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Theatremaker Aisha Zia: ‘I turned my dad’s old video store into an arts space’

Aisha Zia. Photo: Maja Daniels Aisha Zia. Photo: Maja Daniels

Theatremaker Aisha Zia has created a gallery in Peterborough to display the work of British Muslim artists and provide a space for the community. She tells Giverny Masso how the work in the gallery feeds into a new play she is creating with Good Chance Theatre, producers of refugee play The Jungle…

Tell me about your gallery project.
My dad’s old video shop in Peterborough became available, and I thought: ‘This will be my office.’ But it felt like a gallery, so I thought: ‘I’ll turn it into an arts space.’ It’s in a predominately Pakistani-Muslim migrant area, so the whole time I was thinking about the play I’m doing with Good Chance, which is about masculinity and vulnerability, working with Muslim men. I felt I should open up the space and invite people in.

How has the gallery inspired the play you are making?
I commissioned two artists, one called Zain Haider Awan, who does a lunch club once a week with his dad. I invited him to photograph 12 of the men who attend, and we exhibited their portraits. The second part I thought should be about youth culture, so I commissioned Kazim Rashid to make a new show aimed at a younger generation. I thought it would be so cool to have a space where you mix two types of audiences: the older men who feel really lonely and the younger men who feel like the older guys don’t understand them, and I thought: ‘This is basically going to be the play.’

What else happens in the gallery?
We also have poetry, writing and theatremaking workshops, a cinema club and all sorts of things. We’re doing a panel discussion at the gallery about Muslim men and mental health on June 29. I think it was really important to share my process, which is about – and for – the community. That’s not to say community work can’t be high art. That’s a stereotype people have, including in our industry. One of the worst things people say is that a certain community is ‘hard to reach’, and it makes me really angry. People aren’t hard to reach, it just requires you to knock on their door and say: ‘Hello, we’re neighbours. Do you fancy a cup of tea?’

What past projects have been important to you?
I did my first two shows with [site-specific company] Common Wealth Theatre. One was about domestic violence, called Our Glass House. The other show, No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, came about as an antidote to that. It’s a play about young Muslim female boxers from Bradford. We said we want to make a show that empowers young girls, and we thought: who are the most marginalised young girls in the country? It must be Muslim girls. I wanted to do a play that’s almost about 16-year-old me and what I learned at that age.

I want people to have a long, hard look at why they make theatre

What other projects are you working on now?
I’m doing a show for Contact Theatre in Manchester, which is called Not in My Honour. It’s about ‘honour’-based violence and how it’s not culturally specific. I’m also doing a show about teenage pregnancy in the South Asian community with Curve in Leicester. It’s good to be busy. I’m sort of refining my process at the moment and suggesting that other theatremakers be a bit more socially responsible and start making theatre relevant to people now. I want people to have a long, hard look at why they make theatre, who they make it for and why it’s important.

CV Aisha Zia

Training: MA in creative writing for plays and screenplays at City University, London (2009-11)
First professional role: Our Glass House with Common Wealth (2012)
Agent: Georgina Capel Associates

More information on Aisha Zia’s gallery project at 62 Gladstone Street in Peterborough can be found at 62gladstonestreet.co.uk

Giverny Masso: How Good Chance’s rich, truthful theatre allows refugees to express themselves

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