The 112 young cast members were two weeks into rehearsal when the production was cancelled. (Photo: Helen Maybanks / National Youth Theatre)
Name of Art Work:Homegrown Artist/s: Nadia Latif director and Omar El-Khairy writer Date: February – August 2015 Brief description of the play: Homegrown is a piece commissioned by the National Youth Theatre (NYT) investigating the motivation behind radicalisation of young Muslims in schools. Designed as an immersive promenade theatrical performance, it presented the stories behind the headlines and the perceptions and realities of Islam and Muslim communities in Britain today. The play was 70% was scripted; 30% was devised with the full cast of 112 young people aged between 15 and 25 during rehearsals in London in the weeks running up to the performance.
Commissioned by: National Youth Theatre (NYT) for the summer production of 2015. Paul Roseby talks about the commission to the media: “I think it is our duty as a young company to commission new work and tell stories that are on the edge that divide opinion. Perhaps the end result theatrically will also divide opinion – it was ever thus – but I think it is worth the risk because theatre is a very powerful medium to explore those issues that can make people feel uncomfortable.”
Venue: There were a number of issues securing a venue; a school in Bethnal Green pulled out after Tower Hamlets Council stated that “the school was not aware of the subject of the play when they agreed to lease the premises. Once they became aware, they decided that it would not be appropriate to rent their premises to the National Youth Theatre.” The NYT secured the UCL Academy in Camden, North London, instead. [/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Why was it challenged?” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]The play was cancelled two weeks before it was due to open. The creative team – Latif and El-Khairy – received an email from Roseby on July 30th 2015, 10 days before the first previews were to take place, informing them that the show was to be cancelled. The reasons given were that NYT could not “be sufficiently sure in the remaining time available of meeting all of our aims to the standards we set and our members and audiences have come to expect”. They cited that this work involved artistic risk which brought with it a double responsibility “to the work, of course, but especially to safeguard our members”. The cancellation caused a furore in the press, and in spite of repeated requests for meetings to address their unanswered questions, no further meetings between the Latif, Omar and the theatre took place.
The cancellation came as a massive shock to the creative team and the participants, as Latif explains in one of many interviews with the media some weeks after the cancellation: “…we’re genuinely still reeling. The gesture of someone silencing you is a really profound one. You give your heart and soul to something, and someone comes and shuts it down. It’s like they’re saying my thoughts and feelings are no longer valid.” Beyond the shock of the cancellation, Latif also stressed that the cancellation “has massive emotional, political and social implications. It adds to this atmosphere of fear that we’re all living in.” This was cemented further by the lack of transparency, and unwillingness to meet, which led to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests being issued on behalf of the creative team.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Freedom of Information revelations” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]Email exchanges between FYT and Arts Council England, made public through FoI requests, reveal more about Roseby’s reasons for cancelling. Five participants had dropped out and 2 parents expressed “grave concern” over the direction of piece was taking. He claimed that one parent’s concern “appears to represent the general temperature in the room”, though he admitted that they had not had time to confirm whether this was the case. But it contributed to the concerns being expressed by members of his team.
The tone of the work was, he claimed, problematic. In Roseby’s view it was “very one-dimensional” and lackedan “intelligent character arcs”. Rather than providing “balance or debate around extremism” the project seemed to be “exploring where to place the hatred and blame”. He felt that concerns about the content in combination with safeguarding issues represented too great a risk and claimed that the “creatives have failed to meet repeated requests for a complete chronological script to justify their extremist agenda”.
In the email Roseby, also states that they consulted with the Metropolitan Police had “rightly raised some concerns over the content with particular reference to any hate crimes and the ability for the National Youth Theatre to control all social media responses,” but stresses that the reasons for cancellation were taken internally. He ends the email with the following statement – “At the end of the day we are simply “pulling a show” and at a point that still saves us a lot of emotional, financial and critical fallout.”
In interviews with the media, Latif refutes the claims made by the theatre in the email to the Arts Council which she said contained lies: “We absolutely supplied them with a script. They signed off on it.” She was deeply concerned by being labelled an extremist. “It’s a really serious accusation to make in this day and age. It’s really troubling someone can use that language as a description of someone.”[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Statements” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]In the absence of a public or even private dialogue between the theatre and the creative team, a dialogue of sorts was carried out through statements issued by different stakeholders.
Creative team’s statement decried the cancellation of the play with “no warning and no consultation”. It included the voices of the actors; one described the experience of being silenced as like “my vocal chords being cut. It was everything that was needed to be said and everything that I always felt I couldn’t say.” Another actor spoke for many people who were shocked at NYT’s decision to cancel a play about radicalisation: “If you are going to take on a subject matter this sensitive then you have a responsibility to see it through.“
As Latif points out the political backdrop to the play, with Prevent Duty and Channel programmes in operation, has created the environment “in which certain forms of questioning, let alone subversion, of the given narrative pertaining to radicalisation or extremism can be closed down.” It was precisely in response to this environment that Homegrown was designed to throw some light on “the socio-political landscape of radicalisation, homegrown extremism, and even the simple conversation about Islam”.
It was this double irony that was so shocking to many and led to speculation that the theatre must have been put under considerable external pressure in order to cancel a play they had commissioned about radicalisation. But the theatre maintain emphatically that “no external parties had any involvement in the decision to cancel the public presentation of Homegrown”.
The Cast’sStatement, signed by 37 members, made clear that the rehearsals and devising process of the show, given the “delicate nature” of the topics under scrutiny, took place in an atmosphere of “trust and safety”, their ideas were respected and they were always given the choice to opt out if they felt uncomfortable with “certain aspects”. They also refuted the NYT’s claim that the team didn’t make the script available and specifically challenged Roseby’s concern about the absence of any “intelligent character arcs”. They asserted that “There is no overall intelligent arc on the issue of radicalisation. It is a difficult and multi-faceted discussion, which Homegrown looks to explore in as much of its entirety as possible”.
NYT’s statement reiterated their belief that the play failed to display the “editorial balance” required and referred to their safeguarding responsibilities:“The subject matter of this play, its immersive form and its staging in a school required us to go beyond even our usual stringent safeguarding procedures to ensure the security of the venue and safety of cast members”.
English Pen: in aletter to the NYT signed by artists and others and published by the Times there was a sense that something was being withheld by the theatre: “We are deeply concerned by reports that the NYT may have been put under external pressure to change the location and then cancel the production.” They also raised the wider implications of the cancellation for British theatre and freedom of expression more generally. “The play seeks to examine radicalisation and disaffection among British youth. Its cancellation serves only to shut down conversation on these important issues”. The letter goes on to stress the duty on all cultural stakeholders, the police, local authorities and arts organisations “to respect and protect freedom of expression — even, and most especially, where they disagree with the message or find it controversial.”[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Access to email correspondence” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]For the purposes of this case study, Latif gave Index on Censorship access to her correspondence with the theatre from the start of the commission. The impression from reading through the lengthy and often detailed exchanges was that whilst the NYT raised concerns along the lines made public, about the need for a compelling narrative arc or plot, with two specific concerns over “shocking” content, and made two requests for a full chronological script (on July 24th and again, more urgently on 30th – the morning of the day the show was pulled) Latif’s replies and reassurances were never challenged or found inadequate. At no point was there any indication that these concerns might be grave enough to pull the play. There was no suggestion that whilst carrying on open and constructive communication with Latif, the theatre was, as they revealed in their email to the Arts Council “consulting various organisations including the Met Police with regards to safeguarding” and, in a manner Roseby described as “very considered and caring”, carrying out an internal SWOT analysis on whether to cancel the play or not.
Ten days before the rehearsals were due to begin, and following a detailed, written discussion between Roseby and Latif about a whole range of staging, characterisation, stylistic and structural issues, all of which were satisfactorily resolved, Latif laid out her artistic vision for the piece: “Most of my references for this show are horror films of the 60s, 70s and 80s. That’s why the tour guides [leading the audience around the promenade performance] are less and less in control – by the end they and the audience should feel like they have no idea what’s going to be behind the next door (the images they encounter will get more and more violent).” In his reply, Roseby seemed quite satisfied and wished her luck with the rehearsals. [/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”What happened next?” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship worked closely with Latif and El-Khairy after the cancellation, supporting their efforts to find a new venue to produce the play and a publisher to publish the script – see George Spender’s ‘reflection’ below. When neither of these efforts bore fruit, Index on Censorship produced the launch of their self-published script at the Conway Hall, in London. [/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”The Inconvenient Muslim” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]The title of the book launch ‘The Inconvenient Muslim’ was chosen because the creative team felt it described their position as artists. In an article published around the same time, Latif and El-Khairy portray the UK arts establishment “with its obsessive seeking of a universal position” as being more comfortable letting white artists handle the more nuanced representations of Muslim identity, while the only artists to Muslim artists who gained popularity were those whose job it was to help the British public “to tell the Good Muslim from the Bad”. Latif and El-Khairy claim that while comic Stewart Lee and director of Four Lions Chris Morris are granted the freedom to express the “anger and disdain that characterises their work, the same can rarely be said for progressive non-white artists.” They are Inconvenient Muslims because they are telling an inconvenient story that attempts to convey some of the reality that leads to young people being radicalised. The resulting piece was, as Roseby anticipated it would be when he discussed the commission in the first place, “uncomfortable”. It doesn’t make easy reading. “We’re trying to say these kids are becoming radicalised in a nation that’s rife with phobia – whether that’s homophobia, sexism or Islamophobia”.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”The launch event” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_single_image image=”106729″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The launch of the Homegrown script featured a panel discussion and extracts from the show by 44 members of the original cast who had stayed to finish the work with Latif and El-Khairy in their own time. Lyn Gardner came to the launch, read the play and reviewed both. She found the script“unwieldy and very different” from standard play texts, in large part because, she recognises, the performance was immersive and promenade in structure. She saw this as a positive attribute of the script, reflecting the “way we communicate in an age of social media, particularly if you are under 20.” It is what makes it “authentic, snapping and crackling with the sense of young people thinking out loud about who they are, freely voicing their experiences and perceptions of the world.” What she reads in the play resonates with what the young people reported about the devising process, that they had felt supported and safe to articulate difficult ideas. Gardner states that cancelling this play silenced the two groups who are rarely authentically and freely represented in theatre, namely Muslims and young people. “in sensitive and difficult times we need complex and challenging plays such as Homegrown.” The implications of this act of censorship are far-reaching: “If our theatre culture runs scared and bows to censorship, it is failing artists and audiences and in danger of making itself a complete irrelevance.”
Gardner advocated for the play to be staged. To date, the play has not been staged in full. [/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Reflections” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]George Spender, Senior Editor, Oberon Books
In Summer 2015 Omar El-Khairy invited me to meet director Nadia Latif to discuss Homegrown their new National Youth Theatre commission. Oberon had published his first two plays and I was thrilled by their plans for this new show that wouldn’t just look at the Trojan Horse of Radical Islamism in schools, but also examine what it meant to be a Muslim in Britain in 2015. They cited the British-Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub and Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming!: Islamaphobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror as major influences on the tone of the work. When it became clear the script would not be ready to publish in time for the NYT run, we agreed to publish afterwards, incorporating notes to help teachers tackle the sensitive issues raised in the play.
The announcement that the show had been cancelled came as a huge shock. I didn’t think it was possible to label the Omar and Nadia I knew: bright, progressive, fun and liberal as having an extremist agenda. I wrote to them in support; it seemed more important than ever to publish the script. I presented Homegrown at an editorial meeting at Oberon, and we agreed to go ahead. I asked Omar, Nadia and David Heinemann (Index on Censorship) to come into the Oberon offices in early May 2016 to discuss marketing strategies and other plans.
Frankly, the meeting didn’t go at all well. There were too many very ambitious plans, conflicting opinions, plus the fear of a public backlash over publishing what had been labelled as extremist material (in my opinion a frustrating misunderstanding), all leading to a loss of faith among the senior management. I was asked to withdraw our involvement.
It was devastating to break the news to Omar and Nadia, given the ill treatment and accusations they had suffered with great dignity. I wrote to them pledging my continued assistance if they would have me. We discussed other potential publishers – Faber declined, Verso said they didn’t do Drama, Aurora Metro seemed keen but they demanded changes which didn’t sit well with the authors. Rather than face more rejections, we decided to do it ourselves.
I edited the text, and another Oberon colleague and Homegrown supporter, James Illman, donated his time typesetting and designing the cover. We used aliases, Kim Slim and Mr Sickman; we weren’t sure what media reaction the book would get, and thought it best to mask our involvement so as not to complicate matters. If I could do it again, I’d use my real name.
The book launch in March 2017 organised by Index was a cathartic experience. It meant the world to hear the words spoken, and have a positive conversation about the play. I hope what Omar and Nadia went through lays the foundations for other BAME artists to be able to make fiery, political, avant garde work without self-censorship, or unfounded hysterical accusations of extremism, that we can debate and give artists room to fail, rather than shut down these conversations entirely.
Shakeel Haakim – NYT performer
I was new to the world of acting, to describing myself as an actor, navigating it all, I was 19 at the time. I thought, this is going to be an amazing opportunity and I was looking forward to it. I had joined NYT the previous year, done my in-take course and done a couple of little shows, including a fundraiser with some notable celebrities which validated how well connected and established NYT was. I had that sense of security, it was all so reputable – I felt protected and part of something solid. It was that security that made it so much more shocking for some of us – we all had faith. When we wrote the letter we were clear that there is nothing can take away from the good things that NYT does, the opportunities that they give through connecting people – which is what made it even more of a thing.
It came across that we [the cast] were worried that it would be too controversial, but a lot of us didn’t feel that. I remember the day before we were told it was cancelled, we had this joke – what would happen if this was to be cancelled, but the joke was only funny because we were so sure that it couldn’t be. It was a very collaborative process, we devised the work. It was coming from us – it had been so collaborative for so long and then to be told it was cancelled, initially it was a massive shock. You get half way into production and the rug gets pulled from under your feet. You have been making choices all the time, and you feel that you should have had some sort of say in that – you want to be able to say I don’t want to stop here. These weren’t our decisions to make; and after being in such a collaborative process, that was hard to understand at first.”
I didn’t realise how much it had affected me. I had a part-time job at the same time, and I stopped acting for a year. It threw me off, it was so intense – six weeks, every day with 100 people. After it ended, it was a culture shock. My part-time job became full time. Slowly bit by bit, I discovered my love and my passion coming back and did a couple of things and worked with the lyric for 9 months in their young company and we did a two week show and I got approached by an agent which I later signed with”.
I believe everything is a blessing in disguise. The whole process made me realise that as much as we think we live in a society where free speech is the norm, there are people higher up who ultimately have the last say.
Douglas Wood – NYT performer
Whenever you pull a show it is never a good thing, and one of the problems was how it was dealt with. I wish there had been a little more information made public. Because information or at least potential reasons were passed to us, at least individually, information was passed to us whether it was satisfactory or not at least there was more clarification, but wasn’t made public. But then, how helpful is it to the (NYT) to focus on a show that they failed, as opposed to the other good that they do, and also how helpful is it to the ongoing potential of Homegrown happening and being focused on Islamaphobia and radicalization rather than censorship and “the show that got pulled.”
NYT tackles difficult stuff but their primary focus is engaging young people, in my experience and what I think is really exciting and important, is the number of people they engage and the total range. Maybe because Homegrown was a bit of a disaster, instead of having one huge show in London, they have done lots of smaller shows with new writing and new commissions. There is a lot going on in Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool and they are engaging people all over the country, instead of just London which was a bit of a problem in the past.
What makes it difficult to take is that kind of play (Homegrown) hadn’t been done before. The amazing thing was the way Omar and Nadia were approaching it, giving all these 130 young people a voice on a issue that wasn’t really being voiced in mainstream media or anywhere else. The fact that the one show of its kind (at least at the time) got cancelled. If there were loads of plays about why young British Muslims become radicalized, or don’t feel part of where they are, it wouldn’t be that big an issue.
It felt so much more damning, and close to censorship, because there was no evidence of plays like it. When it was pulled there was nowhere else you could go to get this information, at least in theatre.
Paul Roseby declined Index on Censorship’s invitations to provide his reflections on the controversy after the events of Summer 2015.
Representation is a conversation we are seldom
from Sisters’ Entrance by Emtithal Mahmoud[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”106716″ img_size=”full”][three_column_post title=”Case studies” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”15471″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”97113″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]In September 2016, I received an email from Javaad Alipoor, artistic director of Northern Lines Bradford, who wrote to Index on Censorship to discuss plans for his new play, The Believers Are But Brothers, which explores the radicalisation of young Muslim men and the legal limits of freedom of expression.
Index was particularly keen to work with Alipoor on this issue because two art works dealing with radicalisation, had recently fallen foul of censorship: In September 2015, the artist Mimsy’s satirical installation ISIS threaten Sylvannia had been removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall Gallery on the advice of a police officer who believed that the work was potentially inflammatory. In August the same year, the newly commissioned work Homegrown by Nadia Latif and Omar El-Khairy, which also addressed radicalisation, had been cancelled by the National Youth Theatre for reasons which remain obscure.
In May 2017, a few months before the play premiered at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival, “Effects” (The Enthronement) by MA student James Oberhelm which was to include a video monitor playing two propaganda videos issued by Isis in 2014, was removed from the degree show at Glasgow School of Art.
It seemed possible that Alipoor’s important new play might suffer a similar fate.
However, The Believers Are But Brothers bucked this trend. A work in progress performance was held at the Oval House in London and West Yorkshire Playhouse and it went on to win a Scotsman Fringe First Award, meeting with considerable critical acclaim.
What steps did Alipoor and Luke Emery, producer of the piece, take to ensure the play had the best chance of steering clear of an emerging trend for police and others in authority, to foreclose on artwork that engages with one of the most contentious issues of contemporary UK politics? Here, in their own words, they talk about their process.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Javaad Alipoor:” font_container=”tag:h3|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text]
Javaad Alipoor is a writer, theatre maker and director. As well as running a theatre company, he is Resident Associate Director at The Crucible (Sheffield Theatres Trust) and an Associate Director of Theatre in the Mill. He makes work at different scales, building cross-platform digital and hard end community work into everything he does. His recent work for theatre includes The Believers Are But Brothers (actor/writer/co-director), The Rising of the Moon (writer/director), Bassett (director).
I originally wanted to make a show about ISIS brides. I found out these young women who had gone to the Islamic state and married jihadis had twitter accounts, so I started following and engaging with them. What struck me was the register of their propaganda. One tweeted out this picture of a guy I called Game of Thrones Jihadi. He’s ripped. He’s got this vest on, pecks, scar-bitten, a big gun. The slogan around him was words to the effect – ‘Sisters what kind of a man do you want? Some boring guy who works in an office, or this brother who will die for you’. There was always this offer – fuck this grey, boring England and come and live in a Hollywood film. What the white narrative wanted to do was take agency away from these women who had done these awful thing because they had been tricked into it. But actually an offer is being made. You get some power when you go. At the height of the Islamic State almost all the women’s Sharia policing department in the capital in Raba was made up of European Muslims. You get to push other women around.
When I started looking into it I realised that it’s not my show to make and I ended looking at the similar narrative for men which goes: there is a certain type of young Muslim man for whom the complex identity of being a Muslim in the west is too much. So he withdraws to this black and white world. But all the serious work on this suggests the opposite; journalists like Martin Chulov does this really well. And if you do your own research and engage with these people, the way they use social media to try and get the message out, is very similar. It’s not ‘come to something simple’, but ‘come to something more exciting’. So again, facetiously – there were two lads from Plymouth who were killed in a drone strike in ISIS controlled Syria and the headline in The Star was something like ‘What could make these two lads who worked in a phone shop in Plymouth go off to join the Islamic State?’ The clue’s in the question!
So this became a show about young men – fantasy, religion, technology; and about the way masculinity has changed since the 1970s. I think there is a bunch of us who are alright with the fact that women and sexual minorities have more rights, and a bunch who fucking aren’t on board with that at all. And some of the ways that that works out is culturally inflected, whether you want to talk about the alt right, or ISIS, or Hindutva in India. Obviously the Muslim identity is part of that; but it isn’t saying there is a problem with Muslim young men, there is a problem with young men. Let’s get at that.
In the show [the audience] get sent some screen grabs of an issue of Dabiq, the ISIS’ in-house theoretical journal, which explains the grey zone theory how it is going to collapse and you are going to have to decide. Most of the ISIS propaganda in the show is projected. Whereas you get more Four Chan stuff on WhatsApp to work dramaturgically. We were uncertain about sending the audience a link to Four Chan. As soon as you go on Four Chan there’s kiddy porn and rape videos. There are two inter-related questions – one is – can I send that to someone and the other is should I? Part of the instinct is as a theatre maker – if you are going to walk up to the bell you should ring the bell. But it does then open up that ethical thing. Some of the edits we show are taken from ISIS videos where they glorify murdering people. We never show people being killed in the show, but you are never sure how far we will go and I think that tension works and we were able to be quite playful. The character I’m playing says – well I would have sent you that but I am not sure I can.
The research process is interesting to the extent that it’s that grey area of legality again. I read a blog called Jihadology – you’d worry about the guy who runs it, alongside a bunch of free and pay-for services. Are you a spook? I read a lot of Dabiq magazine – really beautiful, crisp design, intellectually utterly vapid. You can’t imagine anyone serious being persuaded by them. But you can imagine people being inspired by them. Extremist materials that glorifies terrorism, as these things clearly do, come under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. So the question is how does the white person with power look at you. How much is racialised and ‘classed’? Is it ‘stroppy Muslim with these horrible things on their phone’ things’ – guilty until proved innocent or is it actually ‘he’s an artist and intellectual thinking about these? It’s not unrelated to other types of criminalisation. If they pick you up with half an ounce of weed –– if you are mixed race and you come from a shit Northern town, you are a career criminal; if you’re from Oxford that’s a completely different kettle of fish. Because of this show, because the Guardian liked it, it’s bought me a bit more cultural capital.
What was interesting is that no-one was talking about Muslim sensitivity with this show.
The support that Index was giving me and the conversation with Luke was much more about white and police sensitivity. I knew about Homegrown and that soft censorship of a certain sort of white liberal; if there is any talk about police or terrorism, then that liberal space just collapses in on you. This is potentially a more serious thing.
My strategy preparing for the risks I was taking was to two-fold. One was to work with Index, because that felt like it was a conversation that was making people confident. The discussion with the barristers [brokered by Index] really marked a turning point in how we were talking about the problems. We’d got ourselves into this place of worse possible scenario – what’s the defence? Coming out of that meeting we saw it was more likely to be a bit of pressure from the police or the local authority, following a complaint from a panicked, overworked cultural institution, and then that caving in on itself. It was important to have a toolkit for disarming that panic in the first instance. If someone is worried, then let’s talk about it, we can discuss it. Practically, it is about disarming that subtle form of censorship, it’s a proactive way to increase the kinds of things that people of colour are allowed to talk about, and the kinds of conversations we’re allowed into. But more important, it was knowing where the networks of support are, where the allies are, where the people are who do know. If the shit really hits the fan, I am two phone calls away from someone who can help. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]
My strategy preparing for the risks I was taking was to two-fold. One was to work with Index, because that felt like it was a conversation that was making people confident.
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The other – comes out of who I am. I grew up in Bradford in the 1990s to early 2000s and the relationship with the police was horrendous, resulting in, among other things, three riots in five years. I am not one of nature’s fans of policing. I know a lot more about the first generation of Prevent because I was working for an organisation which made a decision to take that money, that not a little soul-searching was involved in, taking what was said at the time about autonomy from security services at face value. Post-coloniality has always been part of who I am. I’m quite a big believer of making sure that if there are people of colour in the room, they are the people who decide what the legitimate bounds of discussion lie. So there is a way of talking about the show, being really bold about what the show really is with the people who are co-commissioning, co-producing.
There is a political struggle, macho word struggle, who gets to say what and where. You can’t back away with this going on. There is a whole discourse and politics of risk how the industry theatre works that we need to shift. We take risks all the time, but the way we are willing to do it is mega-racialised. We lionise risks that are about white people and white canon and white artists; but where risks attached to black, colour, Muslim, are too difficult or too hard to take. I overheard some relatively sensible liberal people describing the appointment of Kwame Kwei-Armah [as artistic director of the Young Vic] as a bold move. I thought it’s a good move. Here is an internationally successful guy, running an internationally successful theatre.
More and more I am trying to say this to historically white institutions and the white people in positions of power who run them – just look at yourselves and your policy. Are you willing to overhaul how you racialise risk, to really open up in that way? If so, go back to your office and decide if you are going to start reading text and saying how many people in this play could be of colour, rather than saying this character is Chinese so go off to find a Chinese actor. There is a black and Asian middle class and they do not spend their money with these big historically white institutions, that’s your problem. In London you have a whole scene of BME theatre makers who are little more politically engaged and a little bit more industry savvy and there is a feeling of being a part of an international movement. We don’t have the concentration of those kind of people in the north necessarily.
I sit down with people running our regional producing houses in their big spaces where they feel the financial pressure and go ‘name three writers of colour who feel solid enough for your main house’. Much less than the fingers of one hand are the artistic directors who could name you 3 writers of colour who feel solid enough. August Wilson, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Lorraine Hansbury these are big Afro-American names, but risk is attached to them in a way that, for instance an [Arthur] Miller, that no-one’s heard of, isn’t. The unknown Miller is a risk these buildings are ready to take.
Racialisation of risk cuts all the way through what we do in the cultural industries determining which risks are you willing to take. What does that mean? That some people get to do the talking and some people don’t. And that is for the me the link with censorship. It is a social model of censorship, more than that liberal historical thing – a social relation that empowers some people and massively disempowers others. It is censorship of omission rather than commission. What we are doing is censoring a whole bunch of voices that don’t fit in to the accepted narrative.
Some of the mainstream stuff gets its hands on it – like Four Lions – The State was a great example of it – but in a world where everything is a bit Homeland that’s the easy story of what trying to disrupt that narrative might mean. The right wing cliché that we really need to have this conversation about the problem Muslim community and radicalisation doesn’t take account of the fact that you have that conversation every fucking day in every fucking newspaper. It’s literally true that Muslims are a minority in this country and people of colour are a minority in a lot of advanced countries, but the flip of that is, because of the way racialisation works, we dominate news. So it is really important to work with artists who are stepping up to that.
Luke Emery is an independent creative producer. His mission is to help people achieve the seemingly impossible across a spectrum of creative practices. Luke works with artists and organisations who challenge and excite their audiences and who aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions, whilst at the same time providing inviting and welcoming spaces for the public to engage with their work. He works outdoors, indoors and online and across the globe, wherever art can happen.
Our first conversations were purely practical about timing, funding, did we want to go to Edinburgh etc. But when I got to know Javaad and got into the meat of the text of what Javaad was looking at and what he revealed to me about his research activities, that certainly flagged concern. Initially I put up a barrier. It was as much as it was about protecting him as it was everybody who would be working on the project with us. Then, when he told me more about his relationship with the police and the Prevent team there were definitely tensions and previous history with the West Yorkshire Police. So these things were red flags to me. Not only were we in a difficult position because of what he had already done, but who he was as Muslim, left-wing activist and a vocal critic of Prevent and the UK police service.
With regards to his research approach, when we did, later on, talk about about it, I drew on my previous, activist background. I certainly have been spied on by Special Branch, and I would be very surprised if Javaad hasn’t, and in those environments you have to be super, super careful about how you communicate with other people in the movements. If we were talking about anything particularly sensitive we did it in person not by email, and in noisy outdoor places, where it is much harder to record people’s conversations. We used secure, encrypted video calling; we would leave our phones in other rooms so no-one could open up our lines through our phones. Perhaps we were a little bit overzealous, but initially the subject matter made me quite nervous, so I didn’t want to take any chances for him, or myself as the producer.
None of the things that Javaad and I did together were illegal. But whenever we were in the rehearsal room or we were talking about it, or Javaad was working off the reference material with some of the creatives, I would say: we are not asking you to research this, you don’t have to look at these things online, it is up to you, but we are not instructing you. There were a couple of points during the making of the show that I had to shut stuff down. One of them was Javaad wanted to show a video of a beheading. Initially he wanted to show it as an obvious clip and then as a subliminal piece of video. Subliminal footage, as far as I’m aware, is illegal, full stop. So I had to put a stop to that. So we had that conversation regularly about why I was doing that.
To a certain extent I felt that Index was balancing out some of the caution that we were getting from the legal advice from solicitors.
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Javaad and Kirsty (co-director) both wanted to send the audience a link to the website FourChan which features heavily in the piece. It is one of the most god awful places on the internet. Child pornography, revenge porn is posted, hate speech, racist cartoons. I vetoed that being included in the show because it would have taken us to the fringes of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). And they said: but it’s on the internet. But there are lots of things that [are illegal] on the internet. If you put that on a WhatsApp group on someone’s phone in a way that is documented you could definitely be accused of breaching the OPA.
We always knew because of Javaad’s status as a Muslim, someone half Iranian, half English, he is already in a sensitive category for possible persecution, imprisonment or spurious legal charges. That was a big influence across the whole process. It was really interesting as a producer to make those considerations in a way that I don’t think I have ever have done for a white performer. We had to find the balance based on our own work and other work that has been shut down here and elsewhere in the world and make a judgement call. It was a bit of a leap into the unknown.
As a producer, a lot of what I do on a day to day basis is fairly stressful judgement calls. We talked a lot to the solicitors about Javaad’s previous history with the West Yorkshire Police, where there was the potential political and personal axe to grind and whether or to go to them up front about the show and pre-empt any intervention. This would mean us having to go and have a sit down with the police and say everything is fine, it’s just a theatre show. And because we just performing for two nights on a campus in a fairly under the radar fashion, it was much less of a risk just to do the play than reach out to the police and get their antenna up and then potentially to walk into a whole series of conversations that could have got very messy and complicated.
To a certain extent I felt that Index was balancing out some of the caution that we were getting from the [pro-bono] legal advice from solicitors. I think Javaad would say for sure that we were being over-cautious, but from my perspective the lessons I have learnt from people doing more activist focussed work, what some people might say is illegal activity, they can get caught out because they are not careful about how they talk about what they are doing. For me the worse possible scenario would be Javaad being put in prison, or even just getting arrested or hit with a legal bill, those were all factors that we would have no way of dealing with because our funding could never hope to stretch to legal fees. So that was the worse-case scenario. My job as producer working with artists is to be thinking not only about plan a, b, c, but worse-case scenario a, b, c and try and head them off before you get to them.
The inherent challenge for us around making work that is genuinely risk-taking in terms of the subject matter and its research activity is the funding implications of needing a legal team to work with us. Something in the long term that we will certainly be thinking about for work that is going to cause potential controversy, is if we need to partner with somewhere like a national theatre institution that has a legal team on a retainer with the ability to help us answer those questions, rather than it just being me and Javaad. Certainly when you are working independently or in a small company wanting to do risk-taking or controversial work, you should make allowances for legal consultation, but the costs are way beyond the scope of the average ACE grant.
It has been hugely positive experience. Less because of the political things we have learnt – but we have found that there is a huge appetite for this kind of work in the UK, the popularity of the show in Edinburgh speaks to that. And it translates nationally and internationally; it looks like we will tour internationally with this piece. I think the reason why this particular show is so successful is there is dearth of this kind of work being made on UK stages. People have been saying to us all the time about the show that it is all about things that they knew existed, but that they don’t want to have to look at. They know that there is real darkness on the internet and this show allows them to go into that world in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Javaad is learning how to research something so he can take people into a world that they only see through a white perspective generally.
Asked how politically engaged work that is controversial and risks censorship could be better supported and so increase the number of producers interested in working in this area, Emery suggests the following:
– we need more face to face workshop opportunities or the opportunity to talk about the work itself. There are a lot of ‘how-to’ guides and video information, but face to face with experts and peers would be more useful.
– Having a lawyer available pro-bono to the process would be invaluable. Talking to the Barristers and the solicitor during the development of ‘The Brothers’ really enriched our understanding. We need advice on how we go through our own process and undertake our research with a good understanding of the legal framework we are operating in.
– A network of producers who want to take risk or who are doing politically charged work, to meet regularly for peer support.[/vc_column_text][three_column_post title=”Case studies” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”15471″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
“Do I believe this play was censored? I absolutely fucking do.” So said Madani Younis, artistic director of The Bush Theatre, on stage at a packed Conway Hall last night for a panel discussion on the controversial play about radicalisation Homegrown, which was cancelled in September 2015 just two weeks before it was due to open.
“And on what basis was it pulled? On some notion of what is artistically valid, which I don’t buy, by the way. I don’t buy it because if they questioned the artistic merit of the show, it would have never arrived in the rehearsal room in the first instance,” Younis added.
Last night’s event was hosted by Index on Censorship to celebrate the long-awaited release of the full script of Homegrown. The panel also included deputy editor of Spiked Tom Slater, TV and radio writer and director Clara Glynn, and professor of social and behavioural sciences at Kingston University Vron Ware. It was moderated by Hassan Mahamdallie, director of the Muslim Institute and playwright.
The National Youth Theatre approached Homegrown writer Omar El-Khairy to “respond to these ideas of radicalisation that he felt was happening out there in the ether”, Younis explained. Before rehearsals, NYT gave El-Khairy notes and Nadia Latif was enlisted to direct.
“NYT knew what they were subscribing too in my opinion,” Younis added. “When you’ve green-lit a show into rehearsals, you’re kind of all in in that process.” Then the police got involved and questions were raised about the health and safety of the young people involved due to the subject matter of radicalisation, which seemed to spell the end of the play.
Prof. Vron Ware: The theatre world has been incredible in responding to the so-called War on Terror from the start. #Homegrown@Vronsta
Clara Glynn: As a dramatist, trying to unpick these issues is a really interesting thing to do. #Homegrown
— Index on Censorship (@IndexCensorship) March 6, 2017
The cast of Homegrown, seated throughout the hall, surprised the audience with the performance of a excerpt of the play following calls for questions from the audience, after which they received a standing ovation.
First ever (?) public performance of passage from #Homegrown just taken place @ConwayHall – to enormous acclaim.
The floor was then opened for reactions and discussion from the audience, cast and panel. Many admired the cast and directors for their hard work and dedication to the project despite their censorship woes. Others praised Homegrown’s ability to discuss such heavy subject matters in a tasteful and thought-provoking manner.
.@Vronsta: War is embedded in our culture. It distorts our society, and this includes surveillance laws. #Homegrown
— Index on Censorship (@IndexCensorship) March 6, 2017
There was also debate around the extent of freedom of speech and censorship in society. “I don’t believe in absolute free speech…I don’t believe free speech is an absolute,” said Glynn, condemning hate speech. However, Slater argued that limiting such speech always ends in censorship. “I defend free speech no matter what is said,” Slater added.
The night concluded with closing remarks from Nadia and Omar, who also received a standing ovation and from the audience. “Not enough has been said about the silencing of the young artists,” said Nadia.
Join Index on Censorship for a fast and furious quiz exploring what you can and can’t say in today’s society.
Watch our panelists struggle to evade the censor, cast your own vote on where to draw the line, and expect plenty of no-go subjects to come out from the shadows.
Featuring Guardian and Index on Censorship cartoonist Martin Rowson, comedian Athena Kugblenu, theatre-maker Nadia Latif, director of Homegrown, and journalist Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and Erotic Review.