Features Published 4 January 2016

Zodwa Nyoni: “You have to cry a little bit, drink some tea, eat cake and power through.”

Playwright Zodwa Nyoni and director Alex Chisholm talk about the process of creating Nine Lives, a drama about LGBT asylum seekers that opens at the Arcola this month.
Alice Saville
Lladel Bryant performs Nine Lives.

Lladel Bryant performs Nine Lives.

Alex Chisholm: Tell me about Nine Lives. Where did the idea came from and how did you come to write it?

Zodwa Nyoni: Nine Lives is a one man play about a character called Ishmael, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who has fled due to his sexuality. He’s been dispersed to Leeds, and he is lost in this new place, figuring out the process of asylum and dealing with his past. The idea came from wanting to understand the process of asylum, and from having a sense of knowing what is in the news but not really knowing what an individual’s experience is. So I started doing research on the process of claiming asylum and during that I came across a blog called Free Movement. In it there were sexually explicit questions that had been asked by the Home Office to a bisexual asylum seeker. And I remember thinking “How can someone who has been silent about their experience, afraid of being who they really are, face the Home Office and answer these questions?”

As a director what was your approach to the play, what was your process?

Alex Chisholm: I guess my process with the play starts before it is even written. So when we first started talking about this play I was working for West Yorkshire Playhouse, where at that time I was Associate Director. You were on the residency with Channel 4 – we went into that with the idea you were going to write more plays during that year and get that work on in front of different audiences.

ZN: I remember that bit!

AC: Yeah it kinda worked out alright didn’t it!

One of the things we were doing that year was to have A Play, A Pie and A Pint with Oran Mor in Glasgow. So I thought one of those should be by you – and we talked about it and you came back with this idea of Nine Lives. You started with this idea of this young man, and the title. And we had a stupidly short time – do you remember how stupidly short time we had? And you were like ‘it’ll be fine’. You came back from Zimbabwe and said right, I’m going to write this now, you had a go and then you said ‘No I can’t do this…’

ZN: ‘No I can’t do this’…Let’s just stop now.

AC: I remember that meeting we had in the restaurant at the theatre and you said ‘I can’t do this…can we do something else now’ and I said ‘Weeeeellll – why don’t you just have a go at this, write your way into it, write whatever. And you came back, actually a really short time later, and said ‘I’ve written the play.’ And I read it and said ‘Yeah, you’ve have’. And that draft is pretty well what we are performing today.

ZN: It’s good training for a new writer when you panic and think ‘I should just quit’. Because that’s what I think writers are good at doing: you come up with a new idea then you panic and think I’m just going to quit on it and come up with something new. But you’re always going to hit that road block. So you have to cry a little bit, drink some tea, eat cake and power through.

AC: You know I think that’s my solution to pretty well all problems in life: cry, drink tea, eat cake, power through. It’ll get better. It does get better.

The process is completely different with every play. When I got this play I just said this is great. We actually did very little to it.

ZN: I remember tweaking bits here and there. Most of it was seeing how it would come alive with an actor. At that point I had never written monologues. I don’t even remember how it ended up being a one man play. I know the requirements on Play, Pie and Pint were no more than three actors!

AC: You originally had the idea was that it was going to be a dance piece and a dancer was going to embody the characters. And then as it was written it became very textual and very much based in the voices of the characters. And then I think the single most important thing that happened is that we cast Lladel Bryant.

ZN: This young, sexy, Black man walked into the room and he embodied a 19 year old white girl from an estate in Armley…

AC: And we were like: ‘YES! That’s it!’ It was that meeting between his performance and the text and we thought…

ZN: …the text will bring to life the physicality. And it was interesting watching Lladel morphing into the different characters and finding at what points do you take a break, at what points do you come out of one and go back to being Ishmael. And seeing what he needed in terms of rhythm. And there was really not much else we could do except sit and watch him and think, ‘Isn’t he marvelous?’

AC: Yeah that was more you than me. For me, it was helping him find those characters, and, as you say, find the rhythm and find the transitions and energy of the different performances. It has really developed in the playing of it.

We first did this play in May 2014. Tell me about that journey from where you were when you were writing Nine Lives to now.

ZN: Genuinely I thought we’ve got this nice little play, we’ll do Play, Pie and Pint and then it’ll be over and we’ll move onto the next thing. And I think what was surprising was just the energy of the audience in Glasgow: it’s something you can’t predict. We’d meet the audience in the bar afterwards and they’d ask questions. They were just really lovely.

In fact, it’s the first play I ever got reviews on. It was a nerve wracking experience waiting for your first reviews. We were in a new space with new audiences hoping that they would connect to the play. It got 4 stars from the papers. It was such a great start to the play’s run. Then you come back home [Leeds] to people who’ve known me as a poet since I was 17 and this is the first play of mine that some of them will see. I was introducing myself to them as a playwright.

AC: What were your expectations for the play?

ZN: I had been in touch with City of Sanctuary, Meeting Point and had met with asylum seekers during the research process. When it came to writing the play, I hoped that I was going to tell a story that connected with an audience, that spoke about asylum seekers and refugees and their real experiences, and it did more than I expected. When you get someone coming to you at the end of the show and saying to you ‘yes, I felt like that, I felt like an application number and not a real person,’ I feel as a writer I have done my job, in carrying the responsibility of someone’s experiences and sharing it with an audience.

It has been this beautiful, emotional journey from the first day of rehearsals with the three of us in this little rehearsal room upstairs at the Playhouse. It was a little play; and since we’ve been invited to the House of Parliament as part of Sanctuary in Parliament. You’re standing there speaking to MPs, asylum seekers and refugees are sharing their testimonies, and organizations are talking about how they are supporting communities. In those moments, you think to yourself, ‘This is what theatre can do. This is what plays can do’. We educate, provoke, highlight, share and entertain. This has also carried on in the 2015 tour. It’s more than just putting a show on and going home – it’s been ‘let’s put on the show, let’s have a discussion, let’s go speak to children, to schools, let’s talk about what this means’. Because this is a key moment in our society, a key topic that we have to discuss.

AC: And you’re in a different place as a writer from when you wrote this play to now. And unusually you’ve had Nine Lives running right the way through that – what does it feel like coming back to this play?

ZN: It’s been a constant process of learning and appreciating the craft of writing. There’s always that panic of ‘Will there be another play?’ I’ve learned a lot more about the industry too: about the relationship between actors and directors, and writers and theatre companies, and audiences and marketing. Having Nine Lives running through it has been a great comfort, a baby growing up with you. Having Lladel for 18 months nearly 2 years, growing along with you, in his own craft and as a friend. This play has been more than it’s subject matter, it has been a source of lessons for those involved.

This play brings us back together, it is a joy and comfort; especially when you’ve been away trying new things. There’ll be the plays that you’ll always want to go back too, but it’s also important for you to be brave enough to move on as a writer and in the writing.

I’ve been speaking to other writers, who have been doing this longer than I have, and saying ‘I’m freaking out about the second play, what do I do?’ and they’ll tell you ‘Yeah you’ll freak out. And it’ll be like the tide coming in. Today you’ll have loads of work. Tomorrow you won’t. But stay true to who you are as a writer.’ That’s the biggest thing, despite all the things going on, the reason why I began was because of story so stay true to story and the rest will follow.

ZN: So, since we first met each other there have been twins, there have been new jobs, you’ve left a building you’ve worked in for years – how have you navigated each new transition?

AC: I definitely would say that what I am doing now is not what I envisaged I would be doing when I started out as a director, because I didn’t really know about this – the combination of directing, dramaturgy, producing. It is about love. It is about finding the work you fall in love with and the one that’s right for you and the one that grows with you. The work that I’ve done with writers and a range of new artists, it wasn’t really a thing when I was starting out, but it has been the thing that has really meant something to me. That ability to enable people to create work that is meaningful and important to them, whatever that is, and helping that to find the audience that will respond to that work. Thinking about the changes just over the course of this project, Nine Lives was the last show I directed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I’d been for 12 years, so I was very much part of that building. Then leaving to go freelance, which was brilliant and scary, Nine Lives was the thing I very much wanted to do when I left, because I wanted it to have a further life. Both as piece; it was something I thought could grow in performance, but also in terms of reaching its audience, I thought it could do more. And it has fulfilled that. I don’t think there is any piece I’ve ever made that I am so happy to watch repeatedly, because every time I see it there’s something else in it and it is so responsive to its audience and what is going on in the world. When we started this no one was talking about refugee issues and we were shouting in the wilderness, then all of sudden everyone was talking about it but in a very specific way. And then the attacks happened in Paris, immediately we started picking up negative comments. Through all of those things its felt like an important thing to do this play because of what it says about one particular story, and allowing that one human story to be heard. Because each refugee story is an individual human story. Whoever we are, and whatever we’re going through, the thing we all want is to be seen, and acknowledged.

Nine Lives is on at the Arcola Theatre from January 6-30th: you can book tickets here.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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