Directing “Substance” – A Hip Hop Theatre Dance performance

I was invited by Jonzi D,  creator of Sadlers Wells’ Breakin’ Convention  join a collaboration with Redbridge Drama Centre.  The commission was to devise and develop  a spoken word and dance piece to tour schools and community centres in the Redbridge area to raise awareness around substance abuse and sexual exploitation in youth culture. The two more often than not come hand-in-hand  leaving many young people vulnerable and disoriented. Education is always the key in order to empower young people to make sensible decisions about drug and alcohol consumption and the vibrant youth cultural today.
I initially met with Redbridge Young people Theatre company to discuss what was most important to them when it came to youth culture and tackling social issues such as sex and mind altering substances, and friendship figured as a high priority.
Support networks, loyalty, allegiances and informally adopted “Fam” seemed to be the key element of well-being for young people who knew which risks were rife in their spheres of social engagement. They combat hyper sexualisation, hyper masculinity, cyber bullying and ‘drag culture’ (insistent body and intellect shaming often through social media). In combination with education or employment pressures, family responsibility  clashing with personal freedom and development, young people in their teens through to early twenties often fall prey to addictive substances whose potencies are intensified through dangerous concoctions and mixing in order to ‘fit in’ and/or appear cool and current.
I also met with Fusion NELFT – drugs and alcohol service for young people to get a clearer idea  of the impact of these substances on the mental health and well-being of young bodies, minds and relationships in many other settings outside of the  youth groups. Employment success was low and familiy tensions ran high as the substance drove rifts between users and their family members.
I was also surprised by some of the cultural sub-divisions in the  demographics of substance used among young people.Focused on the Redbridge area, stats revealed problematic alcohol consumption was high amongst mainly white males and Asian females. Amongst white females, MDMA and Ketamine were the drug of preference, where as cocaine was of high usage amongst Asian males. All partook of marijuana but it was a predominant amongst African and African-Caribbean groups.
Criminalisation of youth presents very serious issues for young people who often find themselves misrepresented in the media. The negative stigma of drug possession and/or consumption is compounded by gender and race. The sexualisation of young women intensifies with drug use, and with mainstream narratives on rape culture the increased chances of sexual exploitation in exchange for drugs or risky encounters leave them open to sexual disease or molestation. The story was going to be a hard but an interesting challenging one to tell.

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Perception, Power and Race in UK Arts

“MINDING THE PERCEPTION GAP”
– a 9 part video critique and commentary of UK arts and its issues of ‘diversity’ – Case study Exhibit B

 exhobit b posterI have never embarked on a homespun project like this before. Filmed in my front room over a week with shifting light. As the week went on I became a little obsessed with the content.  I had been frustrated and concerned about  the hiccups in  my artistic vocational trajectory and what my next moves were as an artist in the UK for a while. I felt I had been moving laterally for a few too many years. In fact, in the draft box of my wordpress account I had an edit of a blog post called “Race in the Arts” started in 2012  attempting to articulate my troubled sentiments on being an artist of colour in the UK. Then in 2014 came ‘Exhibit B’ and the #BoycottTheHumanZoo campaign. What I had needed was an aggressive catalyst and the events unfolding around the campaign were certainly that.
(If you don’t know the art installation Exhibit b, take a look at the Video 2, Part 2 – The Set Up below). Continue reading

Perception, Power and Race in UK Arts – Trailer

What does it mean to be an Artist of colour, an artist on African descent in the UK?

Late 2014, I wrote a blog post in response to the South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey at the height of the UK controversy over his piece, ‘Exhibit B’.

A year later, wanting so much to create something around how black and brown artists are censored in many spaces and at many levels in the process of a piece’s inception to its full production,  I made an explorative film about the  discrepancies and damage being done to the arts in programming an artist like this.

‘Diversity’ and representation are just the tip of the iceberg in the ongoing and stuttering discourse about race and the arts in the UK.

Writer, performance artist, project developer and educator Zena Edwards scratches below the surface to speak about *perception* and its role in the “diversity” conversation in UK arts.
Full video exploration – Wednesday 18th November 2015

Boycott an Art Exhibit – Race and Art – Open Letters: 1

Race and the Arts.

The present modes for dialoguing about race in the arts served a distinct purpose up until the mid nineties but now they are clunky, many are obsolete in their effectiveness. People of colour are interrogating and refreshing their arts practice all the time but receiving fewer opportunities to flex their creative wings on large mainstream platforms proving quality work from the diaspora abounds. As a black woman artist and a consumer of art I belong to a demographic who notices  the stinging pattern when a certain ilk of artists get fast passed and supported – the prompt for this post is a white male South African making theatre performances, predominantly using the black body and its stereotypical objectifying tropes. That fact this artist is hailed as South Africa’s ultimate theatre baby is troubling. So I supported the #BoycottExhibitB and #BoycotttheHumanZoo campaigns.

Although this initial letter is addressed to Brett Bailey, it is more a reflection, an  analysis and comment on the arts world, highlighting how artist like Bailey and his supporters actually engage with conversations around race and arts practice. I would like this response to be considered a push back, making transparent how (t)his type of dialoguing about race and art is forced upon many black and brown arts makers, and how we receive it. There is a habit of marginalisation in the processing of diverse work that so obviously needs to be broken because negotiations lacking genuine structural and attitudinal shifts for positive change fail to bring about balanced representation in the arts world. And I want to talk about it some more.

Open letter:

In response to a ‘report’ written by Brett Bailey entitled “Blood on the Tarmac” (which never got published except on your Facebook page)

Mr Bailey, I do not know you personally but I know some of your work which makes heavy use of the black body as objects for your creative and intellectual expression. I also understand that you have intended to make a piece of work framed within the disturbing actuality of human zoos entitled “Exhibit B”, excavating the dark, twisted annuls of brutal white supremist colonial history in Africa and of Her Diaspora, despite objectifying potentiality and result. In interviews, you have claimed honourable intentions with this piece of work  which can be summarised as highlighting and creating dialogue about the atrocities white European colonialists have committed over centuries.

After reading subsequent interviews it is revealed, on multiple levels, your lack of understanding of the deeper subtexts of your creative and directorial choices in Exhibit B – resonances that exist in white privileged blindspots that only experience can authenticate. It would be a huge failing and a brazen display of privilege if you attempted to refute that. And I don’t believe you will. Continue reading

Power Plant: WPD Relationship @ MAC Birmingham

When Apples and Snakes Poetry Organisation invited me to run a masterclass session of the writer/performer relationship, I was excited about flexing this muscle again after some time. What was meant to be a two hour sesssion turned in to four hour of exchange. Directors gained a deeper insight on how to listen to the needs and vision of the writer. Writer-performers learned how to engage more deeply with the creative process of the director, while both worked together empowered the performer inside the writer. At the focus was honouring the potency of the story. It was most enjoyable. And the fact that the session ran two hours over the designated time, the group reaffirmed the value of this a dialogue around this layered and fruitful relationship. Performing poets, writer-actors and directors keep an eye out for this course over the next few months. Coming to a venue near you.

Click for more info on WPD

“Power Plant” is a series of free poetry masterclasses delivered by established pracitioners, Continue reading

The 3 Way – Security and the Writer/Performer and Director relationship.

click to enlarge

As a poet who is used to standing behind a mic, manipulating my voice and being a little physically  animated, I took the plunge to  write a full length one woman show. The difference between the focus needed for a 10-20 minute set at a spoken word night and  an hour and ten minute  theatre piece are two completely different things. The transition was an intense process. The energy to fill a theatre stage or blackbox studio space is not the same AT ALL as maintaining attention in busy bar. I discovered that mental and physical stamina is a major issue. Also having an outside eye is crucial because  as a poet, I can write and poetise for days but where is the story going? Are the characters clear? Does the narrative make sense? I needed a director. But matching a director to a performing poet was not going to be easy. I met and workshopped with 4!

I’d spoken to a few of my peer poets friends and they informed that they too had found the process difficult. Poets can be internal people, conjuring worlds in their heads that they translate into the word. Dancers will dance. Painters paint and sculptors sculpt. But how do poets who want to turn their imaginary worlds into extended performance pieces communicate them to a director? And how does a director receive and translate that information in rehearsal to the full performance? With further investigation I worked out that a bridge of communication of ideas needed to be worked out. There’s a dynamic  3 Way relationship between the writer, the performer and the director that can become a tangle of objectives if the lines of communication are not established early in on in the rehearsal period.

Back in 2007, theatre director Anthony Shrubsall and I were brought together by sheer fate – a friend of a friend of a friend…. I had been looking for a director for my debut one woman  show, “Security”, for 6 months and had developed it with the help of producer, Talita Moffatt  and director Mike Kirchner to a level that was great, but I felt the journey for the show was not quite unfinished. I knew that the decision to have a stage set (endorsed by me) was obscuring some valuable exploration of myself as a performer and stunting the growth of the rich characters in the script. The show was written in monologue, spoken word, song and movement and set in a cafe. With tables and chairs to manoeuvre around, the flow of the action on stage felt stilted and my line delivery was good but inside, felt stuttered. I needed a fresh approach.

The first thing that I appreciated about working with Anthony was his capacity to really listen to the writer part of me – she (the writer) had a lot to say about themes within the show, which Continue reading

What Hope had to say – A review of my Artist-in-Residency for the FemFest, Canada, 2011

Here are a few words from Hope McIntyre, the Artistic Director of Femfest, who took a risk and invited me to come to Winnipeg, Canada, and be artist in residence for FemFest.
It was an honour.

“It was an absolute pleasure having Zena Edwards in Winnipeg for FemFest 2011. Our theme was ‘Staging Inspiration’ and she certainly inspiredaudiences and emerging artists who had the pleasure of coming into contact with her.

Over 100 students at the University of Winnipeg Department of Theatre and Film attended a lecture she presented on her work. The students were engaged throughout the lecture and found it valuable in relation to their future career paths. Hearing about Zena’s journey, they realized that there are other forms of artistic practice besides traditional theatre and
they also learned the importance of experiencing the world they live in. Zena also facilitated Continue reading

Travelling Light Goes to Canada

At present  I am sitting in a hotel room in downtown Winnipeg unable to sleep because of jet lag. Its 2.16am Canada time, 8.16am London time.
I am here because of FEMFEST – a festival of women playwrights and performers who battle hard to get their work produced because it is a very  masculine dominated industry. Dare I say it, but a bit shameful?

Later, I intend to interview Hope McIntyre who set about making this possibility, for this festival to have life of 9 years when others have folded. I am privileged to be here because Hope took a risk. She saw some of my work on YouTube, Like the Travelling Light blog had a short conversation with me on the phone and spent her hard won funding money to get me on a plane to be artist in residence for the festival. I’m honoured. More to come…

Writing for England – a Young Black British perspective

Last month I was privileged to work wth Talawa theatre company on a new Young Peoples Theatre production called “I am England” directed by  Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh.

My role was to engage the `Young People (or YPs) with writing, with the narrative of a new young and black british government being elected when the country finds itself in  complete in govenmental, economic and social crisis. Interestingly enough, the UK riots kicked off in the week leading up to my second session with them. It was a timely piece.

The process was incredible. On day one, many expressed an apprehension around their knowledge of politics, of even feeling like politics wasn’t something that was ‘for’ them, yet they were about to write a piece for performance solely about it. We needed to work fast and intensively. So with a series of strategically placed questions about what they knew to be happening in current affairs that very day, a few newspaper articles and writing exercises, the group were empowered, very vocal and ready to make this production fighting fit to tackle the themes of identity, belonging, power and change with a unique young, Black British experience. I was inspired myself at the energy with which they invested, how committed to finding themselves in the process.

Talawa’s YP theatre is making leaps and bounds in theatre for young voices. Adults, we need to listen up.