Sending email...

Email sent!

EP 4: Sonali Bhattacharyya

Sonali Bhattacharyya is a playwright working in London and the East Midlands

Listen

Sonali Bhattacharyya is  a playwright whose commissions include Megaball (National Theatre Learning), 2066 (Almeida Theatre), The Invisible Boy (Kiln Theatre) and the South Bank Show award nominated White Open Spaces (Pentabus Theatre). Sonali was one of three playwrights selected for the inaugural Old Vic 12, and was 2018 Channel 4 writer in residence at the Orange Tree Theatre, where she wrote Chasing Hares, winner of the Sonia Friedman Production Award. Sonali is currently under commission to Fifth Word and Kiln Theatre.

Ephemera

Transcript

Read full transcript Hide full transcript

Emma White:
Can you introduce yourself, please, and tell me when and where you were born?

Sonali Bhattacharyya:My name is Sonali and I was born in Leicester at the Royal Infirmary Hospital in 1978.

Emma:
And can you tell me what you do?

Sonali:
I'm a playwright.

Bethan:
Can you please tell me your connection to the East Midlands?

Sonali:
Yes, I'm born and bred in Leicester went to school there. I left Leicester when I was 18 to go to university, but my parents still live here. So I have still got a strong connection with the region.

Bethan:
Who did you live with growing up?

Sonali:
My mum and dad.

Bethan:
And what do they do for work?

Sonali:
They're both retired now, but my mum was a social worker when I was growing up, and my dad was a lecturer in Economics and Statistics at Leicester University.

Bethan:
That's quite impressive.

(SONALI LAUGHS)

What's your first memory of theatre?

Sonali:
Well, I did not grow up in a theatregoing family in any way.

It was not really part of our sort of cultural sort of life at all. I think I went to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Leicester Haymarket, on a school trip when I was, I think, in middle school.

And I decided, on that basis, I did not like theatre. But I really wanted to write. And I was very into films. So I thought I wanted to be a film director, first of all, which is not... This is still quite outlandish for my family. They thought this was sort of pie in the sky thinking.

But I was more interested in films. I studied Media Arts and specialized in Screenwriting, and then, quite circuitously, ended up realising that I really liked theatre. I just hadn't gone to see the right theatre. (LAUGHS)

And also that actually a lot of my ideas are very theatrical, and I liked the collaborative nature of theatre. So I sort of drifted into theatre quite organically, really. I'm not trained in theatre. I still often don't really feel like it's maybe like a natural fit for me. Like in terms of like who feels welcome in theatre, But I feel like theatre needs to change, rather than us changing. If that makes sense.

Bethan:
Yeah. Was there anything about your first experience with theatre that made you think "This isn't for me"?

Sonali:
And did I mention it was Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat?

Bethan:
Yeah.

Sonali:
I can't remember who was playing Joseph. It definitely wasn't... It definitely wasn't like a star. It wasn't Phillip Schofield. It was Leicester Haymarket. But I can't remember. I just found it very, I found... I hate forced fun. And even in childhood, I didn't like forced fun. And I felt like I just didn't... It just made me feel very uncomfortable.

And I remember getting the coach back to school afterwards. And one of the dinner ladies who had come with us as like a grown-up, you know, grown-ups keeping an eye on us, asking me what I thought about it and me being like, didn’t like it very much. And she called me a miserable sod. And I was like, ah. This is what life was going to be like. So I think it's just, you know, it's about... there's obviously, like, theatre is massive. And that wasn't the genre for me or the style for me. And I just didn't really, you know, that didn't connect with me.

Bethan:
Yeah. But it's quite interesting that your first connection with theatre wasn't the thing that drove you to the role that you're in now. So what would you say was the main trigger for where you are no?

Sonali:
So I started writing. So I specialised in Screenwriting as an undergraduate, and I wrote a screenplay which was sort of like a big historical epic. And I guess I also came out into sort of... I moved to London soon after that. And it seemed like not a lot of 21-year-olds were writing big historical epics.

 So I did sort of get quite a bit of interest and I got an agent really quickly. And now I realise that's quite unusual. But at the time I just thought that's what happened, and I got my first TV commission almost right away, which is also really strange. Not that it was ever made. I was in like development hell for about five years, but it all seemed like, oh yeah, this is what you do. And then it started to get harder because actually it's really hard. It doesn't really work like that.

And then I found that I got regular work through radio drama. So I did a couple of things for Radio Four, and then BBC Radio Drama Birmingham were starting a new... What I would call the Asian, urban Archers, called Silver Street, and they were looking for a core team and they put me on the core team. So I was able to be like, really luckily and unusually like a working writer from that point for quite a few years because I had regular commissions from them.

And that's when I started to like, sort of explore a bit more about what I wanted to write, which is, I think, really crucial. And that's when I first started writing for theatre. I think the very first theatre commission I got was a 10-minute monologue for a brilliant project called White Open Spaces, which was for Pentabus Theatre, and they're really unusual in that they're a rural theatre. They create work for rural communities who don't often have access to theatre. But it was in response to a comment from Trevor Phillips that there was a silent apartheid in the British countryside.

So they took a lot of writers of colour and plonked us in the countryside, at one of the Arvon Centres, do you know Arvon? Arvon are like a writers' society. So they have a few sorts of properties around the country that have been bequeathed to them from writers' estates. So there's like... who are the writers who are Arvon? they've got... There's a Ted Hughes one in the north, near Hebden Bridge. This one was in Shropshire, which was the... It's the Hurst. I cannot remember which writer bequeathed it, but basically, they run writers' programs and courses there.

On this occasion they were used as a base, because they're in the middle of the countryside. So it was very fun, as I got off at like... I think it's Ludlow, got off the train and on the platform. We all looked at each other, like we all knew. We all knew we were going to this project because we were the only black and brown people on the platform.

“Oh, you are in White Open Spaces? Yeah, so am I!" But that was a really fantastic sort of way to start to feel like how theatre could actually be meaningful to me. It was about my experience, my lived experience, and also speaking, to speak... Yeah. Sort of like voicing a story that hasn't really been told before.

And that's when I realised the power of theatre and the immediacy of it, and its ability to have a... sort of a conversation with the audience, I guess? It's more of a dialogue with the audience than stuff on screen. So, yeah. So that's when I sort of got the theatre bug and I started, and I sort of then, from there, got on attachment with the Birmingham Rep for a little while, and did a community project for them in Kali Theatre, and Black Country Touring and really sort of enjoyed the...

That sort of creating work where the conversation started in the community, and then I took that away and then we brought it back to the community, and that felt like it brought together lots of my interests, not just my storytelling interests, but also my sort of, I guess, sort of, with a small 'p', political activism as well. I wanted to sort of be embedded in those conversations that are happening on a sort of a grassroots level.

Bethan:
So it sounds like your main reason for theatre has been from your own ideas and your own drive. But did you have, in your early years of career, did you have a big inspiration that kind of pushed you a little bit further to get into theatre?

Sonali:
Ooh, I don't know. Well, I mean, when I was in attachment with the Rep, they paired me with a mentor, which was really helpful, actually, because I was completely green and I didn't really, you know, the industry could feel quite exclusive and quite sort of impenetrable. So that was really helpful. And, they paired me with a wonderful man called Carl Miller, who is a playwright and also a librettist and a dramaturg. And he's just the most sort of, he was just a brilliant person to be paired up with when I was just starting out because he's really, really wise, and really smart, but also extremely supportive. And it's quite rare to find people who can give the sort of dramaturgy where they don't put any of their ego into it.

It's just about them identifying what you want to write, and trying to support you to do that to the best, you know, to sort of say what you want to say to the best of your ability. So he set a really high bar in that way. And he's also lovely enough that I've been able to cheekily just continue to treat him as my mentor over the years. So if I've got a problem, I don't pester him all the time, but every, you know, I'd say at least once a year I'll drop Carl an email and go, Carl, I'm a little bit stuck! And he really doesn't mind sort of getting back to you.

Bethan:
So what about your own personal journey? Cause obviously it's going to be up and down with this industry. But like, if you could describe it, in like an overarching sense of what your journey was?

Sonali:
I think there's like an issue. Like, I think one of the big issues with the creative industries is the idea that you... So, like, you can see in the schemes that are set up, that you have like your new artists, your emerging artists, your middle career artists. And then, well, I don't know, you're like supposed to have won the Olivier or something. And I think it's really not very helpful because as a practitioner of any art, your career is never going to go like that. There's also a sort of... There's a certain...

There's sort of a value judgement on certain types of work in that as well, which is really problematic. So they're sort of inherent in that. There's the unspoken idea that some types of work are more valuable than others. So, you know, if you're doing community theatre when you're an emerging artist and you're supposed to get to this stage, and then you're not supposed to do that anymore. And that's just, I mean, I just think that's just wrong.

I think that it's hard to sustain a career. And I think that the most important thing is to identify what stories are valuable to you, but also what kinds of ways of working are valuable to you. So I guess for me, like, I think I mean, definitely, when I started out, I was like, this is the way you're supposed to do this. You're supposed to do this.

And then I sort of, I did a bit of TV for a little while as well, which is super competitive. But then I had quite a difficult period in my life. I had quite a few personal things happened that made it quite difficult to continue. So I had a bit of an unexpected hiatus from the work and wasn't able to write for about maybe three or four years.

And then when I came back in, I was, it just seemed very clear to me that that's sort of, the competitiveness is not very good for anybody and is sort of meaningless. And I only really wanted to come back in if I could write stories that were meaningful to me, that I felt like they weren't, hadn't been told before. And I also only wanted to work with people who I thought were brilliant. (LAUGHS)

I didn't want to work with people because I felt like I should work with people. Or, I didn't want other people who were bullying, or I felt didn't have the same values as me. So to me, that was sort of like I wouldn't say I can have like an overarching... I don't think that's the case for anyone.

And that's definitely what I'd say to anyone who wanted to work in, work in the arts and especially in theatre, that it's about finding that. I think a lot of it is about finding those collaborators you have shared values with and shared some ideas with and holding onto them and just keep sort of going. I think it's very project by project, really.

Bethan:
Yeah, but I definitely agree with you that there is some sort of expectation of a hierarchy. But taking that out, are there any playwrights have inspired you, whether they are technically aren't as experienced or more experienced, can you like, can you tell me a bit more about that, please?

Sonali:
Yeah, sure. I mean, obviously, I mean, it's a very obvious answer. But obviously, Caryl Churchill is like a national institution. But I think to be... What is so amazing about her, and the reason I think I identify so like closely with her as well, is that she started a little bit later and then she had loads of kids. (LAUGHS)

And just kept on working but has never sort of ticked any of the boxes that you would expect, you know, a woman playwright who's got kids to take. Like she's always absolutely retained a sense of anger in her work, and a sense of urgency in her work. She's always wanted to push boundaries in terms of genre and bringing genres onto stage, which often...

She was sort of like the first person to do, you know, things like sci-fi on stage, and cloning and stuff, like they're doing a revival of A Number at the moment. But yeah, really, and I think the fact that she, her most recent work is as powerful as anything else you'll see at the moment. She just still absolutely can sort of explode the society we live in and find ways of telling stories in ways that, you know.

So I think she's, I think she's fantastic. And I find her inspiring on lots of different levels. I love debbie tucker green, I think for similar reasons in that she minds, sort of... She has a sort of a very specific vision for how she wants to tell stories and very clear sort of political agenda as well, which I think is really important for that story to be told.

Bethan:
When did you realise that you had a knack with playwriting?

Sonali:
Oh, well, I was making... So I was really interested in film from quite a young age, and I was like looking about with my dad's video camera and stuff like sort of middle school, and making those short films with my friends and we'd write scripts and stuff and like... And I guess I realised it was usually me... 

That was writing the scripts as it go, I actually really looked like doing camera operating and like directing and stuff as well. But then when I sort of got to, and I was really clear that I wanted to sort of go into something to do with media, which my parents were not happy about at all.

Although they were very supportive. They let me go and do it, but they didn't think, I think they were quite nervous about the employment possibilities, which is not an unfounded worry. But then I got to university. I directed a few short films and I found. I found it really, I didn't... I realised I wanted to be part of the gang, and actually when you're a director, you're really not part of the gang, you're quite removed. And I found it really uncomfortable and I realized that maybe it wasn't actually a very natural fit for me.

And so I specialized in screenwriting as opposed to directing, which is what I thought was going to do. I really enjoyed it, really enjoyed writing, especially enjoyed writing like a full-length thing. But I just got to just like, I just loved the research and the sort of fully immersing yourself in the first draft. And I really liked the writing process which I think is quite unusual as well. So I sort of realized that maybe writing was a good, you know, was sort of a natural fit for me. But like I said, I really didn't, I didn't really make the connection between that and being a playwright for a few years still. I wrote a few screenplays, wrote quite a lot of radio drama, a bit of TV.

And then it was after I wrote the, I think probably after I worked on White Open Spaces, and then I wrote my first full length play when I was on attachment with the Birmingham Rep, and just really started to enjoy the form, and started to go and see more theatre. I think that was also the thing, I started to go to see shows with people who knew more about theatre than me, so they could take me to see shows that I enjoyed.

And I started to realize that there was something, something about like I just, yeah, I just really love how expansive the storytelling can be in theatre, how bold you can be with form. And I realize a lot of the stories I wanted to tell were, but you know, really only when you work on stage. So, yeah, that was it, took a little bit of time for me to realize that that was sort of my main focus that I've been on my mind somehow. But, yeah, it's been, it's worked out quite well so far.

Bethan:
I'd also love to know more about your writing itself. So what's the kind of the style you normally go for?

Sonali:
I'm really interested in... There's a few things I often come back to. I really enjoy playing with sort of realism and domesticity coming up against sort of fantasy and sort of... Yes, fantasy or dreamlike sort of stuff. Yeah. I'm really sort of interested in where the line between fantasy and reality, which can be done really well on stage, I think. It can be made very ambiguous on stage, which really appeals to me. So I often come back to that.

Recently I've been really interested in exploring how you can also take over from different periods of history as well, because I've become really the last few things I've seen, the things I'm writing right now, actually a very sort of rooted in really sort of, I guess quite big ideas.

So, for instance, I just wrote at a moment about sort of how capitalism is sort of dying, and I'm sort of interested in how there's a through line from sort of Victorian dock workers to sort of... A lot of the play takes place in the late 2000s, West Bengal, and then coming right up to the modern-day sort of Deliveroo, precarious workers. And like on stage, you can really have like a fluidity between those historical periods, which can feel like really, like I feel like on stage that can be done really simply. But it's the simplicity that can be so powerful.

So a lot of my stuff at the moment has been sort of like that. I think I'm increasingly interested in sort of saying I feel frustrated at the moment. A lot of really important things are going unsaid. I feel like we're drifting into a very scary and dangerous time politically, and I feel like we will probably have a responsibility to try to do something about that. And I guess storytelling is one, is one factor of that, one sort of strand of that. And a lot of it is about speaking what hasn't been said, I think we're seeing a lot now that avoiding certain subjects is allowing quite dangerous things to sort of creep back into the national sort of consciousness and into what is acceptable culturally.

So, yeah, so a lot of my writing at the moment, there's a certain urgency about it. The play I've been working on for Fifth Word, it's been about sort of the erasure of sort of young Muslim, British Muslim women's voices, and about their sense of agency and their sense of sort of heroism. And I feel like that sort of is... Those stories need to be put out there and, you know, we need to, those voices need to be heard, I guess.

Bethan:
Yeah. So you mention that you're currently on quite a few writing projects. Can you tell me like through your process, like where do you start?

Sonali:
So it depends on the projects, but I always, there's always some research. How much research depends on the project? So some projects, there'll be an idea that's been sort of like bubbling under for quite a long time. So this project for Fifth Word, for instance, has been something I've been wanting to explore for a long time. So a lot of the research behind it has been stuff I've been actually just sort of reading. So I've been drawn to it.

Other projects I've needed like loads of research, but always start with, yeah, just collecting my thoughts and my articles and books and things like that. I always do an immersive draft, like an exploratory draft. I'll often have an idea of like a big theme I want to explore the characters, but I don't usually know until the end of the first draft exactly what it is I want to say. I like to sort of discover that as I'm writing, because I like to be surprised. I like to sort of work out what the characters want to do. And then by the end of the first draft, I should know. And then the second draft is usually about pairing those things down to make sure that...

Because the thing about writing an exploratory draft is usually the structure is a bit all over the place. And so often the second draft is about making it more sort of structurally sound, and making sure that what I discovered in the first draft is being sort of conveyed just as well as possible, I guess.

Bethan:
Yeah, so what would you say, is the easiest aspect of your writing process, what comes quite naturally to you?

Sonali:
Hmm. I always think, so when I first started writing, and I do think this, I think this is fairly common, although maybe I shouldn't say that because actually maybe everybody's different. But I think that when I first started writing, I was very like, this is my scene by scene, I do my structure, this is how it works, and I have my diagrams and it's all like, almost quite scientific.

And I've realized as I've got older and more experienced, that a lot of writing is about trying to... I feel like I'm often trying to trick my brain into not doing any of that, and to sort of let the dream space come out instead. So I'll often do things like try to just sort of jot down thoughts or even parts of scenes while I'm on a train or on the tube, on the bus. I always try to have a notepad with me, and then I prefer to try and take those sort of dream thoughts to the computer and write scenes based on those. And then the scene slowly starts to come together.

So that for me, it's not necessarily the easiest way, but it is the most fruitful way because I find that's how I start to be able to say what I want to say, instead of what I think I need to say, does that make sense?

Bethan:
It sound like a really creative starting process to a piece. What would you say is the biggest struggle in your writing process?

Sonali:
Hmm. The process or the industry?

Bethan:
The process.

Sonali:
The process. Well, I mean, you'll always be shocked at how many rewrites you have to do. I did a rewrite of something last week, and I was looking through, and I was like ah, it's draft 11, which is actually like nothing, but it's like, it's just like, it's quite typical. I think that for me, like there's a few, like I often need a bit of time and space to be able to go off and rewrite. So having to rewrite in the rehearsal room is usually difficult for me, although often that's expected.

But I find it difficult to be able to get my thoughts in order without a little bit of space and distance. So that can be quite challenging, and in a similar way, like having to do rewrites back to back. So a bit of time away between drafts, I'm sort of fine. Having to do a rewrite immediately can be a little bit more difficult, which is probably what interests me about it as well, actually. Because I really want to retain that, the thing I said at first about trying to keep that dream space, I always want to retain that in a rewrite as well.

And the more pressure you feel into doing a rewrite quickly, the more you start to turn to diagrams and a lot of your structural stuff, which I just am always very conscious about trying not to sort of even out some of the sort of the small, I guess the edges, you know, sort of spiky edges that come up. Those are sort of... I want to keep those, I don't want to sort of like flatten them down by doing the 'good play', I guess is why. The 'well-made play' is not necessarily the most appealing thing to me.

Bethan:
That's really interesting. So, bring this back to the bigger picture. Was there anyone who played a significant role in your career, or really championed you?

Sonali:
Hmm. I mean, I have to say, I feel like this doesn't get said very often. There's like often, I feel culturally, there's an expectation that Asian parents are never going to support their children unless they want to do certain things. My mum and dad, like... Really now, especially now I have kids, I really like reflect on this, how they knew nothing about theatre.

Like no one in my family has ever... Everyone in my family has always worked in the public sector. I'm even the first person just not to work in the public sector. And although it really did scare the bejesus out of them... (LAUGHS) That I was going to pursue this. “Oh, right, you're doing this then, are you? You're actually going to do that, are you?" They've just remained like really supportive and have always really... yeah, they've always just been really proud and very supportive and even when it's obviously been just mystifying to them.

And, yeah, the older I get really, the more I appreciated that because I can see that that's probably absolutely not was what was expected of them. But it's just very natural that they wanted to sort of like, they wanted me to do well in what I wanted to do. So, yeah, I know, so that's a bit of a cheesy answer, isn't it? But, yeah! (LAUGHS)

Bethan:
(INAUDIBLE) actually. And I'd like to know when the theatre first became your actual career?

Sonali:
Well, that's a slightly nebulous thing, isn't it?

I mean, so I had this sort of slightly forced hiatus. Came back into writing and was in the slightly weird position where I had been a professional writer like a few years before that. And then, came back into the industry thinking, How the hell did I ever get anyone to pay me to write?" It was just like, "How did I manage that?" Like, and I didn't know if I could still write, honestly.

Our eldest daughter, Lila, was extremely premature and she'd been in hospital for like three and a half months. And I'd sort of been... Sort of just writing, jotting down stuff when she was in the hospital, but not really with a view to anything just because it was sort of like, you just need to keep busy. And then when she came home, she was really tiny, you know, and had sort of... needs... she had quite high needs.

She's fine now, but she needed quite a lot of support when I was at home with her by myself quite a lot. I just thought to compulsively start to turn these bits and pieces into a play. And that's when I slowly start to realize, Oh, maybe I actually am still a writer. And I sent that out to a few people and it sort of got... it got a like reading and like, it start to get a little bit of... so very slowly, it took a long time to get back into the industry, but very slowly started to sort of snowball.

I started to get commissions again and attachments and stuff. So I don't think I could put like a specific date on it. But it probably took about, you know, another year or two after I'd written that to try and just see myself as like a professional writer again. So I found this really weird career basically because I sort of have had two stages of my career.

Bethan:
Yeah.

Sonali:
I'm in stage two now.

Bethan:
So what gave you the confidence that made you think, Yeah, like, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to put all my will into this as a career."

Sonali:
So in stage one, it's just cockiness, being young and just sort of being really just full of like... Just brass neck, basically. And then, stage two, I think... I don't think... I think I just didn't really feel like I had anything to lose, really. I was like, there's stuff I didn't see being made I wanted to see made. There's stuff a list of the stories that I didn't... I wanted to see that weren't being told so I just like, I'm just going to write those then, and if it doesn't work out, I'm going to probably have to get like a proper job. (LAUGHS)

‘Because I sort of had this window where I couldn't work anyway 'cause I was having to look after Lila. So that was my sort of window while I was like, well, I'll see how it goes. And then when I get to the end of this period, if it doesn't work out, I'm going to probably have to be a chemistry teacher or something.

Not chemistry, why would it be chemistry? I'm terrible at science. But, like get a proper job, basically. But that's the sort of the contact that that made to the industry and the interest I got off the back of that enabled me to slowly start to sort of see myself as a writer again.

Bethan:
Yeah. So you've mentioned quite a few struggles in your career. Just like bringing up your family just time in general and stuff, but was there ever an event that happened or something that made you think, you know, I can't do this, like the biggest setback in your career?

Sonali:
Yeah, but I did stop writing. I stopped writing for about three or four years. We had a really difficult bereavement and I just couldn't really write anymore. And I think there's something about being a freelancer in any field, actually, which does leave you quite vulnerable to things like that.

Obviously, we are always, it would be crap for anyone, obviously, but there's something about the lack of... there's really no security as a freelancer. So, if disaster strikes, then, you don't... there isn't really a backup. So, I think that's... but that's also a big reason why I think, I feel like interest in politics is completely wedded with my writing, and also just my position as a theatre maker. And all those things are intertwined, like, you know, like wanting to be creative shouldn't be linked to being precarious. No one should actually be in a precarious situation like that.

So, that's sort of becoming more of a drive if anything. But it was, yeah, I definitely... I didn't think that I would write again at that point. It was a genuine surprise when I started to write again.

Bethan:
Yes, when you have, as you said, these disasters whether they be big or small, how do you cope and how do you, like, bounce back from that?

Sonali:
I think it's just, I mean, I just had my partner, my other half, Paul, is incredibly supportive. And we just sort of got through it together already. In work terms, I think that... I think it's really important. It goes sort of back to like what I was saying about trying to sort of edge away from the competitiveness because it's actually... it's better for all of us if we see our fellow sort of creatives as a community, rather than people who are competing with us because it's not... it's just...

First of all it's just not true, you know? You know, I really like that, you know, that saying "It's not pie". Like opportunities, they're not pie. There's enough to go around. We shouldn't be seen, we shouldn't... I know that it's obviously natural because we're freelancers, but, if we see each other as a community and people that we can collaborate with and bounce off and who we have a connection with artistically, and like, and also just in terms of our status as freelancers, then that gives us more support as well in times like that.

So, I also, I mean, I had... I've got... I made a lot of friends that drifted away. When you're going through disasters like that, you do sort of find out who your real friends are. And then, one of my friends who was... who was also a playwright went from being just a sort of... A sort of person I'd like to be pleased to see like, you know, at a show or something to like being a really sort of solid friend, almost like family.

And that was, you know, really based upon her understanding of what had happened to us on a personal level, but also, her understanding of what it was like to encounter tragedy when you're a freelancer, when you're just sort of like alone and adrift. And she made sure I wasn't alone and adrift. And she wasn't the only one, there was a couple of people like that. So, I think it's... I think we need to all really be aware that we…

Even though society makes us feel like we should all be running around in this sort of individualistic way, we don't have to do that. We could actually... you know, we can choose to actually reach out and see people as our collaborators and co-conspiratators... co-conspirators, that's the word, it's Friday afternoon. Yeah, I think we could have a more constructive sort of relationship with each other.

Bethan:
Yeah, what is like mindset you've got in relations that you felt that's obviously paid off? So what would you say is the best thing about your job?

Sonali:
Wow, well, I'm really lucky. Like, you know, I get to go and just sort of dream up new worlds and stuff. I'm working on projects at the moment I'm really excited about. And it's, yeah, I just... I find it quite astonishing that I get to sort of make up stories for a living! (LAUGHS)

I'm incredibly lucky. And like I say, I work with people who I really... I've worked with people who I admire, who I like and who I really respect. So I get to spend time with them as well and collaborate and work with them. So, yeah, I love everything about my job. I think that the wider industry needs to be more supportive, but I feel extremely lucky and grateful to be a playwright and to be working on projects that I think are important and exciting.

Bethan:
Yeah, is there anything more straining or a more negative aspect of your job?

Sonali:
I mean, the industry... the wider industry has got massive problems. I mean, but that's the nature of... you could probably say that about any industry at the moment. But I feel like we're at such a precarious point at the moment, where we are...

You know, we've got a really scary, hard-right government who are enacting the sort of policies that, when I was growing up as a child, like the BNP used to go around fantasizing about and our government just doing those things. I would like to see the wider industry, people in positions of power, recognizing that our culture has a responsibility to respond to that, to react to that in a way that holds the government to account, instead of just sort of appeasing it. I feel like that's really important at the moment.

You can sort of see... I feel like you can sort of really see how British culture props up some of these ideas. And it's not to say we'd... It's not to say that we... That we do as individuals. I think there are loads of like, you know, writers and directors and producers who are really actively trying to sort of question this and try to sort of... trying to help grow a movement to resist that. But I think the industry proper, like, you know, the grown-up bit of the industry, they need to do a lot more, you know.

They need to recognize if that's actually... we need to have a much greater relationship between the sort of the big institutions feeling like they belong to us as the British public than it happens at the moment. I feel like they have more responsibility to question those sorts of toxic things that are happening to us.

Bethan:
Yeah, well, obviously, you're very politically engaged and that's absolutely fascinating to listen to. And that must reflect on your work somehow. So, like what... Who are the kind of people that your work speaks to, your plays?

Sonali:
I would... the people I want to come to my plays are the people who think they don't like theatre. They probably would have been me in my teens. Like, you know, like people who don't necessarily feel, yeah, those are the other people who think that the theatre is not for them. But that ideally, that would be... that's who you want to come and see your plays. I think a lot of writers would say that though. And, of course, the people that go to the theatre all the time, are very important but it's... It goes, again, it goes back to that sort of thing about what we were taught about hierarchies, like, you know, that theatre shouldn't be seen as something that is exclusive.

So I guess, yeah, like people who... And I think for me, the reason I write a lot of the things I write is because I'm trying to write for an audience that isn't always necessarily written for. Usually, when I go to the theatre, I don't really feel like I am the intended audience. So, yeah, I'm trying to write for people to see themselves on stage, I guess.

Bethan:
So, how exactly do you want people to connect with your plays?

Sonali:
How? Oh, I don't really feel like that's my position. I don't really feel like that's my right to say how they should connect.

Bethan:
You feel like it's more of their individual journey from theatre as well?

Sonali:
Yeah. I think, I mean, ideally, I want people to come and see...

You know, I would like people to come and see, be surprised. Obviously surprised, enthralled, but also to see themselves reflected, or if it's not themselves, to see something true that they sort of respond to, that there's a truth on stage, that they haven't, you know, seen before or maybe thought about before.

Bethan:
Yeah, that's very interesting to hear. I'd like to talk about the changes in the industry for women, have you noticed anything at all?

Sonali:
It's getting better. I think seeing the new sort of raft of artistic directors like Indhu, who I know you've been speaking to, Vicky Featherstone's doing fantastic things at the Royal Court, and also sort of people of colour sort of coming in, sort of like Tarek at Battersea Arts Centre. And what sort of, Lynette's sort of been doing at the Bush as well, working and building on what Madani sort of created there.

Those are all people who I feel like have a lot of similar values to me in terms of wanting to make their theatre much more inclusive and welcoming, wanting to break down those hierarchies between supposed low culture and high culture. And just... this is just culture. And that's all been really exciting, actually. So, I said, yeah, just sort of the last seven, eight years, I think has been like real ground has been sort of made. Yeah.

Bethan:
Yeah. And have you found any challenges of being a woman of colour in this industry?

Sonali:
Yeah! (LAUGHS)

Bethan:
Would you like to describe that?

Sonali:
There's like different, I mean... this is also why I think it goes, I think I've noticed it happening less as these things have been... So, I think at the beginning, definitely, when I first started out, there was an expectation of what I would write, of what my voice, my writer's...

There was always that thing about what your writer's voice is. And it's like, when some of the people I spoke to, when I figured out what they believed my writer's voice was, I'd be just appalled. I was just like, oh, my God. I won't name any names.

But like working in TV, for instance, there was definitely a feeling that I could only... I was there to write some Asian characters, and I just found that really insulting, and I was like, I'm not an anthropologist, I'm a writer. You know, I'm not here to sort of convey... First of all, no one can speak for their whole community anyway. So, it's like, it doesn't even work. But also, you're not there to try and convey, you know, you're not there to try and channel, like a certain type of sort of cultural background. You're there to tell stories and you're there to tell universal stories, because that's what all writers want to do, right?

So, that is, I think that has been at the beginning. That was that felt very limiting and quite… yeah, that felt quite oppressive. But like I said, that was partly why artistic directors coming in from all different sort of backgrounds has been really helpful, because I think those sorts of assumptions are changing.

It is harder. It's harder to get your work produced, I would say. I think that there is still something unspoken about what constitutes a risk, and that also then goes hand in hand with our arts not being very well funded any more, the state doesn't think that it's worth subsidizing the arts, when actually we're one of the most productive and profitable industries in the country. But that then means the sense of what risk is passed on to producers.

And I think being yeah, like being a woman of colour who wants to sort of maybe write more political work or more formally inventive work and stuff, that can also be seen as a risk and you can sort of see that a little bit, probably in programming and things. I think it probably has taken me longer to get produced and things like that. But those things, yeah, you know, it's hard to sort prove that sort of stuff, it's just more of like a feeling. But I think if you spoke to most artists of colour, they probably say something similar.

Bethan:
Yeah. I'm sorry you've had to go through disadvantages. But obviously, I feel like it's made you more strong, more resilient. Would you say advantages of being a woman in your role?(SONALI LAUGHS)

Sonali:
I have to say, like, I was speaking to someone the day and I was saying, I think I'm only working with women at the moment, actually. And I think the advantage is you get to work with other brilliant women, and you understand each other. That's, yeah, I don't think there's probably any tangible benefits, no, but I think I do, like, I tend to be drawn to working with women directors, and I tend to write for women. It's not like a conscious thing. There'll be the odd token man, but there's like all... A lot of my work is for women and I don't even really think about it. And then actors will come in and say they're not getting these sorts of roles. And I find it really shocking, actually. But no, anyway. Yeah, I think that, yeah, working with other women, that's the best thing about being a woman.(LAUGHS)

Bethan:
I would definitely agree with you about that. Would you say there are any disadvantages, being a woman in your role?

Sonali:
Yeah, there's a lot of, you know, there's some, I think there's that sort of subtextual stuff, like it's not voiced, but things like unfortunately, because I'm a woman and also because I'm a freelancer, so, my other half actually is a contract worker. But compared to me, he has a grown-up job, but for all sorts of reasons, the childcare is sort of... It falls mainly on me and that can, you know, and that is the case for most women who are parents. And that can be a real factor. And that definitely can have an impact upon whether you can say yes to work, whether you can manage to attend meetings and workshops and, you know, rehearsals and things like that. So, yeah, I think those sorts of things do, I think those sorts of challenges fall more on women's shoulders.

Bethan:
Yeah, I agree. So, if you had a magic wand and you could change one thing about the industry, what would that be and why?

Sonali:
I would probably, it's always all about the economics, really. It's like we need to have... I guess the one... What's the one thing, what's the one that would really make a difference? Let me think. I just want to say Universal Basic Services, but that's not for everyone. I guess if we had proper state... If you go to countries where the arts are really valued, like places like Germany or France where there is a massive amount of state subsidy compared to Britain, where you could be an artist and survive on your artist's salary, or get a sort of... be helped to be an artist. Then I think you can sort of see the difference that makes in terms of the risks that people can take about stories that are told about what the sort of cultural landscape looks like. I guess that would probably make the biggest difference. I'd probably want to make a few though.(LAUGHS)

Bethan:
What would you say is your greatest achievement?

Sonali:
I don't know, I think probably just keeping going, because I really didn't think I would at one point so, I think probably just having the... Believing I could keep doing it, I guess. Because I think there were points when I didn't think I could. So, yeah, I think just keeping on.

Bethan:
Yeah, it's really interesting you said that, because that's been a recurring theme in that question. Is there a play that you're most proud of?

Sonali:
It's always probably the one you're writing. You always think the thing you're writing is the best thing, it's like the newest child. No, don't say that, that's a terrible thing to say! It's like the newest toy. That's what I mean. Yeah, and I don't know. I think I've definitely like... 

Everything I've been writing recently has been more ambitious than the last thing, which is sort of... I've been really enjoying that. So, the play that I've just written on attachment with the Orange Tree, which is sort of about, it's about being able to imagine an alternative to capitalism and it's about the labour movement, and sort of about Bengali folk theatre.

When I first started writing it, I didn't know if I could write it because it felt like a little bit too much. But at that point it was the most ambitious thing I'd ever written. And it just won a Sonia Friedman Production award at the end of last year, so I was like really chuffed about that because it felt like I'd... I'd set out to do something quite ambitious and it felt like it was sort of starting to come up. But I'm now writing something even more ambitious than that. (LAUGHS)

So, I think, yeah. I don't know about pride, I don't know about that. But I feel like I'm getting more confident, more and more confident about what I can tackle. And that's sort of what I definitely want to keep sort of doing that.

Bethan:
Yeah, I think that's very important to be ambitious in this industry. How would you suggest a young person like us would get into the industry?

Sonali:
I think it's... I'd go and see loads... If you want to get into theatre, go and see loads of theatre, work out what kind of theatre you like, because it's like I think you can sort of feel like you should like things. And I think it's really important to work out what you like, not necessarily to copy it or anything. But, you know, obviously you're going to like things that you're drawn to and you can start to see what you might want to, what your preoccupations are, if you want... You mean as a playwright, yeah?

Bethan:
Yeah.

Sonali:
And then I would like... It's really helpful to do like, there's some great writers' groups around. And I found those to be really helpful. So, going from sort of like community groups up to like some small venues, up to like Royal Court, National Theatre, but it's good to apply for all of those things. I think they're always looking out for new voices and stuff.

But the most important thing about those which you could probably do yourself is if you know that a few of you want to write, I think getting together and reading each other's work and honestly, sort of like responding to it is really, really helpful, because once you start to get an idea about what sort of connection you're making with people, until you start to form that sort of community that I was talking about, which I think is really important.

Bethan:
What advice would you give to your younger self?

Sonali:
Ooh. Ooh... Don't let the bastards grind you down. (LAUGHS)

Bethan:
And lastly, is there anything you'd like to talk about that I haven't asked you today?

Sonali:
I think your generation is really amazing. And like, I don't think that gets said enough. Like, yeah, I think that... Yeah, I think the ideas and the energy and the hopefulness from your generation. I mean, I've worked with young people your age and I think it's really inspiring and it's not... I mean, when I was your age, we were all very scared and very pessimistic. And there wasn't, I don't know, I see the sense of unity and lots of energy and sort of, you know, action that your generation has, I think is really inspiring. And I think you should be really... Yeah. I think you should really be aware of that, and know that you're inspiring older people as well.

Bethan:
That's very nice to hear. Thank you! I think, yeah. It's been really lovely talking to you. Thank you for answering all my questions.

Sonali:
Thank you. Nice to meet you all.