20 Questions With… Tanika Gupta
Date: 21 January 2008
Playwright Tanika Gupta – whose play for young people, White Boy, has returned to Soho Theatre – talks about teenagers’ linguistic evolution, how dialogue is like tennis and why she hates the term ‘Asian theatre’.
Following her early professional years employed as a community worker in an Asian women’s refuge, Tanika Gupta found her niche as a playwright and has been writing full time for the past decade.
Her acclaimed plays to date include: an adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson's Choice set in an Asian tailor's shop (at the Young Vic); Sanctuary and The Waiting Room (National); Inside Out (Clean Break/Arcola); Fragile Land (Hampstead); Voices on the Wind (Talawa); Gladiator Games (Sheffield Crucible and Theatre Royal Stratford East); and Sugar Mummies (Royal Court).
Gupta has also contributed to Catch and The Chain Play, collaborations with other leading contemporary playwrights at the Royal Court and National respectively.
On television, Gupta’s credits include EastEnders, Grange Hill, Flight, A Suitable Boy, Crossroads, The Bill, London Bridge, All About Me and Silver Street.
A bilingual British Bengali, Gupta recently won the Asian Women Achievement Award for arts and culture, but she resists being classified as an “Asian writer”. Last August, her play for young people, White Boy, which was commissioned and presented by the National Youth Theatre, specifically worked against this imposed identity. It premiered at Soho Theatre, where it has now returned for a limited season.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 December 1963 in Chiswick, west London.
Lives now in
What made you want to become a playwright?
It just came naturally. I think you kind of learn on the job. I went to university and I did a history degree so I knew how to structure a sentence. But in terms of being a playwright, I think it was always in me. My father was a singer and my mother was an Indian dancer so we were brought up with arts and culture in the house. We always went to see plays and all that stuff.
If you hadn’t become a playwright, what might you have done professionally?
It would have been something to do with writing. Probably a journalist. Or a novelist. I’m trying to write a novel right now. I just started writing it and it has been such fun.
First big break
Getting my first stage play, Skeleton, on at Soho Theatre. I think it was back in 1995. I got a taste for it and got more commissions as a result.
Career highlights to date
Having a play on at the National Theatre and seeing my name up in lights on that big concrete box as I went over Waterloo Bridge was very nice. I did actually drive up and down like an idiot about ten times.
Favourite plays you’ve written
I’m particularly proud of Gladiator Games which I did at Sheffield Crucible and Stratford East. The play was commissioned by Sam West at Sheffield so it started its life there and then it came down to Stratford East. But Stratford East completely, wholeheartedly embraced it and it did so well that they brought it back again. What was amazing about that was having after-show discussions after every performance. Every single one they had after-show discussions. Usually with after-show things, you have about 20 people staying behind. With Gladiator Games, almost two-thirds of the audience would stay, it was incredible. I got dragged up on stage a couple of times. It was a very Brechtian experience in that, although people had watched the play and enjoyed the work, the discussion then went on to talk about prison service and institutional racism. The play became a springboard for talking about other political issues.
I have worked a lot with Indhu Rubasingham who I’m doing an adaptation of Great Expectations with next for Watford Palace. She and I have been working together on and off for years so she’s probably one of my favourites. But I’ve also worked with great people like Hetty MacDonald and Richard Jones. I’ve been really fortunate with all the directors I’ve worked with. And Juliette, who has directed White Boy, is fantastic as well.
What other playwrights do you most admire?
I love Arthur Miller, but in terms of living playwrights, I am a big fan of April de Angelis and Roy Williams. I love Debbie Tucker Green’s stuff as well. You know what’s really nice is when you go and see a good play – like the Dennis Kelly verbatim-style play at Hampstead last year, which I saw with a friend who is also a writer - and then you come out and think how fantastic to see a play that you really enjoy but you don’t wish you had written it. Or to think you could not have written it better, because we all think we could have written each other’s plays better.
What was the first play that had a big impact on you?
Rather weirdly I went to see a play in Calcutta in India when I was ten on one of my visits to India. It was a Bengali version of Galileo. That is quite weird, isn’t it? That sounds quite posh as well. It’s not the sort of thing I do every day.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s so obscure I don’t know if it will translate but I got it from Terry Johnson last year. He said, when you’re writing dialogue, it’s like playing a game of tennis but you must make sure you get rid of the net and just bat the ball. Does that make any sense whatsoever? It’s basically saying, cut out all the stuff around a sentence. So, you know, if one person says how are you, the other one shouldn’t say how are you and repeat everything the other one says. It’s amazing how many writers, however experienced they are, start their sentences off with well or yeah. It’s all about knowing how to edit your own writing.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be? Oh my god, what a question. Probably Fidel Castro during the revolution so I could stand next to Che Guevara. It’s a bit of time travel as well.
Favourite holiday destinations
India definitely. Anywhere down south. I have been there loads of times. They have got lots of temples there, and the sea and the beach are wonderful.
Lastminute.com and Pistons.com where I’m always looking up cars. I’m a big car fan. I just bought a Saab convertible why I spent half the year looking at cars. It’s very nice. Everyone laughs at me and says I’m going through a mid-life crisis, but hey, I don’t care, I’ve got a nice car. It’s got a turbo engine and it goes fast.
How did White Boy come about?
The National Youth Theatre was doing a season on identity. They wanted me to write a play about identity and my big thing is that I hate being boxed in as an Asian writer. So I immediately said, "How about I write something about white identity?" To their credit, they went for it. So that's where it came from. I was very interested in that whole concept of these white kids who hang around speaking in Caribbean accents!
So do you reject the label of “Asian writer”?
Yeah, I do really. I don’t like being seen as an Asian writer, in terms of being labelled in that I only write for Asians and that’s the only thing I can do. I don’t like that. I mean, you don’t hear Tom Stoppard being referred to as a Czech writer or Harold Pinter as Jewish writer, so why should one be termed in that way?
What’s the story of White Boy in a nutshell?
I was given a very specific commission. I had to write a play that was no more than an hour long - which is quite something for me as my plays are usually quite long! So I was limited with the story. Because the actors are very young – as it’s National Youth Theatre - the youngest is 14 and the story is about a bunch of friends at school. There are two in particular, one black and one white. The black friend gets stabbed, and it’s about how that stabbing affects everybody else. It’s very loosely based on what happened to Kiyan Prince, a young kid who was murdered about a year ago now. He was a promising footballer who had the whole world at his feet, and it all fell apart when he was killed. On the first day of rehearsals, the actors went down to this shrine on Holloway Road where another young kid had been stabbed the night before. It’s becoming a horribly regular occurrence.
Has the play changed since its initial run at Soho last August?
Maybe a little bit of cutting – a little snip here and there in the last scene! Some of it might have over-egged the pudding a little! When you’re working with older actors and you start cutting scenes and lines out, they’re cool with it. But when you’re working with 14-year-old kids, and at first preview you go “actually, I think that line didn’t quite work – I’m going to cut it”, they get very upset. Having said that, they’re an absolutely amazing cast, and essentially it’s the same play.
How else was it different writing specifically for young people?
I found it very easy actually. It was quite funny being in rehearsals watching them bring the piece to life. I would write a line like “Stop snogging” or whatever, and they’d shuffle up to me and go “We don’t use the word ‘snogging’ any more…” – “Well, what do you use?” – “Lipsing” – “Alright, can we put ‘lipsing’ in?” – “Yeah, alright then.” So apparently ‘snogging’ is out and ‘lipsing’ is in! Of course language changes all the time, so they were coming out with words I’d never heard of!
What’s your favourite line from the play?
“Lipsing is definitely against your religion.” The white boy says that to the Muslim girl. The play opens with two Muslims sitting there - a girl in a hijab snogging the face off a boy.
Talawa has just celebrated its 20th birthday & Tara Arts its 30th. How have companies like these contributed to the theatre culture in the UK?
They have been amazing training grounds for many artists, particularly actors. In terms of developing new writing, if it wasn’t for Tamasha, Ayub Khan-Din’s East Is East would never have come out of the bottom drawer. So I think they have had an enormous impact. I haven’t worked with Tamasha myself. For some reason, I seem to have gone straight into the mainstream rather than through the Asian organisations and theatre companies. But they do know me very well and we are on good terms.
How have attitudes to British Asian theatre changed over the past few decades?
That is a whole other conversation, and as I’ve said, I don’t particularly see myself as a writer for British Asian theatre. Quite often people ask, who is your audience, who are you writing for, and I say I don’t know. I don’t think of the audience, I don’t think of a load of people like my mum sitting in the audience. I write for whoever wants to come and see it and it is not culturally specific. It’s the same with British Asian theatre - I don’t really know what that means. I mean Rafta, Rafta was on at the National Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner – is that British Asian theatre? If you have a story that is Asian, does that make it Asian or does that make it theatre?
What are your future plans?
I’m doing a play with Bolton Octagon theatre called Meet the Mukherjees that’s opening in May. It’s kind of a pastiche of the film Meet the Fockers only you’ve got an Asian girl bringing home a black boyfriend. Great Expectations at Watford Palace is later in the year. I haven’t written it yet, but they’ve commissioned me and Indhu to work on it together.
The National Youth Theatre production of White Boy has returned to London's Soho Theatre, for a limited season from 16 January to 9 February 2008.