Poet & Playwright, the Craft of a Writer
Zodwa Nyoni’s list of accomplishments runs pretty long. In fact, I’m going to guess that if you aren’t aware already, you’re going to be surprised at the full extent of what she has achieved at only 25. Based in Leeds and a member of the great programme Young Inscribe; this poet and playwright has penned several works, won awards, performed at festivals and is a recent recipient of the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme bursary. I was grateful to speak to her about the incredible journey she’s been on, geeking out over Alexander McCall Smith and what the coming year will bring.
How would you say your passion for writing developed?
I liked stories and I read a lot. What I enjoyed the most was how stories would provoke emotions out of you. This is why I liked English Literature throughout school. When I carried it on into my A Levels I wanted to study these writers that had annoyed me or made me cry or made me angry. Writing is a craft and I wanted to learn it. I wanted play with words and possibly have the effect that writers had on me, on someone else.
I started writing poetry as a hobby. Then I hadn’t figured out the sharing part of my plan. I’d attend literary events, to learn who was around. In 2005 Benjamin Zephaniah was performing in Leeds and that night Leeds Young Authors (LYA) was the opening act. They were young poets, from Leeds and on a stage sharing this contemporary poetry. I wanted to be part of it. I found my outlet. Writing became more than just playing with words in a notebook. It became performance. Text + performance = a hobby not being a hobby anymore. When I joined LYA we’d perform nationally and internationally. I loved what writing had become. It was new experiences, new audiences and new reactions.
What does being part of Young Inscribe involve? How has it changed and impacted you?
Young Inscribe is more about independence, whilst also having support from a group and its directors. This was a nice transition from being in a youth group like LYA that had weekly sessions and had an age range of up to 19 years old. Young Inscribe isn’t as frequent but there’s a network of writers that are building on their profiles. The group in itself has writers that are spread around from Leeds, Manchester, London and Sheffield. So, when we do get together for a residential or professional workshops it’s nice to catch up with other writers and see what they’ve been up to and what’s going on in their cities. We share information.
Young Inscribe has also provided me with work experience. I was involved in a commission called To Market, To Market in 2012 which was part of Yorkshire’s Cultural Olympiad. This project was aimed at discovering the stories that have risen from Leeds’ Kirkgate Market.
I see you were one of the winners of Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme – what has that been like so far and how are things going to change for you in the coming year?
When I found that I’d been invited to Channel 4 to meet the panel: Sir Richard Eyre CBE, Catherine Johnson, Indhu Rubasingham, Sue Summers, John Tydeman OBE and Piers Wenger; it was scary and exciting. My first full length play was now in a pool of national writers. Then to find out that I got the bursary it was the encouragement that I needed at the time. The coming year for me is an opportunity to just go for it; to grow and make new networks. As part of the scheme I will be doing a yearlong writing residency at the West Yorkshire Playhouse which will start in January 2014. I’m looking forward to working with the West Yorkshire Playhouse to produce and share as much of my work as I can locally and nationally. I feel that this is definitely the next step for me.
How did you make the shift from poetry to theatre? Do you still perform?
By 2010 I’d done 5 years of performance, through being a part of LYA and studying a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts and a Foundation Degree in Theatre Studies. Particularly when I was studying, I realised that was more interested in writing scripts than I was in becoming an actor.
By coincidence another writer emailed me and said Freedom Studios in Bradford was running a playwright’s development project. It was called Street Voices 3. I thought, brilliant! I’ll apply and learn the techniques for writing a play. The course ran for 3 or 4 weeks and by the end of it I’d written a short play, The Povo Die Till Freedom Comes. It was chosen along with other plays from the project to tour nationally. It showcased at the Theatre in the Mill (Bradford), Square Chaple (Halifax) and the Bush Theatre (London). After that experience, I wanted to keep going. With theatre I love the process of having your idea being turned into a production. All these elements come together to make your words come alive. You’ve got actors, directors, technicians and costume. They all bring something different. I wanted to be in theatre so I got involved. I applied for loads of opportunities; I kept writing and developing relationships with the right people and companies.
In 2011, I was part of a small writing group at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This was funded by BBC Writers Room. I wrote my second play (another short play) The Night Shift in response to Terrance Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. This play showcased at the Playhouse. Following that I started the first of many drafts of a play, which later (2 years of love and labour!) became my first full length play, Boi-Boi is Dead. This is the play that won me the Channel 4 bursary this year.
In the last two years I’ve had more commissions for Leeds Light Night, Transform Festival and with Paines Plough. This has been great experience. The more I got into the world I started growing as a writer and later as an artist. I went back into education in 2012, this time focusing on contemporary theatre in my BA at Leeds Metropolitan University. I started writing and performing one woman shows. I’ve just finished my MA in Writing for Performance and Publication at the University of Leeds.
And yes, I still do perform. I don’t perform poetry as regularly but it has not been forgotten. I was the Apprentice Poet-in-Residence at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival which I enjoyed. I got to have conversations with some incredible writers (and then I geeked out when I met Alexander McCall Smith!) I also did a number of readings and hosted a couple of events. I try to get to as many events as I can. In Leeds there’s Sunday Practice which is on the first Sunday of every month at Sela. It’s an event open for poets and musicians to perform with a live band. There’s also Dead Poets, an open mic event which is on the 13th of every month at Rendezvous Café. When I’m not doing that, I’m one third of a devised theatre collaboration called Speak Woman Speak along with two artists, Carmen Martorell and Leah Francis. We met in February and started making work together. We had a month-long artist residency at the West Yorkshire Playhouse over the summer. In November we were invited back to be part of Furnace, a festival of emerging artists.
What advice would you give to other young, aspiring writers?
I’ll share what I’ve found recently, on Twitter. A tweet by a writer called Roger Robinson:
Artists: A rejection of [your] artwork may dampen [your] spirit but don’t let it hamper [your] vision. Regroup, research, revise, rework, resend.
I read that and thought, my desire to write must be more that what I fear.
Where do you hope to be in the future and how will you get there?
I was watching the 50th Anniversary of the National Theatre and there were all these great plays that they were recognising and celebrating. I want to be on the list. It may or may not be the National Theatre’s list but when people look back at the work that has been part of this arts continuum; I want to be on the list. I think there is something extraordinary about theatre and that is why I write and will keep on writing.
Make sure to follow Zodwa on twitter to keep up with what she’s doing!