Rez Kabir (British South Asian Theatre Memories)

My name is Rez Kabir. I am an actor and storyteller
and a theatre practitioner. And where were you born?
I was born in Bangladesh, in the late 60s. But when I was about two, I came with my mother
here, so I grew up here. So you are quite British then.
Yah. And which part of, was it London that you
came to? I came to south east London. I came to a place,
the first place we stopped at, I was told was Putney. And then we stayed there for a
few months. And then, because my father was a doctor, but he was also studying to be,
his ambition was to be a neurosurgeon. He travelled around different places. Where we
could, we’d go with him. Otherwise we’d stay in one place. From there we went to a place
called Loggerheads in north of England somewhere, somewhere near Newcastle-under-Lyme. We went
to Bootle, Southport, where my brother was born, my first brother. And then, we went
to Bangladesh, just before the war. Stayed about six months, and then, 71 we came back.
And I’ve been here ever since. Alright. So, em, how did you get involved
in the South Asian theatre, or theatre? By accident really. I was interested in the
arts, very much from when I was a child. My first memory was my father, my grandfather.
He was a a captain in the Indian Army, in 1948. His name was Captain Anisur Rahman.
He was one of seven brothers but out of all his family, he was the one that loved music,
arts, poetry, and he loved books. And when I was young, the time I spent with him, and
he also came here to spend time with us, I was surrounded by books, music. And my own
parents were very much, em, students who loved poetry, they get together and sing, so that
was my kind of early memory of arts. When I grew up at school, primary school, junior
school, I was always interested in writing, writing stories and in a way performing, even
if it was from the nativity play, where I played one of the Wise Men. I’d be so excited.
So I would say, from the age of about five or six, then seven, I was always interested
in performing. Of course I didn’t know that you could study for it and have it as a career.
My own path was engineering. Er, I went to Coventry, after doing an OND, and I did an
HND at Coventry at at er their polytechnic or their college, and then enrolled in a degree,
Honours Degree course, to be a mechanical production engineer, which I thought, you
know, that’s going to be substance, something solid as a profession. But soon after that,
I re-met a friend of mine called Yugash who was in the community wing of Tara Arts which
was a theatre company at that time, who were establishing. So by ’83, ’84, I decided to
take a gap year, and come down to London, from Warwick, and get involved in the theatre
here, as a way of also opening up my own experience, of who I was, and where I came from, because
the big tagline with Tara was, we are an Asian theatre company and I didn’t know what Asian
meant. And, so being there was a very exciting time, Because you are in your twenties, you
are young, you are meeting other people, you are meeting girls, you are getting a freedom
to express yourself, and you are doing it with a, the camaraderie of other people. So
I would say ’84 was my, beginning of my career. So what did your parents think of that?
Initially, they think as as some parents do, it’s just a hobby and an interest, and eventually
I’ll find…a way of going back to my profession which will be, you now, solid earner and a
and a good place in your society or community. But I guess I was stubborn and also, very
much curious, because not only was it exciting to perform and rehearse, and be part of, let’s
say a family, an artistic family, it was also a great time of changing politics, so to be
involved in that took up a lot of our time. I would say there was an initial comment,
em…obstacle, but when I was successful as with anybody, when you are seen to be popular
and successful your family or your friends say great, and they support you. If you’re
not earning or seen to be moving and progressing, they assume you are in difficult and they
say, well maybe you shouldn’t do that. Maybe you should fall back on, something professional.
But I, I never had a problem with that myself, although it’s it’s something that you have
to balance. You have to have something. A space, within you and your family. You have
to have a distinct clarity between what is your personal life, professional life, you
career, and then within your own community, whoever that may be. And I think there were
times when I was more obsessive about my art, being so involved in it. And other times,
I was quite happy to be at home and be with my parents. I think my parents now feel that,
em, this the life and profession I’ve chosen. So they are quite happy as long as I’m not
being distracted or being cheated or been, em, taken away from, you know, my family and
other commitments. You said this was an Asian theatre, Tara Arts,
and it was a time when politically and lots of different things. So so what did South
Asian mean to you. Was it important then. It was very important because it was a it
was a tag that we identified. You have a place of belonging. It’s your choice if you want
to include yourself in there. As far as I see, looking back, and I’ve been involved
in theatre, performing arts, creativity, writing, performing, for, I would say, a good part
of twenty years more. I’ve observed it, you know as a choice, because it’s choices that
you make, which dictate the quality of your life. You have to balance it with what you
think is necessary for you, what you feel you can make a contribution to the people
that you serve, and you hope that it will in some way help to develop them or encourage
or inspire them. I’ve always used storytelling as a means of connecting to both my heritage
where I come from which I learn and it’s not a static thing, it’s a dynamic thing. It changes
from generation to generation, but the core thing never changes. The truth, the core truth
is, I want to be accepted. I want to be recognised for the efforts and hard work I do. I would
like to have the freedoms that others enjoy, to live a life, to choose and speak and express
myself as I wish to. In South Asian, it was a way of beginning that journey, and I think
everybody has that journey. Each one is different. But there are commonalities. Like there will
be a struggle. There will be a time you will be, solitary. There will be, and for, that
is very important because you are developing yourself, mentally, physically and spiritually.
You also, and this is good fortune for me, have an opportunity to work with different
professionals, organisations, companies, and you also have time when you are in the limelight,
because, that’s what we want. But I have a er I have a feeling that South Asia is one
of the forms of who I am. It’s not everything that I am. It is an important part of who
I am because, with it, it engages a language, a history, social, traditional and other values
and, identities. But apart from South Asia, I work right across the board. I will work
with all the communities, different generations, because I want to connect as much as possible
with the world that I live in. within me, I have South Asian, I have British, and I
have my Bengali heritage, and also I think, it’s something, when I say dynamic, each generation
that they come, they kind of practice their perception of what South Asian is. And we
are almost in a way like an orchestra a group of families, an orchestra of different rhythms.
So we are very fortunate when those rhythms can come together and play a reasonable orchestra.
Em, and I think each voice is important. So it’s interesting you say about generations.
So you’d say, you’d say that the British South Asian kind of idea or identity would change
form generation to generation or has different… It changes in some respect. An example I’ll
give you. If you look at the, the the when I saw two face I mean the public and the personal,
the private and the what’s, what we, portray in a public eye is very different from what
is personal practice. You can have the Bollywood experience, glamour, glitz, love stories on
film, on stage, in dance productions. You also have the Bengali experience. You have
the Indian experience. Each of this are rooted, not just in the present, but a far distant
ancient past, where there were specific disciplines of how to behave, how to treat each other.
Em, when you came to see our show yesterday, if you noticed we call each other bhai, er
we respected each other. That’s a personal respect we give to each other. We don’t always
just call each other by name, and it’s a very Bengali thing, And it’s very old traditional
thing. But it’s something that’s developed. Outside, we call each other by name, because
it’s a more British thing, or an English thing. I don’t think it matters. But this thing of
change is, each time, someone sees a piece of work, I am going by the information I have
and it’s an interpretation of what South Asian is. I cannot know everything, because I am
going by the experience of my own life, I’m trying to contribute to it and hopefully not
destroy that. Destroy that I mean the good part of it. The good part of it that serves
us. The good part of it that helps present and future generations in some way. Sometimes
it may not. It might just be entertainment. It might be just a way of having a good time.
And that’s perfectly acceptable Em, the the next generation, let’s say my younger brothers
and sisters or my own children, they see it in a very different way. They have had a different
experience, their value on what it is to be a Bengali British is perhaps very very different.
So in that sense, they may not, think of a Bengali song that I might like in the same
way. Now does that mean they are being disrespectful towards South Asians. No. They just have a
different experience on their journey. So you talk about your Bengali experience,
em, there are other South Asian experiences as well of course. Do you think there’s a
common thread amongst the whole South Asian community that unites them in some way?
I think for certain generations, yes. If we go back say, three to four hundred years,
we were the colonized when we were in India. So that has a certain take on the way that
we will value ourselves, and how we think, of let’s say of the colonisers who may, whoever
they may be. In India, it was the Portuguese, the Dutch, er the British, er to some extent
the French but the French not so much, em, the reason that was important, but each time
that, and and obviously the Moghuls when they came, each time we had visitors in India,
thy left something to us. They contributed something good and bad, they left something.
They changed us in the way that we ate, behaved towards each other, the religions we practiced,
so they became the precursors of our present day traditions and cultures and how we view
each other. Then we have the the modern experience since the British left, we had to somehow
relearn all, pick up the pieces and learn ourselves to be a nation, whether it was India,
Pakistan, Bangladesh, and within that you have the regional experiences, Punjab, the
Gujerati experience, the em South Asian, Southeast Asian, and I only speak of Bengali because
the present work that I do is connected and rooted in Bengali theatre.
Right. And so, you experience, how how did that kind of impact on your own artistic journey
which, I mean, your personal one really because you are still an individual, even though you
are part of Bengali er community. How did that kind of shape your own artistic journey?
How did you find your way? It was em…it was not something that I questioned
in the sense am I going at the right way or the wrong way. I would pick something that
I enjoyed, so it’s a personal selective choice, and that I could do, because obviously certain
things physically and mentally, I’m not going to…em, if you notice the work yesterday
that we did, we did a version of Romeo and Juliet. It was er in the ground floor stage
at the Rich Mix which is not really a theatre space but it was a simple show. The props
we used are things that are employed in the show. It doesn’t have a massive set. In terms
of production it’s a low cost. And I like those kind of things. It also meant that,
after I left Tara in the 90s I steered myself towards thinking that I could do per, a personal
career myself, you know, as a single storyteller or a performer, an actor. So most of my work
has been on recommendation, some through my agent, or people who say well this is going
on. For me it was always planting a seed. If I met somebody, like I meet yourself, we’ll
talk about something. Commonalities, a challenge. Something we feel, er, that is important to
us, or, could work in the future. So all these seeds that we plant, we don’t know how they
will grow. But at some point, somebody would call me and say, oh Rez, I spoke to you in
such and such a time about this film or play or story, can we meet and talk. So that’s
how my work came. The choices I made was something that I could do myself so I can write stories.
I love writing stories. Maybe I don’t know if I wri, like writing, ’cause that’s something
you have to go away and and practise at but I feel I am a reasonable story writer, short
stories, so I was inspired by people like Manto, Premchand, em, I like the short stories
of you know, the classical fairytales like er Grimm, and all the others. Em what inspired
me with all these different different stories from around the world and from my own cultures,
they had a common thread. They were imparting something, er, of an educational value, a
moral tale or an entertaining. They also reflected the times that the emerged from, and that
the stories could change, they can change to suit the times. So I’ve had to, basically
input my own personality and my own choices into the field and just build relationships.
You build relationships with different people. You, em, let them know who you are about,
the things you are interested, and you try and find out about them. And that’s not just
about art and organisations, it’s all the different regional places that I have had
the good fortune to go into whether it’s Southampton, er in Scotland, Wales or when I’ve gone abroad
to Ireland or Belgium or Australia, the thing is the similarities that everyone has a story
and it’s just not fairytales. Everyday stories. When you are on the phone and you are talking
to some, well I am at so and so, and did you hear about, that’s a story. That story’s a
reflection of, we’re constantly constantly trying to find, who are we? Where did we come
from? Where are we now? Where are we going? Are we, em, satisfied with the needs we have.
Is there something that threatens us. How do we cope with that. So stories is the central
structure of how I operated. And that helped me to go and work in films, theatre, TV and
radio So you are always very conscious of your audience
as a storyteller. You are speaking to them directly. Are you very conscious of of them,
who they are? To you target an audience? Do you look for a particular audience to perform
to? Em, it’s very important who my audiences are.
In general, it’s everyone. But depending on the project and where I am, for example, tomorrow
I’m going to go to the Museum of Docklands. I work in their family groups as well as their
education groups. So tomorrow it’s going to be a, a forty minute story of Abdul Miah,
who is a Victorian sailor from India, and it’s kind of a monologue that’s been written
for me that I’ve developed. Eh, schools and colleges come in. I do the story and do, do
a little workshop. Very interactive. Now that age range is say maybe six seven years old
to eleven. But when I have my own personal projects, that would be, like I’m doing something
for Hardial, it’s over at Cranford, it will be family audiences in, in a school community
centre. That could be anybody. Em, depending on the project I have no restrictions to who
comes and sees my shows, because they are accessible to everyone. They may have elements
of Bengali, or some other languages and scenarios and settings. But I’m not saying to someone,
you must see the world through my eyes. I’m sharing with the interactive, that means I
will say to people, come up and be a character. Suggest an ending to the story. Tell if this
story was left unended how would you end it. Because I want to involve my audience, direct,
when they can, because other times it might be a a performance, we might just talk about
it afterwards. But it’s very informal. There is no curtain. And the curtain in theatre,
or in storytelling was important, to provide a kind of distinction between us and them,
the viewer, the observer and the performer But in in mine, yes, there is that divide,
but that divide is invisible. You can break it whenever you obviously I don’t want people
to come in and say, Oi, what’s going on and, heckle me, er although you get that, and you
have to cope with it. So my audiences are everyone. But at different projects it might
be a specific group And, em, so you link all your stories with
kind of everyday lives and people don’t you. Yes.
And you make that of of value as a result. OK. But you do that through a South Asian
prism? It can be both. It depends. I mean, for example,
em, in about five six years ago, em, I and a couple of other, em, colleagues, we began
a company called Tamarind Theatre. I had a three year gap, sorry, three month gap between
projects, and I’d always been complain, you know, I’m getting to the age, I’d really like
to contribute and teach and, so my friend were saying, look, why why don’t you just
start a company. So it wasn’t just on my own, but I was sort of, one of three, who established
Tamarind Theatre Company. Still is, and, as it was when we formed it was, we wanted storytelling
as a medium that was rooted in Bengal but was meeting the needs of a heritage that was
being built by generations in Britain. They may or may not have a connection to India
or Southeast Asia, but they also have a story they’re experiencing now. And in that story,
they may not have kings and queens and fairies and monsters or, amazing phantestas, fantastical
characters. They may have, their dad works in a shop, or in a restaurant. The mum is,
part time job and goes shopping or, the sister wants to be a scientist or the brother, the
son, so they have, they choose roles that they identify with. And in, in my stories,
we have different characters. So the first story we did for Tamarind was Purnima. Purnima
means the full moon, in Bengali. It was a story about a mother and daughter, so as a
contemporary context, how do mothers, or parents, especially mothers, relate to their daughters.
What is it like for both of them, as one generation grows up, and the other one comes to term.
Yes, it was set in a folk form, but it was in some other country, it didn’t matter whether
it was Bengal, but it was set in some other country. But the things within the story was
extremely contemporary. Like for example, they go on a horse, they are riding on their
horse horse horse, they stop at a market, they want to sell their horses. So we asked
the young people, if they sold the horses at £15 each how much money would they make…OK?
Yah. So we would always weave in things that are
relateable and connect to the audience and young people
OK. So you had actually made a positive change in your own life, in your own career choice,
and as a result, changed theatre. I hope so. I hope so.
That’s great. So, em how do you feel at this em, you’ve you’ve just connected all these
kind of em, the present day aesthetics and stories into a tradition, and then reinvented
this tradition Yes, yes.
So where do you see yourself going from here? How do you further develop this?
Em, it’s an interesting question. Em…in terms of the first story I ever did, as a
public performer which was in a tree ceremony in Stepney. It was a family event. So you
always have to look at what that activity is. Who are the people involved? What are
the needs they want. I am interacting with that and coming into that and changing that
dynamic. And for me it was, it’s not really that much different to what I do now. A person
is the storyteller. The storyteller is the traditional form of what the internet is today.
We are like a app that connects people. You can download me. You can enjoy the stories
I have, but you can also interact with me, and if you want to take it up further, be
inspired. Start writing stories yourself. Tell your own stories to whatever you want.
And enjoy it for whatever it is for you. So if you want to become a professional, great.
Come and see me, or see the friends I have, and become a storyteller, or a theatre practitioner,
or a creative artist. Because apart from the stories I did, in the in the tree, tree ceremony
it was, I told the stories to a hall full of parents, they loved it, I was so terrified
but, I enjoyed that kind of, challenge. You know, here there’s nothing to hide . It’s
just me and these people. They’re waiting for me to do something with them and involve
them. So I acknowledge. I try and respect them. But at the same time just be normal,
you know. At the end we are just you and I. Flesh and blood, that’s all. The development
in the years since that is that I may use, a bit more more sophistication, able to use
more languages, different forms, dance, movement, em, puppetry, because I’m a trained puppeteer
with Little Angel Theatre, er worked with them. Em, I think since leaving Tara, I had,
what I would call steady job for a few years. I was em, a kitchen manager, for a kitchen
company, er we used to sell white goods, and em sell white goods. I worked as a telephone
operator at Harrods, for five years. Em, and all, and in between I was doing my storytelling
or acting in a play, doing films, or making up my own projects with people that I knew
in the industry. And what happened was, at the end of the, oh I think the theatre, em
the kitchen company decided to make us redundant basically, and then, at that point, em, 2000…2005
or 2007 I said to myself I want go in at full time and devote myself to the work that I
do and that’s what I’ve been doing since. But in terms of where I’ve been affecting
and contributing, in the East I’ve been here for about twelve years. So I’ve worked in
the schools, in the theatres, and also unorthodox venues like working in the melas and festivals
in the open air. So I will go to wherever I’m I’m asked to do and wherever I think I
can make a positive contribution. In terms of the styles, what’s helped me is working
in theatre. The things that I learn and er discover in that experience I can put into
my stories. Er, at the same time, you meet ordinary people like, in Mayflower School
I, I had a workshop looking at Bengali drama with a group of, er, mums. What they wanted
was to get a qualification through a workshop to help them in childminding, or health care,
to get a job. So we tried to work out with the Council and the project coordinators,
how can we do that. How can we use storytelling as a medium to bring their own thoughts and
views and feelings. Look at drama, and out of that, what they’re doing is, it’s helping
them to bring out their own traumas, experiences and their desires and dreams, because that’s
what we want. We want to be able to express the condition that we are in. I know it sounds
very em, psycho, psychological. I’m not trying to make it psychological but I’m trying to
explain because you’d understand. I think I connected to my grandfather because I enjoyed
the love he gave me. I had it both from my parents but when my father was away, studying,
becoming a doctor and a surgeon, he didn’t become a surgeon, he settled at GP because
we had more brothers and sisters, he had more responsibility, couldn’t give his own personal
time to himself, so he said. Alright. I’m going to be a GP. The challenge I had was
I’m the eldest in my family. I’ve two brothers and a sister, and they are all settled and
married in different ways. How do I make a living, keep a responsibility to my family,
in some way keep a connection to my community and immediate, you know, large extended family,
but at the same time I don’t want to hide away who I am, what I am. I want to go out
into the world and find out as much possible from the world. It could be on, at the National
Theatre. It could at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It could be Edinburgh Festival. Em, it could
be in a school. I have to give it the same respect and professionality, because people
will go away saying. That’s South Asian art. That’s Rez the the man, or that’s a Bengali
or that’s a a good artistic person because that impact, you don’t what that experience
could do to he other person. So you always have a responsibility, both to yourself, the
history and the tradition and culture you come from, whatever that is for your, from
your choice and that day and time you spend with a group or an individual, you don’t know
what that would lead to. It’s going back to that idea of the seeds, you implant something.
But it’s a two way thing. They might, and they do inspire me. I remember going to, I
I was doing a story with Museum of London or Docklands called Pocahontas. So I had to
go and research. You always have to research and find out, either from books and things,
or internet then you have to if you can find people, you research from them. Em, and then
I’d done the story, a lady had seen me do the stories because it was for families and
she lived in Plymouth. And she sent me a thank you card. An English lady, sent me a thank
you card and he sent me a poem. And she said there was a legend in Plymouth, or in, yah,
Plymouth that Pocahontas had landed there and taken a carriage and driven all the way
to London to see to get in to the Court, I don’t know, James the First. And then soon
after within the year, she gave birth and died in Gravesend. And there’s an unmarked
grave there saying that’s where Pocahontas died, And that’s why it’s known as graves
end. Or some, some other story. But it’s, it’s finding that line between, which is real,
which is legend, which is myth, which is just a folk story that is popularized because it’s,
it helps us, understand someone. Now today if you want to connect it, it’s the same.
We have so many different political parties. We have organistions companies, em, er, that
are wanting our attention. They want us to buy buy buy. They want us to em, endorse something.
At the same time we have our commitments to our families and our larger community, and
also there is a pressure on the artist to become some sort of celebrity or artist. I’ve
never seen myself as a celebrity artist, but I do realize there is a responsibility that
you are in the public eye. So what you do, has an impact to the, the person. It could
be someone from your own community, it could be somewhere in, nowadays with all the internet,
it could be somewhere on the other side of the world. And they make a judgement what
is South Asian arts or South Asian individual. Great. So to finish up, what would you say
is your biggest, em, greatest memory of of any of your work, which one do you connect
most with or do you always look for the new one.
I would say…the experiences I’ve had, I’ve had so many and I’m very fortunate. The future
ones are the ones are look for in the sense that anything I’m working at the moment are
the most exciting. But, in the past, the work has been good because of the people that I’ve
worked with. And each one is an exciting thing because it helps me to find another part of
me that I didn’t know, or find out about the people I’m working with that I hadn’t shared
with before. Someone I worked with on that Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t know that they
were a choreographer. Someone else, em er Greta who played Juliet em em, she has an
Icelandic spouse and we would, talking about languages. So in and and she’d ask me, what’s
your family, what’s your background, and when I started to relate it, she said oh I didn’t
know that. Now what does that do for me? It helps me to understand a little bit more.
If I can understand a bit more maybe I could be a bit better. Em, I mean some of them are
so many, one of the biggest ones was when we went to Australia and New Zealand. Went
to the er Youth Theatre Festival. Em, I was a little bit more than youth, em, with Tara
actually, and we took Government Inspector. It was a circus version, I played the postmaster
and the and the set was a trunk, a big metal trunk and within the metal trunk were our
costumes, our set, everything. And we toured around two weeks in Melbourne. We went into
the universities and did workshops. Em, I touched the Pacific Ocean with my feet. We
drove through mountains where there was snow on one side, desert on the other. Then went
to New Zealand, from South Island to North Island, stopped off at various places, Rotorua
where there were the geysers, and at Rotorua, when we’re performing our show, the theatre
company there, all the people who’d invited us, they gave us all a present of a glass,
and they’d engraved, ‘ You came for the festival. Thank you so much’. So those things are a
good memory. Then there was the Edinburgh Film Festival where we did em, I did us some
em, a play that was em originally written in Sudan about the Sudanese em, Independence
Movement, and the story I played, I’m always playing baddies, recently I’m playing baddies,
em in Unsung, which is adaptation of a Tagore play but modernized to today, I’m playing
this dominating brother. In Romeo and Julite I play this terrible Tybalt all that, he gets
killed. But em, that’s probably partly because of the way I physically am and people think
I’ll be good for it and also my voice, which I’m very fortunate with. But em, the other
one, er, it was called Burst, In Burst, everything came out of a trunk. The trunk had been sent
by someone who had gone to London in the 20s and had the experiences here. He’d met Marcus
Garvey, he had lots of girlfriends, he met all the bright young things, but unfortunately,
he met he he, killed his wife. Some of it was true to the story. I think…he was orginally
killed in the research material we had, and that was written by Omar El-Khairy and co-written
by Tanya Singh, whose the film director. And, we took it at we had like half an hour run,
runaround, you had to go into the Zoo theatre space, set up a show, do the show, half an
hour, put it all apart and the the next company would come in. But it was a really really
good experience because it’s challenging and physically, you find the time to enjoy yourself,
you see so many different companies, you realize you are a drop in that ocean and you’re no
different from anybody else. So that was a good memory. And in in I mean this year I’ve
been so fortunate. I’ve er, worked last year I did Londonee which was by Gurpreet Bhatti,
that was a very, er, very nice central lull using er Tagore’s poetry, performing in English,
learning how to do the sounds and movements, that was a beautiful show to do. This year
we did Devdas, a stage version, I had two characters, em a downbeat 60s em er pop musician,
you know, flower power and all that, that was very exciting to do, and also played,
em, a character who’s more subservient servant role. Em and then, recently Unsung, which
I’ve mentioned to you before, and then, and now Romeo and Juliet and hopefully that will
go on tour. So all these are very very exciting. Not just for the acting and the chance I get
and the adrenalin rush I get but also because you work with respected people and it gives
you so much more for the future, Fantastic. Thank you!
Thank you.

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