As part of the Camden People’s Theatre, writer Zad El Bacha will be performing her first full length solo work On Death Etcetera, as part of the No Direction Home festival. In what is described as “a monologue about intergenerational trauma, humour and the Lebanese civil war”, this play is set to pull on a few heart strings. I managed to grab a few moments of Zad’s time to find out more about the play.
HS: What is On Death Etcetera about and what can audiences expect from the show?
ZEB: On death etcetera is an exploration of inter-generational trauma, and the ways humour and story-telling help us get through it, or prevent us from getting through it.
In devising it, I have tried to capture the richness of the migrant experience, with its comedy and its tragedy. This is a direct response to the way these stories- my stories, our stories- get flattened by western media, which turns migrants into nothing but an image of passive third-world suffering. I find this reduction dehumanising, and I want to use art to fight against it, to celebrate the subtlety and richness of our experiences. I want to show the suffering without cancelling out the joy, the tenderness, the absurdity and confusion, because in real life all these elements co-exist. Nobody lives in flat, continuous tragedy.
Audiences can expect to be fed (a little, no full dinners provided, sorry), to see a sculpture made of abandoned car parts, and be told off for not wearing a coat. And maybe to laugh and cry a bit.
HS: The play is based on real conversations. How did you find the mothers and daughters who were willing to share their stories?
ZEB: This was easy, because the daughter in question is me, and the mother is my own mother. She was strangely enthusiastic about her (quite traumatic) stories being put on stage, and even about the not very flattering representation of her personality. She herself is a great actor and storyteller, but she struggles to share her experiences in the West, in European languages. She has always told them to me in Arabic.
It was a challenge for me to mirror the ways she tells these stories – like they are a hilarious sketch or some sort of fairytale, and not horrible tales of war- while translating them into a language that is, for me, not at all the language of familiarity and domesticity. English is a public language to me, and as soon as I switched these stories into it they immediately turned into a performance. It was a challenge to tap into their familiarity, their off-handedness, in such a public and foreign way.
HS: Given it is just you performing in the show, how do you prepare yourself for it?
ZEB: Art-making, especially theatre, is hard to do as an individual process. Processing intimate traumas so openly is also a big risk to take alone. Devising this show safely (for my mental health) and effectively (for the audience’s enjoyment) meant getting an enormous amount of support from artists around me, and doing a lot of breathing exercises.
My dear friend and collaborator Simran Uppal (twitter @simransuppal) guided me through the difficult emotional landscape of the play using meditation techniques, which allowed me to tap into the feelings of it safely. Once the feeling was out, it was much easier to convey it through performance. I also owe a lot to my other collaborator, Jimi Cullen (@@jiim_e), who helped me find discipline and structure in the rehearsal process, critiqued my acting with honesty and precision, and directed every morning before heading off to their job.
HS: What advice would you give to writers looking to write and perform their own underrepresented narratives on stage?
ZEB: First of all, back yourself. Be confident in applying for things, even if they seem way beyond your experience and ability. If you have something relevant to say, consider being able to say it a right, and claim it.
In more practical terms, if you are based around London, have a look at the STAMP network, which put together theatres committed to the development of new artists (http://www.londonstamp.co.uk/). The Camden People’s Theatre is part of the network: apply to their festivals, or for their seed schemes. It’s all on their website, on the artist development section.
Every Tuesday producer Linda Bloomsfield (twitter: @LindaBxx) tweets an incredible list of opportunities for a performance artists all over the country, with the hashtag #opportunitytuesday, check it out!
Another essential thing is to develop a community of artists around you, who can support and stimulate you, pushing you to go further than you could ever go on your own. Go to events, talk to people, make friends, don’t be ashamed to show your work, even if you think it’s not very good yet. It will only get better with feedback, the harsher the better. Critiques are not an offense to you or your talent, they are simply a way of improving specific pieces of work. Get as many of them as possible.
Huge thanks to Zed for taking the time to discuss the play. For more information on the performance on the 3rd November please visit https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/production/on-death-etcetera/. If you use the code word “pop” when purchasing your tickets, you can get 20% off the ticket price.
Until next time,