Playback, Glasgow-based Ankur‘s latest production, which is running at the Briggait until the 23rd. Before the opening we caught up with Lallitha Rajan, Ankur’s artistic director, and playwright Davey Anderson.
Tell us about the journey Ankur has taken since it was founded in 2004
LALITHA: When Ankur first started, it was about getting a broad cross section of Glasgow society into the arts, either as participants, or as audience, and as practitioners. Principally because there was nothing that I could see that was doing that. Very often I’d go to the theatre and find I was the only person of colour there, so for me it was important that that changed, that the arts reflect the society as it was, and that the work that was out there engaged with people and connected with people, because for me that’s what the arts are there to do. We found when we set up Ankur that there weren’t very many professional black and minority ethnic practitioners in Scotland so we had to start from scratch. We started by doing a lot of outreach work, which could generate emerging talent but also potentially generate audiences.
I was the only person of colour there, so for me it was important that that changed
Playback is the culmination of the Pangaa Project. How did Pangaa come to be?
LALITHA: The Pangaa Project came out of an existing project where we were training people from black and minority ethnic communities to become actors and writers. But a lot of the people we met weren’t that interested in theatre, drama or creative writing, and were much more responsive music and urban art forms. So we decided if we really wanted to engage, we had to employ art forms that really meant something to them. The project grew out of this flexible way of working, where we responded to the context as we found it.
Stories need to be told
Davey, what drew you to collaborate with Ankur?
DAVEY: As a company they want to reach out to a diverse audience group, and that’s something that’s of interest to me just as someone who lives in Glasgow – you can see the diverse make up of the population, there’s lots of interesting stuff going on in areas like Govanhill and Pollockshields and those stories need to be told. And I think Ankur have a great way of working with space as well, so when the opportunity came to do something larger scale and site-specific, I jumped at that chance.
It’s part gig in that the audience will stand, move around and interact with the performers, as well as being told a story
Playback is billed as “part gig, part road movie, part theatre.” What do more hybrid forms of performance offer the performers, the audience, and the company?
DAVEY: I like theatre that’s kind of like a music gig, that doesn’t feel stuffy, where it feels a little more interactive, and there’s a different vibe. Using music helps to do that. I also work as a musical director and composer, similar to the director, Paddy [Cunneen]. So we chose actors that were also musicians. We have a core cast of six and of those, three are really musicians. We have Bigg Taj – there’s no-one else like him, he’s unique! He can make any sound you can imagine with his mouth! – and he plays a beat-boxer. We have a great soul r’n’b singer, Nikita, who plays a singer. And we have Kalim who is a radio DJ, playing a radio DJ. So it’s like we give them personas that are versions of themselves, related to music, and turn them into characters. It’s part gig in that the audience will stand, move around and interact with the performers, as well as being told a story. And the Pangaa Young Company, they get the buzz of going in front of the audience. They’ve contributed to the play, to the dialogue, they feel a sense of ownership of it. They and the musicians give it a different energy, less mannered and less theatre-y.
LALITHA: Kalim was actually in our teenage drama group and he’s grown into this very talented musician and improviser. Originally Taj was going to run our workshops but then Davey and Paddy met him and decided to build the show around him. Sharita came through our workshop programme and has now graduated from RSAMD, and this is her first professional theatre gig. And there’s Paul Chaal, who frequently leads some of our workshops as well as appearing in our professional programmes. The Young Company come from all over Glasgow and have been on the most amazing journey – they’ve gone from being so noisy and unfocused to being the most focused, disciplined and demanding group of young people I’ve ever met.
Tell us a bit more about the writing process
DAVEY: Before I even put pen to paper, we got the creative team in the room, we got the facilitators and young people themselves, and did brainstorming and writing with them. That became a big bank of raw material for me to construct the play rather than just plucking ideas out of my own head. After I had the first draft, we had a workshop week with the Young Company themselves, to give their feedback. They were my script editors, my dramaturgs. They helped me fix the play and make it better. It means that everybody’s imagination creates the story and makes it richer.
There’s a lot the professional sector can learn from engagement with these communities
What about the use of video in the performance?
DAVEY: We had this idea to tell the story in a graphic novel format, occasionally interrupt a scene with a freeze frame or a thought bubble. So we brought in a great video designer, Tim Reid, who worked in harmony with the set and lighting designer. And it creates a texture, a bit like a gig – where sometimes you have a VJ – and that makes it as immersive as possible.
LALITHA: There’s something about using art-forms that don’t carry baggage, like theatre does. When we’d speak to the young people, their natural references were to film – talking about jumpcuts – and television culture. It felt only natural to use a language that feels familiar, and yet is very theatrical because it’s live, present and feels communal.
The company’s work could be described as bridging the gap between “professional” theatre and “community” theatre. What do you think of that description?
LALITHA: I’m actually very comfortable with that. Because of the context in which we work it’s inevitable that those boundaries need to be blurred, and I think there’s a lot to be learned on either side. I don’t think it’s a question of simply the professional sector ‘gifting’ the communities with their knowledge, experience and expertise. There’s a lot the professional sector can learn from engagement with these communities.
Would you say Ankur has shaken up the Scottish theatre scene?
It’s undeniable that Ankur have had an impact on the expectations people now have of who can be involved in theatre and what sort of stories are told and who they’re told to. We’ve demonstrated that if you do certain kinds of shows, you get an incredible cross-section of Glasgow society coming to the theatre.