Zia Ahmed - "This idea of love overcoming all, what does that mean?"
Zia Ahmed is a slam poetry champion turned playwright.
Supported by the Channel 4 Playwright’s Scheme, Zia is a London Laureate, an exiting, bold and fresh voice of a new generation coming up in our capital. Zia’s work explores ideas of identity and belonging within contemporary life, and he’s turned his pen from towards playwriting in his debut piece for Paines Plough: I Wanna Be Yours.
We went up to Paines Plough’s office in Waterloo and met with Zia to talk about the new show, his journey from poet to playwright, and the power of storytelling to foster empathy and provoke crucial conversations.
How did you get into playwriting? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do, or was it something you stumbled into?
Playwriting, it’s been a long way round. I went to a school in Cricklewood that had a link with Hampstead Theatre. They did after school classes, and a playwright called Nick Rosso came in and ran some classes. Then, when I started writing for myself, I sort of fell out of theatre stuff. I saw my mate do a spoken word performance poetry session which I fell in love with, and then I started doing that. So I came into playwriting through doing mainly spoken word for the last few years.
There was an open call out for Come To Where I’m From which is the Paines Plough app that has monologues from all over the country. There’s a map and you just click on the city and then hear a monologue about the city. But they hadn’t done London yet. Because it was open call out, and because it was monologues, I thought a spoken word piece - it’s still like about my city, my part of the city - would work. It was one of the ones picked for the North West London leg, and then I performed that at The Tricycle, which is now The Kiln. It started rolling from there and Paines Plough kept in touch with me.
How did you find that transition from writing for spoken word to writing for theatre?
The transition felt cool at Paines Plough. I guess because of the Roundabout (Paine’s Plough’s pop up touring venue) and the sort of … I know, from my experience anyway the intimacy of the space, and it’s usually like very free of props, and it’s just like the people in the space which is the thing that draws me to someone reading a poem, it’s just them in a space, and the audience is there. You don’t pretend that the audience isn’t there, the audience is part of the thing. And there’s something about Roundabout where you feel in the space. It felt like the sort of styles of plays I’ve seen from Paines Plough, even though there’s a mad range of styles in terms of the directing of it, it felt like, well hopefully a smoother transition I don’t know that’s for other people to judge when it comes on. But yeah I felt like it didn’t feel too alien for me.
So is this the first time you’ve been part of making a play?
Not the first, well this is the first time as a writer, myself, that I’m not in the piece. I’ve done things like the Roundhouse - they’ve got like a sort of big poetry, spoken word festival, and that’s where I got started through the poetry collective at Roundhouse. So they used to give us space to try out longer things, and I tried out a sort of 45 minute solo thing there, and I’ve also been part of a spoken word collective where we did like a play with like 10 of us, but this is like the first play play, I don’t know what that means “play play” [laughs] but this is the first thing where I guess it feels more like I’m the writer, theres a director, the actors, producers. Whereas the other one was like sort just do whatever, this one feels more like a process.
You said something there about Roundhouse giving you spaces to get used to performing in that setting, do you think that having space to develop is one of the most important things for someone trying to get into the arts?
Yeah for sure. The space to make stuff and express was yeah, not to go boo hoo, but it did kind of save me at a point in my life, having something to outlet into. Previous to that I was doing youth theatres but like as soon as you got involved they’d get shut down for funding reasons or whatever. We won’t get into the politics of that right now, but there was quite a few youth groups getting shut down at that time. But at the Roundhouse you could do anything, you could do poetry, you could do music production, I think they did have a drama thing as well, but yeah, it was so important to have that space, at a sort of subsidised rate so that its open to as many people as possible.
So you’re first play is called I Wanna Be Yours, how would you describe the it?
The play is about Haseeb and Ella. Its a relationship over three-ish years, and I guess it’s just trying to show all aspects of the relationship. The tiny moments and the big moments, and also the internal and external, all of that stuff, and also playing with how that’s relayed to the audience. I think that the relationship felt like the best way to have certain themes that I’ve been thinking about a lot come up. I guess this idea of love overcoming all, what is this “overcoming all” bit. That means different things for different people even in the same relationship. So the thing for Haseeb to overcome might not be the thing for Ella to overcome, and vice versa. And also how the things to overcome, how they can shapeshift. One day it can be like a little stone in your shoe and then another day its like a big boulder on your shoulder. I think this idea of love overcoming all, what does that mean? And how easy or not easy that is in practice.
What sort of themes does it touch on in a broad sense?
I think the themes that the play is trying to chat about are race, class, region, family, and the idea of the individual against society. They’re linked to Haseeb’s and Ella’s backgrounds. So Haseeb is a British Pakistani from North West London, and Ella is white and from Yorkshire, not quite city, and they’re both in London as, I guess, creatives. And it’s how all of those things meet up, and the things that draw them together, and the things that are challenges to overcome.
So is this tied to something you’ve experienced yourself. Was there a driving motivation behind why you wrote the piece or was this a vehicle to talk about ideas you’ve been thinking about?
The idea came from the monologue that I performed on Come To Where I’m From which was about where I’m from, where I was born and grew up, which was Cricklewood in North West London, and using the framing of a relationship with a person and a relationship with my part of the city, and the things that came up in that were about race and class and also specifically within theatre like who is this space for? Who can feel at home in a space? Where do you feel comfortable? Where do you feel uncomfortable? The monologue was sort of talking about theatre as a space but then also your town, your city, your relationship , the things you love. Like them things. And then so I guess the play I sort of stretching out that and exploring it even more through the relationship. I think it is about home, what that means, and that home means different things for different people, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a house or a city, it can be like an emotional state of being. And the things that you look to for home. I guess that could be the relationship with a person, with a city, with an art form, and I guess the places where you’re allowed to truly express yourself, and the places where you don’t feel like you can. And I feel like, using the span of a relationship felt like the most, it seemed to fit all the things about it hopefully coming across like - errr - I think using a relationship felt like the most natural way for these conversations to come about because rather than it being just like BOOM. I guess from the spoken word stuff you can like just get on stage and just say shit, [laughs] again its up to the audience, but you can just come in and be like, you can either paint it however you want sort of drench it in metaphor or you can say this is cool, this is shit.
I want the audience to sort of go through the relationship with Haseeb and Ella, and hopefully root for them, but you know that’s up to them to decide. It’s for the audience to go along on a similar journey that they have. It’s about empathy. I think theatre, for me, is about empathy. People tell stories so that you don’t just think from your worldview, from your point of view. For me, my ideas of home are going to be completely different from someone else’s, but there’s always things that we can crossover and relate on. I think that storytelling is the way for people to try and understand more people and to sort of broaden out narrow views. Hopefully its about starting and continuing conversations about race and class and place and city and cost of living cost of making art the emotional strain of it, there’s loads to reflect on, but its all through the prism of the relationship. Hopefully there will be something in there for different people to pick up on and relate to. This what I hope.
“…things to overcome, they can shape-shift. One day it can be like a little stone in your shoe and then another day its like a big boulder on your shoulder.”
What are you up to when you’re not writing? Do you like to keep up with pop culture?
Just over the last year or two, it feels like summer don’t really start until Love Island’s on. I’ve just caught up with Love Island and it feels like an accomplishment, like I’m well proud of it or something. But yeah that’s been only thing I’ve been keeping up on. There’s been loads of things going on. There’s going to be a show on at Royal Court called Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner by Jasmine Lee-Jones but it’s directed by Milli Bhatia who, she’s done some cool stuff but I think this is her first sort of big play. I’m really excited to see that. The Bush Theatre season just got announced and it’s Lynette Linton’s first season and I’m really excited to see what she’s going to bring to The Bush. Emm, pop culture… err, nah I guess sport, is that pop culture? It’s like Women’s World Cup and Cricket World Cup and I guess that has been the things that have been occupying the pop culture space of my brain. Like yesterday the India Pakistan match just happened which was yeah, good or bad depending on what side of the things you’re on [laughs]. And yeah its just cool to see how England get on in the Women’s World Cup.
I Wanna Be Yours comes to our seaside city at the end of October, you have any ties to Brighton & Hove?
I’ve performed a few times in Brighton doing spoken word, and yeah I love going there, it’s just [laughs] I feel like I was going to go full tourist rep there. Nah I love going to Brighton, I’ve performed a few times in Brighton doing poetry and spoken word at various venues, and I’ve come down to see mates that have been doing sets. There seems to be a thriving spoken word scene in Brighton, there’s always events going on. Was it New Writing South? They ran a night with Dean Atta and Deanna Rodger called Come Rhyme with Me which was like a, well you get a starter main and desert so you’ve got 3 poets, but then you’re actually served some Caribbean food with it as well. That was pretty cool. One of my good mates is a poet from Brighton, Cecilia Knapp, and she’s amazing. She’s got her own show called Finding Home, I think she’s kind of retired it but I think she’s got ideas for, well she writes about Brighton a lot and I love listening to it. And a rapper, Frankie Stew, theres a song of his that I really like called Things, which I don’t even know if he probably likes it anymore but yeah its one of my favourite tracks. But I found out that he’s from Brighton and he raps about Brighton as well. I think those are my links. But I do go down often to get away from the city and to be by the sea, but yeah its more regular that I think just watching other spoken word and other poets. I’m down there quite a bit.