Behind the Curtains is a new podcast co-produced by writer, producer, and theatremaker Siana Bangura alongside co-host and theatre critic Christina Nicole, in partnership with English Touring Theatre.
The series spotlights the off-stage, behind the curtains roles that are the backbone of theatre. How are writers, directors, sound designers, producers, production managers, movement directors, and voice and dialect coaches weathering the storms of uncertainty? How did they get to where they are now? What’s race got to do with it?
Siana Bangura is also known for being the founder and former editor of Black British Feminist platform, No Fly on the WALL, and writing the poetry collection Elephant, the short film Denim, and the play Layila!. Meanwhile, Christina Nicole is a theatre critic for Afridiziak and has worked for theatres such as the Royal Court, ETT, English Touring Opera and Polka Theatre. She will be publishing a set of children’s books in the new year.
Please introduce yourselves…
Siana: I’m Siana Bangura and I’m primarily a writer, producer, theatre-maker, and now podcaster. All my work – in whatever form it takes – aims to move marginalised voices from the margins to the centre.
Christina: Hey. I am Christina Nicole and I am a writer, theatre critic, and lover of all things creative. I like my work to reflect me; passionate about equality, encouraging people, and helping others.
What word or sentence best describes your life right now?
Siana: Right now, I’d say my life is ‘quieter than usual’. I’m still booked and busy – and we give thanks – but I’ve swapped train trips for endless zoom calls (like many people).
Christina: I would say my life is ‘busy whilst static’. Although I can’t go out and do the things I normally do, I have found the last few months to be very busy as this quieter time in the world has given me more space to pursue my passion projects like this podcast, alongside my work.
The first episode of the Behind The Curtains podcast was released at the end of October. Can you tell us a bit more about how the idea for the podcast came about?
Siana: I had the idea for the podcast in 2018 whilst I was the Digital Producer at English Touring Theatre. But it wasn’t the right time. In 2020, whilst everyone was mostly at home and a lot has been taking place socially, politically, and of course within our industry itself, it felt like an important moment to launch something spotlighting Black creatives, especially those working in off-stage, backstage roles that often don’t get the same shine as those on stage. Although it doesn’t feel like it right now, working in theatre is still a viable option and we want as many people to see that and understand that it’s possible, especially those who have been historically excluded from this space, and from this industry. Christina and I joined forces with ETT to co-produce the podcast and (finally) get it out into the world.
As the title suggests, the podcast is specifically about spotlighting off-stage talent. Growing up, how far were you aware of the range of jobs being completed offstage?
Christina: Growing up, I had very little knowledge of theatre roles backstage. I knew that there would be a director and someone who would do lights, costumes, and props but what I didn’t know was that behind the stage was a world of talented creatives and passionate people who want to share people’s stories. I wish drama lessons at school exposed students to the variety of roles that are available. Maybe if I knew, I might have tried to be a movement director – It looks like a pretty cool job.
In episode three, you speak to Movement Directors, Ingrid Mackinnon and Shelley Maxwell – a role I wasn’t aware of until working on productions myself. Is there a degree to which you hope the podcast will introduce young black audiences to career routes they might not have previously considered?
Siana: So many people say that they know very little about the work of Movement Directors. I was definitely in that club. Speaking with Ingrid and Shelley was definitely one of my highlights in the series precisely because I learned so much and they offered a new layer to thinking about how we communicate, especially through the movement and the body. And introducing young Black audiences to the many routes into the creative industries is precisely why we wanted to launch this podcast! We hope it will be educational, inspiring, and offer some hope in these challenging times. Each guest offered powerful reminders of why we must be resilient and trust that we will weather these storms – I myself needed those reminders.
What were your own routes like entering the theatre industry – Siana as a writer, producer, and theatremaker, and Christina as a theatre critic? Was there anything like the ‘Behind The Curtains’ podcast that introduced you to theatre as a career you wanted to pursue?
Siana: My career has been pretty unconventional. I did go to university but I read History at Cambridge. My extra-curricular focuses were in journalism, media, and music. I didn’t go to drama or stage school. I’ve been a journalist, a social media expert, I’ve worked in comms, while being a writer. All these experiences fed into transferable skills I use across my portfolio career. I began producing theatre in 2014, on a play called Fierce, for Camden People’s Theatre. In 2015 my focus shifted to film and documentary-work as I started producing a feature film investigating police brutality in the UK and deaths in custody after the murder of Sheku Bayoh in Scotland. I’ve continued to produce, including cultural production, curating exhibitions and events.
My mission is to move marginalised voices to the centre. I started playwriting recently, after becoming an artist-in-residence at The Birmingham Rep Theatre in 2019. I’d been working on a play with some support from Derby Theatre. But being on the Foundry programme gave me a structured space to develop as a theatremaker. The disruption to our industry is especially tough for those of us whose star was on the rise, but we’ve simply found different ways to get our work out into the world. I think having a podcast or resource like Behind the Curtains would have made all the difference, as I’d have known a lot sooner what a producer is and why it’s the perfect role for me aside from being an artist. You can’t go down certain routes if you don’t know they exist in the first place. And you may not want to go down certain routes if you don’t see anybody else there who looks like you.
Christina: I always had a creative streak, drama, and dance were my favourite lessons. I didn’t know a huge amount about theatre, but what I loved was the buzz I would get when I would perform. One of the first plays I remember watching was Blood Brothers, I was amazed by the scene changes and the story that was told. I was inspired however, I was also intimidated as I couldn’t see anything that represented me. I studied performing arts at university, but after a year I decided to try an apprenticeship in stage management and costume design. I was exposed to so many talented people and was able to get a taste of how busy theatres operated. I spent the majority of my apprenticeship at the Royal Court Theatre but also worked at Polka Theatre, ETT, and English Touring Opera.
Once my training finished, I tried to find a role in theatre but was constantly rejected. So I decided to leave the industry. 10 years later, my circumstances changed and I returned to the arts. I spent a year working at ETT which allowed me to see the variety of roles a touring theatre has. Working at ETT reignited my passion for watching plays and I was able to stir interest amongst my friends and family. This led me to write reviews both independently and with Afridiziak, so people like me could see what that play might look like through a more relatable lens. I now work in TV which is also filled with great stories and amazing people. For a long time I felt like I did not belong in theatre, but Behind The Curtains reminded me that we all belong, not just in theatre, but any role we set our minds to. It has allowed me to learn more about what theatre has to offer and has given me the opportunity to meet inspirational Black creatives and also to hopefully inspire our listeners.
This has been a very difficult year for the theatre industry – a topic you discuss in episode three of the podcast. What advice do you have for those, like yourselves, working in the industry at this time – particularly those working offstage?
Siana: I think my biggest advice for everyone is to go at your own pace, don’t compare how you’re dealing with the challenges of this moment with how others are, and show yourself some grace.Keep in mind all the reasons you joined this workforce in the first place, remind yourself of why you love it, and make notes about how you hope to see our industry change for the better after this horrendous experience. Find space, through the struggle, to dream and remember we will be back. We will come back from this.
Christina: Similar to Siana, I would say, don’t worry about anyone’s journey or progression, apart from your own. I used to struggle with comparing myself to my peers and often had FOMO, but being in lockdown has allowed me to refocus and recognise that no two journeys are the same. Be kind to yourself and use this time to focus on what you want. Now is a great time to push content out on social platforms. More than ever, people are available to listen and see what’s new. We have a virtual platform that is accessible to everyone and the audience numbers can be endless. Be bold and reach out to creatives; team up and create work that you may have not been able to before. A lot of people have more time on their hands and would be happy to share their talent and knowledge.
Are there any benefits you feel you have experienced working in the theatre industry this year? For example, do you think you would have started the podcast if not for the interruptions to business as usual?
Siana: As much as I miss the vibrancy of my ‘old’ life, it was hectic. My life is still hectic but I’ve really learned the importance of seeking balance. We have all seen that life is incredibly short and you can only plan so much. So with that in mind, although I am confident we’d have got to this project at some point, the challenges of this year added some urgency for us and also afforded us the time to make it happen. Perhaps we’d not have been able to have the same mix of guests if not for the remote-nature of how we are working currently. I’ve also become very interested in the world of audio and hope to keep building my practice in this area. In April, I threw myself into turning my play Layila! into an audio offering as we have no idea when it can hit the stage again. That was a really empowering process and gave me something to focus on and allowed me to keep creating as part of a team, even if it was a remote team and remote rehearsals. I’m an innovative person anyway, but the need has never been so great as it is now. Theatre will need to innovate if it is to emerge stronger after this experience.
You’ve already had a fantastic line-up of guests to the podcast – Zodwa Nyoni, Corey Bovell, Tobi Kyeremateng to name just a few. Are there any guests you would particularly love to have on the show?
Christina: I feel truly blessed to have such wonderful creatives on our podcast. I would love to have Inua Ellams as a guest – He is like a modern Shakespeare – I love the way he weaves in poetry to tell stories of ‘real’ Black people! I would also love to have Lynette Linton, the Artistic Director at The Bush. She represents one of my favourite theatres and I would love to hear her story. She is young, Black and doing great things for theatre.
Have you got any other upcoming projects you want to tell us about?
Siana: I’m on a roll with podcasts at the moment and as well as the Behind the Curtains podcast I co-host with Christina, I’m hosting a very different podcast project called People Not War, for my campaigning organisation, Campaign Against Arms Trade. There, I chat with inspirational activists, campaigners, and community organisers working to end the international arms trade and intersecting issues. As well as this, I’m developing a new play; preparing the Layila! playtext to (hopefully!) be published, and I’m working on the follow-up to my 2016 collection, Elephant. It’s fair to say that after a year like this one, there is much to be written and made sense of! You can keep up with me by keeping an eye on my website: sianabangura.com and on socials: @sianaarrgh.
Christina: I am currently writing a series of children’s books that touch on difficult topics. It’s been a tough year and I am sure parents have faced many hard questions – Hopefully my stories can help. You can keep up with my work via my website: blackgirlstheatre You can catch me on socials: @ChrisyNicole
Getting To Know You:
- A book you have to have in your collection:
- Siana: Freedom is a Constant Struggle, by Angela Davis; and because I love this book just as much, I would be remiss to not sneak it in as a second one: All About Love, by Bell Hooks
- Christina: The Bible. It teaches me everything and makes me the person I am.
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date:
- Siana: This is a very hard one but I’m gonna say Changes, by 2Pac. One of my favourite songs of all-time! I remember really taking in the lyrics whilst I was in secondary school in the early 2000s and true to all things Pac, his analysis of society is indeed spot on. The lyrics are as relevant today as they were when he first released the song in 1998.
- Christina: Gosh, this is a tough question. When a door closes or someone doubts me, I always sing the lyrics to Nas’ I can – ‘I know I can … be what I wanna be. If I work hard at it… I’ll be where I wanna be’.
- A film/TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedly:
- Siana: Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit Hands down.
- Christina: Home alone 1 – Classic Christmas feel-good film. I have watched it so much I know most of the lines off by heart!!
- The first play you saw and what it meant to you?
- Siana: I really can’t remember the first play I saw but I’m gonna guess my school took me on some sort of school trip to The Globe. However, I do remember three of my favourite plays of all-time and they are: Love, by Alexander Zeldin, which I first saw at the Rep; Misty, by Arinze Kene, which I saw at Trafalgar Studios, and The High Table, by Temi Wilkey, which I saw at The Bush. Each of these plays made me wish I’d written them and left me wanting to push myself and my craft harder as a writer.
- Christina: I believe the first play I saw that I actually enjoyed was Blood Brothers. Like Siana, I know I had to go to the Globe with school, but when I think of plays I have loved, I think of: Some like it Hip Hop (I have seen it countless times), Pass Over, Ear for Eye, Barbershop Chronicles and Sister Act. I like plays that leave me feeling full of emotions and I love plays that leave the audience in deep reflection about their thoughts before and after they watch a play.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week:
- Siana: Sad – remembering all the fun I used to have when in the presence of others with a backdrop of loud music; Mad – racism (what’s new?); Glad – getting my hair done and tidying up my roots. It’s the little things, isn’t it?
- Christina: Sad: It was my mum’s birthday this week- she sadly passed away a few years ago. Mad: Racism and violence. I seriously don’t get why people are so badmind and cruel?! Glad: To be with my family and to have great people in my life that make everyday special.
Episodes of Behind the Curtains are released fortnightly and are available via iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Acast. Find out more here.