2007 - 2021

The Road Back

Well, we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been.
(Road to Nowhere, Talking Heads)

Weatherwise, as I recall, the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe was something of a washout, but it was also something of a watershed year for me. With my (very) small scale company Wave Theatre, I produced my first self-penned Fringe piece, the monologue ‘Noor’, in a ‘British’ South Asian threesome of one act-ers – alongside pieces written by one of my fave collaborators, the brilliant actor Dharmesh Patel, and another by Mohammed Hanif – a long-lister for the Booker that year with his first novel ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’. The same year also saw a major international conference on ‘British South Asian Theatre’, its origins and players – part of a four year study at the University of Exeter, which resulted in a book of the same name.

As an Indian woman working in Scottish theatre since 1991, the book was hugely important to me, painting the historical backdrop and contextualising the work I had apparently committed my life to pursuing north of the border. Meeting the book’s editor, Professor Graham Ley, a couple of years later, he (and I) lamented the exclusion in the study of South Asian theatre artists in Scotland, and urged me to create an archive of my own theatre work. Else, he said, no record would exist.

‘Our stories are our immortality, but if we don’t tell our own story,
Someone else will tell it, and it becomes their story,
And then we might just…disappear.’ (Home is Not the Place)

Originally an actor, born in Kerala in India, and now an Edinburgh-based writer and theatre maker, I have pretty much turned my hand to most jobs, onstage, offstage, in order to keep working in the profession in Scotland – at times a lonely and unforgiving place. You know how sometimes, you can be in a room full of people, and still feel alone..?

There was no map or compass to direct an artist from an ethnically diverse background, navigating a Scottish theatre with barely any such diversity to show, and little inclination to change. Such a study would have been a welcome companion at the start of my professional journey.

To kick-start the archive project, Professor Ley suggested that I approach an ex-student of his, a lecturer based in Glasgow, to write an article about my work. However, the ex-student declined my request, saying it wasn’t a topic they knew much about. No chance of doing any research then? – my imagined retort.

The late-teen to early-twenties me, would probably have scowled, cursed, and kicked a door or two, but the mid-forties me, having been here many times before, sighed inwardly and sagged into my chair like a spent balloon – once stretched to bursting – propelled to its baggy demise with the air released, to a fanfare of raspberries.

My mind ticked over, scrabbling for an alternative starting point, while the lecturer then proceeded to try and sell me a place on their course for the next year! More training, you say? Mate, that wasn’t what I came in here for. That’d be like going into Lidl for a loaf of bread, and coming out with a saddle for a horse you don’t have. We’ve all done it. Sorry, lecturer-person, no sale – I wasn’t buying.

Not that I’m averse, just that I’m pretty much trained up to the gills at this point, thanks very much. ‘Cos you see, that’s what usually happens with artists of colour, when representation on stage isn’t an imperative, but you as a statistic, are. Good Optics R Us. So the project went on the back burner, and another decade moseyed by.

Fast forward to January 2021, and it is my thirtieth anniversary of working in Scottish theatre. For much of the first two decades, few other visible artists of colour were to be seen onstage with any regularity. The landscape and context in which I worked inevitably influenced the tales I wanted to tell, so fifteen years ago, I graduated from performing and producing to writing my own material (if not me, who?), while negotiating obstacles set by establishment gatekeepers, taste-setters and the arterati – who pay mere lip-service to policies that promise playing field-levelling.

Theatre by artists of colour in Scotland has rarely been documented, featured or appraised fully, academically or critically. At a recent zoominar, I was reminded of this and why it matters. There, a panellist from the current, emerging generation of artists, expressed shock that in previous ones there had been no diverse artists in their particular art form, which I knew wasn’t the case. A line from my ‘heritage’ solo play, ‘Home is Not the Place’, popped into my head, ‘To move forward, one must learn the lessons from the past’. Else we would just continue to cover old ground, endlessly, never really advancing from where we are now.

Across the art forms, ethnically diverse artists are thankfully, finding greater encouragement in their artistic pursuits from the arts ‘mainstream’, albeit as a clear response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. In theatre too, the approach has been reactive but scattergun, still yanking on a creative choker leash. Ultimately, the process of diversifying theatre requires a strategy, and a strategy benefits from the authentic, honest evidence that lived experience provides, if we choose to heed it. Perhaps then can we start to dispel the inkling of an

academic and intellectual culture, which would through neglect be mirroring the underlying refusal of a society to recognise the belonging over time that is the reality of any diaspora or post-colonial community’. (British South Asian Theatre, Ed. Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell).

You see, creating and producing stories about and by people of colour on the Scottish stage is an act of political theatre in itself, elevating what is unseen (or has been hidden) into existence. Visibility. It forces people to look beyond a merely comforting reflection – a mirror image – become active and dynamic in order to effect change, be open to hearing new stories, and, once and for all, create the space for ALL our voices to be heard (forever and ever, Amen!).

Seems apt then to be writing for Bella Caledonia’s Many Voices project at this particular moment in time (and for this Annie-versary of mine), to work on the archive, reflecting on past work, unsung colleagues, collaborators and any pioneers that I may uncover, who might have slipped public attention.

Over the coming weeks I hope to share some of these stories, exploring the whys and wherefores of Scotland’s ethnically diverse artists, met along the way, over time and across art forms; as well as commissioning writing from other, un-usual suspects who (ain’t going anywhere but) continue to interrogate and create – to lesser hue and cry – in a performing arts sector which has taken a meteor hit during the pandemic. Physical proximity may be curtailed as we adjust and adapt our methods of creative expression, but the stories just keep flowing, from the voices needing heard.

 

Image credit: David Welch and Lunaria.co.uk

Comments (6)

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  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have long felt the tiresome difficulties of ‘negotiating obstacles set by establishment gatekeepers, taste-setters and the arterati – who pay mere lip-service to policies that promise playing field-levelling.’ I say this as a working-class, Scottish male poet. Scotland remains a cold and lonely place for many artists who don’t have an automatic passport into middle-class networks and the funding/production streams that one is forced to dance with or by-pass in order to function as an artist in this place. Only when Scottish society as a whole is open enough to recognise the worth of all our stories, and stops treating non middle-class artists as charity cases or volunteers who need more training, will things begin to improve. I feel absolute solidarity with what you say and feel. So much great work is unrecognised, unrecorded and ignored: this is deeply shameful for Scotland. Our artistic/political structures cry out for greater openness, flexibility, generosity and understanding. We must dump the neo-liberal/Thatcherite inheritance which continues to haunt us and try build something far more egalitarian, human and humane. The bureaucratic and private-school dominated structures of most arts institutions must surely give way to something fairer, more reconisably democratic. And dare I say we need more courageous art works than those the present gatekeepers bring out to play.

  2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    It’s important to distinguish between the institution and the practice of theatre in society. Surely the institution of theatre in Scotland remains exclusive to ‘uncolonised’ communities, as Annie’s (and Jim’s) experiences testify.

    But that doesn’t preclude the flourishing of their practice outwith the institution. It’s still possible (and some might say ‘preferable’) to make theatre and poetry ‘in the margins’ or ‘on the fringe’ of the institution, which exists (as an institution) to preserve privileged values and discipline and punish deviance from those values.

    So, all power to both Annie and Jim as independent artists! Down with the nationalisation of our creative industries!

  3. Blair says:

    Annie,

    “Physical proximity may be curtailed as we adjust and adapt our methods of creative expression, but the stories just keep flowing, from the voices needing heard.”

    Yes, I believe that is in God’s plan as he works through us all. Below is another voice I have copied in His Service for Bella’s readers:

    ““Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength …. Love your neighbour as yourself.” Mark 12:30-31
    “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” Isaiah 1:18
    Yale University, 1961. A psychology experiment is about to take place. Two volunteers, who have responded to a newspaper advertisement, draw lots to decide who is to play the role of “teacher” and “learner”. They have been told that the experiment is to ascertain whether or not there is a connection between learning and punishment. The “learner” is seated on an electric chair in a booth, separate from the “teacher”. The “teacher” then reads out the questions to the “learner”, based on a word pair “game”. If the “learner” answers correctly then the “teacher” moves on to the next question. However, if the “learner” responds incorrectly, then a 15 volt electric shock is administered by the “teacher”, with subsequent incorrect answers receiving further electric shocks, in 15 volt increments. The shock generator is marked from 15 volts up to 450 volts, with inscriptions reading from “slight shock” up to “Danger: severe shock”. With each incorrect answer the “teacher” becomes increasingly concerned about the severity of the shocks he is administering. He asks the “scientist”, who is sitting in a corner of the room with white coat and clipboard, monitoring the experiment, whether or not the experiment should continue as the man in the chair is beginning to cry out in pain. The “scientist” responds simply, “Please go on”, or, if the “teacher” becomes increasingly agitated or distressed, “The experiment requires that you continue”. After checking that all responsibility for the experiment lies with the “scientist” and not with himself, the “teacher” proceeds with the questions and is told to continue even after the 450 volts mark has been reached and the “learner” has long since fallen silent.

    This is the (in)famous Milgram Experiment, in which Professor Stanley Milgram endeavoured to comprehend, on the psychological level, the propensity of soldiers to follow orders, even if those orders are intrinsically evil, and how it was that atrocities committed during WW2, particularly in relation to the Holocaust, were possible. Milgram had lost relatives in the concentration camps. Prior to conducting his experiment, Milgram surveyed many psychology professionals and they consistently maintained that perhaps a fraction of 1% of people would reach 450 volts. There is no space here to go into all the nuances of the experiment, but a “shocking” 65% of all participants – almost 1000 took part – actually reached the lethal level of 450 volts! In a variation of the experiment, in which the “teacher” was passing the instruction to someone else to administer the shock, the figure of 90% was reached.

    Of course, no electricity was actually involved in the experiment, and unknown to the “teacher”, the “learner” was an actor, as was the “scientist”. The actual purpose of the experiment had nothing to do with memory and punishment or the man in the electric chair, it was rather all to do with finding out just how far ordinary, average people would go in harming a pleasant stranger – to what extent would we follow instructions, orders, given to us by an authority figure – just how “obedient” and compliant are we? In case we are tempted to argue that 1961 was a long time ago and that we’ve moved on from that time, the experiment has been repeated a number of times, including by Derren Brown and Michael Portillo in recent times. The results were the same as in the original experiment.

    I’ve been endlessly fascinated by Milgram’s experiment, ever since I came across it back in the1970s. I’m certain that many of the participants in the experiment would have been Christians. Appalling acts carried out in warfare may be also carried out by professing Christians, in obedience to orders given by superiors. Christopher Browning’s seminal book, “Ordinary Men”, demonstrates, as the title indicates, how “ordinary” people can become disassociated from those qualities that make for decency, civility and kindness given appropriate circumstances, not to mention the compromising of Christian Faith.

    So how do we square all this with the teaching of Jesus to “love our neighbour”? The plain teaching of Jesus, the prophets of the Old Testament, and indeed the Ten Commandments, which Jesus was condensing in his injunction, is that “Love for God and Neighbour” are the operating principles which ought to guide all of our lives, and every aspect of our lives – moral, political, philosophical, employment, etc. As Christians we have to use our God-given ability to rationalise our decision-making processes. We have been given the gift of reason, and time after time in Scripture we are told to use our minds, to think things through in the light of Jesus’ teaching and to frame our lives accordingly, even if it may on occasion be inconvenient to our own personal comfort. For professing Christians to act in any way that is antithetical to the teaching of Jesus, then to that extent they deny their Faith. Our Christianity has to be our touchstone, our reference point, our benchmark for each and every aspect of our lives. For Franz Jagerstatter, who refused to fight for Hitler in WW2, it cost him his life. For us, much less dramatically, surely it’s a case of remembering that we are ambassadors for Christ in every situation we find ourselves, and that must surely be reflected in how we live our lives, and the choices we make. So how would I have responded as a “teacher” in Milgram’s experiment? I don’t know, though I know what I’d like my response to have been! How about you?!

    Excerpts from Milgram’s experiment filmed in 1962:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOUEC5YXV8U
    Derren Brown’s replication of the experiment from 2007:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6GxIuljT3w&ab_channel=BrianBurak

    Whether the reader is Christian or not, they will form an opinion on the action they would take. The road to having an Independent Scotland is complex but not impossible.

    God has already prepared the way.

    -CVB.

    1. Blair says:

      Aye, Revalation 20

      Gog & Magog: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation%2020&version=KJV

      Then there is:

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Rees-Mogg

      For some unexplained reason the above hyperlink cannot be searched without manual input.

      Jacobs family tree, goes way back.

      Who knows this old club Bella?

      https://www.businessinsider.com/bohemian-grove-club-us-presidents-2018-3

      -CVB.

  4. babs nicgriogair says:

    Really insightful and sharp article , thanks for sharing some of your challenging journey Annie, painful though it has been for you.
    “representation on stage is not an imperative , but you as a statistic are” . Horrible.
    I recently saw Lament for Sheku Bayoh online which was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences i’ve encountered yet. So there’s hope that things can change.
    Look forward to hearing more of your experiences, and hope that we can shape a more diverse and inclusive theatre culture post-pandemic.

  5. Annie George says:

    Thanks for reading, and for your comments.

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