My name is Inua Ellams, I'm a poet most of the time, that’s all I want to do, but sometimes I get ideas that are bigger than the containment of poetry, and then they become other things – film scripts, theatre, visual arts. My very first play was The 14th Tale, which was an autobiographical coming-of-age story, which debuted in 2009 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, won a Fringe First and transferred to the National Theatre. Ever since then, I’ve been working in theatre. Three words circle around everything I create - Identity, displacement, destiny. All those words link with the idea of being an immigrant, which I am. After The 14th Tale I wrote plays called Entitled, another called Night Watch, a fourth called Black T shirt Collection, then The Half God of Rainfall, then Three Sisters. My most well-known play to date was Barbershop Chronicles. I also wrote An Evening with An Immigrant, which is also an autobiographical piece, which tells the B Side story to The 14th Tale. I’m performing it next month at the Bridge Theatre.
I saw Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre. How did you get it on there, were you invited to write it, or did you send it to lots of theatres?
After The 14th Tale, I began a relationship with them which lead to Black T Shirt Collection, which sold out its run. I had a great relationship with the dramaturg department, which developed as we worked together. So, I pitched the idea to them of the Barbershop (well first I pitched it to my producer Katie McGrath, and she pitched it to them). They supported me to complete a month’s worth of research, visiting barber shops around Peckham, Clapham Junction, South London. After I showed them the material I had which they liked, I asked if I could expand it by researching barber shops in Africa, which I did for about 6 weeks in 2013-14. I developed a script which was 4 hours long! We worked together to refine and polish the play down to 1hr 45mins.
It was co-commissioned, so I didn’t send it to lots of theatres, and we worked together, refining it for four years before it was ready for the stage. I think that’s why it worked so well.
I see you have a new one-person play coming to the Bridge theatre. Are you looking forward to performing live again after lockdown? And how did you deal with lockdown?
It’s an old play that I’ve updated. There are new elements. I’m really looking forward to performing again. I miss live theatre, I miss people, entertaining, telling live stories. I make no qualms about the fact that my job as a writer and performer is to entertain people. It's my job to suspend their belief and keep them on the edge of their seats. I’m really looking forward to entertaining people in real time, together, again. I love the happy accidents that make performance magical, I’m looking forward to all that jazz.
In terms of lockdown, I didn’t deal with it so well. I'm a really sociable animal and I run 4-5 events, mostly to do with poetry, across the UK and internationally – I'm used to being surrounded by people. Also, I’m really tactile! I’m a hugger. I give great hugs. Lockdown has meant I couldn’t hug anyone, I couldn’t organise events, I couldn’t read poetry together with people. Like everybody else, I was glued to the news cycle, just freaking out. My artistic circles are across the world – I have friends and communities in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, France, Germany, Spain... I was freaking out globally, trying to track news everywhere. It was overwhelming, I just had to stop watching the news. I stayed in bed for a week, then slowly ventured out. I binge watched The Wire, Breaking Bad, and slowly got myself back into the real world!
Most of my work was indefinitely postponed, a lot of my screenwriting work disappeared. I was terrified I would not be able to work for a long while, or that my work wouldn’t come into fruition. I still have those fears to a certain extent. We still haven’t figured out how to film in financially viable socially distanced ways, and on the African continent where a lot of my work is set, it’s even more unviable. I’m not sure when or how we’re going to film. But I'm trying to focus and trust in the universe that it will work out. I'm slowly getting some commissions back, writing poetry, etc.
It was great to see your shows at the National, but it is still an overwhelmingly white organisation. Are you in conversations with them about becoming more diverse?
The National Theatre is an overwhelming white organisation, with an overwhelmingly white audience – but of all the theatres in the UK, it’s one of the most diverse I’ve seen in terms of the work they put on across their stages. If you look at the ratios, Black people and BAME people only make up about 13% of the British population, and most of this is concentrated in London. The National Theatre has to be National. It has to cater to that other 87% that don’t look like us and tell their stories as well. And if you look at that ratio, the National Theatre have gone beyond.
I know they know there is always more work to do, but if you look at the goals they set themselves, the quotas that are problematic, yet useful, they achieved them way ahead of schedule. They are aware of the work they still have to do, and they are always looking at the type of work they make, the people that they commission. That is a constant conversation between everyone – myself, the dramaturgs, Rufus Norris, others. It’s an ongoing conversation, but let’s not forget what they have achieved and the ongoing work behind the scenes.
Did you feel a pressure to be productive during lockdown? Do you ever feel guilty when you’re having an unproductive day?
I feel so guilty! It's partly my fault because I try to produce so much. I know that my producer's livelihood is partly dependant on me, and I know that when I get up in the morning, I have to make the right decisions. I’m having my first proper week-off next week, and I’m looking forward to the rest. I do have to accept that I’m mortal – I have this inner superhero alternative character inside that I call INUAMAN, and I forget sometimes that he’s human. I need sleep too.
If this situation has taught us anything, it’s that the world can be slow down, and there should be and there is enough money to look after everyone. The world was accelerating at a ridiculous rate, we were consuming ourselves. The lockdown has brought some necessary relief from that, and we should always remember we can switch things off. The world will not burn without us.
As the filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man”. We think we control things, but we don’t - we can’t control this tiny microbe that’s been killing us around the world! If I’m not productive, so what. The world carries on.
How do you work with a director to maintain your play’s vision?
I try to spend time with them. I hang out with them, make fun of them, see if they can make fun of me. I want to see if we can bridge how we think. It’s important to learn how to trust, how to build a fluid communicative space between you two, so they ask questions that challenge you, so that you know where they are coming from, and that you trust their direction. Spend time with them, ask them questions. And if you don’t have answers for them, that’s okay – make it a safe space to be human. Theatre is all about trust – if you don’t necessitate that from the beginning, your play will be shit. I don’t care how beautifully it’s written, you’ll be able to feel if there's tension between the cast and crew and it will coagulate and strangle the text..
It's important to maintain your vision, and you do that by communicating with your director. Make sure you know how to make them laugh.
How did you go about getting your partnership with Fuel Theatre? As a playwright, how would I approach companies to put on my work?
I used to work with an organisation called Apples and Snakes as a poet, and they commissioned me to write a 15-minute poem with theatrical elements. I did so, and then I entered it for their competition of which the prize was to make a longer play. This longer version became The 14th Tale. Apples and Snakes invited Fuel Theatre to see it, and we began working together! We’ve been working together for 12 years now. As a playwright, I’d say look out for small organisations that have script reading policies, that are looking for new artists, and drop them a line. When you send your work to people, include a short synopsis about who you are, where you are coming from and what you’re trying to do.
Look out for producers whose work you like, invite them to see/read your work. Let them know that you’re available for meetings – make yourself ready to become an artist. Reach out to people.
How did you get into screen writing?
I got onto the Channel 4 writers' course. Before that, I did a little thing for the BBC writers' room, where they invited 8 people to pitch tiny screenplays for five minutes. I wrote a funny piece about Tinder, called Swipe Slow - it's on YouTube if you want to watch it. Also, I had quite a lot of visual plays I'd written that I thought would make sense on screen, so I signed up for the Channel 4 screenwriters' course. I wanted to know what makes a play a play, and what makes something for screen.
How did you go about arranging the Midnight Runs?
I started them in 2005 because I was broke. I went to see an event at the Battersea Arts Centre with my best friend. Our bus didn’t turn up to take us home, so we carried on walking. It was all very informal, we were walking through the streets. I began asking groups of friends to spend hours walking through the streets with me, and I designed poetry exercises to do as we were walking. After a few years, I began teaching other people how to run them – check out www.themnr.com if you want to know more.
Who has been your greatest influence and inspires you?
- Terry Pratchett – amazing British fantasy novelist, who passed away a few years ago. He wrote the Discworld series, and came up with some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever had the privilege to spend time with in all of the literary arts. He inspired me as a kid, to read more, to learn to love reading. To discover worlds.
- Shakespeare – I mean, he knew what he was doing, when he was writing/stealing his stories. His inventiveness, home boy just made up language.
- Mos Def – he inspires the hell out of me. A poet at heart, and an experimentalist. He creates rules which he goes on to break – sonically, rhythmically, linguistically. A lot of what I do, which is fundamental to artistic practice, I learnt from watching Mos Def. He just does everything – he amplifies, he reflects, he’s fragile, he's problematic. He says he tries to stay fluid, even in staccato – which sums up what I’m trying to do.
- Bernardine Evaristo – She is a goddess. There’s a reason why she's won everything, her books are breath taking. She inspired me to take risks in poetry, which in turn inspired me to take risks in my scriptwriting.
- Elizabeth Bishop – wonderful poet, you have to read her books. Her vision, her precision, the metonym, the metaphors, the way she is able to conjure and really zone down into work was amazing.
- Bjork – She is wild. Her music, her vision, her dedication to intricacies, to her weirdness. She's done incredible things.
There are so many friends of mine – Zaahida Nabagereeka, she just completed her PHD at SOAS, she has this really global vision of the politics of linguistics, specifically in the anglophone / African world, and she advised me when I was working on Three Sisters.
What 3 top tips would you give new writers?
- Always be yourself. By that I mean – human beings are weird. None of us are the same. I read Bertrand Russell’s introduction to The Problems of Philosophy years ago, when I was about 15, and it describes how the eyeballs work and how the cones in our eyes work to filter the colours of things. He says that in each individual, those cones are slightly different – so the way I see the colour green is slightly different to the way you will. By turns then, the ways you perceive the world around you is entirely different to everyone else’s. These things determine your voice, your character, how you interpret, and how you misread or miscommunicate things. As a new writer, you have to guard all of those things that make you individual. If you go to any of these fancy writing courses, listen to what they say, but discard anything that doesn’t sit well with your spirit. Guard your spirit and guard the weirdness that makes you, you. Remember you need to sound like you, and nobody else – that's what will make people come back for your work. Protect that.
- Don’t throw anything away – have a digital scrapbook (or a real scrapbook), where if you write something that doesn’t feel right for this project, put it aside. Keep everything you write. Strip it for spare parts, use it again. Something I wrote 10 or 20 years ago might seem terrible at the time, then a project comes round and it’s perfect. Recycle your words.
- Try and live in the present world. I think that, in the West, we think that poets and writers are these visionaries that have to sit in a dark room to write the human truth into light. There’s this individualistic hierarchical structure built into the functions of a writer within society. He sits on this throne making his important work, and the rest of us are minions waiting for his wisdom. That’s bullshit. A writer is a community activist, his work is on the street, reflecting the voices around him. Writing is a communal function. It’s always important to come down to earth, sit with the people around you, track the moods of the nation. These are the people that are coming to see your work, you want to be able to put them onstage. Otherwise, it’s just mental masturbation – if you want to do that, you keep that writing to yourself.
What has been the most difficult aspect of your professional life? How did you deal with it?
It was around 2008, when I was working on my very first play. Two days before I performed it at the Battersea Arts Centre, I got a letter from the Home Office telling me my application to remain in the United Kingdom had been refused, and that my family and I had to leave the UK. We were told that if we refused, we were at risk of being detained indefinitely. That was the most difficult period of my life. To this day I have no idea how I was able to find the strength to perform when my world was crumbling around me. Everything that tied me to earth, to the people that I loved, was incredibly threatened. Over the years it became with Theresa May’s hostile environment policy. I somehow learnt how to cope with it, but when it first happened, I was a mess.
Were there any struggles during making Barbershop Chronicles?
Not really. I mean as always there were small bits of miscommunications here and there, but my director Bijan Sheibani was great. Ask all of the four different casts from the show – he is the loveliest man. He had no ego; he just wanted to learn and create great work. The entire creative team were incredible. Gareth Fry the sound designer – he’s a craftsman who works with sound, his attention to detail is uncharted. What he is able to conjure with sound is unparalleled.
When you have an idea, does it usually come from a character or a particular situation?
Neither, actually. My ideas usually come from words or pictures – a lot of the time when I write poems, it's because I have words in my mind that seem like they don’t fit together. I try to write a poem which explains their meeting, to reconcile the differences between them. Sometimes with plays, I just have a picture of someone doing something, and I treat that like a metaphor, and try to figure out what it is metaphorical. In doing so, I figure out a story.
Do you get writer’s block? And how do you get over it?
No, I don’t really. I may get stuck a little bit but because I’m usually working on different things, I just flit to something else. At the moment, I’m writing a film script, a play, and a few essays. If I’m not able to focus on a script, I jump to the essay, or write a poem. I’m never really not writing, I just shift my attention. I’d recommend all writers to have something else, separate from the ‘main’ thing they’re working on – preferably in another form. Even if you don’t do anything with it. Try short form literature, flash fiction, haikus. It will help you figure out a way around structural problems.
Do you normally sit in on rehearsals of a play you’ve written if you’re not in it yourself?
I do that with pretty much all my plays. I’m really tied to the words; I create lots of poetry and linguistic things in my text. Also, I want to see my babies come to life. When I’m working with actors, I tend to re-write parts of the script so that they can properly inhabit those characters. I’m there to make sure the birth goes smoothly, so that everyone knows where they are, that the script is as perfect for this cast as possible. As a writer you have to do that – you have a responsibility for your children before the world takes them on their journey.
What’s your involvement in terms of casting? Have you built a team of actors you like to work with?
No. You get these fancy Hollywood directors that do all their films with Tom Cruise in – I'm not like that. I like to sit in on casting, I want to listen, I like to chat with the casting director to determine who’s best for the role. Also, I have this egalitarian approach to theatre. I don’t agree with giving a role to someone just because they're famous, or whatever. It goes against my ‘town hall’ approach, and my immigrant sensibilities. I want every person to have an opportunity, and not to think that because you’ve ‘made it’, that it negates the space for other actors. I love the audition process. Just because I like an actor, or they become a friend of mine, doesn’t mean I think ‘you’re going to be in my production’. I just want to find a person who will best fulfil the role.
What made Kate McGrath the best fit for you, as your producer?
She’s really rebellious. If you look at her history, if you know her father John McGrath’s work, you can see the roots of the woman she is. I take risks in the work that I put on, and Kate was willing to take risks with me. She never tried to curtail my voice, she always listened, and pushed. She lobbies on my behalf – she has difficult conversations with theatres and venues to put on my work, so that I didn’t have to. Sometimes I will have no idea of the battles she fights to get me in, and she’ll mention it in tasing afterwards – and I won’t never know all of them! I just know that I rock up at venues, and my work is on. She’s relentless, she has vision, she’s passionate, she’s loyal. She has a sense of what the world should look and feel like. She’s highly moral, and ethical. Those morals are something I really champion, and I know where she's coming from. She has convictions, and they align with my convictions and values. You need people like that, because then there's a shorthand in communications. That’s what makes us a great match.
Your website is so packed and up to date – it feels like an archive as well as a marketing tool. Is that something you manage yourself, and how important has self-promotion been to your career?
I manage my website myself; I have a reminder every Monday to update it with any new thing coming up. It’s mostly to do with the fact that I’m Nigerian, and that I come from a really poor, difficult background. In Nigeria, we have this hip-hop philosophy to make a dollar out of fifteen cents; to hustle or die. That governs the way that I work. Also, when I started writing poetry, I was the deliverer of my work – I existed mainly in the spoken word and performance poetry circuits, and if you wanted to see my work, you had to come and find me. That mentality hasn’t entirely left me. If I can do something myself, I will do it. I’ve designed most of my book covers, I’ve arranged a lot of the marketing campaigns around my work. I have that visual brain in my head. If I didn’t, it might be easier to let things go, but I know how visuals work, how pictures work. So, I have to be in those conversations.
And how has self-promotion been important to my career – well, because we live in a racist country, in shark infested waters all the time, it's been very important for me to represent myself. That way, I can cut through the bullshit and I can articulate my reality better than someone who might not be Nigerian or African. There’s a saying "Until the lion learns to speak, the tales of hunting will always favour the hunter”. In the United Kingdom, and in Europe, I am the hunted. So, as the lion who can speak, I have to speak for myself. And I will, as long as I can. Self-promotion in that sense is so important – no one can articulate my vision better than me, especially when not many people in the art worlds understand the worlds that I’ve come from. The older I get, the less time I have to do all of my marketing myself, so I have to figure out shortcuts or not do as much as I used to. I'm privileged and fortunate enough to be in a position where I don’t have to run around and do all of those things – I can step out, I can turn down doing things, and trust that my work will still find its audiences.
What’s your advice for someone who has the same issues with the Home Office?
Find a community to work with, to amplify your voice. Amplify your work, and root yourselves in a community until you are pivotal to the things they do. I was doing that anyway, I wasn’t doing it consciously, but because I am so community focused and create work in various communities, taking me out of this country would have been problematic, and detrimental to the British public. It would not have been in the public’s interests to remove me. So many projects and things would have fallen apart. If you’re a creative, make sure that there are people sharing your vision, but that you are important to the vision. You need to be tied to this British community. Make sure there's people who can speak on behalf of you, speak for you, who know how important you are to them.
Do you ever hold open auditions?
I usually work with casting directors, but we make sure those casting directors do the work, to always go to the ‘tried and tested’ people by default. A few of actors in Barbershop Chronicles and Three Sisters had never done much acting work before they joined the cast. I’m not sure if they class as ‘open’ auditions.
What was the process of adapting Three Sisters?
I was asked by Metta Theatre company to adapt a few Chekhov plays, and I chose Three Sisters because I have three sisters. I thought 1. take the money and run, 2. put your sisters in this play, and 3. make it for them. It gave me a way of hacking the play, I could take what Chekhov was doing and think “what would my sisters do in this situation?”. I just tried to write about my family – I am the only male child too. The son is like me, he’s a jack of all trades, and a master of none – It was like group therapy, just putting my family on stage.
The National Theatre had a a much larger budget and space in their calendar to realise the play. It meant we could reach bigger audiences, and I could develop the play with Nina Steiger from the National Theatre’s dramaturgical department. She is a goddess. She’s an incredible visionary, and story builder. Working with her on Three Sisters was incredible.
Will you ever ‘stop’ being an immigrant, do you feel?
I don’t think I’d ever ‘stop’ - I spent years of my life, fighting to belong here and to stay here, and those years of struggle stay with me. They will continue to stay with me. I will always continue trying to find communities I belong to, and that is every immigrant's plight.