Interview with actor and playwright Saikat Ahamed

Actor and playwright Saikat Ahamed appears in one man show STRICTLY BALTI at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Gilded Balloon 7-31 August. Female Arts first encountered Saikat when we reviewed 'The Tiger and the Moustache' on tour in Cardiff. Editor Wendy Thomson catches up with Saikat to find out more about 'Strictly Balti', autobiographical experiences, equality and what makes good theatre.

‘Strictly Balti’ is aimed at audiences aged 10+. What do you hope the audience will take away from the show?

Initially when I was first commissioned to write the show by Travelling Light Theatre Company in Bristol we weren’t sure of what age range the target audience would end up being. Travelling Light have a fantastic reputation for making work for young people and family audiences but a solo show based on autobiographical experiences was a new venture for them so we kept our options open. While the piece was in development we tried out some early performances and found that although younger children at the top end of primary enjoyed the show – it’s funny and touches upon primary school experiences – the audience who really ‘got the show’ and all it’s depth were teenagers and older. I think for both teenagers and actually adults the play really resonates with ideas of ‘who we really are’. Certainly adult audiences who’ve come to see the show have gone away with an enormous sense of nostalgia about their own childhoods. The play doesn’t pull any punches, it’s truthful but ultimately hopeful and uplifting.

What are the similarities and differences between ‘Strictly Balti’ and your previous one man show ‘The Tiger and the Moustache’?

I guess the similarities are stylistically. As both are solo performances there is a strong element of storytelling that runs through. However, unlike ‘Tiger’, I had a fantastic director, Sally Cookson, working on Strictly Balti. Through her insightful direction and the feedback of other creatives involved, Strictly feels like a much more polished piece of work. Also, being as Strictly Balti focuses on my own life, as opposed to my mother’s, the show is actually much rawer and certainly stirs up more emotion for me as a performer, something I had to battle with during rehearsals.

What made you want to bring ‘Strictly Balti’ to the Edinburgh Fringe?

I’ve been a performer for over fifteen years and Edinburgh has always been a presence in the background, something I’ve always thought about doing but simply never got round to. Taking my own show up there however has so much more meaning for me. I guess it’s a way of me saying to the industry and the world, this is who I am and what I’m about.

You are an actor and a writer. Do you have a preference between the two disciplines? What’s the most challenging part in writing a play?

Tricky question. Great question. I love both equally, like my children, I can’t choose between them but they stir up different passions. The acting plays to the child in me, the getting lost in a part, the make believe. However the writing is much more about trying to give something of meaning back to the world. I hope my plays speak to people, make them think, maybe even change them in someway. That’s important to me, really important. I have always thought that it was the responsibility of theatre to really engage with issues. I guess through writing my own material, I can actually do that.

What does the Bristol theatre scene mean to you compared to London?

Bristol is fantastic and actually moving there nearly ten years ago was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I love London, I lived there for a number of years, but Bristol is a close knit community, especially in terms of theatre. I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of work locally and so it makes me feel as if I’m truly part of the landscape of the city. Tobacco Factory Theatres and Bristol Old Vic are both wonderful places to work. They feel like home, which is great feeling to have when you go to work.

Do you think there is gender equality in the workplace? If not, why?

Of course there isn’t and anyone who says there is has lived a very sheltered existence. Don’t get me wrong, some companies and organisations are better than others but you only have to look at the disparity in wages between so many men and women working the same jobs to scratch the surface of the problem. I have a daughter who is at an age where she is starting to think about work and future and I want her to feel that all things are possible but more than that that she can doing anything that a boy can do and that she’ll be rewarded accordingly. Needless to say that as British Asian man in the UK, I sympathise with any group who are struggling for equality. I think we have to start with children in primary school. I hate the idea that there are subjects that are seen as boys’ subjects and girls’ subjects. I believe the gender inequality that exists in the workplace can be traced back to our earliest perceptions. Strictly Balti has benefitted from wonderful female professionals, the producer, the director, the designer, all female. To be honest, it makes for a better show.

What challenges have you faced bringing Strictly Balti to the stage? How have you overcome these?

I guess one of the biggest challenges has been ‘theatricalising’ the show. Being as it is a solo show and autobiographical, it would have been very easy to just stand at the front of the audiences and spew out my life story. However this isn’t stand up, it’s theatre. Sally Cookson has been fantastic at not only putting in movement and theatricality but also being ruthless with the text. Just because I’ve written something and feel somehow emotionally attached to it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be in the show. Because I trust Sally so completely, I’ve been able to free myself in rehearsal to make difficult decisions. Ultimately it’s liberating.

Who do you find inspirational?

Despite the odd melancholic bouts that, like many actors, I’m prone to I’m basically an optimistic person. I believe the world is full of inspirational people; certainly my own life has been littered with them. There are of course historical figures I admire, Gandhi, Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst but I guess I would go a bit more personal and say my mum. She grew up in a war torn East Pakistan that later became Bangladesh. She endured personal tragedy, a younger sibling dying of snake bite, relatives killed during the conflict, to train as a doctor and make her way to the UK thereby providing an easier life for her children. She also cooks a fantastic curry.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m trying to find the balance between making my own work, which I love, and grafting as an actor for hire. I enjoy the television work I’ve done and I’d certainly like to do more but a definite is more writing. I’ve got an idea for a show that’s been percolating for a little while. If I find anytime during Edinburgh, I might just sit down and write it.

(c) Wendy Thomson (@topgirls) / Saikat Ahamed 2015

Award-winning theatre company Travelling Light present STRICTLY BALTI at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This enchanting and compelling autobiographical story is written and performed by Bristol theatre maker Saikat Ahamed. For audiences 10+ The Gilded Balloon, Edfringe 7-31 August (except 12)

Twitter: @AhamedSaikat
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Watch the Strictly Balti trailer here:

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