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Theatre Collective Spotlight: Sabrina Mahfouz

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 Sabrina Mahfouz

Sabrina Mahfouz is a writer and performer, raised in London and Cairo. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL) and resident writer at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Her most recent theatre show was A History of Water in the Middle East (Royal Court) and inspires her non-fiction debut, These Bodies of Water, forthcoming by Tinder Press in Spring 2022.

What was the first play to make you want to work in theatre?

Random by debbie tucker green at the Royal Court was the play I watched which felt like it gave me permission to write theatre, even though it was probably the texts of Shakespeare and Ibsen that got me into the idea initially, I just never connected with those plays when I’d seen them on the stage. Random was the perfect combination of literary skill, subject matter, fiery performance, lyricism and minimal stage set up that made sense to my brain and to my heart.

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

I write in many different forms - theatre, poetry, non-fiction, essay, fiction, screenwriting, libretto. Finding a form is less what is right for me and more what feels right for the story in the particular way I or we want to tell it. If it is a commission, then usually the form is inherent within that and I find the parts of the story that best fit that form. One of the main reasons Theatre can be exhilarating to me is its ability to hold multiple forms in a way that is impossible with the other mediums I work in. Music, movement, dance, video, sound, poetry, storytelling, dialogue, mime, lecture, magic, architecture, fashion, singing and more could all be held with integrity in one piece of theatre.

Which playwrights/performers/creatives have influenced you the most?

Too many to list! Instead, I can say I’m currently reading work in all different forms by Samira Shackle, Nikesh Shukla, Musa Okwonga, Travis Alabanza, Caroline Horton, Jenni Fagan and Leah Cowan.

How has the theatre industry changed over your time working?

It has become more administrative, I think, which has advantages for the industry but sometimes downsides for the creatives. There are larger teams for education and learning, which is great. There are definitely more women, but I'm not sure about any other area of representation, that feels relatively the same as it did ten years ago. Out of all the mediums I work in, theatre in the UK seems the one that is stylistically in a similar place as it was when I started, which I find surprising.

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

As someone with heritage from multiple ex-British territories and who has grown up between the HQ of them (London) and one of them (Cairo), British imperialism and its legacy has always been consciously present in every aspect of my life and I am driven to keep exploring the subject because I still can't believe that a number of British people feel able to consider it 'history' that doesn't concern them. It is impossible for a society to move forward if it cannot accept and examine its past. A Britain made by the places it took for itself is the only Britain I know, so it's the one I will keep showing.

Choice is also a recurring theme. The questioning of free choice, how capitalism can only work if we believe we are exercising free choice and how collective responsibility is frowned upon in order to maintain its myth. How the circumstances of birth and identity effect every choice that can be made.

Within this theme are explorations of oppressions based on societal norms, from sexism and homophobia to racism and Islamophobia. I try to write my way out of the total confusion I feel at the way the human world has evolved – it doesn’t work, but I keep going anyway!

What are your top tips for emerging female playwrights/creatives who have not had formal training?

Work with your friends. Make work for your friends. Don't worry about an 'industry', worry about what you and your friends want to see, listen to, be part of. Eventually, you will be the industry, but until then, enjoy not being part of it. When you've made something you're proud of, don't be shy to invite everyone, no matter how unlikely it might seem that they will come. Be inventive with your invite. Of course, all this is easier said than done without being paid, but collectivism relieves this financial stress somewhat and everyone always has to do more jobs than they admit to, which is an indictment on the industry and on society's value system, not on you.

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

Don't spend your own money, on your own! If it is an individual project, rather than a collective one where everyone contributing can work well, team up with an aspiring producer and let them get the money for you to make the show you want to make.

Could you speak a bit more about your process for 'A History of Water in the Middle East'- am fascinated to know about how you rehearsed/why this topic?

By blending the personal and explicitly political, because all things personal can be considered political in some ways of course, it becomes inevitable that the past criticises or illuminates the present in some way, because the character in a show is in the present, no matter what time period they are written within. At the moment the audience meets them, it is the present. The political scenarios that they examine or pull from have likely already happened and so everything becomes connected, just as it is in life. Dramaturgically, it took many rewrites to thematically link the personal and political in the most accurate way - trial and error was the main process! I think this style of blending personal and political is often frowned upon in a critical sense and I would suggest that is because it challenges the myth of meritocracy and of the ability to transcend the self's environment, no matter what the obstacle - which has pretty much been the spine of Western storytelling for centuries. Questioning that and positing that an individual's circumstances as ascribed to them by the socio-politics of the time cannot be transcended by their inimitable will or unique character flaws and strengths is to challenge monotheistic religion and capitalism all at once. And I now realise most people are far more resistant to both of these things than I ever imagined.

In terms of rehearsing such a multi-medium show, it was very much about jamming in the room, collectively deciding when it felt right and building on it from there. The director, Stef O'Driscoll, is expert in empowering each creative to make their own decisions, whilst keeping all the threads harmonious.

What are you working on next?

Of course, much has been cancelled over the last 12 months, but hopefully my version of Ovid's Metamorphoses, co-written with Laura Lomas and Sami Ibrahim will be on at The Globe at some point and my debut non-fiction book inspired by A History of Water in the Middle East is being published by Tinder Press in Spring 2022. Margaret Perry is a writer from Cork, based in London. Her theatre and radio credits include Porcelain (Abbey Theatre, BBC Radio 4), Collapsible (Bush Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe 2019, HighTide Festival and Dublin Fringe 2019, where it won the Fishamble New Writing Award) and most recently, A Passion Play (Ellie Keel Productions and 45 North, originally developed as a Paines Plough seed commission). She is currently under commission at the Abbey Theatre and The Bush and her upcoming projects include Oak Tree Close (BBC Radio 4) The Royal Court's Living Newspaper, and Young Vic Five Plays. For television, she is developing a new series with Balloon Entertainment and is currently writers' assistant to Alice Birch on the upcoming Amazon/Annapurna adaptation of Dead Ringers. She was part of the Royal Court's invitational writers group 2018/2019, led by Alice Birch and Alistair McDowell.

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