theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Playwright Tanika Gupta has a new play, Sugar Mummies, in rehearsal at the Royal Court. It starts previews on 5 August and a lunchtime chat we had planned had to be postponed because she was in the thick of it. She is one of those writers who likes to stay with her work and be part of the production process. As she dashed out from a production meeting I got a chance to talk to her.
She is a very positive lady who doesn’t stand for any nonsense and speaks her mind, though she does it with a smile. When I started asking her about her background she was decidedly suspicious. She doesn’t like being labelled and thought I was trying to make her fit the ‘Asian writer’ that the media often reach for as a convenient way of pigeon-holing a non-white dramatist from the Indian sub-continent. Journalists – and some theatre publicists too – can be too fond of handy phrases.
When her play The Waiting Room was being done at the Cottesloe, the National Theatre’s publicists described her as an ‘emerging young writer’. Personally, I rather like the idea of her as a colourful butterfly emerging from the chrysalis of the National Theatre’s studio, but this was a writer 36 years old, well-established with a string of television scripts behind her who had already given up the day job to live by her writing some years earlier.,
What is true is that she was born of Indian parents and she does write with a decided freshness. But she was born in Britain, in 1963, and grew up in Hastings, where the good citizens are predominately white. That was not without its problems. It was a very different scene from the multi-ethnic community in which her own children are growing up today in London.
She comes from the kind of educated middle-class family that has a rich cultural background and high expectations. It was to be expected that she would go to university and she read Modern History at Oxford.
More unusual, perhaps, was an early experience of performance. Her parents were passionate enthusiasts for the work of the great Indian poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore. Her singer father and dancer mother toured Europe with a group who called themselves ‘The Tagoreans’, presenting their performances of his music and dance dramas, and young Tanika appeared with them.
They would perform (usually to white audiences) wherever anyone would come to watch them. But this was not their day job; they did it for the love of it. Tanika was not preparing for a life in theatre.
Her enthusiasm was not for acting but for writing: telling stories, making them up and putting them down on paper. Again she didn’t think of it as a future profession: “I thought it was just something that everybody did. When we are children we don’t realise that what we enjoy doing is not necessarily what everybody else does.”
Her father was a story-teller too and he encouraged her. When she was nine she wrote a play to be performed by her friends as school. She took it for granted that that was what you did. “It is only much later that you discover what you think is normal turns out to be quite abnormal to most people!”
After Oxford she trained as a social worker and for several years had jobs in community work and on the staff of an Asian women’s refuge. Writing was still a hobby, but in 1991 she sent a play off to a BBC Radio competition for young writers – and won. That was when she began to think of it as a means of earning a living.
That award was the first of several. They include a London Arts Board Diverse Acts Award for the production of her play A River Sutra, the Arts Council’s John Whiting Award and she was presented with the Asian Woman of Achievement Award in 2003 while her radio work has also been nominated for top international prizes.
To radio work she soon added scripts for television, writing for a number of television soaps including The Bill. Commissioning editors sometimes asked her to adapt or produce work with Indian connections but she points out that when she wrote for Grange Hill it did not have a single Asian character.
“Of course, like any writer,” she says, “I draw from my own experience and my first work probably was more autobiographical. It is true that quite a lot of my plays have dealt with Asians in Britain but that’s not what I set out to do, though if you are Asian its probably natural that comes through. But it’s having a good story to tell that drives me. I tell stories.
“Ideas can come from anywhere. Sanctuary [her National Theatre play which centred on a character involved in African genocide] began with a newspaper article. A journalist reported how he recognized a Rwandan guy reading a newspaper in a public library and when he said he knew him the man ran out.” Sometimes ideas come from the producer or director. “It was David Lan’s idea to do an Asian version ofHobson’s Choice for the Young Vic.”
When I remarked how successful that reworking of Harold Brighouse’s play had been and how much I enjoyed it she came back:
“Well, it’s a good story! The trouble is when you do one thing you keep getting asked to do something similar. The Wycherley at Watford Theatre (a commissioned Asian version of The Country Wife) didn’t really transpose well.”
That is one of her plays I haven’t seen, but the critics seem to have agreed with her. So I moved on to Gladiator Games, her play for Sheffield Crucible and the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, about the murder of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham Young Offenders Institute.
“Charlie Westenra [Charlotte Westenra, the director] approached me to write that. I had never attempted this kind of ‘verbatim’ play before. You have to be very careful. Plays that transpose an edited version of tribunal proceedings to the stage could be very boring. You have to find a way to tell a story. I had run some writing workshops for women prisoners at Winchester prison and did research at Holloway for a play I wrote for Clean Break [Inside Out)]. I found myself asking the same questions as I had then: does prison work? What are we doing to young people putting them in prisons without giving them the means to change, to educate themselves, to rehabilitate? But I still had to tell a story, to tell what happened, the story of the family and of the struggle to get an Inquiry.”
I remarked that I’d found it very dramatic, a strong piece of theatre and certainly never boring, yet in the published script almost every single speech is annotated with the source: the evidence of witnesses, court records, letters, public statement, evidence given in the Inquiry or taped interview which is its origin.
“That’s not entirely true. I had to invent some things. What actually happened between Zahid and Robert Stewart, the racist who shared his cell and killed him? There’s no record of their conversation, I had to work from hearsay evidence.
“I had to work through vast piles of evidence from witnesses for the Inquiry and in the interviews with the family and officials had to be scrupulous not to put words in their mouths; though inevitably knowing they are being recorded may affect the way in which people say things.”
I asked if Sugar Mummies, her new play about sex tourism in Jamaica, is also a verbatim piece. It is public knowledge that the Royal Court sent her out on a research trip to the Caribbean.
“You can’t sit on a Jamaican beach with a tape recorder or pen and paper doing interviews. I just went around talking to people. You know the subject – women going on holiday and paying for a lover – has been taken up by academics: there have been papers written about it. But it was something quite outside my own experience.
“I think I went out with the attitude that it was all about black men being exploited by white women. But I found it was really quite different. It’s a mutual exploitation – and it is not just white women: there are black American female sex-tourists, too. I was surprised by what I found and my play looks at it both ways.”
Tanika said that compared with theatre, she found writing for television a lonely occupation. She had particularly enjoyed the time she spent working in the Studio at the National Theatre, where there was so much going on around her.
“I enjoy writing for television, but you do it on your own. You are much more constrained too. I’m very lucky in that these days I am writing to commissions and theatre is great. The Court commissioned me to write whatever I want: they give you total freedom and they support you.
“It also helps to be writing to a deadline, though with three children I do have to organise my writing day. No staying up writing through the midnight hours when you have to get them off to school in the morning – and I’ve had that discipline all my writing life: writing my first radio play coincided with having my first baby!”
What is next? She has a commission to write a play for Birmingham Rep. She doesn’t know yet what it will be about. Like all of us she is very concerned about what is going on the world today and she is not exactly the greatest fan of Tony Blair.
“Perhaps it will be something built around what is happening at the moment. But it is all so vast that I don’t know where to begin.”
We shall have to wait and see.
Howard Loxton © 2006
Originally published on R&V 30-07-06
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