Why Stories Matter

This is a slightly edited version of the presentation I gave at the Symposium on Arts, Academia and Asylum at Arcola Theatre January 2016 organised by Alice Mukaka, for the University of East London, in association with Leeds Studio.

In the end, it was a photograph that did it. I’ve been working with refugees and refugee organisations for three years and in that time a large part of the conversation has been about how to raise awareness, how to engage the empathy of a British public who, with very notable exceptions, seemed indifferent or openly hostile to people seeking sanctuary in our country or at our borders.

Then that photograph happened. The seemingly sleeping body of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shore of Turkey grabbed hold of the public imagination in a way that thousands of statistics never had. The outpouring of outrage, sympathy, support and love was extraordinary; in the next few weeks a quarter of people in the UK donated something, money or possessions, to refugees.

Stories matter. It is the story that we see through a single image. A child who could be our child. Who could be us. This moves us in the way that facts and figures don’t. Although I remain deeply conflicted about the use of that photo and vehemently disagree with anyone using it now, it undeniably had a huge effect at the time.

Stories matter. There are millions of refugee stories. The largest refugee crisis since WWII cannot be contained in a single image. Soon after that, we had the kickback: they can’t be ‘real’ refugees if they are not Syrian; look they are young, strong men, how could they be fleeing persecution. The Syrian crisis is a particularly present issue, driving millions away from their homes (95% of whom are in just 5 countries next to Syria – Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Jordon). But there are many reasons why men, women and children are driven away from their countries to seek safety elsewhere. It is a universal right to seek asylum. Everyone deserves to have their story fairly heard.

Our play, Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni performed by Lladel Bryant, tells the story of Ishmael, an asylum seeker in Leeds. It tells the complex story of being moved through the asylum system, of being made powerless and anonymous, of being met with hostility, and with love, from the native population, of an already traumatised man being re-traumatised by a system designed to deal with you as a problem not as a person. It also tells the particular story of a gay asylum seeker from Zimbabwe. The story of LGBTQI asylum seekers is that of a minority within a minority. Until recently it was practice to ask asylum seekers to ‘prove’ their sexuality, or to tell them they can go home and ‘live quietly’. The enormously high burden of ‘proof’ means that the UK refuses 99% of all asylum claims based on sexuality on first application.

We started this production in 2014. I was then Associate Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse and had applied, and among fierce competition, got Zodwa Nyoni on a Channel 4 Residence at the theatre. As part of the residency I commissioned her, along with Oran Mor in Glasgow to write a one-act play for A Play, A Pie and A Pint. Zodwa came up with the title and the idea. It was inspired by a friend of hers, an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe who was dispersed to Leeds and living in a shared flat in an Armley tower block. It came from her observation of him looking out over the city but unable to take part in the life he saw there. As she was researching the stories of young, male asylum seekers she came across a blog called Free Movement about the experience of a young bisexual asylum seeker and the kind of questioning he had received. That was the starting point for Ishmael’s story.

The play doesn’t tell you the statistics. It doesn’t tell you all the details of Ishmael’s case or even its outcome. It connects you to him as a human being. It reminds you that everyone going through this experience is a person, an individual with his or her own hopes, dreams, histories and stories. Not as some very unhelpful commentators and politicians would have it: ‘cockroaches’, ‘vermin’, ‘swarms’. To quote my favorite review from Tim Bano in Time Out: ‘Ishmael’s is only one story, but that’s the point: it’s his and his alone. He’s not a swarm anymore. He’s human.’

The course of this production has charted the course of the issue of refugees in the public consciousness: to begin with few outside of those actively involved really knew or cared about the issue. Then suddenly the issue broke into public awareness, a paradigm shift of such magnitude it can only be that the knowledge, the awareness was there all along, waiting for permission to become conscious. Some of the volunteer organisations we knew struggled to keep up with the volume of donations and vehemence of the ‘debate’. Such an almighty change in public opinion that it even had hitherto intransigent government promising to take 20,000 Syrian refugees. A still inadequate reaction to the situation but showing the change happens, mountains do move. Yet as if to prove for every action there is a reaction, immediately following the attacks on Paris we saw a sudden swing the other way in media and in politics. In just hours following, even we started picking up negative, worried or aggressive comments on social media, some of which we could engage with, some of which we couldn’t. Now in 2016, with 32,000 people having arrived in Greece in one month alone, what story, what stories are being told matters more than ever.

Through it all it has felt important to tell this story, of Ishmael and the other characters of the play. Because his story is of one of the most vulnerable, and often overlooked, the LGBT asylum story is often that of the ‘excluded by the excluded’ as the play says. As his individual story, it stands for all the individual stories, not just of all asylum seekers, but all of us. Nine Lives connects us to all of the characters, and all of the characters to each other. We each have our own, inalienable humanity, each worthy of respect and acknowledgment.

I was asked in a post-show discussion while on tour were we not only preaching to the converted. That the lovely theatre audience is likely to agree with us already. Well yes, and no. Over the life of the production so far we have played to great variety of people – those going through or who have gone through these experiences, those with a great deal of knowledge of asylum, those with very little. What the play does is bring Ishmael’s story to life, and those of the people he meets, who may accept or reject him, and why. What we then do is offer simple practical ways people can get involved whether that is reading more information, donating to a charity, joining in a local group. In many places we have been working with refugee artists and arts activities with refugees and asylum seekers. Just at this run at the Arcola we have been very privileged to display the work of Bern O’Donohugh; Platforma and Counterpoints Arts are presenting three gigs of refugee and migrant musicians and poets; and we’ve raised money for UKLGIG through a fundraising Gala. Through touring we can reach a few 1000s of people. Not big numbers but any way we can get these stories out matters. And in drama no one had to die to tell them.

Stories matter. Not just to the ones who didn’t know the story but to the ones to whom the story belongs. In Swansea one man approached our actor Lladel after the performance, ‘Thank you for your story’ he said. Lladel explained it wasn’t actually his story. ‘But it is mine’ he replied ‘Everyone should hear this story.’ Everyone wants to be seen, to be understood, to be a person. People seeking asylum have had everything taken from them, their dignity, safety, their own sense of self. Taking part in arts, singing, playing, drawing, dancing, telling stories gives back that sense of self, that sense of connection to other human beings. Seeing your story reflected on stage can do the same, you have been seen, understood, acknowledged. If the play was to have a message, it would be that hope lies in the human connection between people, whoever they may be.

Your stories matter. Both your own personal story – who you are and what you want to do, what has led you here and what you will take away with you. And the stories that you tell in your work and in your life. All of us tell stories, in your research, through narratives, through arguments, evidence, statistics, through arts or pictures or enabling others to tell their story themselves. By doing the best we can, by doing what we are best at, we can make these stories have an effect on others, and affect the world we live in. And we can have more of an effect by working together – not by trying to be something we are not but using what we do to best advantage. I’m best at directing and producing plays – by doing this play and collaborating with academics, artists and organisations we have raised money, debate, awareness and given a platform for refugees to perform. We may have only shifted the world a little bit, but shift it we have.

Stories have power, the stories we tell transform us. Stories can take flight, change the mind of a government, change the mood of a country. The stories that are told and the people who get to tell them matter because they shape our understanding of the world. Let’s tell all the stories that we can.



On writing monologues

I was asked recently for some advice on writing monologues. This, with some additions and redaction, is what I wrote:


If you have taken part in any kind of writing course or workshop then chances are you have written monologue. Like the nursery slopes of playwriting, monologue warms you up, builds up your writing muscle and gets you ready for the ‘real work’ of dialogue writing.

However, once you have moved on from writing a page or two, you discover writing a whole show as a monologue is much, much harder than it looks. How to keep interest when it is just one person talking for 45 minutes? When other people come into the story, how much dialogue to report? How much description is too much?

It is definitely worth getting to grips with monologue form especially as the way things are going financially nobody is going to be able to afford more than one actor anymore. I’m sure it is no coincidence that my last show Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni and my next, Conscientious By Adam Z Robinson, are both one person shows.

First, get a feel for what kind of monologue you are writing. There are a number of (overlapping) types including:
1. Telling a single story from one person’s point of view
2. Exploring one character or theme through multiple stories
3. Multiple characters played by single actor, linked together by story or theme.
4. The autobiographical monologue where you explore topics or stories about yourself.
No one version is better than others and many writers will go between different forms for different projects. Also one version is not necessarily more ‘traditional’ or more ‘experimental’ than another. George Brant’s Grounded just launching a UK tour is a single story told by one person, as is Tim Crouch’s ‘My Arm’. Though both essentially one person telling their story to an audience in retrospect, they were different in approach: ‘Grounded’ being performed by the supurb Lucy Ellinson from within a gauze box, Tim performing the monologue himself (and apparently ‘about’ himself) with aids of toys and live video. However, they are neither easily characterised in the binary of new/old, traditional/modern. They combine possibly the oldest theatrical technique, one performer telling a story to a group of people, with design and staging which is non-naturalistic and suited to the subject, performer and places it will be performed. Also see if you can Amsterdam by Chanje Kunda touring this Autumn – for different example of monologue coming from performance poetry. (Disclaimer produced by my husband!)
For example of a monologue that contains elements of all versions you should definitely read but if possible see Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities. Chris is hugely talented, multifaceted writer-director-performer and his one person shows are some of my favourite things I have ever watched. (Which is not to say his multi-character and productions of extant work aren’t brilliant as well – in fact we don’t get enough of those. See aforementioned problem of one person plays being cheaper and therefore easier to produce). You should also definitely get hold of a copy of Wound Man and Shirley which I think you will love.
I would also recommend you see if you can Chris Brett Bailey This is How We Die – although possibly not till you’ve finished your monologue as by all accounts it is pretty mind blowing. And having ones mind blown is not always what you want when working on a new piece.
You should also by way of contrast have a read of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Bennett gets bit of a bad press in certain quarters and yes his rather odd ‘caught somewhere in the 1960s’ world can be bizarre. But in his own form of monologue writing he is unsurpassed – telling a story from single character’s point of view so that we are also let into the whole story, including things our protagonists can’t/won’t see. Have a look at some of the better known ones like Chip in the Sugar. But also seek out, if you can, some of the lesser known ones such as The Outside Dog and Playing Sandwiches for more disturbing side to Bennett (though tbh I find most of Bennett pretty disturbing).
When writing a monologue the same questions apply as to multiple character work. What does your central character want? What do they need? What stops them getting it? What do they have to overcome internally and externally? What is their state at the beginning and what is it at the end – how have they changed?
In addition with monologue/storytelling there is what is the tense of the performance. It sounds like you have the character telling past tense stories (what has happened to them) and also a present tense – travelling while telling (the audience) the story. How much is in the past and how much in the present? What is actually happening in the present? Does the telling of the stories to the audience have an effect on the storyteller? It is always important to have something happening with the character in both the present and past strands of a piece.
 Or you could just decide to have the story happening entirely in the past tense. It can be one continuous story told in one piece. Or your storyteller can shift time through it. An example would be your storyteller telling what has happened up to the first turning point, then post the second turning point, then at the end  – looking back from three different vantage points.
Pacing in monologue form is harder to judge than dialogue. It really is worth reading aloud to yourself as you go. You will begin to get a sense of how passages that zip by on the page slow right down when spoken. That doesn’t mean all description is bad – but the description or story telling has to keep taking us somewhere narratively, emotionally or intellectually – what impact is it having? If it feels ‘stuck’ or detail for the sake of detail then move on.
This is multiple interlocking monologues but Chris Thorpe’s There has possibly been an incident is beautiful example of dramatic storytelling and use of detail.
And finally – as with any other form of writing there are no real rules apart from the ones you make for yourself. Keep writing, and re-writing, and find the form that suits you best.
Good luck!

Why care about ‘why do we care’?

This is a post about that old writing note ‘but why do we care?’ Sometimes also appears as ‘it was alright but I didn’t really care about her/it/them’. I’ve heard it and, god help me, probably said it enough times. There are many, many things we can get out of a performance – intellectual stimulation, information, challenge, amusement, shock, even (one performance by Forced Entertainment in particular comes to mind) the peculiar meditation brought about by beauty coinciding with boredom. Why does empathetic engagement (or ‘caring’) get privileged so much in criticism of plays?

To answer – a digression of sorts. I’ve just got back from holiday (it was very nice thanks). We were staying in a house my family have had since I was born forty something years ago. The books in it have accreted over that time period and are a mixture of classics, airport blockbuster types, children’s and sci-fi; four decades of family holiday reading.   


Casting around for something to read in the odd moments I wasn’t chasing after three small children, I came across ‘The Summer before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing. Now I love Doris Lessing – Golden Notebook is up there as one of my all time favourite books and I reckon I had to have read this as the edition dated from early 80s (written mid 70s) and it was falling out of its binding state of well read. But funny thing was when I started reading it I couldn’t remember a thing about it. Which was odd because it is bloody brilliant. The protagonist is 45 year old mother of 4 children and every sentence utterly nails the experience of being a mid 40s woman. 

Inter alia (us nerds like phrases like inter alia) the book contains this delicious passage: ‘everyone stood up to applaud and applaud, in the way we use in our theatre, as if the need of the actors to be approved, the need of the watchers to approve, feeds an action – palms striking repeatedly together in a fusillade of noise – which is a comment quite separate and apart from anything that has happened on stage…but is more of a ritual confirmation of self-approval on the part of the audience and the actors for going to the theatre and for acting in it.’

So I’m reading and admiring the book and wondering how I didn’t read it before and then three-quarters of the way through a young woman character enters the story. And I can remember everything. In vivid detail. Not only can I remember it the image of this young woman – sitting in an evening dress, eating baby food from a jar, has been lurking in my mind for years without knowing where it came from. And the answer is that when I read it I was (probably) a teenager, closer in age to the young woman and the state of a mid 40s woman was a strange and distant country. 

Emotion points attention (there is a lot of good neuroscience research in this which at some time I am going to look into). Emotion makes memories. Emotions are easier to engage with people whose experience reflects our own. All things we generally ask for in plays – get the audience’s attention, engage them with what is happening, make them remember it. At some point in some way a good piece of theatre will engage with our emotions. There are a couple of things I take away from this.

First – there are a whole range of emotions that can be generated by a work – excitement, fear, surprise, suspense – caring for or about one or more of the characters is one option. A particularly useful option when it comes to protagonist dramas (on which much more to come) but still only one option. Rather than why do we care? maybe a better question is what does this play offer? or what will it feel like? Equally difficult/impossible to answer, especially if you are the one writing it, but at least not reductive to one mode of emotional connection.

Second – and this goes out especially to my fellow play nerd/literary friends who will tend to read rather than see the play – just because I can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it isn’t good. I had a recent experience of this reading a play about three young men on a stag do. I couldn’t get any purchase on the play – probably the wrong age as much as wrong gender. That doesn’t make the play worth less because I can’t get a handle on it. It is always important to check what perspective, and assumptions, we bring when reading  a piece of work, and get another opinion if necessary. 

Which is not to say caring for or about a character in the play is a bad thing – a lot of the time it is a very important thing especially if you are writing a protagonist drama – but that’s a post for another day.


The Sense of Danger Must Not Disappear

Soon (well soon-ish) I will post some proper play writing things up. But before that I want to talk about risk.

I want to talk about it particularly from the position of being a mere 5 hours away from leaving a job, a great job, a job I have loved, after 12 and a half years in order to become a freelance director and dramaturg.

And I really don’t know what is going to happen next. I know a bit about it. I will be directing a new play Conscientious and I am hoping that those nice people at West Yorkshire Playhouse will be bringing me back to do some dramaturgy on a new play.

I know what I can do. I know what I want to do. And I know a bit about how I think I can get there. But there is huge amounts I don’t know about this future and as I take a big leap out of security it is a leap in to the dark.

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

And that is how it should be. Every time you write, every time you start to make something, begin a new project, start a new life it is a risk – some bigger, some smaller. But we can’t and shouldn’t know what it will be. Because that means we aren’t trying something new, something we or maybe anyone else in the world has ever tried before.

And there are hundreds of books on risk and how taking risk is the only way to success. Yeah – and it’s the way to failure too. That play might not work, that production fail in what it tried to achieve. This move to see what my own work is, my own career, may indeed end in failure – I won’t do what I want to do. But I will have tried.

And I know that the risk is greater because this isn’t just about me, it is about my family too. And that is why taking risk also means having a safety net somewhere. So that a theatre won’t go bust because a production doesn’t work. A playwright won’t be written off because that play was bad. And as a society nobody will hit rock bottom. We don’t achieve this of course – theatres fear a box office failure, writers bad reviews and our welfare state is tattered and torn. But those things should be there for ALL of us. Because without those safety nets there will be no risks taken – and art, life, business, society needs risk taking.

So here we go. Write the first line. Make the first move. Start the new life. Trust what we know and what we’ve done will get us where we want. Or maybe somewhere more interesting instead.

Take a deep breath.

And go.

Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few samrt wisecracke every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savior-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear. 

— W. H. Auden

What is a Play Nerd?

Do you like plays? Do you watch them? Make them? Eat, sleep and obsessively follow Twitter about them? Then welcome, you are a Play Nerd. This website is a home for all those making, watching, listening, studying and generally hanging out talking about plays. Here you will find topics on all aspects of performance and play making. Plus a few fun nerdish facts along the way.

My name is Alex Chisholm and I am a Play Nerd. Also sometimes known as a dramaturg. That means I help people make plays. Sometimes I’m working with a writer or writers, working on a text. Other times it might be working with a company developing a production. Sometimes I direct plays, sometimes I produce them. I love working on all kinds of plays, in all kinds of ways. Please check out other pages here for ways I may be able to work with you. I am particularly passionate about working with the new, the young, as wide and diverse range of people as possible. It makes life, and art, that much more interesting.

By plays, I mean every form of performance you can think of and maybe a few we can’t think of yet. Everything from one on one performances in a cupboard to large community events, as small as a tweet, as wide as your imagination, written, devised, with words or without: they are all plays.

So drop in: comment, suggest, question and contribute. I look forward to play nerding together.