The New Current interview artistic director Clemmie Reynolds

London Theatre Interview Series 2014

Muscovado

Clemmie Reynolds 

Theatre 503

24 Feb – 7 March,

Tues – Sat 7.45pm, Sun 5pm

Having already had a successful run in London during Black History Month in 2014 BurntOut Theatre’s original production by promising playwright Matilda Ibini ‘Muscovado’ will be touring several cities around the UK in 2015.

A stirring and power piece ‘Muscovado’ takes a hard look at the role of the British during slavery in Barbados at the start 19th Century. BurntOut Theatre commissioned ‘Muscovado’ following the discovery of archives from Barbados of Artistic Director Clemmie Reynolds’ family.

tNC spoke with Clemmie to talk about the development of ‘Muscovado’ and what audience can expect to discover.

Hi Clemmie thanks for talking to tNC, have you been able to find any time to rest at all?

Not really! As soon as our run of Muscovado at Holy Trinity Clapham in October was finished, I immediately began planning our UK tour! I wanted to make the most of the buzz we had around Black History Month. The response was overwhelming; we sold out the show after the first night, and had to open a waiting list. People came back to see the show two nights running. After that, I realised this was something that should live on and get to more people.

What does it mean for you to be take Muscovado on a UK Tour?

It’s very exciting. It will be the first time BurntOut Theatre has performed outside of our South East home. We just want to spread this story. The heritage of Brits of Caribbean descent is so rarely explored in theatre or film, and when it is, the story is usually told from the point of view of the white men; ours is a story of the women of this time and place.

It’s an important and timely story to tell, particularly now when new examples of modern slavery are being unearthed every week.

Tell me a little bit about Muscovado, how did the show come about?

18 months ago my Great Aunt showed me a box of papers that were the remains of her family’s life in Barbados. Here was a collection of memories from the 1600s, when the Branch family sailed from Sussex to Barbados, to the 1900s, when my great grandfather left the island after his home was destroyed in a hurricane. There were timelines, birth records, diary entries, songs, and portrait photographs showing large groups of ladies under white parasols and men in cream suits in the midst of tropical rainforests.

The facts and details about my family’s daily lives were scant; however the few richly observed anecdotes painted an impression of a diverse and complex community united by the harsh existence that was life on Barbados at this time; brutal heat, disease, hurricanes – and by the unanimous dream of one day leaving the island.

Another commonality shared by both the white and black communities was fear; for the slaves this was a constant threat of punishment, whippings and murder that were daily occurrences on the plantations; for the white planters this was an unending terror of uprising by their slaves who outnumbered them 1000-1, and by the 1800s were beginning to catch wind of the abolition movement gathering strength in Britain.

I was interested too to discover the position of women at this time, who, if they were free had little more say in the direction of their lives than their husbands’ slaves; and if they were enslaved would be constantly at the mercy of their owners’ sexual appetites.

The complex community, that was drawn by these letters and papers seemed to be a ripe setting for a play; and is a subject rarely chosen for theatre or film – slavery in America being the most often depicted.

I was introduced to Matilda Ibini last September, and together we began to build on this small bundle of papers. We read books, visited museums, spoke to historians; we gathered a group of actors and slave trade expert Steve Martin and developed the first bones of the play through research and development workshops.In the spring we tested the first draft with readings atYoung Vic and at Clapham Omnibus; and performed the first three scenes in the grand Georgian lecture hall at the V&A as part of an event called; The Other Georgian Story.

MUSCOVADO KITTY AND WILLA

What was it about Matilda’s text that really spoke to you?

Matilda has a beautiful style of writing, but it’s also punchy. Her words are both poetic and economical. She writes in short snappy scenes that give her plays a filmic quality. Her writing is ambitious, and portrays a wisdom and vision that seems incredible in spite of her 23 years!

Was it hard to convince you to take on this project?

We met at the Royal Court having been introduced by a mutual friend. I think she had very little idea beforehand of what I was going to propose, and I was nervous she would run an mile! It’s an ambitious project, and a subject that some writers would not want to touch with a barge pole. By she was hugely excited by the challenge. She had no real prior knowledge of slavery or the slave trade, and had not even had one of her plays staged before. But she was wonderfully receptive, enthusiastic, collaborative, and eager to dive head first into a huge amount of research. It was a steep learning curve for both of us!

What has been the most challenging aspect of bringing Muscovado to life?

Well, this is my first real experience with new writing. Up to now I’ve mainly directedShakespeare. Just the fact of starting with nothing but a shoe box of papers and having to turn this into a full length play is a challenge! But we worked with fantastic actors, historians and dramaturgs during the development period, including Steve Martin who is one of England foremost experts on Britain’s links to the slave trade. We were also lucky enough to present some of the scene early on at the Victoria & Albert Museum which was an amazing experience! Early R&D workshops were very exciting, with characters appearing fully formed out of improvisations.

As a director what is the best approach you take to working with your actors?

I just like to get stuck into the text. I do some background character work at the beginning, to make sure we are all on the same page about where the character has come from. Once we’re in the rehearsal room, I want to know where the character is going, what they want in each scene, and what they do to get it. The audience just want to know what happens next; it’s our job to make sure we tell the story. That’s it!

Have you always wanted to create theatre?

Yes, I can’t stop! Believe me, I have tried…

I have always put on plays, through school and university. I’ve also tried to streamline and specialise into just directing, or just acting, or just producing. But I love the whole process. My brother is the musical director for BurntOut, and he composes all the music for the shows. We are constantly thinking of new ideas, future projects, new ways to tell stories with live music. The combination of drama and theatre is so powerful, and when you get a script like Matilda’s, it’s a dream.

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?

Wow, there have been so many. But I think it’s something Matilda taught me; that you can’t hold on to a play, particularly a brand new one. It may come into your hands for a time, while you develop it, or direct it, or bring it to audiences. But once you’ve done your job, the play no longer belongs to you. The story goes out into the world for the audience to make what they like of it. It’s like having a baby and letting it make it’s own way and have it’s own life.

Is it hard to let go of a production or do you continue to think of things or choices you might have made differently?

Yes, you can go on and on forever worrying about tiny details. There are so many elements in live theatre, that a show can never never be ‘perfect’. But the main thing is that the audience enjoy it and take something from it. They won’t notice small things going wrong or think of things being missing. The cardinal sin is to tell audiences after the show that something was wrong, or that so-and-so show was better. If they liked it, just smile, nod and say thank you very much!

What has been the best advice you’ve been given?

To be in the moment. This is difficult and I’m always working on it. It’s especially hard when producing or programming, as you are always working on shows up to a year in advance. But when you are in the rehearsal room, or on stage, or watching theatre, there is nothing but now. And if you are somewhere else, then you will miss being here.

Do you have a favourite theatre quote?

Character is action. Not sure who said it, but it applies to a lot of things!

And finally what do you hope people will take away from ‘Muscovado’?

I hope they will come to love the characters. This play isn’t really ‘about slavery’; thats just the situation the characters happen to find themselves in. Instead, it’s a story about a group of people, in a very specific time, place and moment in history, and what they do and how they act. Humans always manage to survive, and find beauty and love in terrible, seemingly hopeless situations.

 Audiences may learn something about life on sugar plantations and about Barbados at this time. But I hope they’ll be gripped by the story, and moved by the people.