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EP 6: Emteaz Hussain

Emteaz Hussain is a playwright and performance poet. 

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Emteaz is a playwright and performance poet. 

She is currently writing on Ackley Bridge and is under commission by the Royal Court Theatre for a play about the child sexual exploitation scandals in the North and Midlands, titled TRACE. 

She recently contributed to Nottingham Playhouse’s STILL LIFE digital theatre project and the Royal Court’s ‘Living Newspaper’: Edition 2; her powerfully moving piece STRAWBERRIES, garnered a special mention in reviews. 

Her adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s CRONGTON KNIGHTS, produced by Pilot Theatre, toured UK in 2020 and her monologue SOCIAL DISTANCING was one of Kali Theatre’s online season of ‘Kali Shorts’. 

She was listed on the BBC New Talent Hotlist in 2017.  In 2016 she wrote monologue ETCHING, for BBC Writersroom scheme ‘The Break’ which was broadcast on BBC3 Online and she also contributed to Snapchat content for ACKLEY BRIDGE, online. BLOOD for Tamasha Theatre Company, toured nationally in March 2015; OUTSIDERS her play for Pilot Theatre was commissioned as part of an EC Culture project, Boomerang; the production went on national tour.

In 2014, she was commissioned by Clean Break under their Writers On Attachment scheme. Emteaz’s acclaimed first play, SWEET CIDER, was produced by Tamasha Theatre Company at the Arcola Theatre in 2008 and was published in 2013 in the anthology ‘Plays for Today by Women’ by Aurora Metro Books.

As a performance poet she has performed nationally and internationally and has toured with Transglobal Underground, Fundamental, Hustlers HC and as a backing poet with the Benjamin Zephaniah band. Emteaz works extensively as a workshop practitioner in both statutory and community settings, specialising in pupil referral units.

Ephemera

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Jasmin:
This is Jasmin Nolan on the 21st February 2020, recording for Lights Up! at Derby Theatre. Please can you introduce yourself and tell me where you were born and what you do?

Emteaz:
Okay. I was born in Sheffield, quite a long time ago it seems now (laughs). I live in Nottingham and I'm a playwright, amongst other things.

Jasmin:
Lovely. Born in Sheffield, how would you describe your connection to the East Midlands?

Emteaz:
Oh well, I moved to Nottingham sixteen years ago and I had my daughter here. So she's grown up and she's a real, true East Midlandser (laughs). So yeah, I've been here, it seems, a long time now.

Jasmin:
So, being a mother yourself, who did you live with growing up?

Emteaz:
My mum, my dad, my four sisters and two brothers. So I come from a big British Pakistani family.

Jasmin:
What did your parents do for work when you were growing up?

Emteaz:
My father worked in the steel industry. So, in those days there was steel and, in the eighties, he was made redundant, as many were. But that's what my father did, and my mum brought up seven kids (laughs).

Jasmin:
(Laughs) Goodness!

Emteaz:
Yeah, they both worked really hard.

Jasmin:
So, tell me about being young. Do you actually remember your first memory of theatre?

Emteaz:
Probably the worst show that I've probably ever seen, actually, and it was a school panto. We went with the school and I was kind of one of the only Asian kids. I felt really out of place there. It was a Christmas show – I'm not going to name where it was (laughs) because that might be a little bit— I mean, it was a long time ago, but I won't.
It was a Christmas show and it was supposed to be like a panto, but it wasn't very good. But what was really interesting was that we all bonded because we all didn't like it (laughs). We were all slagging it off, so to speak, so that was a bonding process, the fact that it was so rubbish (laughs). In a weird kind of way, I felt like I belonged (laughs) as a critic with these other school friends, students.

Jasmin:
So, apart from Christmas pantos, what would you say pushed you to want to work in theatre?

Emteaz:
Ah right, that was my drama lessons at school. What we did was we had impro, and me and some of my friends – at that time, it was a group of Pakistani girls (laughs) – we would just really love it and we would, I think, really go for it because it was somewhere we could say something in a safe way. So that's what we started doing.
We'd do a lot of comedy, and I felt incredibly empowered doing that and I wanted to do more of that. So that's what sparked me and I'm a big advocate for drama and theatre and arts in schools because my parents wouldn't have known to send me to Youth Theatres or dance. They came from Pakistan, so they didn't have that sort of connection or awareness that that was going on, or interest even (laughs).
So, schools, in the arts, open that up to kids who don't have that access first, especially working-class children like I was. I'm saddened that that's been reduced in schools because I know that I wouldn't have known and I wouldn't have been empowered and I wouldn't have felt I had a voice if that hadn't happened in school. So that was great. Yeah, that started me and I've never kind of shut up since, really.

Jasmin:
(Laughs)
Emteaz: I joined the plays that schools did and, from there, I knew other older students who'd joined the Youth Theatre and I was like, oh, I want to do that. So I kind of [form battled 0:04:37] with my family because it was a bit alien, and especially for a girl, that I wanted to join the Youth Theatre, and I really pushed. But that was because of lessons in school and the drama work that was going on in schools. As some of the other pupils and friends and people were doing, I just wanted to kind of follow and do.
Then I became aware that these things existed and I did, I joined the Crucible Youth Theatre. Yeah, that was, for me, quite life changing because it was so— I was probably the first Asian girl there. Actually, I was (laughs) the first. I know that. Not probably, I was. That was so pivotal for me in changing what could've been a different road for me.

Jasmin:
So, from those early lessons, how would you describe your personal journey into the industry?

Emteaz:
Oh, it's not been smooth. There's a struggle there, but it's a struggle that I feel— Getting into it was a struggle. Now, it's sustaining it. So yeah, how long have you got (laughs)? But in a nutshell, I had a lot of personal struggles to sort out, like where was I living. I did find myself living in a refuge at sixteen, so after that, I am sort of considered vulnerably housed.
So there was a lot that happened around that time that I had to sort of deal with as a young adult. It wasn't like, oh, I went to the Youth Theatre and then I did this and I did that and here I am. There were priorities, which was housing and money and food and where I'm staying and where do I belong. So those things took their time, but I was poet, I was writing poetry and I was performing and I was going to Apples and Snakes in London.
I don't know if you've heard of Benjamin Zephaniah. He knew of me and asked me if I'd join his band. So I toured as a backing poet (laughs) in a reggae band, which was really quite surreal but a big, massive learning curve for me.
So I was always in the arts and always expressing myself and always writing, amidst my own struggles. The arts was helping me tell stories that I was coming up against, and I've never lost that from those drama lessons at school, sort of storytelling. So here I am (laughs), still.

Jasmin:
So what kind of poetry were you writing and was there anybody else who really inspired your work?

Emteaz:
Joolz, who's a Bradford poet. At that time – I mean, there are millions now, there are loads of poets now – but at that time, Jean Binta Breeze, Linton Kwesi Johnson, great performance poets. So they were very inspiring, yeah, and they dealt with political issues and social issues, and I identified with that. So yeah, they inspired me a lot, yeah.
In my mid to late-twenties, I'd got into drama school to study drama education and, in that, we started reading a lot of plays. I read Sarah Kane's Blasted, which absolutely blew my mind. I thought it was a phenomenal play, and that inspired me because I was already writing. I was doing poetry and I could see how, in playwriting, you could— I wanted to deal with issues a bit more broadly, from different perspectives, and plays allow you to because you've got so many different characters. I felt that play was a real lesson in how to do that.
So, Sarah Kane and then, obviously, that opened the door to lots of plays (laughs) because I was so interested then. So, Debbie Tucker Green, Caryl Churchill, Alice Birch. I mean, I can't choose because I just love a lot of plays, but at that specific time in terms of a turning point, I remember reading Sarah Kane's Blasted and Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and F-ing (laughs). I don't want to swear, but that's what it's called. I thought, well, right, these are great plays, talking about contemporary stuff.

Jasmin:
Do you notice any similarities with your poetry and with your playwriting? Would you say it's in terms of politics or with your expression as a person?

Emteaz:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I do because Blood, one of my plays, was a very direct address. So that's like performance poetry, you know? And also, in Crongton Knights, although the cast have written stuff, it lends itself to poetry and direct address. So yeah, there is similarity. If you think about it, Shakespeare and his work, the poetry in that and monologues and soliloquy, it is quite poetic. So it's a fine line, I think.

Jasmin:
So, talking about your writing, could you identify a specific style, or have you got lots of different styles that you like to write with?

Emteaz:
I like to challenge myself. Because I've done direct address in Blood in particular, I really want to write, at the minute – what do you call it? – a real-time, one space play, like a pot boiler play. So (laughs) I'm striving to do that.
I don't like to be restricted in terms of style. It's also what is the content of what you're writing and how that affects the form. So I remain very open to styles, really.

Jasmin:
I suppose it changes when you change as a person.

Emteaz:
Yeah, it does, and it changes in terms of subject matter, what would work for this particular subject matter in terms of its style.
In Blood, for instance, I really wanted those two young people to tell and let the audience know what was going on for them, and that was important and it was an unheard story. So they were kind of [0:12:03] – it was a two-hander – and also doing direct address.
So that worked for that play but, at the minute, I want to get a whole community and I'm just wondering, if I condense it into real-time and one space, that might help to just bring a very big subject down to its intimate details. I'm still working it through, but it depends what the subject matter is for me, how it affects the style.

Jasmin:
When you are writing, how would start your process? Is there anything that you do or you have done with previous plays or poems? Do you sit by yourself or—?

Emteaz:
Oh God, it's really interesting because I was thinking about this last night, because what I've done is I just tend to open the laptop and start writing. I start writing dialogue or a poem and then I start editing as I go along (laughs). I'm just thinking of actually – and I have done this a couple of times – maybe writing an outline and a well thought through outline before I start, because I do redraft a lot (laughs).
So my approach is evolving as I get a little bit more confident. Rather than just throwing it out on the page and sort of like, ah, I've got to get this out, maybe a bit more considered in terms of doing a bit more of an outline this time round. So it's changing, and it's funny you should ask that because I was thinking about that last night actually (laughs).

Jasmin:
So is there anything that you find you really struggle with in the process? Is it going back and editing everything, or do you think it's the initial outline?

Emteaz:
No, what I struggle with is time, as a mum. Also, I have to sometimes do other jobs and work, and I struggle with that because, again, I think it's very difficult for working-class artists, if you don't have a lot of money, to sustain a career in the arts. It can be done, but it's tough. So that's what I struggle with.
The writing itself, if only I could have the space of a week and just sit down and just get on with it, but I don't have that privilege and luxury. I'm a parent. I also have to have a day job. I work part-time. So yeah, it's a struggle. But I'm not moaning. I'm just saying that's what is the issue for me.

Jasmin:
Do you think that drives you more to want to write these plays?

Emteaz:
Yes, absolutely (laughs), it does. I've just got to get this down, yeah, and not to be defeated. It really makes me feel I'm there and I've earned the platform and I really want to utilise that, and I'm not going to be shut away or defeated by this, even though I still have to make sure, as a family, we're all right, the bills are paid, my daughter's okay. I'm going to try. Let's see how it all plays out (laughs). I'm still evolving.

Jasmin:
So, in your career, would you say there was anybody who gave you your big break, or was there anybody that really championed you?

Emteaz:
Right, the people who gave me my break were Kristine Landon-Smith and Sudha Bhuchar from Tamasha Theatre, because when I decided I was going to write a play, I found myself joining the Tamasha Developing Artists in London. They're a theatre company, a great theatre company that I've done a lot of work with in London.
I joined them and they liked what I was doing. Then they commissioned it and then they put it on. So they're the ones who did it first and, from then, other people took notice, really, and I was able to springboard from there. So I'm really grateful to Tamasha Theatre for that, yeah.

Jasmin:
What do you enjoy most about your job?

Emteaz:
I love the craft of it and the writing of it and seeing a play evolve, seeing your characters come to life. You've created them, but you believe in them. I do like that. I do get a buzz from that, when it works (laughs).
As I go on, I'm getting more comfortable because sometimes I can sit there and think, oh, this isn't working, oh my God, what a waste of time, blah blah blah. But I know now to give it some time, to give things a bit of time and a bit of work and a bit effort, and then sometimes you can be really surprised as to what is on the page. That's a really nice feeling.
What I also love is other people's plays and work. I just sit there and go, wow, that's amazing! Oh my God, that's just moved me. Oh God, you know? So I love the world of it and I feel really grateful to be part of it.

Jasmin:
Is there anything that you don't enjoy about your job?

Emteaz:
Yeah, I sometimes don't like some of the armchair critics that aren't well thought through, some of the media stuff. I just think, sometimes, that can come from such a narrow perspective. Sometimes things can come from – it sounds very strong – an ignorant place, where it's viewing your work and you're talking about different culture. You're just like, pfft, you know? (Laughs) You could be a bit more thought through on that in these days, please.
It's an ongoing battle and it's so frustrating. I'm getting better at ignoring it and not letting it affect me so much, but that's an aspect because you are putting stuff out there and you're exposing yourself a little bit, your voice and your ideas. So that's part of it.
When I first started, I was a bit stunned at how ill thought through some of that could be, and insensitive. It's the nature of the beast, I think. We could go on about the media and armchair critics and trolls and all kinds, couldn't we, but I think that's coming to light a bit more, given recent events.
I think women are particularly vulnerable. We get attacked. Attacked is a strong word, but we get trolled. I'm off Twitter. I found it too time-consuming for a start. It's got its benefits and I think it's done some good things in terms of championing justice when the girl got raped in Ireland and everyone got on Twitter and was backing her, and there was that #suemepaddy. So I'm not dissing it because it has its uses, and Black Twitter in particular can get some balance back.
So, bearing that in mind, where people don't have a voice, they feel they can. There's that but, also, I think women get an unfair onslaught of criticism, and it's too much sometimes. I've got to say, I'm not that important (laughs). I stay away but, even on my little scale that I've got, it's not been easy to deal with.

Jasmin:
Well, I think you're very important.

Emteaz:
Aw, thank you.

Jasmin:
And I think that your voice is really strong. How would you use that voice to talk to those critics and to that media? What would you like to say to them and what would you want them to learn?

Emteaz:
I wouldn't bother with them if they're people that are ignorant. If there's constructive criticism, and there's a lot of that – you know, criticism can be good and important, so that's good stuff – but if it's the stuff that's kind of ill thought through and it's just loud, I wouldn't bother.
I think what I would do is carry on (laughs). Just carry on doing it and just keep faith and keep staying strong and, in light of recent events, find people who will support you. I really look for solidarity and, when I find those people, I stick with them, because I can't deal with things on my own. I'm no hero, you know, so I have my little tribe. It's very small but I will reach out and I will try and talk when things are difficult, and that's important, I think.

Jasmin:
Yeah, I think so. So, for your audiences and for the people that really do listen, what would you want them to take away from your writing and from your characters?

Emteaz:
To realise there are so many different stories in the world, to identify with somebody who's different to you and realise we have universal (laughs) characteristics and more in common than not.
I think, overall, that's probably why I do what I do, to show that we're more similar than different. Even in our differences, and my culture or someone's culture is very different, but actually, when I watch Hamlet, for instance, I can get a lot from that, and that's some 18th century date (laughs). So, a 21st century neighbour who's of a (laughs) different race or culture or gender, what can we resonate with, perhaps, if my writing's strong enough (laughs).

Jasmin:
There have been a lot of changes in the industry for women, or lack of changes. What have you noticed, as a woman, in the industry?

Emteaz:
I think the Me Too movement exposed some really bad (laughs) behaviour that takes place in our industry, and just the awareness, the fact that that's come to light, there's been a shift and I've sensed a shift. People thought they couldn't speak or they couldn't say and things were hushed up, and that was normal, you know, that you were trouble if you had a horrible story like that. The fact that that's shifted, that that's heard, is significant and I've noticed that there's a difference.
I think there have been certain regulations, I've noticed, going on in various theatres about behaviour. So that's really good (laughs), and especially for women, and necessary.
I think it's a start (laughs). It's a start. We're still early days, really, so we've just got to keep at it, I would say. And [0:25:13] projects like this are great. I mean, I just thought I was going to have a picture taken (laughs). I mean, this is full-on interview and, with the other artists you've got, it's great.
We're all keeping at it. We're not going to let this suddenly be we've had a big flash of stories and it's gone quiet again. Everyone's just ‘let's keep at it, let's keep the change going’. So I think that's really significant, but we've got to keep at it, I think.

Jasmin:
Yeah, I agree. So, being of an Asian culture, would you say that you've had a different journey, or have you found that harder to merge in the industry as a woman and as of Asian culture?

Emteaz:
I think I've become adept at navigating my predicament because I expect (laughs) the racism and chauvinism, and also, the community wanting to [silence 0:26:18], it comes from all directions for me (laughs).
So, at my age now, it's kind of like I'm used to it. I'm sort of adept now, I think, in dealing with it. Sometimes, people trying to silence me or change something in what I'm trying to say or whatever can be frustrating, but the more I stick in it and the more I get better at it—
So yeah, it is a particular journey coming from a person of colour, being working-class. Class is a massive issue for me in theatre, and being a woman, but it's not something that I don't know how to handle now. I'm getting better at handling it (laughs) because it gets boring. It's the same old rubbish. After a while you go, oh, this again (laughs)? Are we dealing with this again? Oh, again? Huh! I'm not saying— Yeah, I'm just tired of it. But I see it coming, so I can deal with it.

Jasmin:
Being a woman, being a woman of colour, being a woman of working-class, what are the advantages of your role?

Emteaz:
I think, for me, I'd not say there are any advantages. I'd say, you as a playwright, generally, need to work hard (laughs) at writing good plays, good, strong plays, wherever you come from.
What are the disadvantages is I think women get critiqued and scrutinised more, and certain male voices are allowed to get away with things a bit more, or praised more. (Laughs) You see that a lot.
Again, I just think how I've written it, and the audience itself, that's what matters. So I always hold on to that. I don't let any of that rubbish – gender imbalance, race, class – deter me. I think there's a battle to get really good working-class voices and characters on stage that are complex and nuanced. I think that's a big battle, but I'm getting better at that as well (laughs), having that battle, I think.

Jasmin:
Imagine you had a magic wand and you could change one thing in the industry, what would you change?

Emteaz:
I would change the fact that I think we should be better paid (laughs), and I think I would like more funding in the arts. If I had a magic wand, I would like some of the funding cuts that happened, I think, around 2011, I would want that reversed because I think we were on a good trajectory of supporting new writing and then, suddenly, austerity measures come in. So my magic wand would be let's reverse that and let's see where we are today (laughs).

Jasmin:
What is your greatest achievement, would you say, or a play that you're most proud of?

Emteaz:
Hmm, I don't know. I like each one for different things. I was very proud of Blood because that said what I needed it to say and it seemed to resonate and do really well. But I love Crongton Knights at the moment. I mean, I've adapted Alex Wheatle's book but I'm proud of being part of that brilliant team and cast. What I did and what everybody has brought and how we've worked as a team, that makes me incredibly proud, and the show.
I loved what I did with BBC3, Etching. We did a little short film, and that was great, working with them.
So I like it all. I wouldn't do it – it's too difficult – if I didn't love what I was doing each time. I can be nit-picky and bring gripes but, ultimately, I love the buzz of it once it gets on stage. And even though I'm not part of it then (laughs), I love to watch it and see the audiences' response. So, all of it. All of that. I can't just pick one (laughs).

Jasmin:
How would you suggest a young person, like us, get into the industry? Have you got any advice?

Emteaz:
You do projects like this. You get involved. Be involved, and then work hard, really. That's what I did. I was involved and I worked hard. Be willing to learn and listen and, as time goes on, you'll know what's worth holding onto and what's worth discarding. You've got to, I think, really want it and love it and be willing to really work hard and be very determined. If you really, really, really want it, you won't let the negativity stop you.

Jasmin:
What advice would you give your younger self?

Emteaz:
Oh, God! Chill (laughs). Chill out, it'll be all right. What I know now is to really— I think you don't know it— In my experience, I don't think we know when we're younger, but it is just getting on with it. The young are so distracted with lots of different things, I think – perhaps that's a phase – but what I know now is if I'd just sat my backside down on a chair and just wrote (laughs), I'd probably have a longer career if I'd started younger.
Advice to my younger self? Have some fun, have faith, I have none of that (laughs) but yeah (laughs).