In 1997, Femi Elufowoju Jr. pioneered the first theatre company in the UK to specialise in producing works focusing on voices hailing from the African diaspora and heritage. Challenging preconceived ideas perpetuated by mainstream media, tiata fahodzi, meaning ‘theatre of the emancipated’ offers a platform for the playwriting stars of tomorrow to unveil a range of perspectives on what it means to be African in the UK. 18 years on and it’s current Artistic Director, Natalie Ibu celebrates almost a year with the forward thinking theatre company. As Natalie prepares for this year’s tiata delights festival, Theatrefullstop are lucky enough to speak with her about what the festival has to offer, why she was drawn to becoming tiata fahodzi’s Artistic Director and offers advice to aspiring theatre makers.
Hi Natalie! tiata fahodzi will be hosting the tiata delights festival on Saturday 7th November. How are you feeling ahead of the event?
It’s a really exciting time for us at tiata fahodzi – we turned 18 years old on 1 October, I’m almost a year in post, the team and company are fully settled in our new home at Watford Palace Theatre and we’re bringing back tiata delights for the first time in four years. I first encountered the company at the 2008 tiata delights at the Almeida, then directed some readings at the 2011 tiata delights at The Africa Centre and it was central to my vision for the company that we bring tiata delights back as a moment to bring artists, art and audiences together in conversation and in celebration.
tiata delights is an eclectic theatre festival offering an insight into the broad spectrum of theatre, from dramaturgy to directing. What can theatre goers expect to see and do on the day?
tiata Delights has two distinct offers. In the day – with the tiata artist day pass – artists old and new and the creatively curious are invited to join us in a series of workshops covering all sorts of disciplines. You can navigate your own path during the day so if you’re an actor who wants to use the opportunity to stretch your muscles, you can choose to do PUTTING THE PLAYGROUND BACK INTO THE PLAY with the astounding talent that is Cyril Nri (The Bill, Cucumber, Our Country’s Good) and then MonologueSlam MASTERCLASS with Triforce’s Gary Pillai.
Or you might be a writer who wants to know more about your collaborators’ processes so you might do a one-to-one SCRIPT SALON in Dressing Room 5 with the very experienced Ola Animashawun then do a movement workshop in LET’S GET PHYSICAL with Olympic Open Ceremony Movement Director Diane Alison Mitchell and then listen to the conversation about director training and development in the afternoon. It’s really up to you – you have an invitation to come and reflect on your practice, why you do what you do and how you might do what you want to do.
In the evening, we’re throwing a birthday party-cum-house-warming-cum-theatre festival. Expect food, drink and plays as I’m directing a retrospective of scenes from our history as well as a mixtape-performance of our vision for the future and what’s to come over the next three years.
Established in 2004, tiata delights celebrates 11 years of supporting emerging and established African writers and was the first to do so in Britain. How does it feel to be apart of this theatrical legacy?
It’s a real privilege to run tiata fahodzi – a company started in 1997 and with a hand in so many “firsts” in breaking new ground and supporting new talent and celebrating established artists. tiata delights is an important part of our portfolio and is a snapshot of what we do and what we count as important – new stories, brave artists and creating a generous, open and warm space where all are welcome.
tiata delights witnesses various collaborations with established arts professionals, including Royal Court theatre’s Artistic Associate, Ola Animashawun, Young Vic Associate Director, Gbolahan Obisesan and 2011 Bruntwood Prize winning playwrigh, Janice Okoh. How long does it take to programme an event like this? How do you decide who will take part?
I’ve programmed artist development festivals and produced a lot of artist development opportunities in the past so I always leave it later than I probably should! It can be confirmed very quickly or sometimes take forever for all the elements to fall into place. For tiata delights, it was really important to me that whilst it’s a festival for all – all ages, ethnicities and genders – that I platformed African heritage artists who I believe have something to offer us all, beyond those who share a skin colour or heritage. The artists I programmed, and those I missed out on, are inspiring, unique and specific in their approach to what they do and have a burning desire to speak to the world in which they live.
tiata fahodzi celebrates 18 years as an arts organisation placing the voice of those of African descent at the fore. Do you believe that there is enough opportunities given in 2015 to performers and theatre makers of African descent in the UK?
Simply; no, I don’t. My vision for theatre – which I adore and want more people to know about – is that every venue looks like the place it sits in – from who sells the tickets to who is operating the lights to who’s on stage and who’s reviewing it.
It is nearly a year since you were announced as Tiata fahodzi’s new Artistic Director. To tiata fahodzi you bring the question, ‘ what does it mean to be of African Heritage but of mixed experienced? What inspired this question?
This question sits in my heart because it’s who I am, who my cousin is, who my friends are. What it means to be “African” is changing, it means something different to me than it did to Lucian and different again to what it meant to Femi. The African diaspora is changing and developing and I’m surrounded by people – of African heritage and not – who feel in the middle, othered from their otherness, a bit of everything and yet somehow nothing at all.
I felt that the work I was seeing that placed the African experience at the centre was one of two singular narratives – the African in Africa or the African in inner city, poor London and there seemed to be nothing speaking to – and of – those who sat in between those two versions of Africanness. Where’s the mixed race Scottish girl? Where’s the middle class British African who lives in rural England? I’m also interested in what makes you, you – heritage or experience? Does the fact my mum is half Scottish, half Cameroonian and my dad Nigerian tell you more about me than the fact I was born and bred in Edinburgh, went to uni in Leicester, live in London? For me, contemporary Britain is a mixed experience Britain and the work we’re beginning to make places the African heritage person at the heart of the story but is actually about really complex identity politics that we all share.
What drew you to become Artistic Director for tiata fahodzi?
I was always really impressed that a company founded by one man with an idea had lasted and become more than that one man. I’d known of the company since 2008 but had always felt a bit intimated by the assurance it had – it was proudly African at a time when I was only just starting to engage in a conversation about my own identity, I’d only just realised that it’s unusual to be the only black person on your street and in your school (thanks, Scotland). But, by the time the job came up, I’d realised that there is no one way to be proudly African and that theatre had been simplifying the African diasporic experience. I had a vision for the company, for theatre, for Britain and a burning desire to bring about change. The rest is history.
What advice would you give to aspiring theatre makers?
Gosh, where to start. Don’t do what you think you should do, do what you need / want to do. Don’t stop asking questions and never be afraid to ask for help or say you don’t have the answer. Be nice to everyone – you never know when you’ll run into them next – but trust your instinct about people, it’s usually right. Go for lots of coffees with lots of people – think about who is making the work you want to make, who has the career you want in a year, five years, ten years. See lots of work – even work you know you won’t like. Don’t be a snob – watch Made in Chelsea as well as the opera; your audience will be watching it so it’s important you know what their references are. Drop me an email – I’d be happy to meet you. And come to tiata delights. You won’t regret it.
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
tiata delights will be taking place at the Watford Palace Theatre on Saturday 7th November. For more information on the festival, visit here…