AI PROFILE Tara - small becomes powerful
Abdul Shayek, artistic director and chief executive, Tara Theatre
On the night of Friday, June 4th, 1976, an 18-year-old Sikh engineering student, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, was stabbed to death in Southall.
Two teenagers were found guilty of manslaughter and jailed for four years, with the judge emphasising that he did not believe the crime to be racially motivated. It was the age of Enoch Powell and the National Front, and the outrage provoked a rise among Asian youth against racism in the borough.
Another direct response to the murder was that in 1977 Jatinder Verma founded Tara Arts, the first British-Asian theatre company, with a performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s anti-war play Sacrifice, a declaration on several levels.
In 2016 Verma finally got Tara its own building in Wandsworth, by which time it had awards, Arts Council support and an international reputation for cross-culture theatre. Last year Verma stood down after 44 years.
If Tara was born out of the South Asian community, Verma’s successor, Abdul Shayek, believes it’s time it went back into the wider community for new material. And the rest of the theatre world should too.
“It’s – what – 45 years almost to the day since the murder and we’re still having the same debate” Shayek says. “So clearly nothing’s moved forward.”
But it has, in that since the 70s organisations like, and led by, Tara have given South Asian and BAME drama and writers a platform; what hasn’t changed is the social barriers that remain. As Verma said as he left Tara last year: If I can see myself in the white person, can the white person see me in their own heart? I think at the moment, one has to say, well no, they can’t”.
Shayek’s mission is to move the issue forward on the twin fronts of diversity and inclusivity. He reopens the company to the public this week as Tara Theatre with the new chapter he was hired to bring in, in which Tara laces together audience, community, racial issues and other companies up and down the country in its programming.
Shayek’s backstory makes his new role seem almost inevitable. Born in Bangladesh he came to London at the age of three and was brought up there. By 2011 was an associate director at National Theatre Wales, a peripatetic role in which he found that in both urban and rural settings he was often the only person of colour on either side of the script, “and I was questioning why that was”. He commuted between Cardiff and London while he did the Clore Leadership Programme, toyed with returning to London but decided to stay and create Fio, a Cardiff-based company devoted to “the under-represented or misrepresented in society” that takes its name from the Latin word for “belong”. He left it on a firm footing with Arts Council Wales funding.
Shayek acknowledges Tara’s “amazing history” but thinks it’s become too focused on its building. “That's taking up huge amounts of energy, head space and bandwidth, and there was a need to rethink this organisation and create something new”. It means engaging directly with the public, and especially the young, using the building as a base rather than a citadel.
So the show that opens Tara Theatre on Thursday is Beyond Lockdown, , a performance created with a group of Year 9 students which reflects how young people see their futures post-pandemic, but the company was already transforming during lockdown.
It started with Tea with Tara, an online attempt to keep in touch with the audience, and developed into the Listening Space which, among other things, is a means of connecting with artists and theatre people affected by the pandemic. He got some funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to push the discussion into what needs to happen to make theatre more equitable and more accessible.
“What does the sector need?” Shayek poses. “What do the freelancers need, what does the sector need in terms of type of action, what should Tara become in order to do that?
“In the Listening Space we hear a range of different individuals who tell us about their dreams and aspirations and a lot of that is going into what we are now proposing as the new chapter”.
Shayek may be keen to put the pandemic behind us as he and the audience seek to look forward, but he is also aware that lockdown has not only created stories for a community theatre to tell, but also time for that theatre to come to terms with its task and its resources, online and live. He is reluctant to criticise the government or Arts Council for their response to the crisis in the arts, but thinks some of it has been superficial – “The Culture Recovery Fund went mostly to the big organisations when the real heroes are the small ones that needed the help most”.
So while Beyond Lockdown will give us a glimpse at Shayek’s vision for Tara, coming up in July is something that will make it plain.
Final Farewell was inspired by Shayek's partner at whose church the lady verger had welcomed friends and strangers to weddings, christenings and funerals on most days of the week. Last year she died of Covid-19 and no-one could attend her funeral. “We got to talking about how we should find a way to celebrate these individuals and their stories…”
They trawled Wandsworth for stories, set up a microsite, interviewed friends and family to find the best stories, workshopped them through March and finally chose seven for the piece that would take the audience from the theatre back into the community.
Theatre-goers will arrive at Tara and download a podcast of the seven stories. The podcasts will take them to the places the subjects knew and where they were known – in one, two of the subjects chat as they sit together on a churchyard bench.
And almost as important as celebrating personalities that have been unexpectedly lost is where in the social divide they are from. They are not, as you might expect, all of South Asian origin: they are Persian, Caucasian and black as well as South Asian, a proper cross-section of the community Tara sits in the heart of.
The new Tara is a social driver as much as an artistic one, as political with a small “p” as it has always been. Shayek is preoccupied at the moment with the “disproportionately affected”, those most hurt by the pandemic physically or economically, particularly BAME citizens.
Some of that will be covered in the 12 monologues he has commissioned from writers such as Abhishek Majumdar and Sonali Bhattacharyya, known in the South Asian theatre world but less so outside it, while the most eagerly awaited will be one written by Hanif Kureishi and his son Carlo about a father and his son.
And Shayek is at pains to emphasise that Tara will be a platform for struggling writers particularly but not solely from the South Asian group. Good work has already been done, he said, by the likes of Derby Playhouse, Tara’s neighbour the Battersea Arts Centre and the Stockton ARC.
As he trawls the country for material he will focus on South Asian communities up and down the country – Greater Manchester, Leicester, Coventry – but he is critical of the tunnel vision of some approaches to the possibilities and the potential audiences, with interesting work not being commissioned for fear of not finding and audience for it. He sees that once ground-breaking Ayub Khan-Din comedy. East Is East, as a cliché now, yet the National Theatre has announced a new production of it in its upcoming season, a co-production with Birmingham Rep.
“At what point do we move away from telling stories about terrorism, forced marriages or honour killing, when do we start telling the stories about love and dreams and aspirations? There's a whole bunch of really interesting artists waring to voice stories out there - why aren’t they being commissioned?”
Theatre, he says, has to be bold and take a lead, a lead Tara is offering to take.