In recent years, there’s been a more determined effort to better represent the rich diversity across Great Britain. From casting to storytelling, the worlds of film, fashion, television and theatre are all eager to tap into the heritage and talent that exists in Britain’s black and ethnic minority communities.
That said it’s still a rarity to find storylines that focus on the lives of British Turks. One theatre group aiming to change that is Little Earthquake, based in the Midlands.
T-VINE talked to its co-director Philip Holyman about the group’s new project A Tale of Two Chippies. The play, set to debut in three years time, will explore the lives of Turkish, Cypriot, Greek and Bulgarian immigrants who moved to this part of Britain.
Little Earthquake is currently in the research phase of the project, and are keen to hear from people living in the Black Country, Birmingham and the Midlands whose ethnic origins are from Cyprus, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece.
What is Little Earthquake?
I am one of the co-directors of Little Earthquake, a theatre company which I’ve been running with Gareth Nicholls since 2005. We’re based in Walsall, and the majority of our work takes place around the Black Country, Birmingham and the Midlands. As well as making and touring productions to urban and rural venues, we do a lot of education work, with universities, drama schools and primary schools. We also do a lot of participation projects, which encourage individuals and communities to get involved in our work.
When people ask us what Little Earthquake does, the truthful answer is that it depends on the audience we’re making it for. And in recent years, it’s also depended on the audience we’re making it with.
More and more of our work gets made with the active contribution of people who usually wouldn’t think of themselves as being creative. They may not be experts in the process of making theatre — but they are experts in their own experience. And in our eyes, that makes them invaluable.
Little Earthquake’s premiere of The Boy Who Became A Beetle. Photo by Adrian Burrows
In 2015, we appointed 100 primary schoolchildren as our Young Producers to commission a brand-new show for families. Guided by their ideas and decisions, we made The Boy Who Became A Beetle, a semi-musical based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. And in 2016, we worked with lifelong residents of Cradley Heath to create Yamlet, a web series which translated sections of Hamlet into Black Country dialect.
By collaborating with experts like these, we’re able to make things together that we’d never be able to achieve on our own. And this is precisely where our new project comes in.
Tell us about A Tale of Two Chippies
I’m currently at the very early stages of development for a new project that explores and celebrates the experiences of people who have migrated to the Black Country from Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria (and Cyprus, of course!).
I’m hoping to use these real-life stories and experiences as the inspiration for a new show called A Tale of Two Chippies which is a modern version of a Western — a souvlaki Western, as opposed to a spaghetti Western.
It’ll be a bit like A Fistful of Dollars, with a character who has recently arrived from Bulgaria (in the Clint Eastwood role) getting caught up in the tensions between a Greek family and a Turkish family who run competing takeaway businesses.
Eventually, we’d love to put the show on in and around venues and chip shops at the heart of Black Country communities — and there’ll be a cone of chips included with everyone’s ticket.
It’s important that I allow lots of time to build relationships with people for this production and that there is time for me to make meaningful connections with people in Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian communities. I want to ensure that the production accurately represents the wide range of experiences that motivated people to move here and the things they have encountered since they have been here.
It’s also really important, in terms of reaching out to audiences, that people in those communities trust that the production isn’t exploiting them for the sake of making a show. I want to do everything I can to build trust with participants and audience members, through meetings and conversations, through website and social media resources, and through the support of influential partners who can help me to connect with people in their networks.
“I’m interested about the place that each person considers their ‘home’, which languages they use here and when, and how they continue their relationship with the food, music, culture and traditions of a country they don’t live in”
I’m also starting (very slowly!) to teach myself Turkish and Greek using an app on my iPhone so that, in time, I can do my best to talk to people on their terms rather than assuming that everyone will or should use English as a first language.
In order to do all of this, I’m not expecting to have the finished production ready until 2020 at the earliest. So for now, I’m in an extended phase of research supported by an Open Access award from Creative Black Country, which is helping me to get started on the journey.
This initial phase in 2017 includes a few little sharings of some early bits of the production. I’ve written some short scripts based on the first few interviews and conversations I’ve had with a small number of participant, and we staged an informal performance at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton last month.
Where and how do Turkish and Turkish Cypriots fit in to your play?
My research involves making contacts and having conversations and interviews with people who have settled here from Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, as well as meeting and talking to their families and descendants.
I want to find out as much as I can about what life was like when people first arrived and how it might have changed since, and what life is like for their children and relatives who were born here.
I’m interested to talk about the place that each person considers their “home”, which languages they use here and when they use them, and how they continue their relationship with the food, music, culture and traditions of a country they don’t live in.
I also want to increase my knowledge and understanding of how political situations — in this country and in Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria — have affected (and continue to affect) people here. How, for example, the EU referendum has changed the way people feel about their lives and their position here, and if it has changed the way they are treated by the people around them.
I would like to talk to people who are interested in sharing their stories, experiences, opinions and knowledge with me — either in the form of in-person interviews, conversations over the phone or Skype, email chats, online surveys or social media posts.
I’m particularly keen to hear from people who are living in the Black Country, Birmingham or Midlands, but I’d love to hear from people outside the region, too, so that I can look for any similarities or differences between different parts of the country, too.
How can interested people contact you?
As a starting-point, I’d encourage anyone who might be interested in the project to visit our website — www.little-earthquake.com — where you’ll find information about A Tale of Two Chippies alongside details on our past and future work, and more about who we are and what we do.
There’s an easy-to-use contact form, which would be the very best place for people to get in touch and to let us know the best way for us to carry on the conversation with them.
We’ve just completed the first phase of the project. But I’m carrying out on-going research beyond then, so there’s plenty of time and opportunities for people to take part.
Why is this project important?
I’ve always thought of my job as being about using theatre to give people a new perspective on familiar and unfamiliar things. I think theatre is a wonderful way for people to see themselves, other people and the world around them in a different light.
With A Tale of Two Chippies, I would love Turkish, Cypriot, Greek and Bulgarian people to see some of their experiences and hear some of their stories shared and recognised on a much wider scale, perhaps for the very first time — and I would like audience members who know little or nothing about those communities to have an opportunity to learn and discover new things about people living side-by-side with them.
I would just love to encourage people to get in touch and share as much or as little information with me as they feel comfortable with. I’d like to encourage them to mention the project to anyone and everyone they think might be interested in it. And I’d like to reassure them that every contribution people might choose to make will be treated respectfully, gratefully and confidentially.
If anyone reading this thinks they have nothing to offer, I’d gently like to suggest that they’re wrong. Whoever they are, their opinions and their experience are really important and really valuable. The more people I am able to speak to and learn from, the stronger the eventual production will become. Absolutely every single thing I find out from every single person I hear from (in person, over the phone, or by email or social media message) will help this piece of work to be the best it can possibly be.