Collaborative approach to script writing
Throughout this project the authors had long debate with the teachers, pupils and governors whose testimonies drive the narrative of the play. It was clear that the play had to be as accessible to detractors — including members of parliament, those in the teaching profession and those engaged in counter-extremism work — as it was to people in Alum Rock, the Birmingham suburb where the schools were situated. The authors worked with the protagonists and script consultant Aisha Khan from Freedom Studios in Bradford for two years.
Support at development stage
Gilly Rhodes, the new work producer at Leeds Playhouse supported the play from the outset. Woodhead and Monks said that she was the only person to believe in the show from the very beginning: “No one else wanted to take the risk.” Rhodes told Index she was “convinced by the rigour with which Lung approached the subject” and the theatre’s artistic development programme, Furnace, allowed them to work over an extended period. Rhodes witnessed how Monks, from Birmingham herself and Woodhead, a local artist, at first struggled to get the show into venues, but how, once it won an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and an Edinburgh First at the Fringe, venues started to take note.
Building relationships with political figures
Early on in the process, the authors interviewed Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, who was interested in the project as part of her campaign to raise awareness of Islamophobia in the Conservative party. Baroness Warsi agreed to host the play at the Houses of Parliament in March 2020, at the invitation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, which she chairs. Baroness Warsi also wrote the forward to the publication of the play script. The APPG and other Westminster MPs are a key target audience for the play allowing it to fulfil one of its goals: to speak truth directly to power.
A dedicated Engagement Manager, Mediha Ansari Khan, joined the team. Ansari Khan’s role was to build trust with the communities where she encountered suspicion about theatre in general and confusion in particular about what the the play was trying to achieve and why it had not been written by a British Muslim. In spite of these difficulties Ansari Khan was very positive about the engagement in the post-show question and answer sessions, which formed a key component of the outreach strategy for the play. “We have started a discourse with the Muslim community – the conversation has always been there but we are encouraging more people to talk about this,” Ansari Khan said. “A lot of people were very fearful about talking about terrorism and extremism and Prevent Duty – we are trying to remove some of the fear, that is the first step before any government level change – mobilising people to talk about it, to question their councillors and people in authority,” she told Index.
Midland Arts Centre – a leading UK arts venue – championed the play and defended the decision to bring the story back to Birmingham despite considerable pressure internally and externally to pull the play. The venue welcomed the writers and key protagonists into the space in the year leading up to the performance, so that by the time the play was performed, the protagonists had a strong sense of ownership in the building.1
Performing in Birmingham – ‘bringing the story home’
The performances in Birmingham were, according to co-author and director Matt Woodhead, “the whole point really. The debate had been so one-sided and the teachers and governors had not had the means to amplify their side of the story. Being able to stand up and say something uninterrupted in front of 220 people at the MAC was important.”
Every show was followed by a question and answer session, giving the audience space and time to engage with the issues the play raised. This was an integral part of the how the tour was conceived.
Inviting protagonists to Q&A
Tahir Alam, the chair of governors of one who the schools involved in the TH scandal who was subsequently banned from involvement in schools, was one of many of those involved directly in the affair to attend the post-show discussions. He attended as many as he could around the country and all the post shows in Birmingham. He emphasised the importance of this: “When you see the real people, you are reminded it is not fictional,” he told Index.
Managing the Q&As
Critics of the play had, according to co-author Helen Monks, raised concerns about the Q&A session in particular because, she said, they argued the “audience would not be able to handle open debate”. The team put in place show-stop procedures — procedures for rapid and controlled interruption of a performance — for the cast and stage manager in case of hostility. The Q&A host had methods of managing disrespectful or hostile speakers from the floor and the front of house team were all heavily briefed with how to deal with disruptive individuals. All went ahead without incident. Helen Monks said: “The Q&As felt like really safe-spaces even when people weren’t agreeing with each other.”
Academic advisor to the play
John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, was an expert witness for the defence in the cases of professional misconduct brought against senior teachers and governors at Park View Educational Trust by the National College of Teaching and Leadership and co-author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Trojan Horse Affair. He has exhaustive knowledge of the affair and brought gravitas to the young company. He acted as an advisor to the play, reading early versions of the script, and went out on the autumn tour, speaking on all the post show Q&As.
These were handed out after every show. The feedback is being processed and analysed by the play’s outreach manager at time of writing.
Translation into Urdu
The play was available as a simultaneous translation on headsets at every performance on the tour as an essential offer to target audiences and there was significant audience take up. It was translated by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqui who wrote publicly about her concerns with the script. In their response, published here for the first time, the authors describe how their collaborative methodology ensured that the story was directed throughout by the people at the centre of the story.