In Conversation With: Chinonyerem Odimba
Multi-hyphenate Chinonyerem Odimba, the newly appointed Artistic Director and Chief Executive at tiata fahodzi, is a timely infusion of energy as the British-African contemporary theatre company approaches its 25th anniversary. The company's focus on centring stories of those often left on the margins and Chinonyerem's ample experience telling such stories in an innovative way is more than a fitting match.
She has numerous awards including the Adrienne Benham and Alfred Fagon awards as well as the Bruntwood Playwriting Award. She was also the winner of the 2018 Sonia Friedman Award, and a finalist for the inaugural Women Playwriting Prize 2020. With these accolades under her belt, the Nigerian-British playwright, screenwriter and poet has more than made a name for herself as an artist and creator. In her new leadership role at tiata fahodzi, she puts on a slightly different hat.
You’re about to start a really exciting thing aren't you?
Yes, I just got a job as the Artistic Director at tiata fahodzi, So it’s very very exciting.
Are you going into this new position with a vision of sorts, a new philosophy? Do you have something specific that you want to change?
I dont think it’s about changing anything. I think that there's something about the position we hold as a theatre that is trying to speak for and to British African heritage artists and audiences that still feels really important. If there is anything the last year has taught us, it is that there are a lot of people feeling that their identity, and their sense of who they are is kind of under threat, or not quite being celebrated in the way it should be celebrated. So if there is anything I imagine would be at the heart of what I do as an Artistic Director for the company, for the next two years, as well as having those important conversations, it will be programming from a place of joy. We can wait for other people to celebrate us, or we can get on with celebrating ourselves. The fact is that, and lots of people have said this, but joy in itself, Black joy, British African joy in itself is a form of resistance in this moment. I think about how you can have the most awful day, and especially in the last year where the conversations being had in the world just felt like a lot, and then someone can send you something on WhatsApp and in that moment you're able to laugh and be part of a joke that you see yourself in. So that’s where my ambitions and visions for the company are, like how do we make sure that we are responding to those harder conversations, but that we are also resisting through joy.
I want to get a little into young African people in theatre, because with being young and African you have the double whammy of not feeling represented as an African and feeling less in control of your identity in the media as a young person. I know a lot of your work has revolved around young people as well, and I’m just wondering what you’re looking forward to in regards to young people at tiata fahodzi?
Yeah I mean you're right, my work has been so centred around young lives. I love writing young characters, I don’t know if that's just the playfulness that sits at the heart of who I am but I also think young characters’ approach to those bigger things in life is able to have much more truth. Like the way a seven-year-old will talk about death is much more devastating than trying to get someone much older to try and articulate what they're feeling. I think it’s that truthfulness that has always drawn me, not only to younger characters but also younger audiences. And it’s hard not to speak of the moment, because we are gonna come out of this year having lost a lot of people out of the industry and a lot of those people were people who were bringing a sense of representation and diversity into the industry. So it’s about how we create spaces for young British African people to still see themselves as part of the industry, to still see themselves as artists that have something to say, and most importantly to create space where they can be truthful about their own lives. That's why I took on this role, I wanna be in that place where I can support people in developing their own ideas, and I want tiata to be able to help. I think we are always looking for younger audiences, but we are not always looking for how we support young artists and that's something I really want to look at. How do we change this? And also, how do conversations happen between younger and older artists? It just feels like there's space there where those conversations need to happen.
There's the argument that money is one barrier for young people in theatre, but that trust might be a bigger factor. What do you think?
To be a working artist takes all sorts of skills that you build up over time. All those skills are things that help you trust yourself as an artist, and help other people to trust you. It’s basic stuff like how does one manage their time to make sure that if they get a commission they deliver it on time. And I think all of this comes down to the support that we give young artists to really see the industry all the way around. There is a lot of mystique around the industry and we need to break that down so that you know what you are coming into. So that I know that I've helped equip you to do the job. But I also think that trust is not about you having to prove yourself to me, it's about how to help you to get to a place where that working relationship feels more of a collaboration.
A lot of traditional British theatre productions look very very different to traditional African ones. I wonder how you reconcile the two when you're both British and African?
Yeah, I mean it's such an interesting question. Whenever I do workshops, I start by saying, in this space, we have to acknowledge that the theatre tradition that we are talking about is a western tradition, we have to acknowledge that it’s a European tradition and that its a British tradition. These rules that we exist in, this thing that we call theatre is a very limited idea of theatre. That's literally how I start every workshop and I do that in order to honor hundreds of other types of theatre that happen in the globe that are also called theatre. And as a storyteller, my work in some way or another always speaks to my African heritage. It feels strange when I dont and I think that as artists we have to become more confident to do so. Because sometimes our heritage traditions are so against the traditions we are living in that we unfortunately have the job of going “this is me, you want to see all of me? this is all of me."
Now that you are taking more of a leadership role, are you still planning to write?
I'm still very much a working playwright. I’m really glad I’ve taken on this role because I feel like there aren't many artists that are Artistic Directors in this country, but I’m not done with telling stories. I just can't imagine a life where I’m not telling stories anymore. The writing feels so important as to why I have taken on this job, that it would be weird to stop the writing.
Have you got a set writing process?
So what’s really interesting for me is that I am a writer in the sense that I write plays, films, I write for radio, poetry sometimes, but I’m also a theatre director and I’m also someone who in a sense is interested in what art is saying about the world. I call myself an artist because I don’t have one particular approach to any piece of work. I feel like as an artist, a story comes along, and I go “what does this story need?” and some stories need me to maybe lie on my sofa for a few days, and stare at the clouds and be that kind of artist. I do that process and at the end of it I go “ok, where has all that dreaming got me?” And then some stories require you to be business like, especially with screenwriting, I sit down and I make a plan. What all the scenes are gonna look like, and character profiles and I really do the work before I even start writing. But I guess with every single project it's just me responding to what the story needs. In terms of structures and forms, I just can't imagine trying to impose something that's predetermined onto any story. I rarely go 'this is how I write' and I think if I had to send people my plays I might send them two or three different plays and if you didn't know they were by me, I’m not sure you would know the same person had written those plays. and i find that really exciting.
Has writing gotten easier over time for you?
Oh gosh, definitely.
I think a lot of young writers would like to hear that.
It’s definitely gotten easier. I was not a very confident writer when I started, but I just genuinely believed that you just need to keep honoring that voice, that place that the stories are coming from, and the stories might be entirely different, but the place they are coming from never really changes. And if you keep honoring that, eventually it’s almost like, you know that saying 'if you respect yourself, you teach other people how to respect you?' it feels a bit like that. If you keep honoring that part of you, you eventually teach other people how to honor it too.
So theatre is so expensive but I’m curious if you draw inspiration from other forms of art that you don’t actively practice?
Massively, like the fact that I call myself an artist is purely because I feel like I work more like a visual artist. I’m mad about the visual arts, it's always been a point of inspiration for me. Like any city I go to I look for a gallery or find an exhibition. It doesn’t matter if it's contemporary design or classical painting, I’m just mad about it. It plays such an important part in my writing. Sometimes I can just look at a painting, or I can be scrolling on instagram and I see an image and that image becomes the basis of the whole play. I can almost associate every single play I've written with an image and I carry them in my notebook and I look at them throughout the writing process. If I could have been good painting or drawing or sculpture or whatever, I’d have done it, it’s just that I’m useless at all that. I have a lot of art books and photography books. When I was writing Princess and The Hustler, I was looking at images from the 1960s/70s of black beauty queens and I would literally spend days looking at these images because it’s such an enjoyable part of the process for me, and it helps the story grow, it's not just this aimless thing. I’ve worked in music, TV, film but there's something about the right image that can just create a whole story in a second for me.