Atiha Sen Gupta talks about writing Castaways
“How ethnicity effects you as a school-age teenager is drawn from my own experience of being born in the UK but not feeling like I fitted in well."
Interview with Atiha Sen Gupta by Simon North
A rising writing talent with two plays in production right now, surprisingly Atiha Sen Gupta still has to support herself with a part time admin job.
“Writing for theatre is my passion but it doesn’t yet bring in enough to pay my bills’, she said. “I never know what’s coming next and it’s hard to always see a career path.”
Having two shows on at the same time is rare for a young playwright and may signal a breakthrough moment for the 30-year old from Kilburn. “I’m usually delighted to have one play performed so to have two on stage at the same time in different parts of the UK is really satisfying.”
Her latest work Abi is already attracting huge attention due its close connection to Mike Leigh’s famous play Abigail’s Party. Staged at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and now at Derby Theatre, Abi is a contemporary response and will run alongside a revival of the original Abigail’s Party. The well worn story of suburban manners is given a new twist as Sen Gupta reimagines Abigail as a mixed race grandmother dealing with the issues faced by her teenage granddaughter.
Young people coping with living in the UK today is Atiha’s primary focus in both Abi and her other current work Castaways, which Oxford-based Mandala Theatre Company is taking on a 9-date UK tour from September to November. “There is an interesting strand in both plays about how young people fit into their family unit and also struggle to find a sense of belonging in the UK today”, Sen Gupta commented.
Castaways is about three close friends from different backgrounds who have grown up together until events blow their world apart. The characters feel alienated from their community and each one suffers separation from a close family member. Castaways is a bold piece of writing which does not shy away from showing the circumstances that can lead vulnerable people into extremism.
Sen Gupta drew on her own experience growing up in an urban area in the UK when writing Castaways and a series of workshops run by Mandala. “How ethnicity effects you as a school-age teenager is drawn from my own experience of being born in the UK but not feeling like I fitted in well”, she recalls.
Castaways’ script was written from comments made during workshops held in four UK urban areas: Luton, Woolwich, Oxford and Stockton-on-Tees . “It’s actually hard even for a young writer to stay in touch with young people’s culture and fast-changing language. The workshops allowed me to hear what young people are actually saying about the issues they face day-to-day”, she commented.
The writing process touched a highly diverse cross section of young people. In Luton, Mandala ran workshops in schools with 90% muslim students whilst in Woolwich they were from 98% black, asian and ethnic minority backgrounds but in Stockton the workshop was with predominantly white young people.
Sen Gupta recalled a startling response from the workshop session in Luton. “We asked the students for both good and bad points about their town and one response was ‘roadworks, traffic jams and the (far right group) English Defence League!’
“What things they were proud of in their town or city, whether they ever felt like an outsider and what provoked them plus their views on friendship groups, extremism and vulnerability all fed ideas into both the draft and the final script”, she said.
Sen Gupta also wrote into Castaways a piece of real world irony as some scenes revolve around a tanning shop which was taken from far right supporter Tommy Robinson’s life story. “There is a delicious irony in finding out a person with racist views runs a business turning white people brown”, she said.
This process is on-going as Sen Gupta will meet audience members in a panel debate after the Castaways performance at the Albany Theatre, Deptford south London on 16th October. Audience comments will then be fed into future scripts.
Mandala Theatre Company’s nine-date national tour of Castaways starts on Friday, 7th September in Witney, Oxon and will visit Wirksworth, Derbyshire (11th Sept); Didcot, Oxon (20th Sept); Doncaster (26th Sept); Bristol (11th Oct); Depford, south London (16th Oct); St Albans, Herts (18th Oct); Essex University, Colchester (25th October); Canterbury, Kent (1st November). For tickets please visit www.mandalatheatre.co.uk
Abi is at the Derby Theatre, St Peter’s Quarter, Derby DE1 2NF until 20th October alongside Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party at the same theatre.