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Writing a Story for the World: StageWon’s Melissa Rynn speaks to Nick Makoha

“There’s a lot of work to do but I’m in a good place and I’ve got a great director” beams Nick Makoha prior to our interview. The artist, whose piece My Father and Other Superheroes is about to open at Birmingham mac prior to touring the UK, takes a deeply personal approach to his work and examines his own experiences to create moving thearical pieces.

Having lived a varied life in Uganda, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and London, Nick is, what he calls, a product of inter-culturalism, something which gives his work a unique voice. Residing in London, however, he is a firm supporter of the Olympics and was even chosen to assist the capital’s bid for the sporting games for Kensington and Chelsea.

He speaks to Melissa Rynn about his work, the Olympics and what being a father means to him.

Can you tell me about My Father and Other Superheroes? Where did the idea come from?

The idea came about when I was speaking with a friend of mine who’s also a poet; we’re always thinking of where ideas for shows can come from. His friend is the Associate Director at Stratford East and they host a scheme called SpokeLab where artists can play around with and develop theatrical ideas with a poetic voice. We’d meet up there every one or two weeks and come up with a couple of ideas and see where they went. One story that kept bobbling up with me is what has now become My Father and Other Superheroes, something I’d always wanted to write.

The piece was originally called Milestones and it came into being as I looked at the big events in my life and spoke about them. The biggest event for me, however, was having my daughter and becoming a father, so the idea began to revolve around that. Amanda Roberts, who is Arts Development Director at mac, had wanted to work with me after we’d met before and so the show became a coming together of many things.

SpokeLab produced a lot of different work; Inua Ellams’ story 14th Tale for example, as well as work by Kat Francois and Roger Robinson. Our pieces were originally intended to be scratches, but we all ended up thinking ‘why bother with a scratch when you can do the whole thing! Let’s just put the energy in’. It was hard work, but people really enjoyed it – they came expecting a scratch and got a whole show! I got some feedback from the audience which was really useful and, after the show, we did a Q&A and nobody wanted to leave which was quite overwhelming. A few days later we did another Q&A that a lot of people came to again and many started saying My Father and Other Supermen definitely has to be made into a show. This inspired me to apply for some funding to get it forward which was accepted and since that initial showcase in 2009, we’ve given to developing it. The show today is the outcome of that. It hasn’t yet toured, but it has been shown and one version was shown for the British Council in Norway.

How did you then develop it?

The core story was there from the start, but my directors have helped me pick it out. It came from the idea that I’m now a dad, but I don’t know how to be one because my father wasn’t around when I was growing up. It made me realise that a lot of the sign-posts of what men should be come from fictional characters in comics and on TV. It is a true story; there’s very little that’s been tweaked, but I ultimately had to delve into my imagination about my childhood. In many ways it’s a gift to my daughter; she’s the source of the story so it’s something to show her how much she means to me.

How do you feel about being directed in something that is so deeply personal to you?

The first time around was very hard; there’s things that the director sees that you don’t. When I was working with my original director, Dawn Lee, during SpokeLab, it was very emotional, there were times I’d be in tears over things that I hadn’t even realised affected me in that way. She was very astute about how to pull out the material and about making me realise the importance of it all and she helped me create enough distance so it wasn’t just therapy on stage as that’s not what it is at all. I hope the piece’s message extends beyond just me; I work in schools and with many different organisations and there’s boys who don’t have a father figure. I am not telling this story for me. If anything I want it to belong to the world and I want it to be hopefully good enough that someone else will want to perform it so it will be shared. I’d love someone to find their own truth in it; I think it’s universal.

There was a time doing the piece was hard but I think going through the application process gave me time to go over the material and see what can come out of the play. One of the things I found I had to do was to have a call of reconciliation with my dad; something I’d been avoiding. Even during the first take I didn’t actually call him; I had a conversation but it had a lot of blame in it. I had to forgive my dad as that’s ultimately what’s behind the play; it’s all about understanding the importance of fathers, what a family is and what a man is. As the title suggests, fathers are always looked at as heroes, but there’s a curse that goes with that because you’re always expected to save people. Men are men and you have to accept a man for his flaws. It’s a logical lesson that you have to accept but for me it was also an emotional and spiritual lesson that I had to go through and appreciate. The reason I did it was because I want to be a better father to my daughter and be the father she needs.

How is doing the piece the second time round? Is it the same emotionally?

It’s funny you should say that. When I think of the first time I did the piece, I don’t remember the amount of words I said or anything, it’s all a blur. I had some footage from my rehearsals and there were so many different ideas, what came out was the best version of what could come out at that time. The second time around, my director, my producer and everyone involved is helping me hopefully lift up the story to have a stronger narrative. The more I grow as a father, the more I see in each scene and so it goes on. It was a great show originally, but it needed distance; I needed to see myself as a character. When I was close to it, I was just playing myself. Now the director is really helping me to see beyond it and see myself as a character in a play. You have to learn how to play the character; when you play a character, you’re not trapped. When you’re playing it as yourself, you’re limited by your own thoughts and you straight-jacket yourself as it’s such an important matter.

What I’ve noticed is that the word ‘father’ is almost taboo, it brings up many different issues for people. The distance was important for me to free myself from the taboos I have around the word father, the taboo of my own story of father, and the taboo of what I think a father is. I think my director, Benji, is trying to make me experiment and play with the piece with this freedom. Ultimately what I want is for people to have a conversation about it; a lot of the conversations people have about ‘fathers’ are quite negative. I can’t transform it, but if I can at least get people talking about it then people can make a change on that.

Would you like to see someone else do the piece so you can see their interpretation?

Oh yes! I’d love that – one of my favourite one man shows is Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Grey who has sadly passed away now. It’s one of those shows I would have loved to have done and it would be great to produce a body of work that someone else would be willing to do because it stands beyond the artist.

How did you first become involved with youth work and poetry?

That’s an interesting question. Poetry has always been in my life, I didn’t realise how much so until I bumped into an old girlfriend. I asked her if I used to write poetry and she looked at me like I was an idiot and said I used to write poetry everywhere. We used to be watching a movie and I’d pause it and write poetry, but to me it didn’t seem like poetry; I was just writing my thoughts down. I have two early recollections of writing poetry; one of them was at school when I was six years old. I was told to write a poem about a butterfly and my mum had it framed. I’ve stolen it now as it reminds me that this journey started when I was at least six years old. There was another poem a few years later when I was at boarding school in Kenya and a Maths teacher who was almost like a father figure to me died suddenly of a heart attack.

What it made me realise is that poetry is always there and it’s always been there to help me understand my feelings and how I look at the world. I know the power of poetry so it became a natural fit when I became an adult and asked myself what I would do with my life. It’s always been said that the best thing you can do is to do something you love and do it well. I knew it was a risk, but poetry is what I love to do. When you have a child, you do everything you can for them and so this is my passion and I work hard for her. I’d love for my daughter to one day be more successful than me and have someone say to her ‘man, you really worked for it’. What I hope she can say is that she saw her dad go for his dreams and that helped her realise she could go for her dreams too. Whether I crash or burn, fall or reach for the highest heights, what I want her to know is to just go for her dreams – I think that’s one of the gifts I can give her.

How have the various places you’ve lived in influenced you?

I think it gives you an international sensibility. When you’re born in one place, you see the world through just that keyhole – I’ve seen the world through at least four. On the one level it gives you an appreciation and on the other you feel like an exile; the poetic term is metic. You live in the country of your origin and it’s almost like you’re a translator of culture but at the same time you’re an exile. I didn’t know I thought like this originally, what it took was a course I did called The Complete Works where someone told me I wrote like a writer in exile. When I understood what the term meant, it helped me establish what my voice was; I’ve always had the voice of someone who doesn’t come from here and that’s how I’ve always felt. I’d always hear ‘you’re not from around here are you’, you’re always trying to translate yourself to the world you’re in.

Do you feel your voice belongs to one place or is it a fusion?

I think on a subliminal level it’s a fusion but what you’d call my external voice has a British sensibility. A lot of my development years were here and it’s where I’ve lived the longest so my mind thinks in a western understanding but it has African roots, an Arabic sensibility and an European accent; it’s an amalgamation of all those places. In some of the countries I grew up in, I attended American schools so there are just so many flavours to my thinking.

Do you think language affects thoughts?

It’s funny, people have so many thoughts and if we were to convey all of them we’d spend all day just talking. Whatever language you’re speaking in, you have a multitude of thoughts all at once. I think language is a device of bringing the inside out and the outside in – language is to understand but you also have the higher purpose of going past meaning. There are times when a poem might move you; you didn’t just understand it, but it meant something to you on an emotional and spiritual level. It can happen in any language but all different ears have different ways of registering that emotional, spiritual and historical scale; language is almost like an archive of history. Through language you can find out how civilisation existed by looking at the words that crop up and thinking about what they mean.

Is that what you mean when you say ‘language is a rosetta stone between langauges’?

Yes completely – you’re very good! You’ve done your research!

You helped with the initial bid for the Olympics. Are you looking forward to the games?

I have been looking forward to the Olympics for a long time! I knew when we did the bid that a lot of people didn’t think we’d get it, but I had every faith. Regardless of what people think about how the bid went, this is a moment of joy! The Olympics are a device that empowers people and we need something to be proud of, especially in the times that we’re going through, regardless of the cost. It’s like when you have a big wedding; if you worry about the costs, you’re kind of missing the point – it’s a celebration of life! I’m very much looking forward to it. Ideally if it plays out right, I’d love to take my family there; I don’t know if it’s probable, but that was my dream at the time of the bid – the whole city together. Something might happen, I’m putting it out there that someone might give me a ticket (cough, readers, cough) or two or three or four so I can take members of my family to the games. If Boris is listening, I’ll write you a poem for some?

What is in the future for you?

My Father and Other Superheores is currently on a mini-tour, the bigger tour should be happening toward the end of the year or early 2013. We’re in the process of developing where we’re going and it’s hopefully going to be nationwide as well as possibly going to Europe and other places. I’m also working on my first poetry collection; the manuscript just needs typing and it documents the last year of my life. I envisage a year ahead that is hopefully a good one but I also envisage a busy few years. I’m looking forward to it, this show has taught me a lot about myself and how much my family means to me; it shown me things I already knew but I didn’t know how much they meant. I know I love my daughter, I know I love my family and I always knew I wanted to be a father, but this is really showing me because I’m investigating how important that is.

Do you think exploring how much things mean through art is important?

I think art is a science; just like people say they’re going for counselling. I’m not saying it’s a counsellor, but it has many rewards. One of the rewards is that it shows the beauty of the world and I guess that’s what I’m conveying to you. It’s really allowed me to see the beauty of my child, my place in life, of my partner and of my father! Sometimes you can just complain in life, what art does is allow you to appreciate the beauty in places you might not always know.

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