September 16 2016
A NEW PLAY, set in Woolwich and about the ups and downs of two Nigerian nightclub toilet attendants, called “Counting Stars” has been making an impact on audiences at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London.
A two-hander with one male and one female taking centre stage, it’s a play which gives often invisible people a voice.
We caught up playwright, Atiha Sen Gupta, who is emerging as a distinctive voice with a certain flair for mixing the personal and the political and making it easily understandable and relatable to folks who perhaps don’t go to the theatre very much, if indeed, at all.
It ends this Saturday (September 17) – you can read the review here
www.asianculturevulture.com( ACV): What was the inspiration behind ‘Counting Stars‘? Where did the idea first emerge to write a play about two nightclub toilet attendants?
Atiha Sen Gupta (ASG): I wrote Counting Stars after a night out clubbing with friends. I had popped to the toilet and ended up spending most of the evening in there talking to the woman working as an attendant. I vividly remember her sitting ensconced in amongst all these brightly coloured perfume bottles, lollipops and make up items. She told me fascinating and gripping stories about the ‘job’. They go unpaid and have to pay for the items that they sell – the only money that they make is from tips from clubbers.
ACV: Is race a strong part of this play? Could they be Asian/White?
ASG: The relatively new phenomenon of nightclubs across the UK installing predominantly Nigerian toilet attendants means that the specific world I have depicted in ‘Counting Stars’ wouldn’t work with Asian or white toilet attendants. The nightclub in the play is set in Woolwich post-Lee Rigby and post-Brexit. I wanted to look at Woolwich as a site of racial tensions. Race and racism is very much a part of the play as well as exploited labour and zero hour contracts.
ACV: Do you think you can reach the people you want to (politically) reach through a play like this? Or are you just looking at the human drama at the centre of things?
ASG: I think everyone is political. Politics, to me, is about the configuration of power – the structures and ideas that govern our lives. Bring me a person who doesn’t have an opinion about that. More generally, I think theatre works best when it tells big complex stories in a small and simple way. If you can move someone emotionally and also challenge them intellectually, that is a very powerful thing. Theatre should be about reclaiming the narrative from corrupt political elites and a biased media. Mostly it isn’t, but it should be.
ACV: What else are you working on? What’s coming up?
ASG: I have just been appointed writer-in-residence at Theatre Royal Stratford East. My time there will run from August 2016 – August 2017.
I truly love the place because they are the only theatre in London and the country that I have come across that genuinely has diverse audiences. ‘Diversity’ has become a loaded worthy word which most theatres pay lip service to but Stratford is different; it has a long, radical tradition and it shows in the make-up of not only its audiences but also its staff and the plays they put on.
I am also under commission to The Bush for a play about a British Sri Lankan family torn apart by the 26-year long war.
I am frustrated that Sri Lanka has now become a beautiful tourist location when there is still so much unresolved suffering left over from the conflict.
Again, I will try and examine the political through the prism of the personal. The personal is political, after all!
Main Picture: Sophie (played by Estella Daniel) and Abiodun (Lanre Malaolu) in ‘Counting Stars’ picture by Scott Rylander
Inset: Atiha Sen Gupta
‘Counting Stars’ until Sept 17 – Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, London E15 1BN