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Adura Onashile: 'I wanted to shine a light on the women around Fela Kuti'

Award winning playwright and performer Adura Onashile talks about her new play Expensive Shit and how to survive the Fringe

Adura Onashile

Over the course of a 12 year career, Adura Onashile has worked as a dancer and actor for companies such as the National Theatre of Scotland and the RSC. Her debut play HeLa opened at the Fringe in 2013 and it told the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cells were taken without her permission and used in scientific research. It was nominated for a Total Theatre Award and the Amnesty Freedom of Expression award. She's back at the Fringe this year making her directorial debut with her latest play Expensive Shit, which has just bagged a First Fringe award.

What is Expensive Shit about?
It's set in two toilets. The first is in a Glasgow nightclub in 2013 and the second in Fela Kuti's Shrine nightclub in 1994 in Lagos. There's a central character, the toilet attendant Tolu, who takes us into her past at the Shrine nightclub where she was aspiring to be a dancer in Fela Kuti's band. Her and her fellow dancers practise their routines in the toilets before they go onto the main floor.

So it looks at some of the people who lived around Fela Kuti?
Yes. Especially the women. Women would turn up at his commune Kalakuta because the life that was presented to them seemed better than the alternative. I wanted to talk about the way his movement treated women and the fact that he was a man who was an absolute revolutionary in terms of anti-colonialism and anti-corruption, but that just didn't translate to women.

So the Glasgow nightclub is a different scenario?
Yes, but in the toilet in Glasgow women are still objectified. It's based on a true story of a club that allowed men to pay for the privilege of watching women in the toilet through a two way mirror. I was fascinated by what this said about a society that's supposedly more equal than Africa.

You wrote the play and it is also your directorial debut. Did you know you wanted to direct it when you wrote it?
Yes and no. I have always wanted to direct and I thought if I don't do it, no one will give me the chance to do it. But I think there's something exciting about getting a director to work on your piece. You have a contrast of perspectives and it's in that dynamic that the show gets created. So I was really pleased when the Traverse provided dramaturgical support.

Has both directing and writing it meant it's been an even more nerve wracking experience?
It's been liberating, but I have found out what all experienced directors know: there comes a point where you have to let go of the piece. There's a pressure, doing a directorial debut at the Fringe, and at the Traverse, trust me. Some days I have woken up and thought – nononono – and then talked myself down and said: 'It will be what it will be'. It's been a really exciting process and I'm really proud of the team we have got together.

You started as a dancer, then became an actor, what made you want to create your own work?
It began when I came to Glasgow six years ago. I just loved the scope of the theatre I was seeing in Scotland. The experimentation the fearlessness, the kindness to making mistakes. It's kinder up here and it has been a creative home for me.

Expensive Shit
© Sally Jubb

What made you get into theatre?
I always say that I failed everything else. I looked at my GCSEs and then my A-Levels and thought: 'Theatre is doing good!'. I grew up in a university town called Zaria in the north of Nigeria and we had access to a lot of the roaming theatre companies that did the university circuit. I remember seeing some brilliant open-air theatre when I was five or six. It was basic theatre - no lighting, just bodies in the round telling a story with song and music. I was fascinated and moved by it all and that stayed with me.

Have you any tips for surviving the Fringe?
If you are performing, eat well and sleep well. Try not to drink too much. Be proud of what you have done because after you put it out there the juggernaut called the Fringe takes over. You have got to keep some of you separate in order to stay sane. Don't forget to go and see shows that are off the beaten track. Not just the fancy ones or the ones in the big venues. Because it should be really egalitarian. We have to be careful that the Fringe doesn't become elitist.

Expensive Shit runs at the Traverse Theatre at various times until 28 August.

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