Director Ahil Ratnamohan speaks to Theatrefullstop about his latest work, Star Boy Productions!
From Thursday 10th to Sunday 13th September, the Southbank Centre will witness 4 days of talks, discussions, musical performances, theatrical productions and art, all revolving around the culturally rich continent of Africa. Africa Utopia 2015 promises to start, and continue various discussions in the UK, from identity, to migration. Star Boy Productions tackles the latter, and its director, Ahil Ratnamohan speaks to Theatrefullstop ahead of the show about the collaborative nature of the ensemble, inspirations for the show and what he truly thinks of the unavoidable headlines.
Star Boy Productions is set to be performed at the Southbank Centre this September as part of the Africa Utopia Festival. How are you feeling ahead of the festival?
Ecstatic. After our experience with Michael Essien I want to play as you… at LIFT and Stratford Circus in 2014 I really wanted to take this show to London audiences. But due to the content of the show actually affecting the international mobility of the performers, I didn’t think it would be possible for at least a year, so I didn’t even entertain the idea. You guys have some pretty strict border control! When Rupert Thompson from Southbank made contact it was a real shock, but when I investigated the possibilities with the visas it all turned out much more positive than I’d imagined.
Star Boy Productions places the timely topic of migration at its core, what inspired the creation of the piece?
The inspiration for the piece was our first piece as an ensemble, Essien, and the lives of the group who devised that show. During the creation process for Essien, themes of documents and legality kept popping up. Two of our original performers had been deported when I returned to Belgium for the final rehearsals and along the way we’d worked with a few others who didn’t have their European papers. The effect this had on their lives was so apparent and my partner Daisy, who was also working with the group, and I couldn’t help but have some involvement with this. We created a fair bit of interesting material around the themes of illegality which never made the cut for the show, because, yeah, the focus of that show was afterall football migration and African footballers on the fringes in Europe. When the opportunity arose to work on a new piece for the Monty Kultuurfaktorij (Antwerp) it was already clear for me what it would be about.
The creation of the piece appears to be a very collaborative one, as it’s been created by fellow actors Etuwe and Aloys Kwaakum, Lateef Babatunde and Kristof Persyn. How did you find working with the team?
This was a great process for me, of which I have very fond memories. My belief had been that if these ‘non-performers’ had been so good in Essien and improved so much through that experience of having performed in front of a number of different audiences, then what could be possible in a second (or even third and fourth) show? With Star Boy Productions I was stripping them of the ball so it was a challenge for them to step into the shoes of performers as oppose to footballer-performers. In the end I was really thrilled with how they responded and how they stepped up in the collaborative sense and as devisors. I really like how they sometimes contested and or decided the direction of the piece.
The collaboration with Kristof Persyn, our dramaturg, is a very special one for me, his commitment to the piece makes him more than just a dramaturg. This is also quite literal as he usually does the lights for us when we tour and this is great as we have the chance to keep discussing what changes could make the show better.
If the headlines are anything to go by, then we are to believe that migration is an issue impacting the prospects of European citizens. How do these headlines make you feel? How does Star Boy Productions respond to these headlines?
My own experience with newly arrived migrants, from working with them on performances to my own family background, is that most migrants have to go through a hell of a lot of struggle, proving themselves, learning new languages, getting degrees recognised, getting residence permits. It can be a good 5, or more, years before these people will ever be in a position to challenge the prospects of European Citizens (or any country, in Australia this fear is mongered as well) and even if they manage to get through all of these trials, then there’s a bunch of other glass ceilings which exist to stop them from going further. So when I read these headlines, and I think I can speak on behalf of the performers, it’s a bit ludicrous and saddening that people develop this sort of cliché of a migrant.
I think Star Boy Productions deals with these headlines in two ways. Firstly the audience comes in intimate contact with them for the period of the show. For some people this is already more than they normally experience (at least in Belgium). They hear stories and advice from their community and they are shameless and honest. These migration debates are not black and white, and likewise we don’t try and paint these guys as the victims. From reactions in Belgium I know that for many people it was so intriguing to hear how migrants observe Belgians. So there is this exchange in that sense.
Secondly, I think that – through the content of the show and way in which the performers address the audience – something we try to communicate is the notion that circumstances determine so much. In this sense we [take] the idea of ‘illegal acts’. The word illegal carries a bit of hysteria around it and people doing illegal things are therefore often depicted as bad people, but we try to explore the motivations behind these illegal acts and to deconstruct this hysteria in a sense.
With migration stories, there’s usually an idea of ‘The American Dream’; fleeing the homeland in order to improve quality of life. What is the message that you want audiences to leave with?
I don’t think there is an overarching moral which we want to impart on our audience and we definitely do not deny that economic migration aspect of this phenomenon. But through discussing the pursuit of one’s papers (residency or visas) in Europe I believe we touch on some of the more nuanced aspects of the whole discussion, the paradoxes of the whole illegal immigrants taking our … argument.
Could you inform us of the rehearsal process of the show?
We rehearse in a small cultural centre on the edge of Antwerp, CC Luchtbal, this is 200 metres from where all of the African footballers in Antwerp train and from where Essien sort of evolved. We usually only do half-days and we almost always have lunch together either before, after or during the session. The rehearsal process was split up into 2 phases. The first was what I would call creative research. We didn’t need to go out and do really specific research as the answers were all in the group, but I did need to discover how these ideas might manifest themselves on stage. So we worked for a bit over a month usually just 3 days per week.
Then after a couple months break we got back in the space for the creation/rehearsals, this time 5 days a week for 2 months leading up to the premiere. Our material creating process is a mix of improvisations/tasks and then occasionally I might choreograph or set a scene a bit more and ask the performers to execute it. Most of the improvisations were based around story-telling, but we’d occasionally go into role-playing territory. Along the way we create a heap of material and then there’s a point when I will sit down with Kristof Persyn, our dramaturg, and try to decide which scenes have to go and which ones we need to further develop, and above all how we are going to structure these. So we come up with a draft ‘score’ for the show and then it’s a case of testing it and perfecting it, making little chops and changes here.
In the case of Star Boy Productions after the premiere we actually cut one of my favourite sections, then a few days later I woke up at 3am with the solution: I’d been missing that section and I thought if it happened in a different moment (and was actually done by a different performer) it might work and so a couple days later we got to try it again. So we keep refining it as we go and even for London there are some parts which we will need to change and make actual, as we have in Switzerland and Germany.
As a director, how would you describe your approach to creating work?
Quite unorthodox, I guess. I didn’t study theatre at university and I think this invariably has an impact be it good or bad. I’m most interested by working with non-conventional performers. I like material which makes me feel uncertain or uncomfortable and I like when things are funny without purposely trying to be funny.
What advice would you give to aspiring directors?
I probably wouldn’t give advice to aspiring directors. I still feel like I have a lot to learn myself.
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
Star Boy Productions will be showing at Africa Utopia 2015 from Friday 11th to Saturday 12th September. For more information on the production, visit here…