Interview with playwright Jennie Buckman

Jennie Buckman was the Head of Acting at RADA and trained many of film and TV's biggest talents like Sophie Okonedo, Adrien Lester, Daniel Craig, Andrea Riseborough and Ben Whishaw. She has worked with the the BBC, the NT and Guildhall. In 2007 Jennie became the artistic director of Giants Theatre Company, which sees Jennie spend most of her time immersed in local women's community groups like the Southall Black Sisters, the IKWRO (Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights) and Not Shut Up - a creative collective for ex-offenders.

The play 'Piece of Silk' currently showing at The Hope Theatre, London is about the power of story-telling to counter-attack the devastating effects of "honour" based violence and forced marriage and is the third play Giants Theatre have brought to the stage drawn from the experiences of women and community groups.

Curious to know more about her process we've interviewed Jennie about her motivations and aims for Giants Theatre:

You worked with activist groups Southall Black Sisters, Iranian and Kurdish Women Rights Organization and Not Shut Up on Piece of Silk. Is the play devised, verbatim, scripted or a mixture of all three? Can you talk us through the writing and editing process?

The play is scripted, but rather like a patchwork quilt, it contains many elements of the stories and life experiences of our contributors. And some lines are verbatim because …well, it couldn’t be said better! When we worked with SBS and IKWRO, I told them the story of Shahrazad, the heroine and narrator of The Arabian Nights: and everyone agreed that story-telling really is a matter of life or death.

You are best known as an acting teacher but with Giants Theatre you have written plays Pandora, SNAFU and Piece of Silk as well as for BBC radio 4. Have you always written (as well as acting / teaching) and what made you decide to focus on writing?

You know I’ve been teaching … forever! When I taught in London comps, I would write the school plays … but I didn’t really take playwriting seriously till my own kids were a bit older and I could fit it in around teaching at Rada. My first BBC Radio play was produced in ’99 and then I joined the writing team of Westway for World Service – which was a BRILLIANT way to learn the craft. Starting Giants in 2008 I knew I wanted to write plays that came from, and were relevant to people whose voices are rarely heard. And using a myth as a springboard is a great way to find the modern version in the old story. But I still teach and I love it!

(BTW - I’ve never acted !! Never wanted to, and I know I’d be rubbish at it!)

Can you tell us more about the formation of Giants Theatre company and your aims?

We started Giants after I left Rada in 2008 : it’s called ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ after Newton’s famous quote. Why? Because there really isn’t a better phrase, or a clearer image for everything we believe theatre to be. Giants is built around the passionate belief that theatre must be about, for, and shaped by our diverse communities. And if it isn’t truly inclusive, then we can’t expect new and much more diverse audiences. Really it’s as simple as that!

As a mother of four and a grandmother of eight, how have you (if you have) achieved a work / life balance? Have you faced discrimination in the arts as a female actor / teacher / writer? What barriers still exist for women and mothers in the arts and what can we do about them?

Where do I begin?! I’m pretty rubbish at achieving work/life balance … always have been. And when my children were very young there was almost no ‘understanding’ of what it meant to be a Mum and a (free-lance) teacher. So nearly all of my classes would start at 3.30 just when my kids were getting out of school. Nightmare!

As I’ve got older I personally have felt the sting of ageism … I can see that I am viewed as – well – irrelevant really. And as the Arts – theatre in particular – is frequently so badly funded, it becomes frequently untenable for women, especially mothers of young children – to work for such poor pay. Things have improved since I started, thank goodness : and I’m delighted to see that women are running some of best theatres now … brilliantly!

You recently suggested that either Sophie Okonedo or Noma Dumezweni could be the next Bond - what steps need to be taken for well known characters like James Bond, Doctor Who, Harry Potter to be played by actors who aren't white, straight, able bodied men? Is the problem with the audience or with gatekeepers? How can people enact change?

Probably the gatekeepers … the MONEY! So my answer is … just do it!! Cast Sophie or Noma and let them blow people’s minds! I mean, good art ALWAYS has to take risks right?

How do you aim for Piece of Silk to reach an audience who really need to hear its messages? (e.g. a feminist play might attract a feminist audience but will preach to the converted).

Ooooh – horribly good question!!! It’s so hard because we at Giants, and The Hope Theatre, do everything we can to attract new audiences. And with our methodology we celebrate the lives of our contributors … and so – hopefully – the word spreads. But … but how do we reach those whose eyes need opening, whose minds need changing?? …. I don’t know!!! I do think performing in venues like The Hope, which is easily accessible to the local community, is a good beginning. And it’s a welcoming happy place to be - So the answer has to be about access, hasn’t it?

Piece of Silk is about domestic violence but I understand the character Prince Gold is mutilated by a woman - does the play also explore domestic violence against men?

Er … not exactly. But Sami is a victim of psychological abuse – from his (absent) father in particular. He is gay and cannot – dare not – come out, or even admit it to himself.

As well as enabling community stories to be told and given a platform do you think it is important that women without a voice are given the tools to write their stories themselves and be credited as the writer? Do you see any problems / contradictions with being a spokesperson for other groups of women / credited as the writer of their stories?

Of course they should create their own work! When we worked with SBS, Tania and I helped the women to perform a play – Unspoken – on the streets of Southall. It was mainly verbatim accounts of what they had said in the meetings we had together. They performed it in Gujarati, Urdu and English … it was seen by their families – husbands, fathers and brothers – it had the support of the local MP, police and the council. It was a massively brave and important event.

Right now we are also working with The Traveller Movement on a play I wrote with them on domestic violence: it’s called ‘Never Going to Beat You’, and the women will perform it themselves. I think it’s crucial that when you collaborate with others on a new piece of writing, it’s a mutually beneficial process … I hope I never ‘steal’ stories, or take credit where it is not due.

What do you hope the audience will take away from watching Piece of Silk?

I hope they will have been moved, thrilled, excited, stimulated and immediately want to come again! I hope it stimulates discussion – about the issues in the play, about theatre in general and Giants in particular.

What's happening next for Giants Theatre / yourself?

Well we hope Piece of Silk will go on to other theatres – London and the regions. Snafu – our play about coming home from war has been updated for American audiences – it’s called FUBAR and will (hopefully) be produced in Chicago next year. We are in talks about the next collaboration …. And also hope to attract other writers to work with Giants in the future.

(c) Wendy Thomson for Female Arts / Jennie Buckman 2016
Twitter: @TheHopeTheatre
Facebook: /thehopetheatre
Twitter: @giants_theatre

'Piece of Silk' inspired by The Arabian Nights, uses the power of story-telling to counter-attack the devastating effects of domestic violence and plays The Hope Theatre, London 14 June - 2 July for more info see

Female Arts would like to see a female Bond - see Jennie Buckman proposing this on London Live:

Author's review: