Exit Stage: Henry Bell and Sara Shaarawi on Scottish Theatre
Sara Shaarawi is an Egyptian playwright based in Glasgow. Her work has been performed at The Tron, The Traverse, Platform, the CCA and internationally. She is currently a recipient of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Starter programme and the Scottish Playwright Studio’s New Playwrights Award. She is being interview by Henry Bell. They are both members of the Workers Theatre.
This is a conversation about exits.
Henry Bell: We’re going to talk about exits Sara. You’ve talked about how an artist of colour working in Scotland, you’re told to get out of Scottish theatre.
H: Not as in GET OUT. No I mean, in a sort of supportive way, people have encouraged you to move on.
S: Go down to London? Yeah. I was told that Scotland isn’t multicultural enough, and that I ask for too many brown actors in my plays. Which I think is bullshit. It’s interesting, because it was a very welcoming entrance, it was like ‘yeah yeah you should be here, this is great’ and then when I actually started making work that could go on stage I’d be told I should go to London; that I could actually get something on there and build a career as a writer, which I find ridiculous. I mean I started writing when I came to Scotland, I never wrote before that and I write Scottish theatre, specifically for a Scottish audience, so it wasn’t nice to be told I need to go to London. I really had to take a stand and make it a point that I’m staying.
H: You very nearly left.
S: I almost left yeah. I almost went down south and I am building relationships with theatres down south, I am, and I’m interested in them. But if Scottish theatre keeps telling artists of colour that they would be better off abroad, then Scottish theatre won’t be able to build a scene that can compete.
H: You’ve said that your Scotland isn’t the Scotland you see on stage.
S: Yeah and actually Scotland right now is so much more diverse than it was. Glasgow is so much more diverse than it was even three years ago. I hear a lot of Arabic now. I never used to hear Arabic. There’s so many more hijabis than there used to be. Before I used to mainly see them in Pollokshields and Govanhill, but now I see them everywhere, like there’s a big visible change, and definitely we don’t see that on stage. We don’t even see Scottish Asian people on stage which is really weird, because they’ve been here forever. I don’t even know, is there a famous Scottish Asian film? Like in the vein of East is East and Bend it Like
H: Not one that I know of. There’s a Bollywood series that Alex Salmond is in.
H: He plays a ghost in it.
S: That’s really weird.
H: I think that’s true. I think I didn’t dream that.
S: It really sounds like a dream Henry.
H: OK, other exits, the obvious exit to talk about is you leaving Egypt.
S: I stopped living there six years ago.
H: Did that feel like a final exit when you left?
S: I came to study here and I definitely thought in March 2012 that I would go back to Egypt that September, then I got a scholarship to do another Masters in Europe, so I decided to do that and maybe go back to Egypt after. And then I never did. So it wasn’t a purposeful exit, it was more by accident.
H: But being here, working in Scottish theatre, is in some ways an escape from Egypt.
H: So why? What are you escaping?
S: Well, I love Egypt, I really do. But everything is highly controlled, there’s no money, no resources, it’s oppressive, not just regime-wise, also on a social level it’s quite conservative, but the conservatism is really particular, really paradoxical, constantly contradicting itself in what is and isn’t allowed. It’s not like people lock women in houses, but it can feel like that. Like you have to constantly watch what you’re doing, how you behave and how you present yourself. Egypt now is in a state of emergency. When we were working on our adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine together we had to cancel the venue and do it in a living room. What does that mean for making art. I mean it is not unusual, it’s happened lots of times before. The thing is post-2011, there’s a fear that anyone can go to prison, since the Italian student died [in 2016, Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni, was tortured to death whilst researching trade unionism in Cairo] there’s a feeling that pretty much anyone is up for grabs really, with the secret police and all that. The nervousness is there, but you have to do the show anyway, and there’s an energy in that. The risk of actually getting arrested, you can’t really measure it, because it comes out of nowhere. The fear is irrational, because the law is irrational. So yeah, we did the show in a living room.
H: Is theatre escapism for you?
S: No theatre is not an escape, I think I should escape theatre sometimes.
H: How do you feel about killing characters? You name your characters after your friends; does that make it harder to kill them?
S: No it doesn’t. I’ve killed characters, but they don’t have big dramatic deaths, it’s more ‘are they dead, are they not dead?’
H: They disappear rather than die. Do you think that’s purely because of your political context or do you think you also are scared to kill a character on stage because it’s tacky?
S: Yeah, I’ve seen many tacky deaths. I think my characters are sort of in between life and death, I’m more interested in ghost like characters than actually killing them off and people dealing with grief. I’ve never really written about grief, and that’s just something I haven’t encountered a lot in my life so I don’t write about it, it’s not something I’m interested in yet.
H: This is sort of a whole interview about stage directions. But, you don’t use them
S: I don’t write stage directions. I think we’re moving away from that. So few venues really commission anymore, so we need to write plays that can fit anywhere, you don’t know where it’s gonna end up.
H: You might be in a living room
S: For example. When I first started writing, that’s definitely how I wrote, so you can perform it in a corner at a pub at the fringe.
H: So you’re used to putting on plays in places where there’s literally no exits.
S: Yeah exactly. You need to be able to make that work. I mean, I do put stage directions, but only atmospheric ones, non-prescriptive ones.
H: I guess it’s about directors and actors having more power, the fewer stage directions there are, the more it becomes a collaborative thing.
S: Right. They need their input, what’s the point of having a director if I’m going to write everything they do on stage anyway. I mean, sometimes I write lines that I don’t assign characters to because I’d like actors and directors to play with that. Stage directions can seem
H: The most famous stage direction ever is ‘exit pursued by bear’ from A Winter’s Tale.
S: Is it?
H: It’s gotta be. Surely.
S: You just made that up.
H: You don’t think? But anyway, it’s impossible to stage without the audience seeing how funny pretending to run off stage pursued by a bear is.
S: Unless it’s a real bear.
H: yeah I guess if they did it with a real bear. But imagine the reaction of SSPCA and the phone calls about having a bear on stage. It’d be a nightmare.
S: Well in Egypt that wouldn’t be a problem. We could have a real bear.
H: shall we leave it at that.