Tiata Fahodzi artistic director Natalie Ibu is on a mission to multiply theatre’s narratives. The ‘strategic provocateur’ tells Holly Williams about her wish list of untold stories, how the sector still hasn’t understood the need for diversity and about wanting to go where the love is
In theatre company Tiata Fahodzi’s office in Watford, there is a whiteboard of untold stories: the black British narratives we never see on stage: black female chief executives; black heavy metal fans. Black people at Oxbridge. Black Scottish-Christian lesbians from working-class backgrounds, running theatre companies, and living thriving, joyful lives.
Okay, that last one doubles up: it’s also how Natalie Ibu describes herself. She is the artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi, a company established in 1997 to tell the stories of the British African diaspora – and since taking over in 2014, she’s made it her mission to multiply those narratives. She wants their work to reflect the second or third generation experience, rich in complex, mixed identities.
“The ways in which black people were being represented felt quite singular,” she says of the situation four years ago, when she took on the role. “Art’s job is to reflect the world but in many ways it feels like it simplifies it. As someone who is second generation, when I wanted to see myself on stage I had to silence lots of bits of me. To hear my Scottish voice on stage I had to forget I was black. If I wanted to see my class I had to forget I was a woman. It felt so devastating.”
Not only that, but the narratives that were offered were often predictable and clichéd, in turn helping to prop up the myth that ‘black plays’ would only ever appeal to black audiences. “If the stories are singular and they’re always about arrival, or always about extreme violence, then we are perpetrating this idea that our work is niche,” she says. “So the job was to multiply the narratives so much that when a black person walks on stage, you simply cannot figure out what they’re going to do.”
Things have improved since 2014, albeit slowly. Last year, were staged only the second and third plays by black British writers in the West End, but there was a tremendous buzz around both Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night and Arinze Kene’s Misty, while other acclaimed productions last year included Debbie Tucker Green’s Ear for Eye at London’s Royal Court, the revival of Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking at the Bush, and Eclipse’s country-wide tour of Black Men Walking.
But there is still a lot of work to be done. Ibu considers her role to be that of a “strategic provocateur” – not just to counter those very creaky old stereotypes, but to ask what the prevailing narrative is, right now, about what it means to be black in Britain today. And then to programme the opposite. She wants Tiata Fahodzi to be “contentious and creatively subversive and provide an alternative”.
“We’re a very responsive company,” she says. “I’ve just finished a round of commissioning where we commissioned 90% black women to be writing stories that centre on females, because we wanted to provide the counterpoint to [recent] work by black writers – excellent work – but work often centering on black men: One Night in Miami, Misty, Barber Shop Chronicles, The Brothers Size…”
The evening we meet, Ibu apologies for being knackered from rehearsing all day, and although she seems extremely careful in picking her words, she later sends an email clarifying various points. One is an acknowledgment that Tiata Fahodzi has its own blind spots: “All the shows in my tenure – bar one – have centred on black men even when two of four were written by women and all made by majority female creative teams. So we’re not exempt and working to correct our own bias too.”
And despite the wish list on the whiteboard, it’s not always easy – as a company employing six people, which produces only one show a year – to tell as many varied stories as they would like to see in the world. That is one of the reasons why she’s so excited about the show they’re about to tour.
Good Dog may be written by a black man – Arinze Kene, whose star has risen following the galvanising success of Misty – and be performed by a black man, Kwaku Mills, but this is a monologue that contains multitudes.
Written in 2014, in response to the riots in London three years earlier, Good Dog is set on a multicultural but economically deprived estate. The main character, a black teenage boy striving to be good in thankless circumstances, is also a watcher: he sees deeply into the lives of those around him.
Kene’s heart-crushing play follows 10 people across the decade before the riots. By the time it reaches 2011, it is clear that societal, political and economic pressures – and, crucially, the lack of opportunity for progress or change – have oppressed a whole community. Rioting, in this context, looks more like protest against injustice than random acts of violence.
The play is about “feeling neglected, feeling unheard, feeling invisible, until enough is enough”, says Ibu. “Yes, violence is bad, but [Kene] helps us understand what might be motivating some of those moments of aggression. He takes those stereotypes that we feel we recognise and subverts them or digs deeper.”
Good Dog was originally produced by Tiata Fahodzi in 2017; it’s the first time the company has revisited a show. It makes it a lot easier to sell to venues, Ibu acknowledges, but as a director, she says it’s also a “luxury” to be able to return to a work.
She points out that Good Dog really speaks to our present politically divided moment. “Programming it post-Brexit, it felt like there was a similar energy, a current in the air, about protest and people feeling they weren’t being heard,” she recalls, adding “nothing’s really changed since then sadly, so it feels like it’s still got something to tell us”.
Good Dog is visiting 15 venues – the company’s biggest tour yet. Ironically, Tiata Fahodzi no longer calls itself a touring company, having decided that the model doesn’t really work for it. “Releasing yourself from the pressure of having to book an eight-week tour is how you book yourself an eight-week tour, it turns out,” Ibu laughs.
Instead, it now uses the term “multi-local theatre company”. Ibu says: “Sometimes we make work that moves, sometimes we make work for a certain place. The aspiration is that the content has to speak to those places in a meaningful way.”
But the high uptake for Good Dog is encouraging, perhaps a sign that out-dated preconceptions about the riskiness and difficulty of marketing work by black artists, especially outside of London, are finally waning.
“That is people’s experience, that a lot of time is spent demystifying or empowering venues to understand how to talk about the work,” says Ibu. “I wouldn’t be running the company if I didn’t think it was changing, but it would be unfair of me to say it isn’t a struggle and there aren’t frustrations, and some conversations are richer than others. Four years into the job, I want to go where the love is.”
But she acknowledges that it’s also up to them to spread a little more love. And this was the thought behind Tiata Fahodzi’s innovative approach to developing relationships with local audiences: the friendship model.
Rather than arriving at a town and expecting people to come to the show, they should be putting in the hours with those communities first. After all, people don’t throw parties before they’ve made any friends…
“So much of [touring theatre] is ‘come and spend time with us’, but we’ve not done the legwork. So let me go to their concert, let me go to their youth theatre show, before making the ask. It is about being present for moments of connection, it’s about shared geography, it’s about mutual investment.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Checkout assistant, Somerfield.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Trainee director, New Perspectives.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Working less makes the work better – rest and recovery are as much part of your practice as practising.
What is your next job?
Continuing to lead Tiata Fahodzi – I have the privilege of spending my time inside the imaginations of artists, bringing people and partners together around those ideas to then meet audiences.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The here and now and the question of who we are, what we do and why we do it.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
The audition process is essential for me – I’m willing every actor to be the one, I want you to do well. I’m on your side but the craft of the actor is only part of what I’m exploring in the room. When in rehearsal, I spend more time with the actors than I do with my staff team, with my partner, with my friends, and when I’m hungry, tired, stressed, hormonal, so what I really want to know is whether we’ll both still want to spend time together.
If you hadn’t been an artistic director, what would you have been?
When I was little, I had a long list of professional aspirations – pretty much all the key worker roles. I often think if I’d known what a stage manager was, I’d have probably been drawn to that role.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t think so, but nervous, aimless silence and pacing – in those limbo hours between the end of tech and your first audience – has become an unintentional ritual.
Of course, all that is trickier when the company is not attached to a building, city, or even region. “We want to be radically local, but that’s challenging when you’re a company without a base, working across multiple locations,” Ibu says. “What is the equivalent of running into somebody at a bus stop? Our new friendship producer’s [Kiki Brown] job is to navigate what that means: is it that every month I go to Leeds and catch up with the people I’ve met there? Do I send cards? Do I phone them every week? It’s about making an investment in a place that you might not tour to for another four years. It’s about relationships that aren’t just about the work.”
The friendship model is also about reaching new audiences who might not feel that theatre is for them. After all, Tiata Fahodzi are funded by public money via Arts Council England – their shows should be for everyone.
“I’m a fan girl for theatre, but I’m not an evangelist,” Ibu says, adding she knows not everyone loves the art form as much as she does, but she wants everyone to feel like it’s at least an option. “On a Saturday night you might go to Cineworld, you might go to the pub, but you might go to the theatre. My fear at the moment is it’s not on the menu for a lot of people.”
Her own love of theatre stretches back to childhood: she remembers performing in a local musical in Oxgangs in Edinburgh, aged seven. She also speak fondly of growing up with the Traverse “in quite an intimate way”, doing the young writers programme there as a teenager.
Ibu knew at 17 that she wanted to be an artistic director, and went on to study theatre and arts management at De Montfort University. “How would I have known what an artistic director was?” she muses. “I must have met Philip Howard or seen his office [at the Traverse], and thought: ‘I want that.’ I don’t think I’d be here if it weren’t for that building.”
Her mother, a geriatric psychiatric nurse, was always supportive of her daughter’s creative ambitions. “In my darkest, most depressed moments I wish I had that traditional immigrant parent thing, the stereotype who wants you to do medicine or law, but unfortunately she was very supportive…” jokes Ibu dryly.
After training, she got a job as a resident assistant director at the Royal Court; fittingly, the first show she saw when she moved to London in 2008 was part of a festival of new work put on by Tiata Fahodzi, when it was still run by founder Femi Elufowoju Jr. Then, after Lucian Msamati took over in 2010, he invited Ibu to direct a slot in the same Tiata Delights festival.
More than 30 years on, the issues of representation that the company was formed in part to challenge have never been more prominent in mainstream theatre industry discussions, with 2018 feeling like something of a watershed for diversity.
Ibu is not, however, a fan of the term. “‘Diversity’ has lost its meaning. We’re just talking about difference. If we could think about diversity as just difference, and actually try to get the most varied group of people in a room… because I’ve got me covered and I need someone who thinks differently to me.”
Having a range of voices will result in better work: it’s that simple. But Ibu is concerned that this reason for genuinely diversifying the industry still isn’t truly seen as a positive by everyone working within it. “I’m waiting for the moment when I feel like the sector understands the ‘why’ – maybe I think the sector doesn’t understand the why yet. Perhaps I have a question about whether we truly believe there is benefit in variety.”
Does it come from a laziness? Or that in a tough industry it feels easier for theatremakers to surround themselves with people they are already comfortable with?
“Wanting to be surrounded by people who are like you is not a bad thing,” Ibu says. “We all do it in terms of our friendship groups and where we want to live. I think the problem is when the people who have the power to bring together groups of people are all the same. I don’t want to say that it’s wrong to want to find common ground and a shorthand; when I find a great designer, I keep working with them. But if you only know a certain kind of person, that is a problem.”
Ibu is also deeply frustrated at the “basic” approach to research and reporting around diversity and the discussions of how identities intersect. “We could tell you how many black people are running buildings, and how many women, but not black women or black disabled women. That the data is so singular tells us a lot about the conversations – and the expectation.
“The first diversity reports were in the 1970s, before I was born. Surely they can be acknowledging intersectionality now, 35 years on?” she concludes, pointing out that in our day-to-day lives and conversations, we’re all constantly navigating intersecting identities all the time. “We’ve all been living far more diverse lives than theatre has been acknowledging.”
It’s not all bad news, as she points to the many changes in leadership roles – long identified as the thing that could produce industry-wide shifts – in 2018, with several artistic directors of colour appointed in major organisations. “It’s thrilling, right? I can’t wait to see what the consequence of that is for the work, for the audiences, for the people in those buildings,” says Ibu.
Is it a sign that things really are moving in the right direction? “I don’t know. These appointments are really exciting. But also it’s not the responsibility of those four people or whatever to transform the whole of British theatre. It can’t start and stop with them,” Ibu says. Whatever happens, Tiata Fahodzi will be watching and listening, so it can continue to find and tell those unheard stories.
Born: Edinburgh, 1983
Training: De Montfort University, Leicester; trainee director at New Perspectives; resident assistant director at the Royal Court on the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme
• ‘Ave It!, Old Vic Tunnels (2011)
• I Know All the Secrets in My World, West Herts College (2016)
• Good Dog, Watford Palace Theatre and national tour (2017)
Good Dog is on tour from 31 January to 23 March