PlayBox: Play Blog from Mohammed Barber 12/01/2024

PlayBox, our year long writer-on-attachment scheme, sees playwrights develop a brand new piece of work with our support. This year's cohort are drawing close to sharing their new plays at our PlayMakers Takeover at HOME on 20 January. Read Mohammed's update on where he's up to ahead of his rehearsed reading...

I see myself as a non-practicing historian. Non-practicing in that it’s been five years since I left academia to pursue a career in the arts. However that ferocious researching, debating, and pouring over details is still an important part of me. And there lies my problem.

Whilst background research is very important to storytelling, writing plays or poetry is not about correctly uncovering the occurrences of the past. Playwrights are dramatists, not documentarians.

Learning to walk that line between story and history was my challenge going into this attachment with Box of Tricks. And with my play Naz, about the group of friends who set up Britain’s first gay south Asian nightclub at the height of the AIDS epidemic, “great!” I thought, a story that is suitably true and dramatic.

With this in mind, I set about conducting several interviews, reading, watching, and visited museums. I recovered anecdotes held only by the people who were there which was really exciting. And in doing so I fell into a trap of my own making. I became so concerned with working out what happened I lost sight of my characters and the story I was trying to tell. And because I lost sight of the dramatic, the first draft was very difficult to write.

Then came workshop day. The large cast meant there were lots of voices. It can feel like everyone hates what you’ve written and you need to start from scratch again. In truth I was quite overwhelmed.

Enter Hannah Tyrell-Pinder. She’s great by the way. She assured me that actors lending their voices usually means they care about their characters and about the play. They are invested in making it better. Though it’s hard to believe that in the moment as the mass of differing and sometimes contradictory thoughts sends your head into a tailspin.

I promptly threw the script onto the shelf and forgot about it.

(I say that with tongue in cheek but the truth is every writer needs some distance from the script so you can reset your sightlines).

A few weeks later I picked things back decided to go back to basics: character and story. I did some simple writing exercises including writing ’unheard’ monologues, i.e. if the character was permitted a deep and soulful rant what would they say?

You can probably tell that I struggled this year. I did. I will not pretend otherwise. Artists and creatives can often end up focusing on the end success, which is of course, important to do, but this attachment was about being pushed creatively, being challenged and that has certainly happened. That’s why I began this post talking about being a historian. I had to unlearn the historian’s process and not let the facts get in the way of telling a good story. Though I’m coming to the end of my year-long attachment, I still struggle with that. Perhaps I always will.

And I reflected on the support I’ve been given by my dramaturgs Hannah and Karla Marie Sweet, and everyone else at Box of Tricks. Naz started off as one line from a conversation told to me in passing: “I was an Asian drag queen back in the 90s”. The entire Box of Tricks team have been in the wings yaaaaasing me as I’ve gone from turning the words of a retired queen into an actual, real, proper thing we call a play.

As my play is a collection of personal stories I shall finish with a final story. Some weeks after the workshop, when I was still feeling a little bruised, I bumped into one of the actors who in no uncertain terms told me “if you don’t finish this story, then I will!”. Their belief/threat made me realise I’m sitting on something good. It just needs some work.

Nevertheless, it would seem the die is cast. See you on the dance floor!

Mohammed Barber a South East Aisian man in his 20's, wearing a flowery shirt, against a green leafy background

Mohammed Barber

Mohammed is a poet, playwright and author. He was a member of the inaugural Old Vic Theatre Makers programme 2020 and shortlisted for the Box of Tricks Screen/Play Award 2020. His short story Rose and Lemongrass Tea was published in the international contemporary writing journal, Wasafiri (December 2021). Read his thoughts on academia, his writing process, and a personal story.