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Theatre Collective Spotlight: Danusia Samal

Empower Her* Voice Theatre Collective introduces… ‘Spotlight: Female-Identifying and Non-Binary Voices in Theatre.’ This is a new series of interviews, released monthly, to broadcast the emerging and established voices of female-identifying and non-binary creatives within theatre.

Introducing Danusia Samal

Danusia Samal is an actress, writer and jazz singer. She has played a diverse range of roles at leading British theatres, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court, Globe, Soho Theatre, and Manchester Royal Exchange. Danusia won the 503 International Playwriting Award for her play Out of Sorts, exploring a woman’s struggle with dual identity as a second generation migrant. Out of Sorts was staged at Theatre503 October 2019, receiving 4 and 5 * reviews. Danusia was selected by the BBC for their 2019 TV Drama Writer’s Programme, where she was commissioned to create an original drama. She has since become one of the Soho 6, and is currently writing scripts for the BBC and Sky’s Gangs of London.

What was your first experience watching theatre?

This is hard to say, coz I know I was taken on school trips but the shows didn't always make an impact. Or they felt weird and alienating. I think the first time I saw a play where I was like: "Wow, plays can be about real life and be challenging, political or moving" was seeing 'Elmina's Kitchen' at the Garrick Theatre in London. I was a teenager and it blew me away.

What was the first play to make you want to act/write?

I was in a play called 'Billy The Girl' by Katie Hims which ran at Soho Theatre and in prisons. It was a Clean Break show and seeing the impact it had on theatre audiences and the women we worked with in prisons made me realise theatre could be a really powerful medium. I had always written, but this show made me really want to develop as a playwright.

Why theatre for you? Why is it the right form for you?

I think at its best theatre can challenge us, move us, and change us profoundly. I just wish it could reach more people and be more accessible.

What do you look for when choosing plays to take on/what around you, inspires you to write?

An initial idea can spring from anywhere: a conversation, an image, an event, sometimes even a dream! What makes me stick with an idea is whether it's a theme I want to explore further, or a story I really want people to hear. It takes years to write a play, so it has to be something you're passionate about.

Which playwrights/ directors/ actors have had the biggest impact on you?

I've been lucky to work with some amazing writers and directors - both as an actor and as a writer. I've learnt something from all of them! Writer Marcus Gardley taught me history could be epic and magical, director Blanche McIntyre taught me to trust my instincts, director Guy Jones, who worked with me on my first play 'Busking It', taught me that putting on a play is an act of collaboration, and it can continue to grow and evolve throughout the run... I could say something about everyone, but that would make for a very long interview!

How has the theatre industry changed over your time working?

I think conversations about representation have definitely evolved. There's a way to go, but there's more of an active interest in hearing from voices that have traditionally been under-represented in theatre.

Are there ideas and themes that you keep coming back to?

Yes! Even when I try not to, I often come back to themes of identity, race, and the idea of social responsibility.

Are there characters that you keep coming back to?

I often write characters who are a bit guarded, wrestling with the themes mentioned above. It's funny, even if the characters you write and the situations they are in are very different, there are often similarities.

What advice would you give to a woman wanting to work in theatre, but without obvious access streams?

I'd say watch lots of plays and read them. With Covid19 many theatres have put shows online and you can watch for free. Once theatres reopen I suggest following them on social media and looking out for ticket deals, community projects and writing schemes. The London Playwright's Blog and BBC Writersroom post a lot of opportunities online. If you watched a play and loved it, you can contact the writer! Chances are they'll be flattered to hear from an aspiring writer who admires their work. Theatre is a difficult world to get into sometimes, so finding people you gel with, trust and respect is really important. If you find people like that, hold on tight to them.

What are your top tips for emerging female-identifying writers who have not had formal training?

I think there are lots of ways to become an actor and writer, and formal training is not always the best option. My top tip is PRACTISE. Find as many opportunities as you can to do that. Even if you fail. I suggest following venues, companies, individuals online and keeping an eye out for opportunities that interest you. Apply, send in your work, get in touch. Worst thing that happens is you don't get this one, but something will come through eventually!

If you could go back to the beginning of your interest in theatre, what would you tell yourself?

You're not as rubbish as you think you are, you've got something to offer - so go for it!

Could you tell me a bit more about your process for 'Out of Sorts'?

I started writing Out of Sorts soon after I graduated in 2012/2013. I felt frustrated by the lack of representation onstage and was also working through my own issues of identity. The play evolved as I met writers, performed in new plays, and worked with directors. It changed a lot over the years! And even after the play won the 503 playwriting award, there was a LOT of rewriting!

What are you working on next?

I am currently writing a play with Soho Theatre as part of their Soho 6 scheme. I am also writing for television, as a guest writer on a TV show and developing my own ideas with production companies and channels. I'm also due to start filming on the second season of 'The Great' - which will be interesting with all the Covid precautions in place!

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