Sabrina Mahfouz

photo by Matt Writtle

Sabrina Mahfouz has recently been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and is the recipient of the 2018 King’s Alumni Arts & Culture Award. She has won a Sky Arts Academy Award for Poetry and a Westminster Prize for New Playwrights.

Sabrina’s theatre work includes Chef, a Fringe First Award winner; Dry Ice, for which she was nominated in The Stage Awards for Acting Excellence; With a Little Bit of Luck, which won Best Drama Production in the BBC Radio & Music Awards 2019; Clean, a Herald Angel Award winner which transferred to New York and her adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s celebrated YA novel Noughts & Crosses for Pilot Theatre tours the UK throughout 2019. At the end of 2019, Sabrina’s A History of Water in the Middle East had a sold out run at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Sabrina is the editor of The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write, a 2017 Guardian Book of the Year and Smashing It: Working Class Artists on Life, Art and Making It Happen. She’s an essay contributor to the multi-award-winning The Good Immigrant and is currently writing a biopic of the rapper and producer Wiley, for Pulse Films. 

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Essential Drama


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Urgency and truthfulness

PC: What is theatre?

SM: Theatre, for me, is a live storytelling experience. It’s different to other forms because you’re there and you experience it within a group. Although, I have watched theatre on a virtual reality headset and NT Live screenings and I really enjoyed them, but it was filmed live. So, I don’t know if it has to be experienced live but the liveness of the experience somehow comes across even if it’s recorded. I feel like that gives it an urgency and a truthfulness.

PC: How does it feel different to a performance poetry setting?

SM: It’s potentially just to do with the length. If something’s five minutes, then it’s a performance poem but if something is an hour, in exactly the same style, it somehow morphs into a theatre piece.

A History of Water in the Middle East by Sabrina Mahfouz
Photo by Craig Sugden


Sarah Kane

Extract from interview with Steve Waters

Sarah Kane

Extract from interview with Steve Waters

Sarah Kane is one of Britain’s greatest playwrights. She challenged and disrupted British theatre in the ’90s and her five plays are a remarkable legacy. She took her own life in 1999 just after completing 4.48 Psychosis.

I returned to my interview with Steve on the 20th anniversary of Kane’s death and thought that it was worth sharing his memories of her as a stand alone interview.

Steve Waters is a writer for stage, radio and screen. He is also very involved in the new playwriting scene. Steve has written about the pedagogy of playwriting and the nature of plays. He has been a participant in shaping arts policy for new playwrights. He ran the Playwriting MPhil at Birmingham University before moving to lead the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Steve has been described as ‘one of the UK’s most accomplished political playwrights’. Steve attended to the Playwriting MPhil with Sarah Kane in 1992.

PC: What were your early experiences with Sarah Kane on that course?

SW: I can tell you exactly how it began: I was late for my first seminar I had gone for a walk into Birmingham thinking that I was nearer to the campus than I actually was. Unfortunately, it is an all too common experience for me. I walked into the room and David Edgar was sitting across the room in his usual black jacket looking like a Marxist from the 1970s. And a young woman in a leather jacket with short blonde hair and a piercing was sitting by the door. Very beautiful, she was an extremely beautiful person Sarah, ‘Saz’ as we knew her and I just thought, “You’re a really nice person.” She was very friendly; I think that she found it quite a traumatic year.

PC: Why was it traumatic?

SW: She’d been this incredibly successful, very bright student at Bristol University, I think she did a year doing other stuff possibly. Then came to Birmingham, the only game in town at that point. It felt, I think, for her, quite male, quite middle aged. There were only three women on that course that year. She just wouldn’t take, you know, Sarah’s gay, she was a woman and she was angry about that kind of stuff. She also didn’t want to be identified with certain things too. She was an extremely political person but in a much more immediate way than me. It was different to anything I’d experienced as “politics” before.

Continue reading the full interview here.

World Theatre Traditions – Rakugo

Extracts from Rakugo: Popular Narrative Art of The Grotesque by Sasaki Miyoko and Morioka Heinz

“Although many stories have been adapted from written sources. rakugo can be considered a genuine form of oral art because its principal route of transmission down to us has been through the lips of the performers. To this day there are no written manuals or librettos containing the full text of a performance or of the way a story has to be presented. There is mainly oral transmission from master to pupil. Written notes to help in memorization or tape recordings are frowned upon. Through long years of personal association with his teacher, listening to his performance from backstage, and living as an apprentice in his home, the student devotes his attention to mastering the stories.”

“The sense of reality is maintained throughout the story, and shared by performer and audience alike. Drawing freely on his personal experience, the performer styles his own individual pre- amble or “pillow” (makura t) for his story, selecting among con- temporary events, the weather, or work, whatever topics he feels his audience might be interested in. When he enters into the story itself, then his hero, in a curious and sudden shift of time dimen- sion, leaps out of the setting of an old tale right into the present moment and confronts the audience. Here, if the storyteller clumsily tries to evoke laughter in an obvious way, the effect will amount to nothing more than crowd-pleasing titillation, and his story may fall flat. But the expert performer can bridge the time gap smoothly and without a hitch, drawing the audience along with him into the world of classical rakugo.”

“The rakugo performer must organize his story in a new way each time, but if he is to remain within the confines of classical tradition, he is forced to observe certain definite rules. Throughout several centuries of rakugo the main plots of the stories and the heroes’ names have not changed. In the organization and minute descriptive details of episodes, with each performance, each year, and each generation, a great variety of different nuances and changes have appeared. No story can ever be performed twice in exactly the same way.”

“Changes in scene of a story are described by onomatopoetic words and sounds; for example, the ringing of a temple-bell, bon-bon; the clatter of wooden clogs, karan-koron; the sound of the wind, pyiu u u u; rolling of stones, gara-gara; or noise in the background, di-di, go-go. Onomatopoetic insertions can extend over a period of more than one minute, when they describe such movements as slow walking, tata tata…, tsun tsun …; running, sai-sai koro-sai, e-sa-sa, sowa- sowa, chowa-chowa; walking with heavy baggage on one’s shoulders, wasshoi-wasshoi…, or the sounds of work and play, kachi-kachi, pachi-pachi, pochi-pochi, poka-poka, potsu-potsu, sara-sara; or heavy exertion, hora-yo, sora-yo,yosshoi.”

“The rakugo performer is not supposed to change his position once he takes a seat on the stage. But merely by the movement of the upper half of his body he represents all kinds of actions. Walking from one place to another is expressed by one of the most amusing gesture formulas of rakugo: the performer withdraws his hands into the wide sleeves of his kimono, his knees, hips, and shoulders sway rhythmically, and he talks to himself in a murmuring voice, as if lost in thought. The audience knows that a person is on his way to an- other place; they also know that he will suddenly be startled out of his thoughts by an unexpected event, and they anxiously wait for that moment.”

“The focal point of the rakugo story is the world of everyday. Many of its cast of characters strut about dressed in sundry garb and historical costumes, but they are part of the storyteller’s world and the world of his audience. From there the rakugo performer takes the models which he fits into various stereotypes according to class and profession: the feudal lord, the military man, the priest, the scholar, the retired head of the house, the working-class man, the farmer. At times the principal characters are complete outsiders that do not fit into ordinary societal roles: the cheapskate, the thief, the liar, or the prostitute. Sometimes it is just the simpleton, the lazy- bones, the miser, the boozer, and the conniver that pass across the imaginary rakugo stage. There are, of course, no detailed portrayals of people as individuals. This is the major difference between rakugo and pure literature. While there are instances where a character is provided with a definite personality, there are practically no examples of that personality changing as the story develops.”

Miyoko, S., & Heinz, M. (1981). Rakugo: Popular Narrative Art of The Grotesque. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 41(2), 417-459. doi:10.2307/2719050

Essential Stimuli 2

Here is a selection of street art to raise questions and encourage discussion.

media – banksy

The Holy Chemical Picture Show – murfy

It must be the abs – Igordobrowolski

Friends – ill
Riotcops – banksy

World Theatre Traditions – Kathakali

Eugenio Barba introducing Kathakali

On the southern coast of India, the three-hundred-year-old Kathakali ritual theatre still flourishes, a mixture of dance and pantomime, religious inspiration and mythological tradition.

The plays describe extraordinary events involving gods, demons, and legendary characters. They all have one common characteristic: good and the gods always triumph over evil and the demons. The actor acts out the struggle between good and evil exclusively through the motions of his body, and the subjects of the plays are as well known to the audience as the myths of the Greek trilogies were to the Athenians.

Through his gestures and his mimicry, the Kathakali actor recreates the atmosphere and the action of the drama while describing to the audience the action’s locale. His technique is much closer to the Chinese opera than to the European mime or ballet, which tells a story through a direct or “exoteric” technique. In the Oriental ballet, on the contrary, a cipher is used. Each gesture, each little motion is an ideogram which writes out the story and can be understood only if its conventional meaning is known. The spectator must learn the language, or rather the alphabet of the language, to understand-what the actor is saying. This alphabet of signs is complex. There are nine motions of the head, eleven ways of casting a glance, six motions of the eyebrows, four positions of the neck. The sixty-four motions of the limbs cover the movements of the feet, toes, heels, ankles, waist, hips-in short, all the flexible parts of the body. The gestures of the hands and fingers have a narrative function and they are organized in a system of fixed figures called mudras (“signs” in Sanskrit). Those mudras are the alphabet of the acting “language.”

The face expresses the emotions of the actor. If he is terror-struck, he raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs lathis nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions. To express paroxysmal rage, his eyebrows quiver, his lower eyelids rise on his eyes, his gaze becomes fixed and penetrating, his nostrils and lips tremble, his jaws are clamped tight, and he stops breathing to bring about a change in his physiognomy. There are sets of facial motions to express not only feelings and emotions, but traits of character of a more permanent nature, such as generosity, pride, curiosity, anxiety in the face of death, etc. However, the actor does not rely exclusively on prearranged mechanical gestures to express emotions. He cannot reach his audience unless his own imagination and motions come into play. The old masters of the Kathakali have a rule which says:

“Where the hands go to represent an action, there must go the eyes; where the eyes go, there must go the mind, and the action pictured by the hands must beget a specific feeling which must be reflected on the actor’s face.”

From this rule we can see that the face is the emotional counterpart of the story told, not by somebody else, but by the actor’s own hands. In short, there is a double structure: the actor must resort simultaneously to two different sets of technique to express the two complementary aspects of a story, the narrative and the emotional. His hands “tell” the former, while his face expresses the latter.

Barba, E., & Sanzenbach, S. (1967). The Kathakali Theatre. The Tulane Drama Review, 11(4), 37-50. doi:10.2307/1125137

Tadg O’Keefe introducing Kathakali

Katahkali Training

Kathakali Facial Expressions

The future of Kathakali?

The BBC’s Megha Mohan went to a now-closed traditional Kathakali school, one that gave birth to its own style, the Kalluvazhi Chitta:

Essential Stimuli 1

Do you need stimuli for your devising work? Inspiration for a design? Here are a selection of still shots from films courtesy of the fantastic Film School Rejects’ Twitter account @OnePerfectShot

Share your ideas with us on Twitter or Facebook.

LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH (1969) DP: Dietrich Lohmann Dir: Rainer Werner

I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941) DP: Edward Cronjager Director: H. Bruce Humberstone

TRAFFIC (2000) Shot and directed by Steven Soderbergh

IDA (2013) DP: Ryszard Lenczewski, Lukasz Zal | Dir: Pawel Pawlikowskipic

NETWORK (1976) DP: Owen Roizman | Dir: Sidney Lumet

HARDCORE (1979) DP: Michael Chapman | Director: Paul Schrader

THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995) DP: Darius Khondji | Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

HOT FUZZ (2007) DP: Jess Hall | Dir: Edgar Wright

THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966) DP: Hiroshi Segawa | Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

SABOTAGE (1936) DP: Bernard Knowles |Dir: Alfred Hitchcock