Satinder Chohan (British South Asian Theatre Memories)


My name is Satinder Chohan and I’m a, playwright,
writer. Em, I’ve written about three or four plays and er, I’ve been writing for a few
years now. Em, I actually like to call myself an emerging writer. I always feel that is,
I feel a little bit uncomfortable calling myself a write or playwright, you know. It’s
that whole sense of being established, em, which I’m not quite yet. Em, so, yah, an emerging
writer. And where were you born?
I was born in England. Em, I was born in, a town called Hillingdon, but I grew up in
a town called Southall in west London which is a very vibrant immigrant enclave, sometimes
known as Little India or Little Punjab, em, so there’s a strong, very big, Punjabi community
there, and, em, I feel that, yah, my upbringing, my town, my community has, hugely influenced
the work that I have done thus far and will, continue to influence the work that I do in
the future. And where are your parents from?
My parents are from Punjab. My father came over in, came over to England in 1968, and
my mother and brother and sister followed five years later. My grandfather had come
over in the 50s, em, and I spent, em much of my childhood at my grandfather’s house,
em, which, you know, it, I have various sorts of very idyllic memories of growing up in
in, his house, because we had a lot of different families, em, who had come over from India,
share and live in the same house, and sort of gradually over time, everyone sort of,
you know, siphoned off into their, their various places. So, yah, I grew up with my, my grandparents,
and my cousins, and my uncles and aunts, a big extended family. Em, but yah, my father
came over in the late 60s, and er, yah, we, I grew up in, in Southall.
OK, so that was where your grandfather was based.
Yup, my grandfather was also based in Southall. My entire extended family was in Southall
initially. Em, but it’s funny because, em, over time, em on my father’s side of the family,
I have uncles who, em, migrated to America and Canada, and on my mother’s side I also
had uncles who, em moved to, Australia. So I think, since I was very young, em, we’ve
always had this very sort of global, sense of the world, just because of the way, that
people had come over from Punjab and then sort of split off, you know, to countries
right across the world. And I think it’s something that em, that, yah, it’s a it’s a kind of
global outlook that I retain in my work a well.
And how did you get involved in theatre? Em, how did I get involved. I, it was, hehe,
I’ve sort of had this very haphazard career trajectory. Em, I, I studied for a while,
I did my MA in the State, and em, I thought for a long time that I would go into academia,
but, I’ve always been sort of quite fearful of you know the ivory towers of education
and and, felt like I needed to root myself in the real world so, after university, I,
got involved with, journalism, and I edited a small em, Asian, British Asian arts and
culture magazine called Second Generation, er, for a while, and then I edited another
magazine, Black women’s magazine called Pride, hehehe, em, so I, yah, I wrote as a writer,
freelance writer for a while, but I think I always had that impulse that I wanted to
write creatively. But before doing that, I ended up in documentaries in, in television.
I worked on some BBC Channel 4 documentaries, em, always thinking, you know, I need a creative
outlet. I think, I jumped from sort of different, you know, storytelling mediums because, there’s
always been something about wanting to express other people’s stories, my own stories, and
em, yah, I was I was actually working on a BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are? Em,
I was working on Meera Syal’s family history, em, and I went and spent a month in India,
researching, her her family, and em, I had an amazing time there. Very incredible time.
I had the opportunity to go back to the Punjab, my ancestral homeland. I hadn’t been back
there since I was a kid, and, I think while I was there, I had the idea for my first play
Zameen, em, which is a play about a small farmer and his family and the onset of globalization
and how globalization impacts, his situation and the situation of his kids, But yah, it
was while I was in, in Punjab for, I suddenly thought, you know, I’m working in documentaries,
but I want to be telling my own stories and, when I came back, I started to write the play
and it’s funny because I’d always wanted to become a novelist, as opposed to a playwright.
I still think I want to write novels, but em, for some reason. The idea of the story
lent itself best to a dramatic medium. So I pursued that and you know, sort of three
or four plays later, I’m still writing drama. Em, and I think, I think it’s important, I
think it’s important in terms of the work that I want to do in the future, it’s not
a medium that I’ve sort of gravitated to naturally but, em, it’s very rigorous, it’s very disciplined,
it’s very economical. These are all things that I want to learn, for, my own sort of
prose writing as well. So em, yah, that’s where my, where my journey began and I I,
I wrote a short play initially that I then submitted to Kali Shorts. Kali Theatre where
running, em, they annually run this, em, you know, sort of a, a programme where they invite
work from, you know, from, new writers, and I successfully, entered this play, and gradually
over time we, did a fully fledged production that toured around the UK. It took some years
but, em, eventually we got there, so yeah, that was, that was the beginning of my, of
my journey and I just felt that it was something, you know, it’s definitely a medium that I
wanted to, to stay with, that I wanted to get better at, and, it’s been, a long journey,
but I’m still still fighting fit in there. So the subject matter that you employ, that
mainly kind of a of South Asian kind of, er, black background or inspiration?
Yeah, it is. It’s it’s, you know, it’s very consciously, my work is very consciously about
South Asian communities and characters. I, didn’t have much experience of theatre before
I, began writing for it. I think I took a drama course when I was, studying drama course
when I was at university and aside from that there were high school trips to the theatre.
But you know, I much prefer sort of reading novels, or watching films. To me those are
the mediums that I sort of naturally gravitate to, so, tsk, em, theatre, it’s funny because
I I feel very disconnected at times from it, because it feels very British. I think mainstream,
British theatre is very British, and it’s very exclusionary in terms of the stories
that, for South Asians have to tell, that, someone like me has to tell. So, I think when
I began, I I very consciously, you know, that’s part of the challenge that I want to be able
to tell these stories. I would like there to be a platform for these stories and I want
to persevere telling these stories. You know, I don’t want to tell stories about White communities.
I think there are enough stories coming out from those communities, em, and it’s just
very important that we have in artistic and cultural voice, within that mainstream, and,
I want to do what I can to contribute to that. So yeah, definitely South Asian communities
and characters. So do you feel that it’s an area that needs
to be, promoted still, very much so. Yah.
I mean you brief, briefly talked about, exclusion, or meant, you know, you sort of, inferred,
there was an exclusion, em, from the mainstream. I mean how does that impact on your work,
for example? Yah. I do. I I do think it still needs to
be promoted. Em, I think it’s, it’s a struggle trying to get, mainstream theatre companies
interested in that kind of work, and, I know that for me, I’m eternally grateful to, theatre
companies like Kali and Tamasha, who have been, so supportive of the work and the stories
that, I do and tell, and, em, it would be it would be wonderful to be able to take those
stories to mainstream theatre companies, and to have them champion them in the same way.
But I haven’t had that experience, to date. And I think it, I think the onus is on us
to to write those stories well. I think, I think we have to write better. Em, but, I
think there is a short hand. There is a short hand between us and companies like Kali and
Tamasha where they understand where we’re coming from, the stories that we’re writing
and what we write about, and the need for those stories to be voice within, the theatre
community. The British theatre community. So yah, there’s still a lot of work to do.
Em, I think there’s a lot of crossover work to do. And it is about mainstream theatre
companies becoming more receptive to work, that we have to tell. I think, I think they
also shy away because, perhaps they think that work is too insular, and I know the work
that I’ve done, you know, Zameen was set in a farming commu er sorry, in a farming family
in Punjab. There won’t any White characters. It was set solely in Punjab. It’s a difficult
play to engage with. And I know it’s about the power of the story as well but, I find
that, you know, people already shy away from that because it’s not something that they
necessarily relate to or identify with. So, you know, another play that I did, Kabaddi
Kabaddi Kabaddi, which was set, between India and the UK. It was about revolutionaries in
India, in Punjab again. And em, illegal immigrants in London, in East London. Em, you know, it
was it was a little bit disappointing not to see more, you know, a more diverse audience.
A more diverse audience to come and see something like that. So it makes me think, is the subject
matter I’m addressing, is it too insular. And it, but if it is, that should be OK. It
should stand alongside other stories that are being told, if it’s a strong enough story
that’s being told. So yah, a lot of work to be done I think, on that front. On all sides,
you know. And what about from a more personal perspective,
like, with your immediate family. Em, how do they respond to you going into theatre.
Em…OK. Double-edged. Em, my family, you know, my family are incredibly supportive
of what I do, and, they have been, I honestly wouldn’t be sitting here if it were not for
them, because, they have supported me financially and in terms of space. Em, you know, I have
a a room at my parents’ place that I can always retreat to to write my plays. My sister, my
sister too has helped me, in terms of my living situation. You know, as a struggling playwright,
it’s not easy to pay rent in London. It’s not easy to survive in London. So they’ve
been incredibly incredibly su supportive on on that front. Em, but I think they get frustrated.
I think they are very frustrated. I’m in my late thirties and em, I’m not making as much
money as the cousins, or, you know, the other families, or, you know, I don’t have a house.
I don’t I’m not married. I don’t have kids, so, those are their cultural concerns, whereas
for me, em, my writing is the sole, sort of, priority in my life. You know, it’s something
I want to get better and better at. Em, and sometimes I have this sort of monastic devotion
to it. Em, but yah, I think they find that very difficult. I think they find it very
difficult when, other cousins are in regular jobs and are basically adults, (laughs) getting
on with their lives. You know, and here’s me, struggling writer, still trying, you know,
trying to go at the next project, and then the next project. Em, so it’s hard, and I
understand why it’s hard, and, you know, my father came over from India and he, he worked
very hard in this country, to build what he has, so I think it’s frustrating for him to
see me, struggle with the work that I do. But he himself, does he have an artistic bent?
No, you know, it’s funny because, nn, I, nobody in my family has an artistic bent, and, my
father was a farmer in India, and he came over, and he worked at, the Quaker Oats, there
was, we had a big Quaker Oats factory in Southall so we always used to get like free Sugar Puffs
as a kid, Duskins and em, so you know, he was a factory worker and then, he sort of
worked his way up. Em, he, my mother, my mother never went to school, My mother actually learnt
how to read and write, em, by going to the local temples in India. She was never sent
to school. So, you know and I think, I’m I’m not sure where it came from. My sisters, my
sister worked in film for a long time, e, but she was working on the sort of production
side of things, em, so we don’t really have a tradition of it in our family, at all. Em,
but I loved books as a kid and, my grandfather’s house was em tsk, just down the road from,
Southall Library, and I spent a lot of time in there as a kid, by myself. And I think
my love of books and writing really came from that. And, you know and also from, I think,
being Sikh. My mother was always reading, you know. Our holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
Em, it’s a focal point, it’s worship of a book. And em, so those things were very important
to us in the house, even though, you know, culturally, we never went to the theatre,
and, you know, we went to the cinema, we used to have two, Indian cinemas in Southall were
we used to go and watch Bollywood films in the 70s and 80s, and you know. So yeah, you
have influences but not not a direct artistic influence.
You mentioned, er that you would have preferred di, more diverse audience coming to your work.
Yah. What kind of audiences do you hope to reach
out and how important is that relationship between a writer and the audience.
Em I thinks it’s I think it’s so hugely important, em, the relationship, between, a writer and,
and their audience. Em, and I would like to, you know, I wish I could have a very diver
verse audience I wouldn’t want to exclude anybody. I think, the stories, I hope the
stories that I tell are, I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say, but universal stories,
and, you know at the end of the day, they should be about, basic emotions and the things
that we are all interested in, the things that we all want, or desire, or the things
that are happening in our lives. You know, if I’m doing a play about illegal immigrants
in this country I would hope that, you know, maybe the English neighbour who lives next
door in the same community would come to see, and to discover something of, you know, what
that, immigrant’s experience of life might be. So I think there is something for us all,
em, within that kind of work, em, within the work that I do, and, but but it is, it’s it’s
about drawing those audiences in. I thin the audience also has to make a leap, of faith,
and em, imagination, at times, you know, rather than sort of, consistently go to watch the
classics or, you know, how about trying something new, trying something that is, telling us
something, different about another community. Is a very difficult thing because, of course,
we are, kind of brainwashed into thinking of the classics as the epitome of drama. Em,
how do you relate your work to that as an, well you call yourself an emerging writer
but, obviously you represent, quite a bit more than emerging. There are quite established
traditions in your whole background. How do you think how one can challenge that status
quo. Em…I don’t, see I, I also believe, I don’t
know is if it’s about challenging, that status quo ’cause I respect it hugely, and, you know
I often go back to the classics myself, em, before I write new new work, em, I think I
think it’s in the power of the storytelling and I think that’s something that we really
have to work on as, a writing community if we are, you know, a South Asian or Asian or
Black, writing community I think it’s about the quality of the work. And, I think the
work has to be so powerful that it’s about drawing audiences in, you know, diverse audiences
in. And maybe that’s a little bit idealistic but for me, I think it’s about how good the
story is at the end of the day. Em, and that’s something that I know, in my own work, em,
that’s something that I, I want to work on and, continue to work on. I’m not sure what
the bigger picture is, but as a writer, I know that technically. I would like to get
better, so that, you know the work is good. The work is good and, the you know, ut, at
the end of the day you can’t argue with the quality of the work. Em…
So how’s your work been evolving over the last few plays that you’ve written?
Em, my first play, Zameen, was set in Punjab, em…sort of questionable what my second and
third were, but em, I had Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi which was about, the illegal immigrants
and revolutionaries. Em, I also did a very small paly at Hampstead Theatre for, the youth
group there, which was about Somali pirates, (laughs) on the Indian Ocean. Gap year kids
and Somali pirates. Em, so, and actually there’s another play that I am doing, em, with Tamasha,
which is called Lotus Beauty and it’s set in a, west London sort of, British Asian suburban
beauty salon. It’s about the lives of, Asian women. So I don’t know. I mean I I, I think
the work has evolved in terms of…me becoming more conscious of the writing. I think the
characters and communities are very much the same. That, em, I’m always very drawn to globally,
locally and globally underrepresented characters and communities. So that’s been consistent.
You know, whether it’s farmers or Somalian pirates, or, women, or, em, you know immigrants.
I want to be able to represent the lives, small lives, I’d say small lives in a a, in
a big sort of, global sphere. I always have that sense of, tsk, I like my place to have
a sense of a bigger world within, a small world. Em, but I think yah, I think in terms
of how the work’s developed, it’s just understanding drama better. I think I I think it’s very
much about that. The politics and the characters and all those things are there. Those those
are the things that I’m, very interested in that I’m, very consistent with. But I think
it’s about, understanding about drama and how to make drama, the drama in my plays better.
Em, and I I know that that’s, yeah, that’s something that’s really, developed from the
first play to the plays that I’m working on right now.
Could it be something about, em, the animation of the spoken word, in drama, that is the
same that you are striving, for, because you said that you did a lot of different things
and that you saw yourself more as a novelist but then you’ve gone into theatre, so you
are actually having to work with, actors, to make those word that you’ve written, come
alive. Is there something in there? Absolutely. I think you’ve put it so eloquently
and it’s something that I’ve had to discover in my own artistic journey, that I’ve come
from a var, I studied English, er, language and literature at university, and, em, I come
from a very literary background and I think I have a very literary mindset. So, a lot
of my journey with drama has had to be, about understanding what drama is. And in terms
of collaboration with actors, and, but understanding the dramatic space and the dramatic word,
em, which is very different form the literary word. Em, and it, yeah, and it’s it’s been
a struggle because I think it has been…you know, I know that I’ve been very guilty of
overwriting in my plays and it’s it’s about paring things down. It’s about making things
much more economical. And elevating the spoken word as well you say, you know, and really,
really honing that. Em, so it’s been it’s been a really long arduous journey, on that
front but, yah, those are the things that I’, understanding a lot better and I think…I
think this is one of the things that in our community, em, sort of, you know, maybe, British
South Asian community, as writers, these aren’t things that lend themselves, sort of naturally
to us if we don’t have a theatrical background. I never grew up with theatre, so those things
I’ve had to sort of learn, you know, through going to the theatre or, you know, acclimatizing
myself to plays, reading plays, lots of plays and, yah, it’s been it’s been a it’s been
a big learning curve, on on those fronts. But Indian theatre, traditional theatre, obviously
is very different a lot of it is the oral tradition.
Yah. And then a lot of it is kind of, em, chrystallised
in, the myth, the mythological stories. And those stories are used to represent daily
life Mm.
Em, so that kind of tradition is very different from the British tradition, where, thigs are
put into a theatre with a proscenium arch. You know. Em, and audiences audiences sit
in very darkened, arenas, auditoriums, very different from, em, a more traditional Indian
performance where people are running in and out.
Mm. You know, children are allowed actually, to
experience that kind of thing. And of course you haven’t experienced that being brought
up here. So there is a kind of, divide really, from your traditional, er traditions, you
know, which are not played out in your lifetime. And you had to resort to, a more British tradition
of libraries and the literary world. Yah. Very true.
So, that in itself is a fascinating thing isn’t it.
Very true. Yah, that is very true. And…but it’s, it’s funny because, tsk, because when
I write, I know it’s very much in naturalistic, realistic mold, but actually, I’m very drawn
to symbolism and mythology, and and things that, have definitely lent themselves to me
through religion, or, you know Sikhism, I mean Hindusim, I would say is the most colourful
of, you know, Sikhism doesn’t really, we have, but we have stories. We have a tradition of
storytelling you know. Whether it’s about the gurus or, so there is a tradition of that.
But you are quite right that em, it’s something, it yah, there’s something much more vibrant
in that. And something that, I instinctively kind of reach for. But it’s almost in a way
that I need to understand how, you know, naturalistic realistic theatre works before I can start
to, develop my work in those directions. And it’s about how those things fit into, you
know, how best to to make sym, you know, a more kind of symbolist or expressionistic
theatre, work with, you know, the naturalistic settings that I’m sort of setting up. But
yeah, there is something in that, and it’s something I’m still developing and exploring
I think. Em…but yah, we’ll it’s a it’s a long artistic journey isn’t it. It’s, there’s
a lot of things to discover. So where do you think you’ll end up. I mean
if, do you have any kind of vision of the future for yourself.
I do. I have a very, yah, I have a very, er, i idealistic vision of the future but god
knows, I think the reality will fall far short. Em, I would like to write, plays, but I would
like to write for film too. And, I would like to write novels. I mean, not ambitious at
all but (laughs), but but there’s something that I find fascinating, I find very fascinating
about different storytelling mediums and, actually the differences between them and,
you know, how one can contribute to another. And, in a way I think, we are brought up to
believe that, there are very rigid boundaries between these different creative mediums and
in a way, it’s actually, you know, it’s all it’s, storytelling in the end. So, isn’t it
about, sort of breaking down those boundaries and seeing what we can take from theatre to
give to film or, what we can take from a book to give to film or film to give to a book
or, you know, making things more cinematic, or, you know. So, there’s there’s something
that that I find very fascinating about all those different mediums, and I’d like to be
able to try all of them but, yah, I’ve I’ve sort of been sidelined with my, with my sort
of, you know, exploration of the dramatic form. So…
Have you explored any of the past work that’s been created by other British South Asian
theatre practitioners. Em, you know, we started off with Tara really as the first, company,
in the late 70s. Mm.
Then Tamasha and Kali came along and now we have Rifco, for example.
Oh yeah, of course. Yeah, so there is a a kind of, interesting
trajectory of what kind of, er, subject matter they’ve used. Em, the forms they’ve worked
in. Em, have you explored any of that. And, how would, how do you see your work sitting
within that field. Em, yah, I have, you know, I have some, some
experience of it. And em… whhh…I, yah, I I wonder about how my work would, would
fit in that. Em, I don’t know, it’s a really difficult question ’cause, hh…
Or perhaps, em… I feel…
Are there are there, subject matters, for example, that you feel have not been tackled
that you are tackling, like for example Somalian pirates.
Well…yeah yeah. I I mean, there are, there are. And I think, I think I’m definitely.
I mean I think because of my background, where are grew up and all of those things, I, my
work has a very strong political impulse to it, But the same time. There’s something about,
more kinds of philosophical, spiritual kind of strands that I’d like to explore in my
work. Em, that I don’t think, have been necessarily covered in that w, in that way, you know.
To bring all those strands together in in in terms of creating very layered drama. And
I don’t know whether that’s, you know…it’s a mistake to think in that way, whether it’s
very novelistic you know, the idea of different layers and, but I I feel like there’s something
in drama, something in the drama that I’m writing that I’d really like to explore. When
I when I write a play, all those sorts of elements are very important to me. You know,
that they be political. That it is about, you know, the philosophical or the spiritual
and em… OK, so em, I think what I’d like to do is
may maybe end up with you telling us about how you are exploring your current work practice,
in you present project. OK. Hehe. Em, well, my present project is
a play called Mother India, and, it’s a play about surrogacy. So it’s about a western woman,
and English woman, Eva, who goes to India, to a fertility clinic in India, and she pays
an Indian village woman called Adity to have her baby. So it’s about the relationship between
the two of them and also the woman who runs the clinic, Dr. Gupta, em, and er, yah, it’s
em, it’s a play that I’m doing for a ss, er an award scheme, em, called Adopt a Playwright
that I was er, the adopted playwright for this year 2013. So I am working in collaboration
with em, a mentor dramaturg called Fin Kennedy, who is the new artistic director at Tamasha.
And it’s been an incredible, process, because, em, working with Fin has just been eye-opening,
in terms of, he’s, he’s really helping me with, the more sort of technical aspects of
my writing, and the things that I think I’ve struggled with in the past, you know, primarily
the overwriting. Em, but you know, just actually, rather than sitting on the scripts, about
doing, writing scripts more quickly, getting ideas and em, drafts out, in a in in a quicker
way so we work through things. We work through ideas. We hone things down. Em, and it’s yeah,
it’s it’s really about that. Because I think the i, I think I’ve spent a lot of years working
on, the ideas, and the characters, and stories that are pivotal to my work. I know those
things now. I know the things that I want to write about. I I never struggle to think
about those things. But it’s actually about how to shape a script, you know. That’s that’s,
where I am right now. How do I shape a script. How do I, create conflict. How do I raise
the stakes. All those dramatic elements that I think I’ve struggled with in the past where
maybe my scripts have sort of dragged, or, you know they’ve been rather slow in places,
or, you know and Fin’s come on board and I’m really looking at those things about how do
you create good drama. Like how do you take the story and create powerful drama. Em, so
I think in terms of my process, that’s really, you know, that’s very much the point that
I’m at. Em because all those other things, you know, the politics and the spirituality,
and, em…the emotive aspects. They are all there, but it’s, it’s about how, how, how
best to put, all those different elements together, to make them work. And of course
I’m still learning, but it’s been a very very, good and productive, fruitful year for that,
I think. In terms of enabling me to see where my work is at. So I feel like things are moving
on. And it’s not time to give up just yet. No matter how tempting. Because you know,
theatre is a struggle. It is a struggle. It’s a struggle getting work out and it’s a struggle
getting work on, especially when it’s, you know it is about sort of very insular stories.
Em, but I feel like my work is maybe opening up a little as well. Em, you know, I have
the English woman coming in. I’ve never really, apart from the play about the Somalian pirates
where I was writing about gap year students, I haven’t really written a White character
before. So for me that’s an interesting thing to do as well. Em you now, I’ve come from
my more insular plays and now I’m opening my worlds up to something that is much more
reflective of the worlds that we live in. So that’s you know, that’s been that’s been
a really, interesting process to do to. Yah, very much it’s about the work, you now, and
the writing. The quality of the writing. Well thanks for sharing your journey with
us and the very very best of luck for this new work
Thank you. And em, hope to see it.
Yeah. Me too. Thank you very much.

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