Asif Khan is one of the six writers participating in the inaugural year of our Nationwide Voices programme. This is a blog post with his thoughts and reflections on the Nationwide Voices session with guest speaker, Emily Lim.
I’ve been lucky enough to be part of ETT’s Nationwide Voices since the end of August, one of six writers to be involved. Each writer has been nominated for the programme by a theatre or company. Thanks to Rifco Theatre Company who nominated me!
In a year full of dreadful news, it has been a joyful escape to be part of this group, meeting (on Zoom) every fortnight, together with Chris Bush and Jennifer Bakst, discussing what we all love doing. For the first two hours, we’re led through a masterclass with Chris Bush, who’s knowledge of playwriting is incredibly insightful. Her warmth, along with Jennifer’s, have always made the sessions feel wholly supportive and safe. For the remaining time, we have a guest speaker, different each week.
I was born and brought up in Bradford and moved to London in 2006 to train as an actor at RADA. I always thought I would end up writing one day and in 2013 I started putting pen to paper on what became my debut play Combustion, which premiered and toured in 2017. Since then, I’ve been working of several commissions/projects with: The National Youth Theatre, Tamasha, Rifco Theatre Company, Watford Palace Theatre, Bush Theatre, Birmingham Rep and Turtle Key Arts. Alongside this, I’ve been part of various writers’ groups including the BBC Comedy Room.
The particular session I’m going focus on here is the one we had with director Emily Lim. Emily specialises in creating community work and working with non-professional performers. This was particularly helpful for me, as I am currently writing a community play for Birmingham Rep Theatre.
One thing Chris had mentioned earlier, which I agree with, is that there’s often a misconception that community plays are ‘easier’ to write and that they are often given to lesser experienced writers. Chris confirmed, having worked on a few herself, that this was not the case. Quite the opposite was the case. Emily in turn, stressed the same point and it was inspiring to hear her speak so passionately about making work for community groups, young people and non-professional performers.
We focused on two plays which Emily had worked on: an adaptation of Pericles written by Chris and Brainstorm which Emily worked on with Ned Glasier and Company Three. It was interesting to explore work created for a huge ensemble community cast. In the version of Pericles, there were approximately two hundred! Brainstorm was a very unique and interesting piece by and for young people about teenage brain development:
Inside every adolescent brain, 86 billion neurons connect and collide to produce the most frustrating, chaotic and exhilarating changes that will ever happen to us.
Brainstorm is a unique theatrical investigation into how teenagers’ brains work, and why they’re designed by evolution to be the way they are. Created by Ned Glasier and Emily Lim with Company Three (formerly Islington Community Theatre), in collaboration with neuroscientists Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Dr Kate Mills, the play is designed to be created and performed by a company of teenagers, drawing directly on their personal experiences.
What was special about the piece is that it also contains a blueprint following the text. This blueprint contains a series of exercises, resources and activities to help schools, youth-theatre groups and young companies create and perform their own version of Brainstorm. So when working your own group, they will feel even more so, that the piece belongs to them and is personal to them.
The care and respect Emily had for her performers in her work was admirable. Everybody had to feel not just included, but also necessary for the piece to work. This made me interrogate my own commission for Birmingham Rep and question if I too had created a piece which would allow every cast member to feel this way. Certainly, in my future draft I would try and implement this as much as possible.
I had been given the task to create a piece about the demonstrations against LGBT+ inclusive education in Birmingham schools, which took place in 2019. I was told to create a piece which would be suitable for performers of all ages, including children, up to a number of 50. I had a question for Emily about how you balance creating material for a large cast, currently on a rough estimate, but also ensure that you as the playwright are creating a piece of quality and with no ‘excess flab’. Her helpful response was that as the specific cast number was currently unknown, I should focus on the quality of the piece, make the piece as strong as possible, but also to remain flexible. During the rehearsal process, I may need to be able to easily adapt things.
Following the session, I came away with more respect and passion for community work and was eager to crack on with my own commission.
Thank you Emily.