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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 17 August 2014

The Word Game

Playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz talks to Laura Macdougall about her new play, the Fringe First winning Chef, and the evolution of her work as a writer.
Laura Macdougall

Jade Anouka in Chef

Chef, Mahfouz’s latest play, owes a lot to her background as a poet; she has a brilliant ear for the rhythm, cadence and vocabulary of her protagonist’s language. I spoke to her about the experience of taking Chef to the Edinburgh Fringe and the evolution of her writing, from poetry and spoken word to theatre, and how the different art forms can influence and draw from each other.

Laura Macdougall: Chef seems to have come about as a result of many different inspirations. Was it a difficult process getting all of these thoughts and ideas to coalesce into a play, or did it happen quite naturally and organically?

Sabina Mahfouz: It was the most perfect process for the way I think and work. All these seemingly separate worlds that had piqued my interest and captured my heart being researched independent of each other, all swirling around in my head until I figured out a way to make them coalesce, of course with some support from the brilliant director Kirsty Patrick Ward. I realise now that this is the way I most enjoy creating pieces of writing.

LM: Was Chef always intended to be a one-woman piece?

SM: Yes, I love one woman shows. Watching them, writing them, working on them. Having a woman on stage with no chance of her becoming the secondary character still seems to be, very depressingly, quite an extraordinary experience.

LM: Given that you have performed your own plays before, in your debut Dry Ice, what led to Jade Anouka taking the role? Was it always going to be played by someone other than you?

SM: I was going to perform it initially, I thought it might just be a twenty-minute poem that would become part of my poetry readings. I performed ten minutes of it at Brighton’s Basement as a scratch last year. The reaction it received and the enthusiasm from Kirsty convinced me it should be a play and that a trained, talented actor would do this particular story more justice than I ever could. Jade was playing a character in my Traverse play, Clean, and I loved the way she worked with my words, so I knew it had to be her.

LM: The reviews for Chef have been wonderful and it’s won both a Fringe First and a Stage Award for Jade, which must feel great. Do you have plans to do a run outside of Edinburgh?

SM: It’s been flipping fantastic! We didn’t even do one preview in London, so we were completely unsure of what audience reaction would be like. It’s a huge privilege to work with such an amazing team and see everyone’s hard work be formally recognised – although of course there are those working just as hard on some wonderful pieces who won’t get the awards to prove it and this is the beauty of the Fringe; everyone is here because they love what they do and what they’re doing, regardless of recognition.

A London run would be ideal, I always love to have things in my home town and it’s been a while.

LM: How did you feel your way around the rhythm and cadences and vocabulary of the chef?

SM:The cadence and rhythm of speech is something that comes to me as soon as the character appears in my head. These things are inextricably linked, so it’s not something I tend to research for each project – my family are from all over the world and I’ve worked in such a variety of places I think a lifetime of research has already gone into this aspect of my writing!

Sabrina Mahfouz

Sabrina Mahfouz

LM: Much of your work focuses on women and the issues affecting them today. Is this always a conscious choice?

SM:When I started writing, there were more male protagonists in my stories. I felt like I knew those characters better than female ones. I felt I knew how they would react to certain things more realistically; knew what they would say more accurately. As I began getting more interested in feminist writing, I realised that what I was doing was a result of absorbing so many stories throughout my life where the male experience was the default experience – whatever happened to the men in the story always seemed to be the crux of the narrative. When I had this realisation, I knew I would never do that again. Of course we all know women well enough to write them – you just might not have seen the woman you are going to write on a stage or screen before, but it is likely you will have seen some version of the man you are going to write. So yes, it is a very conscious decision! And with men still outnumbering women on UK stages 2:1 and women being the protagonists in only 15% of mainstream US films, it is a very serious choice and one which I am unlikely to change until the statistics surrounding female lead characters in creative media become as representative as they should be – 50:50 – no less.

LM: What do you think of the media coverage of women at the Fringe and issues of feminism that are being discussed? Presumably it’s something you’ve been aware of while working in the city this month?

SM: The Fringe is not exempt from the above. Although this year has seen a great rise in female comedians taking part, it is pretty clear from walking around town and seeing the poster boards and looking at media coverage, that white men still dominate most spaces. There is a change, but it is too gradual and I do think more needs to be done to challenge the status quo. I’m very up for hearing from and working with anyone on how we can make a positive impact on diversity at the Fringe and more widely in the arts.

LM: You must be excited at the way the spoken word scene in the UK has really taken off?

It is so fantastic to see so much interest in the art form and to see the artists who have been working within it be able to access new and exciting opportunities. However, it is a little frustrating to see a constant deluge of articles dedicated to ‘poetry isn’t boring anymore’ sensationalism. They have been writing these same angled articles for a while now and yet it still seems hard for performance poets to be given the same literary considerations as playwrights or other poets – based on the argument that their words are written to be spoken and performed. Playwrights have only ever been writing with the same objectives, but their words have long been considered of literary merit.

LM: What do you think are the differences between spoken word and the theatre in terms of mediums of expression?

SM: I do think part of the current interest in spoken word is the relationship it has with explicitly political material. This is something that theatre has shied away from over the years – of course, it can be found and there are many amazing plays which address political issues. But due to the short-form that spoken word pieces can take and their casual, heart-felt delivery in bars and tents, as well as stages and screens – the performers can address certain specific issues in a couple of minutes in a way that a theatre piece would need to explore over an hour or more. It is suitable for the current high-speed consumption of everything that we now have. It is also suitable to have access and love for such voices at a time when politicians, the media and ‘experts’ are all viewed with increasing suspicion and mistrust.

LM: If you have a particular message you want to explore or convey, do you make a conscious choice of medium beforehand, or is it a more organic process?

SM: Stories or characters do seem to appear in a particular form to me at first – but this can change as the process develops. For example, Chef and Dry Ice both started out as poems I was performing that then progressed into theatre pieces. Some plays I have started turned into short stories and currently I’m writing a TV show that has developed from a poem. I’m eager to have as many forms as possible to work with, so that the story finds the one that fits it best.

LM: Poetry is a very personal thing. How do you find working in the theatre where collaboration is so important?

SM: Collaboration in theatre is a wonderful and necessary thing, but the independence that working within poetry gives you is a good grounding for being sure of what it is you want the writing to do in a piece. I have certainly been in over-collaborative situations which I don’t think suit everyone or every project, but generally if everyone shares a similar vision, then it is one of the main things I love about making theatre.

LM: Do you find writing for the theatre more difficult?

SM: It wasn’t really a move, as the two things happened almost concurrently. I wrote and performed my first poem in 2009 and began the Royal Court Young Writer’s Program just after, then had my first short theatre piece on in 2010 at Soho Theatre. Immediately I enjoyed the relationship between the two art forms and the unarticulated, blurry lines about when one becomes the other. I enjoy things that can’t be labelled or categorised and so working with language that was arguably theatre and arguably poetry and arguably spoken word was very stimulating for me!

LM: You’re working on theatre productions (via your own production company) that are spoken word/poetry based. Why do you think contemporary theatre has much to learn and gain from this art form?

SM: Performance poetry is one of the oldest kinds of theatrical entertainment. I love the way that heightened and non-naturalistic language has a welcoming home on a theatre stage and I think theatre can only gain from having writers who are excited to explore this way of working as well as those who prefer (and excel at) the equally fascinating, naturalistic, dialogue-based plays.

LM: Do you think the spoken word scene is more inclusive than the theatre? It does seem to be more diverse.

SM: In London, this certainly seems to be the case, but I haven’t got enough experience of regional scenes to comment. There does appear to be, relative to the small size of the scene in comparison with the vast pull of theatre, more prominent working-class, non-white and female artists working within performance poetry. However, if you look at the headliners for a poetry arena at a festival for example, then it is still dominated by white men. So whilst it is arguably more diverse on the emerging levels, it too evidentially suffers with the ‘glass ceiling’ that covers all industries in this society, artistic or otherwise. Lots of organisations run workshops and outreach to young people from traditionally underrepresented demographics to try and change this for the future and all the artists I know work tirelessly towards this goal as well.

Chef is at the Underbelly, Edinburgh until 17th August 2014.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s  first collection of plays and poems, The Clean Collection, is published by Bloomsbury.

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Laura Macdougall

By day Laura works as an editor in the fiction department at Hodder & Stoughton, one of the UK's largest publishing houses. By night she can invariably be found at the theatre, seeing comedy or music, spoken word or other live literature events. As well as writing for Exeunt, Laura also regularly contributes to Polari and Litro magazines and is also a cultural commentator for the LGBT radio show Out in South London on Resonance FM. Laura is particularly interested in new writing, work that explores the queer experience and work by emerging female artists across all art forms.

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