'Fin Kennedy' interview or 'Jumping into the creative driving seat.'
Written for Exeunt
I’m ten minutes into my interview with Fin Kennedy, playwright and co-artistic director of Tamasha Theatre, and I haven’t asked a single question. I have, however, been bombarded with information. Kennedy is not a main to wait around. In fact, he almost leads this interview from start to finish.
Kennedy has forged a career out of making things happen for himself. When his second play,How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, was rejected he went off and re-trained as a teacher. Half way through his teacher training course, Kennedy got a call from the Arts Council, informing him that he had won the prestigious John Whiting Award. Kennedy quit teaching and jumped back into playwriting full-time. But he learned a lesson along the way in how the British theatre industry works. ‘You cannot rely on commissions. You can count on two hands the writers who can – and the rest of us do something else.’
Kennedy’s involvement in the education sector did not end there. He has been trying to forge stronger ties between the theatre industry and education sector ever since. ‘Schools are where the future rehearses itself.’ With this in mind, Kennedy established a long-running relationship with the Mulberry Girls’ School in the Bangaldeshi community of the Tower Hamlets, where Kennedy worked as a writer in residence for nearly 10 years. Here, Kennedy and his students work-shopped and devised a play throughout the school year. Ultimately, these shows travelled to Edinburgh and, in 2009, Kennedy and his students won a Fringe First award. It was the first time an all-female Muslim Group had ever picked up a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival.
Theatre being theatre and governments being governments, the job at Mulberry School eventually came to an end. When the Tory government came into power in 2010, the specialist schools scheme – which helped pay for Kennedy’s writer in residence salary – was duly cut. Kennedy had to get more creative. Tamasha Theatre company were advertising for an Associate Artist at the time and he asked them what they were looking for; ‘Suggest something’, came back the reply. So Kennedy proposed a pilot playwriting schools training scheme, to be launched and developed using Tamasha’s Developing Artist’s Programme. The scheme was a huge success and he ultimately signed up 8 young writers, who he mentored and trained up as school workshop leaders. This being theatre and times being as fiscally-fucked as they are, the scheme ended and – once again– the money ran out. Kennedy and Tamasha joined forces once again. Tamasha invited him to draw up a feasibility scheme on a rolling annual playwriting programme and Kennedy did just that. Tamasha put up a sizeable chunk of money and asked him to raise the rest. It took 2 years but the fundraising eventually came through. The resulting scheme was entitled ‘Schoolwrights’ and will be a major component of Kennedy’s work at Tamasha, a company he considersthe perfect home, both for his continued work with the education sector but also as a place to discover and develop diverse new talent.
Tamasha’s purpose has slightly shifted over the years. ‘The company changed its mission statement in 2011 away from solely championing British Asian artists and stories, which was its founding ethos, towards cross-cultural theatremaking in all its forms. We’re moving towards an ‘intracultural’ approach, which is essentially about communities within larger communities, like Britain, talking to each other and engaging with each other through the arts. It’s partly about providing a stepping stone into the theatrical mainstream for new professional talent but in terms of productions and audiences, it’s a space in which the country can learn about itself.’
Kennedy has made a point of working with diverse communities throughout his career. In some respects, he believes that ethnically diverse writers – at least earlier on in their careers – are more pre-disposed to asking the bigger questions: ‘Playwrights from minority backgrounds tend to write their plays with the bigger ideas and questions in mind. I really think that. They grow up politicized. They grow up having to analyse the world around them and their place within it, in a way that those writers who are from hegemonic backgrounds don’t necessarily have to because hegemony doesn’t tend to think about itself terribly much. It’s why I’ve always been interested in working with those communities.’
Those communities that Kennedy so admires and supports are under threat within the arts. In 2011, Kennedy launched the ‘In Battalions’ report, which was a set of academic research carried out to explore the result of the extensive arts cuts. The results of these reports went viral, not least because they finally provided some concrete figures for what all theatremakers were all too aware of: the cuts were beginning to hurt. And hurt badly.
Kennedy now wants to launch a third In Batallions report to explore the narrowing diversity of theatremakers and the worlds represented on-stage. ‘I’ve got a hunch – and I would like to do some proper research on this – that the people who are making theatre are becoming less and less diverse, as too are the worlds presented on our stages. What are the kinds of social milieu in which plays are increasingly being set?’
One company addressing this issue head on is Tamasha, which was established by Kennedy’s co- Artistic Director Sudha Bhuchar back in 1989. 2015 is Tamasha’s 25th Anniversary and they are marking the occasion with a national tour (as is their company model) of Emteaz Hussain’s Blood. The play is a subtle, fluid and lyrical love story between two Pakistanis, of different caste, living in the Midlands. It is loosely based on Blood Wedding but was also partly written in response to the 2011 Riots and the resulting negative media coverage about inner city young people.
Hussain has a long running relationship with Tamasha and premiered her first play,Sweet Cider, with the company in 2008. Kennedy is a big fan of her work: ‘Em is from a performance poetry background and that really infuses the writing. It’s a masterclass in the amount of emotional depth and geographic space and time you can cover in a small-scale piece. It’s got a beautiful emotional honesty to it too – audiences are in tears most nights.’
Kennedy is proud of the long-term connection between Hussain and Tamasha; ‘She is a writer we’ve nurtured for years – we did her first show in 2008 and have stuck by her ever since. I think she’s really come of age as a writer.’ Hussain was supported by the Tamasha Developing Artist scheme, which has about 18,000 diverse emerging theatremakers on its books. Recently, though, the focus of this scheme has shifted: ‘I’m training them as much as artist producers as I am as playwright because I certainly wouldn’t be standing in front of you right now if I hadn’t had to evolve from a playwright into a producer over the years. We’re running sessions in how to apply for grants in the arts, in structuring your budget, managing your own projects – and I’m also training them in how to run workshops in schools and youth theatres.’
The plan doesn’t end there: ‘In the Autumn I hope to launch them more officially as an agency of diverse playwrights for hire. I think there’s a real gap in the market for more diverse role models, especially for inner city schools.’ These are the type of playwrights that Kennedy envisions for the future; the type of pro-active and financially savvy artists, who are as innovative as they are imaginative. Kennedy explains an important shift in the funding situation for theatre-makers in Britain. At present, there is only one arts funding pot that is growing in Britain: the Lottery funding pool. This pot of money is not open to the National Portfolio Organisations, such as Tamasha, and is only available to individual artists. And that, my friends, means more control for the individual: ‘There is a shift in power away from the buildings and organisations who are having their grant aid cut, towards artist-led project funding. I think that makes it incumbent on theatremakers who are working for NPOs to educate the emerging artists in our networks about that change and how they can access that money.’
Playwrights, he says, can no longer afford to sit back and wait for the commissions to come in. Instead, they’ve got to steer their career every step of the way: ‘Get on top of producing. Get on top of fundraising. If you can get your own project off the ground – and especially if it’s embedded in a community – you’re the producer and the artistic director and the writer and in the driver’s seat.’
Blood is at Soho Theatre until 16th May and touring the UK until 27th June 2015. More details on Tamasha’s website.
In Battalions has teamed up with Devoted and Disgruntled to hold a post-election D&D on 17th June at Central Saint Martins entitled ‘How should British theatre engage with the new government?’