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Added: Friday 15th September, 2017

An interview with Akila Richards.

Akila Richards talks about getting Grants for the Arts funding and writing her new play The Secret Chamber.

Can you give a short summary of the story of The Secret Chamber?

The Secret Chamber was a short story that was published in the anthology Closure by Peepal Tree Press in October 2015. It deals with three very different women of colour who meet in an abortion clinic. One is a woman of faith who is well respected pillar of the community with a terminally ill husband, an other is millionaire, stockbroker who hasn’t spoken to her mother for three years, and then we have a queer Afro-punk woman on the edge of making a big-break with big concerts coming up. It is through their interactions that you find out more about them, their backstories and why they decided to have an abortion. They influence each other and not all of them end up having abortions.

Quite often in stories women of colour are not depicted with a wide range of characters or experience. Is that something you wanted to challenge?

Absolutely, I wanted to give them depth, I wanted to show what happens in everyday life, we are not all good, we are not all bad, we’re complex. There is, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, no single narrative, we have many narratives and we have hidden sides. As I say that I am also aware that in some way I could be playing with stereotypes because there is a middle-aged woman who is a pillar of the community, the Asian character who is rich, the Afro-punk mixed race woman who’s rocking it on stage and one could say that they are stereotypes, but they are also real women who exist so I wanted to play with the stereotypes and how we are seen and what’s behind it and what’s deeper and what’s new.

You have now changed the short story into a play, can you talk about the process of changing it from one form to another?

It’s quite an involved process and it really is about respecting the different genres. Jacob Ross, who edited the short story, explained to me that a short story is like a vodka shot. Each sentence drives the story forward and then it goes down very quickly after the story or the arch of the character has been resolved. It is focused and it can be intense. What I’m experiencing with the script is, it is about dialogue, but also it is about using a different kind of methodology because on the stage a look, a gesture, a prop also speaks the language. I found that actually that vodka shot doesn’t work for the script because you do need an introduction, you need something that is a path into the characters.

I went on an Arvon writers course for scriptwriting which was immensely helpful in terms of looking at the way of writing, the critique I received, writing with others and having that dedicated writing time. I recommend it to everyone. And then also I have a mentor, which is fantastic Garfield Allen who is looking at my script. I am a performance poet and I’ve really felt at first that I needed to hold this back in order to write the script but Garfield has actually said no, play with that, use your poetry in the script see how that works because that is your unique voice and so actually with the second draft I tried to work that back in. I have expanded some of the characters and slightly changed them to add new facets. What I think is so beautiful is that because there is a rehearsed reading it means I get to play and to experiment, and I now see it less rigid because I first thought I’ve got to get this perfect but actually no this is my opportunity to write, to re-write, to look at this character, to change this character, to change scenes around, to see how the characters interact with each other. For example, am I going to make this character more aggressive, more subdued? Where are they going to meet each other? Where is the big reveal, is it at the beginning is it at the end, is it slow is it steady is it with a bang? And that is really beautiful to play with that.

How will the process of having a rehearsed reading feed into the other drafts that you write?

When I say that I have written a second draft, there’ll be a third, a fourth, a fifth a sixth. From the rehearsals I will see how the actors interpret the characters, how it looks live and how it sounds read out loud. It will give me an appreciation of what works and what doesn’t work and where I need to change it. After two rehearsals I will change it again and then maybe after a few more rehearsals I will change it again. Then with the audience feedback, and I hope that I will also be able to invite industry professionals to get their feedback, I can work on it further.

You got Grants for the Arts funding from the Arts Council. Could you expand on the process of applying for that funding, how you went about it and the pitfalls you faced?

Yes, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I got help, because I find applying to, not just arts council, but all funders, very challenging. I think knowing what they want is not necessarily clear. I think there is, right or wrong, a particular language you have to use. I’m a creative writer and I find it challenging so I got some help from Jenny Williams from Take the Space and I’m very grateful. It is about thinking strategically and being clear about what you what to get out of it, which for me was to experience a new genre, play with that genre and actually get a fairly acceptable script that will then be my platform for a full theatre production. But also realising that script writing is about collaboration, which is the side I absolutely love. Part of the process has been to have community workshops. I had some fantastic interviews and conversations with friends, family and women who have had experience of abortion and some of the experiences have fed into my script. Their generosity was quite amazing and I am immensely grateful. I would absolutely recommend that if you ever want to write a script, get people’s views because that will really enrich it. In terms of the Arts Council process it was a kind of bit by bit, answering the questions, feeding in and then getting the organisations to collaborate with. For instance, I’m getting in-kind support from New Writing South and The Marlborough Theatre. I would say that writing the application was a process of three months really editing, rewriting, making sure we have the right partners on board, getting the budget right, being clear about it, making sure that the budget is in line with what we’re doing and allowing a little bit of contingency – I’m already using the contingency as something fell through and I needed to get someone else which cost a little bit more money. What for me was absolutely crucial and important, as an artist myself, was that the actors and director get paid properly and so it felt like oil to my soul that I could pay them equity rate and give them that respect.

It was a real joy to have been awarded the funds. I’ve had experiences where I applied two, three times and did not get the money so I know what it feels like not to get the money and it’s not because it’s not a good project but the competition is just so phenomenally hard and that gets harder. So it was a bit of a good chalk to get the award the first time round so I’m very chuffed about that.

What are your next plans for the piece?

From this rehearsed reading I think it’s about putting all heads together and that means using the audience and industry feedback and talking to New Writing South and The Marlborough to see what could actually work. The ambition is to write a full production and put it on at a couple of venues here in Brighton, maybe in the South East and I would also love it to be in Brighton Fringe. I will take my time around that and really think about how that could look because it does take you time. We all have other jobs and you really need to be very clear when you actually get funding to do a project like this that everything else will need to be pushed by the side, or you need plan well ahead. This is something I’m realising because I’m on a very crazy schedule and so when I plan this it might mean that I won’t take on certain other jobs. I will need to make time in order to do this because it deserves that. So yes, the ambition is to do a full theatre production and touring and whether I do that in the next step or in three steps that’s yet to be decided.

And what else for you, do you have other writing projects?

Yes, and I can’t leave that because that is what feeds my sanity and my soul. I’ve been successful in being accepted for a new poetry publication, I can’t say what it is just now but I’m really chuffed that two of my poems have been chosen. I’m also going to be doing spoken word for a refugee event to raise funds at the end of September. I’m also writing short stories at the moment and I’m doing that with the help of Inscribe, which is writer development programme aimed at writers of African and Asian descent. 

What I would like to do is a short story collection as a lot of my stories focus on my Black-German background and I found it quite interesting how that came out in the context of growing up there but also now in the context of Brexit, what that means now and having been here and lived here a long time I feel in some ways Black British. I feel very British, what does that mean? I like the questioning, to keep on questioning, so who knows what comes out the other end. And so I’m doing all these creative projects aside from doing a day job where I’m working for a community project which kind of grounds me as well and I find it very important and I’d like to stay with that. I think it’s very important to support members of the community to realise our ambitions and to support them in certain ways.

Finally, do you have any tips or words of wisdom you want to tell other writers?

Take your art seriously, really take your art seriously and prioritise it. I think it is really about making time, I mean some artists are disciplined enough to do all their morning pages but I think it’s not even about that, it’s about you knowing when you can prioritise and really take the time for that. I think it’s alright to say things take time, sometimes we have a creative spurt and sometimes we don’t. I would say take it seriously and claim, really claim, the word that you are a writer, that you are an artist, scriptwriter, playwright, what ever you call it, claim it and say every day in front of the mirror. That’s what you are.

My gratitude goes to the very supportive partner organisations and participants of the communities. 

The rehearsed reading of The Secret Chamber will be at Marlborough Theatre on Thursday 26 October. Contact Akila on akilalive@gmail.com to be part of the invited audience.