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Politically charged and raw, AJ talks to Lauren Gauge about his play AISHA

When an interview turns debate you know you are in the presence of a raw and fiery spirit. Talking to AJ who wrote AISHA was refreshing and rousing, and my bet is AISHA at The Hen and Chickens Theatre this month will be pound for pound the same. AISHA opens on 13th June. Get tickets while you can.

AISHA is your debut play and a very hard hitting subject matter to lead with Ė child marriage and exploitation. What inspired you to write this piece?

I saw an article about a 9-year-old girl that was forced to marry an older man and due to this enslavement, she was prone to abuse and early pregnancy, which can lead to death. There are not enough articles on child marriage in the UK. It is perceived as something that only occurs in a third world country; a perception fuelled by ignorance. I read it and it resonated with me, however the lack of detail present bothered me and I felt obliged to do something about it.

I believe art, in this case theatre, should not be used solely to entertain. I strive to use theatre and my art to empower those who have been left disempowered or oppressed by societyís issues. I felt it was imperative that children, who find themselves in these situations, whether by force, coercion or choice, were given a voice. We live in a Western society where we are privileged, undoubtedly spoilt, and almost self-centred. Sometimes as a result we can overlook particular issues that we cannot afford to. These are our children and leaders of humanity, because once we go, life and humanity continue through them.

How did you become interested in making that idea into a piece of theatre?

I felt theatre would be the best medium to express such an explicit topic. Theatre from the beginning was a communal art form, where you can express your thoughts to your community. People like Shakespeare for example, when he was telling stories, was not telling them to middle-class and upper-class audiences as they are done today, but also to a working-class audience, to inform them. Theatre was my chosen medium because it is also relatively unfiltered. Film goes through a whole editing process. In live performance, there is room for error but then there is room for brilliance and excitement too, so it is unfiltered in a way. In order for me to portray a subject that is unfiltered I think I needed to convey this story through an unfiltered medium. However, although there is a sense of freedom in theatre, influential theatres and theatre makers, who chose to only convey a certain type of story, present these illusive walls of confinement. ďIf you want to write a play, then it has to have this or that or your play canít be performed in our theatreĒ. Ė Forget that, I hate those kinds of artistic polices.

In this world freedom comes at a price, and the price in this case is the backlash that you will receive for rebelling against those confinements and conventions.

Talking of mediums, from one spoken word artist to another, poetry is a medium that is very quickly becoming at home in a theatrical space Ė how do you navigate and negotiate the needs of theatrical dialogue from a traditional one person narrative?

Tell me if you agree or disagree. I think that theatre at its most potent form encompasses many attributes that can be found in Spoken Word. It is poetic, has rhythm and expression of a story in a stylised way.

I agree. Verse has been incorporated for many years in playwriting, albeit popular under many guises.

Nowadays spoken word has that unconventional aspect to it. It is not standardised. Usually spoken word is used to tell a story, so I think regardless, this production and good theatre will be a piece of spoken word.

How do you take something like a poem that can exist without a response and put it into a responsive environment. AISHA isnít a one woman show, is it?

No, you are right it is not, but youíve unearthed a secret there. AISHA started out as a one woman piece, but then it evolved naturally. When Aisha speaks about her experiences, it involves other people, therefore I thought it would be intriguing to see those characters, and how they are also affected by child marriage. For child marriage doesnít just affect the child it affects others in society also.

I am a feminist in some ways, maybe that is because I was brought up by women. If you advocate womenís rights by definition you are. It was important for me to illustrate the demise of a circumstance where Aisha, a female, has been forced into a situation where she is at a disadvantage and oppressed.

Writing and directing are two very different skills, so what is it about the roles or the piece that makes you want to wear both of those hats?

Well I was forced to wear one Ė I had to direct it because I had no choice, it was just too daring I guess, nobody wanted to take the piece on. In any case, I canít just write a play without taking into consideration the elements that turn a written piece into a production. For example, when writing a play I draw stage illustrations, I create light designs and soundscapes.

Iíve realised this is an industry thatís very patriarchal and very one sided. The industry is dictated by upper-class and middle-class individuals that champion topics that derive from their sub-culture, rather than advocate stories that are not patriarchal for example, or plays that consist of characters from all races and backgrounds. Itís like they canít understand stories like this, they rebel against it. Itís crazy really.

Patriarchy is troublesome for all, it forms the basis of one of the shows that I have made, but I wonít go into that.

No, please go on, go on, because I thought, is this just me going crazy? Am I just being paranoid? Obviously I know youíve been in this industry for a while Ė I would love to know what you think.

Ha! Ok, but for the purpose of the interview and our readers, I will keep it brief!
1). Theatre is a patriarchal industry. 2) There arenít enough women in power in it. 3) There arenít enough people in power who are willing to open doors to other non-likeminded artists in order to create a more diverse representational theatrical ecology. It becomes very hard to be championed as a lower-middle-class / working-class woman and you need to find champions who are like minded in other ways or who will champion your work regardless of your creed, class or orientation, but on the basis of your work and its validity alone.

I agree with you, Lauren. I believe this patriarchal bias has caused the value of theatre to become somewhat diminished within our culture and society, due to the increasingly heteronomous and standardised nature of the art form. Most theatres claim that they produce work that is original or different, but once examined more critically, their creations exhibit superficial differences.

I am black and I ainít from a middle-class background. I still consider myself working-class, and at times you feel like they isolate you because of your class.

The value of theatre is greater than ever, to instigate change, but emphasis must be given to those typically Ďoutsiderí voices that need nurturing. I empathise with your stance, I was born into a working-class family and over my teenage years we became more middle-class, the aspiring classes if you will and now I would probably consider myself a mix of working and middle-class but that middle-class element doesnít necessarily fit the identity I have or the connections I feel. Iíve just been branded it.

I see that. Especially when you start to study theatre, you are forced to mingle within a middle/ upper-class sub culture because theatre in the realm of academia, especially in higher education, is a subject that was instituted by the elite. So, if you are from a working-class background, at times you would find yourself at conflict with your identity.

Exactly, one of the great struggles as an artist is your identity changing. People might think now that I speak with less of a regional accent, because I trained as an actor and they knock off all your nice edges, that I am something different to what I am. I miss elements of that identity and what people think I am or might make a presumption that I am, because I now have a voice that sounds a bit more like them.

I can relate totally. Because it feels like if you want to be successful it seems that you have to adhere to those conventions, which is speak in a different way, especially if you are an actor; they groom you to become a blank canvas. Thatís crazy! Your edges, your imperfections are what separate you from others. They are so important. Explain to me how those imperfections prevent you from being creative, or creating a character. They donít! In fact not being yourself could negatively affect your creativity.

I considered acting until someone told me to shave my dreads off, and I was like, nah f*ck that. This is becoming ridiculous. Of course, if the part requires it that is different, but youíre telling me that in general in order to embark on this path of acting I have to be a blank canvas. I understand it but I donít agree with it. You can be a blank canvas in your heart.

I hate myself for adhering in certain ways, speaking in certain ways. I said to myself a year ago, I am just going to be myself to the full extent. I am not saying that AISHA is the best play you are ever going to see. But itís a success to me because I was able to put it on myself without the help of the elite, and the authoritative figures in theatre. I think if I didnít embrace my identity I wouldnít have been able to create a unique play such as AISHA.


Back to AISHA then, now that we understand some of your characterful journey to making it. In the trailer you get a very real sense of stillness and horror, is this a conscious juxtaposition and one you will explore in the production?

I wrote and directed the trailer. I didnít want it to be a traditional and conventional theatre trailer, a monologue or close up of their faces. I wanted to make it a piece of art by itself. I love film, I watch it more than I watch theatre. I wanted someone to watch the trailer and gain something from it regardless of whether they saw the play or not. I wanted the trailer to be a stand-alone piece of art. Also, because I am loyal to my actors. I wanted them to showcase their acting, but to do it in a different way without dialogue. I wanted to give them a head start.

What do you hope that the audience will experience when they see it at The Hen and Chickens?

I make art for the sole purpose: for people to resonant with it. I want to inspire social change, or to at least spark the brain that could make a change. I am hoping that at least one audience member goes home and says, what can I do to stop this? How can I support those who dedicate their lives to the of ending child marriage, child-sexual exploitation, inequality etc.? How can I make myself more aware? Or if you have children, how can I be more vigilant with my children so that they do not become a victim of exploitation.

There is one thing that I do not want to be misconstrued. In the play Aisha is from an Islamic background, but is not a practicing Muslim. Islam is not a central theme within this play at all. Therefore, I do not want people to think that child marriage is something that only happens in Islam, nor do I want people to assume that child marriage was created by Islam. With all that has occurred in Manchester, I do not want people to use the notion of child marriage to slander or victimize my Muslim law-abiding brothers and sisters. I did not intend to castigate a religion I am, to a certain degree a part of. I chose to simply express and elucidate the grievous effects of this social-ill Ė a social issue that can be unearthed in other religions, cultures, communities and cultural systems.

What some fail to acknowledge is that religion was unmistakably instituted by humanity; and like any other system that we might conceive ourselves, will be inescapably imprinted in such a system; for such a system came from us, and us alone. Therefore, our inadequacies, defects and virtues will be exhibited in what we create. Human traits, such as love, hate, violence, mistreatment, are examples of what you should expect to be demonstrated. No one religion is greater than the other, nor is there one person greater than the other.

What would you say to people looking to write and create theatre that may be in a similar position to what you were a year ago?

To anybody that wants to Ďput-oní their own work Ė just do it. You can do it, itís not as hard as you think. People are going to tell you that if you write a play, you have to send it out to theatres and wait until one of them decide to take on your script; or some might say that you should take into consideration what type of work your favourite theatre produces and cater your creations to their style. Donít listen! Create whatever you want to create, and put it on yourself.



AISHA Trailer


www.ailia.org.uk

Buy your tickets now for AISHA HERE






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Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think

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