe then we can inspire the next generation of creatives to believe that working in theatre is a realistic and viable option for them. Maybe then we won’t miss out on any more talent.
Spun by Rabiah Hussain runs at Arcola Theatre until Saturday 28th July. Book tickets here.