1) First off, can you tell us a little bit about your theatre company – Wound Up Theatre?
Wound Up Theatre is a small comedic theatre company, run by two very conflicted Northerners based in London. We consist of me, who is the creative director but also a writer and performer, and my partner Abee McCallum, who is a writer and producer. We are the constants but we also have a group of associates and comedians. Since 2013, Wound Up has been our platform for socially aware, political comedic theatre, which facilitates discussion while challenging contemporary issues in a comedic and accessible way.
The company formed in 2013 while I was still in University. The sole aim at the time was to create a piece of comedic theatre for the fringe. The result of that ambition was our first production: Delusions Of Adequacy. From the off, we were trying to adopt an approach that set the work apart in the highly saturated comedic world of Edinburgh: we billed Delusions as “A Unique Stage Comedy: Part Theatre, Part Sitcom, Part Stand-Up, Part Greek Tragedy”. The play followed the struggles of a young Northern man struggling on benefits, and was written as a reaction to the high levels of youth unemployment at the time. After previews in Newcastle, the show enjoyed a sell-out run as part of the PBH free fringe and received very kind, almost overwhelmingly positive feedback from audiences. It was also the success of that show which moved the company down to London.
Once based in London, both myself and Abee were invited to join the Soho Young Writers Company, and it is at the Soho that I wrote and developed the early versions of the company’s second production: Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy. The piece, like our first, explored the politicised nature of youth for people in modern Britain. This time, we examined the nature of radicalisation and disenfranchisement in society, and it seemed the perfect successor to Delusions. On its outing at the fringe the show received 4 and 5 stars during its run and was listed for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. Again, we were overwhelmed by the response, which this time included many international organisations, including the Guardian, where it was described by Mark Lawson as “Bold and thought provoking”, and the BBC, where we were publicly endorsed by Nihal Arthanayake on the Asian Network. We also received a variety of very kind reviews, but as a company we were perhaps most flattered by a quote in the List: “Powerful, hilarious and gripping… Bismillah! is a daring testament to what a small company can achieve with a bit of talent, intelligence and heart.”
2) What is your company’s artistic aim? At the forthcoming conference, we are particularly interested in the politics of representation in relation to comedy – how does your company think about questions of representation (of British Muslims, for example)?
As a company we try to create new and unexpected pieces of comedic new writing and live performance that use comedy to explore current social and political issues, particularly those affecting young people. We want to make audiences laugh, and in doing so, also provoke discussion and provide a fresh perspective on difficult subjects. This is something we feel is not being provided in the same way by other mediums and theatre companies.
When creating work, we don’t have a particular embedded approach to ideas of representation. This is purely because we try to approach every production completely unburdened by external ideas in order to develop the most effective creative position for each specific project, and fear that holding on to any external factor could be creatively restrictive. With our last two shows though, with hindsight, I think our approach to representation was really informed by the dogmatic black and white portrayals of people from vulnerable groups in the mainstream media, and our work has acted as a rebuttal to those portrayals. The media, print press in particular, often represent groups in a very reductive and simplistic way, which fits the narrative and enforces the perspective that suits their ideology. These are often gross generalisations and stereotypes, which I think reductive. What we have tried to do in response to this, is to represent the reality, explore the nuance that they neglect to instil their ideas. We therefore try, I think, to explore the grey areas and find a truth, which is what all good comedy and theatre does.
Using Bismillah! as an example – there have been a large number of young British Muslims defecting to IS, a tiny percentage proportionally, but a large number, which has gained a lot of media attention. This is terrible, and the decision to defect morally indefensible, but the way the young people who do go and fight for the Islamic State are represented in the media is as if they are alien monsters. No attention is given to the circumstance in this country that leads young people to think that risking their lives for a death cult is a good idea. It tends to be framed as if the blame lays entirely on their religion, which is exceedingly damaging. What we sought to do then was to explore the realities of life for young people from a persecuted religious minority and present their circumstances truthfully, to open up a discussion about what might be the real problems that lead to radicalisation and disenfranchisement. The play openly condemns the monstrous acts committed by some of these young people who defect – our character, while having defected, has not committed any crimes beyond adopting a reprehensible extremist ideology, an ideology that is partly deconstructed and mocked in the play. Effectively, we wanted to present a character that explored what turns normal young men into killers for a cause that is not theirs. This, by its nature, throws up a lot of contradictions and unexpected realities, and it is from here that we find the comedy.
3) Can you tell us a little about last year’s Edinburgh Fringe hit, Bismillah: An ISIS Tragicomedy, and how you went about researching it?
Bismillah! was last year’s Edinburgh show and was easily Wound Up’s biggest success to date; it is something we’re very proud of. The show told the story of a young British Muslim, “Danny,” from London, who having defected to join IS in Syria finds himself in Northern Iraq guarding a young British Soldier, Dean, who is from Leeds. During their time together they explore their realities back in Britain and how they found themselves fighting for their respective armies. Through their dialogue, we explore the impact of social alienation and disenfranchisement of youth in contemporary Britain, and leave the audience to ponder the impact of those circumstances on the characters’ lives and choices. The show was listed for the Amnesty International freedom of expression award, endorsed by The Guardian and Nihal Arthanayake on the BBC Asian Network, featured in a number of international publications, and received very lovely glowing reviews from critics.
Admittedly it was creatively a bold choice for us as a company, primarily made up of two white northern people – raised Christian and now agnostic, to try and represent the experiences of a young, disenfranchised British Muslim man, let alone one who had been indoctrinated into a warped extremist Islamist ideology. Rather outside the realm of our personal experiences. Why we felt the confidence to do this, however, was that the play was not trying to represent Danny as defined by his faith, but by his humanity, which we all share. His reality, as we saw it, was simply that of an angry young person who felt left out and enraged by society. This is something that many young people, including myself, can relate to. Using this as a base I was able to see through the hysteria in the media and create a character I could understand and who was real to me. In order to add authenticity to the character, I researched into the backgrounds of young British men fighting for IS overseas. Interestingly, what I found was that far from being radical Islamists in the past, most had been moderate or even non-practising Muslims, and were either often highly educated or conversely had been involved in street gangs. Many had been bullied and/or been the subject of racist abuse, all of which informed the character. I also heavily researched means of radicalisation, even looking at material developed by IS recruit in order to understand the nature of the character’s warped ideology. Much of this fed off the insecurities all young men feel, which further informed the character and his fictional experiences. With regards to representing elements of his faith, we were keen to separate the extremist ideology of ISIS with the beliefs of Islam, so we researched Wahhabism and its relationship with traditional progressive Muslim beliefs to make sure we presented the wider Islamic community’s beliefs respectfully and condemned the Islamist perversions of the faith.
4) Why do you think comedy is useful for opening up conversations around controversial topics such as extremism in its many guises?
Because it makes accessible something which otherwise might be seen as an impenetrable and intimidating subject. It is often discussed as to whether there is a limit to what comedy can joke about, and I think the beauty of comedy is that there is not, and that if it is handled thoughtfully and intelligently then humour can be the perfect way of making difficult subjects palatable to people, and to open up discourse on a subject that may otherwise not have taken place.
This is why I wrote Bismillah! Admittedly, talking about extremism is not an obvious catalyst for comedy. We never sought to get laughs from the tragedy and always wanted to be respectful, so we were always sensitive to the realities of the setting. At no point did we want to discuss comedically the horrors being committed in the Middle East or get laughs at the expense of any vulnerable people. What we wanted to explore were the realities for the characters, the juxtaposition between their lives growing up and where they find themselves in the play. We therefore draw humour from British life, and its impact in this context. This was comedically rich, as we were able to explore the area between their backgrounds and experiences as they now find themselves in this completely alien circumstance. By using comedy to point out this reality, we were trying to open up a dialogue for the audience without them even realising. The contrast also helped to inform the tragic narrative as it demonstrated the characters’ desire to return to their former lives. We were never laughing at them in a cruel way, I hoped, but with and for them. With Bismillah! I felt comedy was the best means of opening up the conversation about extremism, as it served to point out the ridiculous side of the subject, which exists but is not discussed, because it is rightly completely overshadowed by the horror. No matter how horrifying, though, if you are able to find a way to laugh at a subject, you are able to defuse it and make it more palatable, and therefore to understand it better. I think this is helpful when mainstream representations of the issues tend towards the hysterical; comedy can therefore provide a safe space to look at the subject openly and objectively, which can only be a good thing.
5) Muslims are often homogenised, badly represented and stereotyped in Western media. In taking extremists that identify as Muslims as your subject matter you run the risk of a kind of bullying mockery that would reinforce divisions. In my opinion your play was much more complex than this, throwing up an unexpected series of similarities and divisions that complicate a simple us versus them binary. How did you go about creating humour that is inclusive, rather than creating further alienation?
This was one of the major aims of the play so I’m pleased that this was your reaction. One of the main motivators for writing Bismillah! was a very noticeable rise in Islamophobic attitudes in the UK in recent years. Even the fairly liberal theatre/comedy circumstances within which I tend to move, prejudice towards Muslims, seemingly fuelled by damaging representations peddled by the media, seemed to be increasingly prevalent and seemingly accepted or left unchallenged. I did not think this was acceptable: Muslims were being described as if they were some kind of different species, which was ridiculous. And this ‘othering’ as I referred to it, I saw as exceedingly damaging. It was also ironically what the extremist Islamic fundamentalists wanted – division between Muslims and the rest of western society. Not only was it racist, but it fit neatly into their narrative and their aims. I was therefore very keen to write a play to celebrate shared humanity and the similarities between cultures and people through the characters instead. One of the key ways I pointed out the ludicrous nature of the division was to re-frame the characters’ conflicts with one another, less white and Asian or Muslim and Christian, but instead Northern and Southern; a genuine national rivalry but one that is farcical, light hearted, and often jovial. Shifting their conflict to being one that was about the North/South Divide in Britain served to highlight that all their differences were just labels, arbitrary, and that they had more in common than they could know. This was where the humour was found, ensuring it was inclusive not victimising.
6) How did you protect yourselves against what has been called the ‘Alf Garnett syndrome’, whereby the figure being satirised becomes a source of celebration (in this case the young recruits to ISIS/the British Army)?
While I can see that this is a potential risk with all satire and provocative comedy to some degree, it wasn’t something that concerned us massively, due to the nature of the show. While a comedy, we also employed tragedy heavily in the storytelling for Bismillah! Due to the tragic contemporary nature of setting, a solely comedic tone felt inappropriate, and would have been counter-productive to the intention of the piece. With a melancholic thread running through the story, we were able to present the characters, hopefully, as rounded, real people, not as stereotypes or caricatures: there was never going to be a catch phrase. Also, spoiler alert, the tragic climax of the play leaves the audience, hopefully, without a desire to celebrate the characters, their words or their actions. By presenting a real flawed character not larger-than-life stereotypes, I never considered the possibility of him becoming a figure of celebration. If the play achieves its artistic ends, you celebrate neither Danny nor Dean – you pity them.
7) Something that I perhaps didn’t expect from the title of the play, but very much enjoyed when I watched it, was that a lot of the play’s tension and humour came from a North/South divide. The play seemed more concerned with Britishness than Islam – was this something that you saw as central from the outset?
As mentioned, the North/South divide was key to refocusing the play away from the misery of the circumstances towards the shared humanity of the characters. While it was something I considered in creating the characters, the extent to which it helped shaped the piece was not something I expected. Once that element had been introduced, the dialogue wrote itself. Being from the North but based in the South, it’s something I’ve become overtly aware of, and it is such a ridiculous circumstance, which provokes light hearted semi-ironic prejudice, that it seemed obvious to exploit it to highlight the arbitrary nature of labels and tribalism. While the North/South divide was a useful tool to explore it, this was always intended to be a play about life in modern Britain.
8) I notice that the play was longlisted for Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award at the Fringe festival last year (2015). Contrary to many lazy definitions of freedom of speech that valorise the freedom to say anything (often cited when serious offence has been caused – cf. Charlie Hebdo/Rushdie/Danish cartoon affairs), Amnesty’s prize rewards the building of understanding and raising of awareness. How do you understand freedom of speech/expression in relation to your work?
Much like our approach to representation, at Wound Up we don’t have a specific approach when it comes to thinking about freedom of expression in our work. As with defining our practice in relation to representation, it would be damaging to consider the wider implications or limits of the work during the creative process. I think that to consider limits during a first draft, for example, would lead to a lot of self-questioning and second guessing, which could end up being tantamount to self-censorship. With this in mind, I would also therefore defend the definition of freedom of expression/speech as the ability to say anything, however unpalatable. While the idea of freedom of expression as a tool to help build understanding is the ideal, all ideas of censorship need to be discounted in order to allow this to happen, even liberal, well-meaning censorship intended to protect people’s feelings; in fact, in recent years I have viewed this means of censorship as far more damaging and creatively restrictive than traditional conservative restrictions imposed on freedom of expression. I personally find shock offence rather hack comedically, but I was accused of just that with Bismillah! But for me, I suppose, it comes down to the intent. Ideally, all boundaries of free of speech would only be being pushed by people who intend to expand collective intelligence and understanding, not simply to offend for shock value. But ultimately, in order to allow some people to instil positive outcomes by testing the limits of their freedom, then freedom of expression, by extension, needs to be the ability to say anything, and needs to be granted for all. I believe this even if leads to statements and the expression of ideas I may not be comfortable with. I did something easily comparable to the artists responsible for Charlie Hebdo/Rushdie/Danish cartoon affairs, but I think my intentions were different. Whatever my feelings on their work, I defend those artists’ rights to make the work they did, otherwise I couldn’t in good conscience make my own.
9) You are now in the process of developing the play into a run for the Theatre Royal Stratford East, I believe. Can you tell us a little about what has been involved in the development?
Theatre Royal Stratford East saw the play at Edinburgh last year and offered to help us develop the show for a professional run in their studio space. Since then, the play has been through a number of redrafts, under the mentorship of the marvellous actor/writer Sevan Green, with the intention of turning the show into something unencumbered by the restrictions of a fringe venue and time restraints. We are currently bringing together the creative team (hopefully utilising the team from the fringe show), along with director, Jonny Kelly, and producer, Dan Sellick, for a run that will hopefully be starting early in 2017.
It’s been a huge privilege to redevelop the show with TRSE. With their remit to champion unheard voices in society, it really is the perfect location for the show to find its future and to develop it with the help of the theatre’s immensely talented team. We’re seeking to evolve Bismillah! from its fringe form to something more considered and impactful, without losing it heart and humour.
What their involvement has really allowed us to do is to explore the characters more closely, while at the same time giving the story some more room to breathe. The play is now longer in its current form than the fringe (from the hour long running time in Edinburgh to around 90 minutes). This allows the play time to examine all areas and perspectives of the characters and their positions, particularly areas which may have felt rushed in its former incarnation due to the festival setting.
A significant outcome of the rewrite has also been to remove the character of “Babs”, turning the play into a two hander. It became clear during the run that the character – an ISIS general and superior of Danny – while performed exquisitely by Ikram Gilani, served more to move along the narrative than to contribute to themes. The effect of changing the play in this way was to tighten it, and to focus it completely on the two main remaining characters. Also, with no visible threat, the claustrophobia of the setting increases. The outside world, off the stage, is more threatening as the reality of it is purely in the audience’s imagination. It also serves to make the two central characters more whole and nuanced – Danny’s internal struggle is now the driving force of the plot, as opposed to his fear of his superior, and in isolation with his captor, Dean’s motives for engaging with Danny become more ambiguous, leading to a more morally questionable character. We are confident that this change makes for a stronger play.
Another reason that we have written out the Babs character is down to a question of representation. Moving forward, if the play continued to feature a Middle Eastern character without exploring his reality and his motivations in relation to his position and the conflict in Syria, I think we would run the risk of simply presenting a 2D caricature of someone from the region. We don’t want to exploit the problems or the people of the Middle East. The realities of life for people from around the setting of the play are so complex, it would not be in keeping with the nature of the play not to explore the reality of the character in greater depth and simply to keep him as the villain of the piece. In order to avoid a potentially reductive portrayal that doesn’t manage to present the character truthfully, we decided to focus the play solely on the experiences of the British characters, which we could do more confidently. This allows the play to focus solely on what we wanted it to do initially, which is effectively to represent the experiences of young people in Britain through a comedic exploration.
10) Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Well, right now the next project is phase 2 of Bismillah! But much of this relies on securing funding. If we are able to put on the play for an extended run successfully, then we will hopefully be building on that and taking the play on a national tour, to get the message of the play out to as many people as possible.
Beyond Bismillah! we have a number of shows in the early stages of development. Excitingly, we have a two hander written by our producer Abee McCallum, which will look at prostitution, specifically two young female students who turn to prostitution to support themselves during their education. Personally, I’m developing a one man play based around ideas of fame and the different ways in which famous people and their realities are represented. I’m also in the very early stages of development for a semi-biographical piece being created by a theatre maker, which will examine the experiences and perspectives relating to the migrant crisis.
Ultimately, our next aim as a company is to build on the success of Bismillah!, to grow and be recognised as legitimate theatre makers who use comedy to explore difficult subjects in a funny and accessible way.