Winning the coconut
Interview with Guleraana Mir
Guleraana Mir’s first full-length play Shooting Star was long listed by the BBC as part of SCRIPTROOM 8. Her latest, Coconut will be at Ovalhouse from 11-28th April 2018, followed by a regional tour.
Your play Coconut features interracial and interfaith relationships. There are still taboos around these in South Asian and Muslim cultures. What is your experience of this?
I am married to a white man, my brother is married to a white woman, and many of my friends are in interracial and interfaith relationships. As we live our lives in multi-cultural London, it is very possible that people will find their life partner outside of their own cultural heritage or religious community.
Whilst these relationships might be taboo, plenty of people are choosing to follow through with them. Whilst previously South Asians might have dated non-Asians in secret, now there is a greater confidence in being able to ‘come out’ to parents and have the partnership accepted.
I’m all about celebrating what makes us different and believe that it is possible to honour and respect cultural and religious differences in a relationship, as long as you’re honest with what you expect from your partner.
What does the term ‘coconut’ mean to you? Why did you choose it as a title for your play?
Coconut, for me, has always been a term that suggests someone isn’t ‘brown enough’. It can be used in jest or aggressively, but the intention is to highlight that somebody is not fulfilling their role as an Asian well enough. It’s the title of my play because Rumi, the protagonist, is a coconut and the play is a journey to her accepting and embracing that term.
What’s been your experience of growing up between two worlds? Did you struggle with identity and belonging? If so, how did you reconcile these issues?
I definitely struggled with identity issues growing up. I was never interested in traditionally Asian things, preferring indie movies and rock music to Bollywood. I was independent and outspoken, not at all the quiet brown girl expected of me.
I reconciled my duality by writing a play about it! I learnt to be proud of who I am, and the fact that I am a good person. Because really, isn’t that all we should aspire to be? It helps that my parents are actually quite supportive of my life choices and they’re my biggest fans, so I can’t really complain any more.
Women of Muslim heritage are very varied in their beliefs and lifestyles and ambitions, and yet are often depicted as stereotypes in the media. Did you write Coconut intending to disrupt these stereotypes?
Absolutely. Whilst it’s not the only reason I wrote the play, it is definitely one of the biggest things I want the audience to take away.
Interracial and interfaith relationships are often treated very seriously. Coconut brings humour to bear on this topic. What are the benefits of a lighter approach?
With a little bit of humour you can tackle any subject. No one wants to see a play or explore a subject in a way that is 100% dark and depressing. When humans are scared or uncomfortable, they laugh, so we replicate this on stage. By adding in humour we can push how dark the story gets, and how far the audience are willing to accompany us on this journey.
Plus there is something truly funny about trying to explain to someone who’s a different culture to you why your family does certain things in a specific way, I simply tried to capture that.
Interfaith and interracial relationships are still often seen negatively. Why do you think this is? How can we challenge it?
I can only speak from the perspective of my own heritage, but I think there is a fear that if Muslims don’t marry other Muslims, or Asians don’t marry other Asians we lose something important, and if no one preserves the sanctity of tradition then it will die out.
I don’t know how we challenge it because it might be true. But then also I see plenty of mixed couples whose faith gets stronger once they marry outside of the culture/religion. I guess we just keep doing what we’re doing and try to be as non-judgmental as possible.
When and why did you decide to become a playwright?
It was at some point during my undergraduate degree when I chose to write a play as part of my dissertation/culminating project. After graduating I took a course with David Eldridge and joined a playwriting group led by the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch – my local theatre. That said, I didn’t really believe in myself until I was studying for my MA and I took a playwriting class.
I think that in order to take yourself seriously as an artist, a lot of things have to happen. Moving to New York did that for me. It wasn’t until I was writing in NYC that I truly thought of myself as a playwright.
How has being a woman from an ethnic minority affected your career path?
I was lucky enough to be one of the Tamasha playwrights in 2016/2017, a writer-led collective led by Tamasha’s Artistic Director Fin Kennedy. It was set up specifically to support diverse writers forging their careers, and I’ve found it incredibly useful.
There’s a field of thought that minority-specific schemes do more harm than good as they set us apart from other (white) writers and are somehow exclusionary. I believe in equity and that the writers from minority backgrounds that aren’t breaking through to main stages need to be nurtured in order to become household names. So in that sense, being of Asian heritage has helped me. We’ll see how it helps, or hinders, in the future…watch this space!
You studied in the UK and in New York – how did these contrasts affect you and your work?
Studying at New York University transformed my life. Although I think that has more to do with NYC than the University! That period of my life was one of real discovery. I learnt so much about myself, about theatre, history, race and politics.
The contrasts were immediate in terms of applied-theatre work, mainly that there is so much more of it in London, and also the education system is entirely different here. Artistically speaking it took me a while to get back into writing, as I felt very out of place and network-less. But once I found one, I’ve definitely kept hold of some of the things I learnt in New York, including their love of developing and workshopping plays, it’s a process that I find so useful.
Can you outline the process of how your idea went from a monologue to a production? What are the greatest challenges? How has Coconut changed along the way?
After the success of the initial monologue at Ladylogue! we – the director Madelaine and I – sat down to talk about how the piece might work as a full-length play. Rumi was a well-loved character and we knew she deserved a longer story. From our initial ideas I wrote a series of scenes between her and Simon that spanned the course of 18 months and outlined the beginnings of a relationship.
We took those scenes to Park Theatre’s Script Accelerator program and then onto New Diorama where we worked very intensely with the actors to explore character journeys, and to establish what the story actually was. At some point two other characters (multi-roled by one actor) joined the party and what was a one-woman show became a ‘proper play’.
The greatest challenge has definitely been finding a balance between my research, actors’ ideas, what I wanted to say, and what would make a good play. However, I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved and cannot wait to see it all come together.
Your play will go on tour from the beginning of April. What are you most excited about? Is there anything that concerns you?
I am excited that there will be audiences in places I’ve never been to before watching the play, and hopefully resonating with it in different ways. I am most concerned by the amount of work needed to pull off a tour! Madelaine has been incredible so far, managing to take care of pretty much everything, but now it falls on me while she’s busy directing. It’s definitely a concern that I’ll miss something and we will turn up at a venue having not anticipated a particular problem and everything will fall apart and then I’ll cry.
What are the Thelmas, and how are you involved with them?
The Thelmas are Madelaine Moore (Founder and Artistic Director) and myself (Education & Outreach). We are a female-led theatre company dedicated to the development and promotion of female writers. We are passionate about supporting new writing from unheard voices and actively promote BAMER stories.
What is the London Playwriting Lab, and what does it do?
The London Playwriting Lab was an initiative I set up with Mike Carter and Nick Myles, both London-based playwrights. Nick has since left and Isabel Dixon has joined us.
The London Playwriting Lab exists to help writers craft a full-length play. It is a series of workshops including exercises tailored to individual play ideas. We set it up in 2014 because there was a lot of work revolving around 10-minute plays, but nothing that helped you write a full-length piece that wasn’t impossible to get on. Our writers have gone on to have work produced by a number of fringe theatres, and win awards and residencies. I’m quite proud of our track record.
How far do the relationships and situations in the play reflect your own experiences and those of people you know?
Pretty far in some ways, and not at all in others. Without giving away too much, Simon’s journey was crafted after a lot of research. I personally don’t know anyone who has done what he ends up doing, but I have known men who act like he does. All of the creative team have some sort of personal connection to the relationships and situations in the play, but none of it is autobiographical.
How do you understand the role of an artist?
As someone who previously felt that I needed some sort of great achievement before I could call myself an artist, I would now say that all you need to do to be an artist is to make art. Art is subjective, and your role is to believe in yourself and your work. It’s to look at the world and absorb what’s happening, and then present it back in a way that not only reflects who you are, but also adds something to the conversation.
How would you encourage young people who are interested in getting into drama?
Do it. Drama isn’t just acting, or being on stage. There are so many roles in the theatre industry that whatever your skill set, there’s a place for you. Try it, if you don’t fall in love then that’s fine, but be sure to find something that does consume you, because there’s no greater joy than going to work every day and loving every moment of what you do.
What and who inspires you?
I’m mostly inspired by women I know, the ones I see just getting stuff done without ever receiving any thanks. My mother, who works tirelessly as a carer for my grandmother, and before that nursed my granddad as he battled cancer, and before that taught reception class for 25 years. That takes stamina, and patience. I’m not sure I could do it. My friend Kathi who is raising an incredibly smart daughter on her own and teaching at an Ivy League University in New York. If they can get through the day, so can I.
And of course I’m inspired by the magic of theatre. Of work that makes your heart beat faster, of words that have a rhythm that sooth your soul. And lastly I’m inspired by all the amazing things that I have yet to see, and learn about this world.
What’s next after Coconut?
I’m currently working on a play called Mano’s that is set in an all-female mechanics in Shadwell. That’s been written specifically for Rightful Place Theatre and I’m very excited about seeing 11 Bengali women on stage. I’ve also got a piece called Bootcamp that received a reading as part of Women At RADA in February that I’m looking to develop later in the year. Also, The Thelmas are taking a one-woman show called Ladykiller to N16 June 11-13 so as they say, no rest for the wicked.