Zodwa Nyoni: “You have to cry a little bit, drink some tea, eat cake and power through.”
Playwright Zodwa Nyoni and director Alex Chisholm talk about the process of creating Nine Lives, a drama about LGBT asylum seekers that opens at the Arcola this month.
Alex Chisholm: Tell me about Nine Lives. Where did the idea came from and how did you come to write it?
Zodwa Nyoni: Nine Lives is a one man play about a character called Ishmael, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who has fled due to his sexuality. He’s been dispersed to Leeds, and he is lost in this new place, figuring out the process of asylum and dealing with his past. The idea came from wanting to understand the process of asylum, and from having a sense of knowing what is in the news but not really knowing what an individual’s experience is. So I started doing research on the process of claiming asylum and during that I came across a blog called Free Movement. In it there were sexually explicit questions that had been asked by the Home Office to a bisexual asylum seeker. And I remember thinking “How can someone who has been silent about their experience, afraid of being who they really are, face the Home Office and answer these questions?” As a director what was your approach to the play, what was your process?
Alex Chisholm: I guess my process with the play starts before it is even written. So when we first started talking about this play I was working for West Yorkshire Playhouse, where at that time I was Associate Director. You were on the residency with Channel 4 – we went into that with the idea you were going to write more plays during that year and get that work on in front of different audiences.
ZN: I remember that bit!
AC: Yeah it kinda worked out alright didn’t it!
One of the things we were doing that year was to have A Play, A Pie and A Pint with Oran Mor in Glasgow. So I thought one of those should be by you – and we talked about it and you came back with this idea of Nine Lives. You started with this idea of this young man, and the title. And we had a stupidly short time – do you remember how stupidly short time we had? And you were like ‘it’ll be fine’. You came back from Zimbabwe and said right, I’m going to write this now, you had a go and then you said ‘No I can’t do this…’
ZN: ‘No I can’t do this’…Let’s just stop now.
AC: I remember that meeting we had in the restaurant at the theatre and you said ‘I can’t do this…can we do something else now’ and I said ‘Weeeeellll – why don’t you just have a go at this, write your way into it, write whatever. And you came back, actually a really short time later, and said ‘I’ve written the play.’ And I read it and said ‘Yeah, you’ve have’. And that draft is pretty well what we are performing today.
ZN: It’s good training for a new writer when you panic and think ‘I should just quit’. Because that’s what I think writers are good at doing: you come up with a new idea then you panic and think I’m just going to quit on it and come up with something new. But you’re always going to hit that road block. So you have to cry a little bit, drink some tea, eat cake and power through.
AC: You know I think that’s my solution to pretty well all problems in life: cry, drink tea, eat cake, power through. It’ll get better. It does get better.
The process is completely different with every play. When I got this play I just said this is great. We actually did very little to it.
ZN: I remember tweaking bits here and there. Most of it was seeing how it would come alive with an actor. At that point I had never written monologues. I don’t even remember how it ended up being a one man play. I know the requirements on Play, Pie and Pint were no more than three actors!
AC: You originally had the idea was that it was going to be a dance piece and a dancer was going to embody the characters. And then as it was written it became very textual and very much based in the voices of the characters. And then I think the single most important thing that happened is that we cast Lladel Bryant.
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