Playwright, actor and producer Asif Khan: ‘As a Muslim, I felt I could bring something more authentic’
Actor and playwright Asif Khan is passionate that British Muslim voices be heard on stage, so in order to tour Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Love, Bombs and Apples, he set up a production company – AIK Productions. As he returns to the stage in A Passage to India, he talks to Tim Bano about balancing acting, producing and writing
For a man who spent months delving into Islamophobia, hate speech, Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League for his debut play, Combustion, Asif Khan is remarkably sanguine. “Most people are normal human beings,” the actor and writer insists. “That’s the only way you can promote understanding between different people: get to know them.”
Rather than being angry at these hate groups, the softly spoken Khan has been channelling his frustration into making work that reaches overlooked audiences. Last year, he fed his research into the powerful play Combustion, a surprisingly comic look at what it means to be a Muslim in Britain today.
The play earned him a nomination in The Stage Debut Awards, as well as a slew of positive reviews. But was the process of putting it together, and of trying to understand the psychology of racists and terrorists, distressing? “Initially you’re taken aback by the things that people say, but now I feel immune to it,” he says. “I’ve heard everything. It doesn’t affect me now.”
Born and raised in Bradford, Khan had always been interested in performing and became involved with the Theatre in the Mill on the Bradford University campus. “I knocked on the door and was invited in with open arms,” he says. “The building has always had passionate people – people who are there for the right reasons and want to put on good work.” But, despite knowing he wanted to be an actor, Khan studied electronic imaging and media communications.
It was only after his degree at Bradford University that he applied for drama school, gaining a place at RADA in 2006. Roles in TV and on stage came steadily after he graduated – The Hypocrite with Hull Truck, a national tour of Handbagged – and in 2015 he attracted acclaim for his performance in Hassan Abdulrazzak’s quartet of monologues about race: Love, Bombs and Apples.
But after almost a decade as an actor, Khan was compelled to write, partly to look for “other ways to keep artistic” beyond acting, but also because he felt British Muslim voices were not being heard on stage. “I felt I could bring something more authentic,” says Khan, a practising Muslim. “The Muslim community generally don’t think about coming to the theatre. I don’t know whether they feel they could watch a play and identify: he’s like me, he talks like me.”
For Khan, it’s not just about getting work commissioned but, crucially, taking work directly to the audiences he wants to attract. To do that he has recently moved into producing, as well as writing and acting.
Although the transition happened accidentally when looking for a way to tour Love, Bombs and Apples – “I applied to the Arts Council and ended up falling into the role because I had to provide a company name” – Khan now realises the importance of production skills, especially when it comes to staging work by under-represented communities.
“The power to be able to put on work: that’s the way you have to do it if you really want to push something forward,” he says firmly. His company AIK Productions organised the tour of Love, Bombs and Apples – including a performance at Theatre in the Mill, where it all started – and he is hoping to revive it next year.
But the absence of Muslim audiences is also driven by a predominantly white acting industry. A few years ago at the end of a tour, one of his fellow cast members said: “I want to apologise because I had all sorts of bad thoughts about who Muslims were. I hadn’t met any Muslims apart from you.”
“I thought it was an honest thing to say,” Khan says. “To me there is nothing bad in that apart from the lack of understanding, being slightly brainwashed. And not having a connection with someone from that background, so not appreciating what the truth might be.”
Q&A: Asif Khan
What was your first non-theatre job? Workshop leader.
What was your first professional theatre job? Mixed Up North, by Robin Soans, Out of Joint (2009)
What’s your next job? A Passage to India, and a revival of Love, Bombs and Apples.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Actors can be sensitive and there’s a certain amount of holding on to your confidence and believing in yourself required. It is important not to let the ups and downs of your career affect that, and to understand that the insecurities of being an actor are part of the job.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Michael Jordan. I used to play basketball at school. He’s a fantastic player. He wasn’t just good, he wasn’t just talented, he was hard-working. That’s how he rose above everyone else.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t feel like you have to give a complete performance. Take it as your first day of rehearsals and keep exploring. Nerves are so inhibiting. You have to go in and put everything out there, not hold anything back, and if you do, then at least you leave the room thinking: ‘I’ve formed something for these people, I’ve enjoyed doing it, I’ve done my best.’
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I enjoyed painting and drawing, so possibly fine art, but then I liked science as well.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? If I’m performing in the evening I always eat around 3pm or 4pm, and then I don’t eat anything until after the show. I like feeling empty inside – not having a belly full of food.
For now, Khan is back in the rehearsal room as an actor. He is preparing for Simon Dormandy and Simple8’s adaptation of EM Forster’s novel A Passage to India at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate. He is quick to point out the similarities between Combustion and the 1924 novel. “They’re both about how we love each other in a world that is divided by culture, religion and belief.”
Khan plays Dr Aziz, a Muslim in India under British rule. Despite trying to promote cordiality between the Indian people and their colonial oppressors, Aziz is accused of rape by a British woman. “It is a baffling novel because there’s so much ambiguity in it,” Khan says. “That’s the joy of playing as an actor. You can’t actually grasp or define the character fully.” But this fits with Khan’s own approach to performing, since he is reluctant to sew up his character completely during rehearsals.
On stage, each night, he tries to be adaptable and responsive, pushing the role into new territory every time he takes to the stage. “I like to be as free as possible and to take risks. I ask myself, ‘How brave can I be tonight?’ at each performance. That’s the beauty of it, and that’s where you get the joy from being on stage.”
Khan admits he is still getting used to the balance between acting, writing and producing, especially as the father of a very young child. But even if he is still figuring out the practicalities of his professional life, his attitude and ethos are already proving determination, kindness and humour can change the industry for the better.
CV: Asif Khan
Born: Bradford, year undisclosed
Training: RADA, 2009
Career highlights: Combustion, Arcola, London, (2017), Love, Bombs and Apples, Arcola, London, (2015/16)
Awards: Sir Alec Guinness Memorial Award (2009), Best stage production at the Asian Media Awards for Combustion, 2017
Agent: Roxane Vacca
A Passage to India is at Royal and Derngate, Northampton until January 18 and then tours the UK until March 24