This September the National Theatre released That Black Theatre Podcast which is about Black British theatre-making past, present, and future.
The podcast, which is a partnership between National Theatre, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, and the AHRC London Arts and Humanities Partnership, is hosted by Ph.D. student Nadine Deller.
Deller’s Ph.D. – a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and the National Theatre, is centred around the thesis, ‘Deviancy and Potential in the Heterotopias of Black British Women’s Theatre’ and looks to shed light on the position and work of black women playwrights in the National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive.
Hey Nadine please tell us a little more about who you are and what you do?
I’m currently a Ph.D. researcher at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I’m doing a Ph.D. on black women playwrights, looking at the National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive. I’m black mixed – my mum’s from Seychelles and my dad is white.
Please give a word or sentence which best describes your life right now …
Weird – this whole situation is weird for everyone. When Covid started happening, it was tumultuous and a massive sea change for everyone, but everything is still really weird. When we had lockdown, I think everyone was reassessing where they were in the world and the decisions they were making, but I feel like I’ve reached that place now I’m like “Oh my God, what am I doing?”
Has your work as a Ph.D. student been affected at all by the Coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions?
It’s been affected in the sense that I couldn’t access archives or libraries. Luckily, I can access most resources digitally. It’s more the psychological aspect – a Ph.D.’s quite an isolating, long-term thing to do. You spend quite a lot of time working on your own anyway [so] in one sense, you’re used to being alone, but it was magnified during lockdown. Also, weirdly, at this point in time, a Ph.D. is actually a comparatively financially stable thing to do.
Just under a month ago you released the first episode of That Black Theatre Podcast – tell us a bit about how this podcast came about?
My work involves looking at a lot of plays by black women that I don’t get to talk or write about. I’m the type of person who, if there’s something that I’m interested in, I want to do everything. As the first year of my Ph.D. progressed, I realised that I wanted a way to talk about other theatre makers and other parts of theatre history that fall outside of my own specific work, but in a way that enabled me to share this information with people. Another thing is that in the National Theatre’s research documents for the Black Plays Archive, one of the possible objectives as part of a public engagement activity was a podcast. I was talking to my sister about the podcast, but I wasn’t sure who should host it, and she was like, “Well, why don’t you do it?” I mulled it over for a week and called her, and we decided to host it together.
Is there anything you’ve discovered in the archive that particularly excited you?
There’s loads and loads of stuff. In terms of unpublished stuff in the archive, there are a couple of play scripts by Angela Turvey. There’s this really short emotional two-hander set in a hospital ward about a mother and daughter. The daughter is about to go into labour and her mother is estranged, and they’re both talking about the trauma that they’ve caused each other. I was reading it and wondering, “Why hasn’t this been published? Why haven’t I seen this play?” To discover things like that is very exciting.
Who is the podcast aimed at?
It’s definitely not for academics – I’m not saying they shouldn’t listen to it, but I essentially made it for myself 5 years ago. From school onwards, we’re not really told about anything to do with black theatre apart from during Black History Month. Our history should not just be confined to a month. Black history in Britain is not distinct from British history – you can’t tell a true story of British history without looking to the African continent, the Caribbean, Asia, the Americas they’re all connected through imperialism and colonisation. So, I didn’t want the podcast to be something rigidly academic and full of jargon or theory or things people can’t relate to. It’s for people who may be interested in theatre or black history, but it’s more about the stories of theatre makers and what was happening to Britain at the time. Throughout the podcast, we’ve also made a dedication not to have any white interviewees – not to be exclusionary, but to give a platform to people who don’t always get a platform. The reality is that a lot of people who are writing, reviewing, and making black theatre – particularly in academia – aren’t black.
There something really accessible about podcasts – particularly in comparison to some academic essays. Was this accessible aspect a deliberate choice?
Yeah, it was completely deliberate as a means to disseminate the information in a way that was easy for people to get a hold of, and it’s free. I don’t think people should be made to feel that they don’t have access to information if they don’t have a particular level of education or income. Being accessible and egalitarian is exactly what the Black Plays Archive aimed to do when it started as a project – because it is a digital space, it has the potential to reach more people. For example, when you go to the V&A archives, they weigh the book of documents they give you before you go off and weigh it when you give it back – it’s quite intimidating if you’re a “normal” person.
How is academia useful to theatre – particularly in regards to researching the history of Black British theatre?
I think it’s really important to be able to research any sort of cultural output, so we can understand the implications it has for the world we’re living in and what it tells us about ourselves one thing I’d really like to see is for it to be easier for theatre makers to access research on theatre because that can inform their work. Part of the Black Plays Archive is to make it easier for black theatre makers to demonstrate the black history of theatre in the UK so that there are no excuses when people claim there aren’t play scripts or stories available to stage.
I’d also like to see a closer relationship between academia and grassroots theatre companies. For example, somewhere like Central has theatres in the university for students to put on shows – I was talking to Mojisola Adebayo, and they were saying what if we could loan out theatre spaces in the academic institution to community centres because then you’re nurturing a whole generation of theatre makers and educators in a way that is way more equitable than is currently happening.
Universities are notoriously terrible at employing and supporting the work of black female academics – how have you navigated these spaces and what would you say to other black women thinking about going into academia?
I find it really hard because you’re having to consistently code-switch all the time. You’re surrounded by people who haven’t got a clue about how institutional whiteness impacts people of colour – it’s quite exhausting, but you have to weigh up whether you think the work is worth it. The way I make it work for me is I surround myself with people who understand my situation and position – either people of colour or who are willing to actively back me in a situation. Also, to stay connected to the community you’re part of outside of the academy because once you’re in that institution, it changes you.
What are your plans for the future?
In terms of the podcast, I plan on releasing a second season next year – I want it to be a continuous thing, as long as I can keep doing it. My trajectory at the moment is to become an academic. I want to be another Black woman in the academy that is changing it – ask me in two years’ time and I might change my mind, but thus far I’d like to continue contributing to work on Black theatre and making it more accessible. I’d also like to work with schools so that you can teach kids about Black theatre before they go into higher education. I’d mainly like as many people to learn about Black people’s contribution to art in this country as I possibly can, so whatever way is most effective is the route I’ll pick.
Getting to know you …
- A book you have to have in your collection: Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
- A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date: Sound of Vision by David Bowie
- A film / TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedly: Chewing Gum by Michaela Coel
- A play that reminds you why you’re in this business: Home by Nadia Fall – it was a verbatim play about people living on an estate in London that I watched in my early 20s. It changed my whole attitude to theatre – it was one of the first times I’d seen that many Black people on stage and heard real stories from actors that weren’t soliloquies.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week: Sad – the whole state of what’s happening in America right now; mad – I was giving a lecture and I lost internet connection; glad – it sounds really lame, but the sunshine makes me feel really good.
The first series of That Black Theatre Podcast will have 12 weekly episodes released on Mondays. You can listen to the Podcast via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and Google Podcasts. Find out more here.