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Nikki Mailer Outside the Frame Arts

Theatre director and creative writer speak to us about dystopian literature, Islamophobia and more.

Cuts of the cloth

Nikki Mailer (co-creator and director) and Hafsah Aneela Bashir (writer and performer) recently showcased their dystopian masterpiece, Cuts of the Cloth, at Home, as part of Push Festival 2019.

Mailer is an applied theatre practitioner, theatre maker and director, who uses theatre as a tool for social change and has worked across the globe, including with radical and activist theatre companies in Vermont, India, the favelas of Sao Paulo, and Santiago. She currently mentors adults with learning disabilities to be facilitators and leaders in theatre.

A Jerwood Fellow of Manchester International Festival, Bashir facilitates creative writing community workshops within schools, theatres, women’s groups promoting creative agency as a tool for empowerment, and had her poetry collection, The Celox And The Clot, published as part of last year’s Manchester Literature Festival.

The pair spoke to Now Then about dystopian literature, Islamophobia and more.

I was very lucky to see the stunning stage production of Cuts of the Cloth at Home in January. How has it been received?

Nikki: People were moved and needed time to reflect. The visibility of a Muslim woman on stage in the main theatre at HOME had a big impact. It is rare to see… it started conversations, which is why I got into making theatre.

Hafsah: People felt their perceptions changed. Many professionals saw Prevent training differently. It had made them question the government narrative. I had women say they felt they could relate to the themes, and that by seeing a Muslim woman of colour on stage, they saw themselves represented.

I was struck by how real it felt, although it was set in the future and Orwellian. It could be an episode of Black Mirror. Though Black Mirror is supposedly futuristic, themes about the dark sides of technology, human psychology and human nature seem real, urgent, and here and now. That’s how it felt with your play. Do you both read dystopian fiction or watch those types of movies? If so, what are your favourites?

Hafsah: I powered through 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. My favourite is The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. I love texts that stretch the imagination, creating worlds which at first seemed unimaginable – ones that used to be an exploration of our anxieties, but now they actually reflect the disturbing realities of the here and now. The Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games and Black Mirror had me hooked. I marvel at our ability to aim for unchartered ideal worlds while simultaneously destroying so much of the existing world.

Celox and the clot book cover

The Celox and The Clot by Hafsah Aneela Bashir

Nikki: We love Black Mirror. A few episodes in particular inspired us, for example the Black Museum. I love a recent brilliant film called Sorry to Bother You. When framing something as a dystopia it can let your imagination go and illuminate some of key issues. For this play we read political non-fiction about Islamophobia and the ‘war on terror’. We discussed real human zoos that existed less then 100 years ago. Our memories are short, most cannot believe that we would treat people so inhumanly. When you look back at history you realise that the idea of a woman in a museum, stripped of her humanity and freedom, is not science fiction.

Why did you decide to tackle Islamophobia?

Hafsah: Growing up as a person of colour (in London and in Manchester), I was used to being ‘othered’ at school and on the streets. Racist abuse and micro-aggressions were common. We developed thick skins and just got on with it. 9/11 changed the nature of the abuse. I had started to wear the hijab and niqab around this time and remember how hostility, due to being visibly Muslim, intensified – sworn at while shopping, my car window punched by an angry white man, racially profiled more than once at borders, spoken to rudely by shop assistants until they heard me speak the Queen’s English.

I know, as a Muslim woman, how much energy I still have to muster to keep myself safe and heard. It can be exhausting. When people of power normalise dehumanising Muslims, Islamophobic attacks increase. When Boris Johnson likened veiled Muslim women to letterboxes and bank robbers, he was legitimising and sanctioning that violence.

You captured the current Islamophobic ‘war on terror’ discourses so succinctly and poignantly. Did you have to do a lot of academic reading? Do you recommend anything for those more interested in further reading on this thorny issue?

Nikki: Hafsah wrote a poem called ‘Cuts of the Cloth’, about a woman’s relationship with the cloth, and the hypocrisy of freedom of speech when Muslim women are constantly policed. Hafsah and I conversed about creating theatre inspired by the poem. So the play started with her poem. Once we started researching and interviewing women, Islamophobia inevitably surfaced and we realised it was tied into the effects of the ‘war on terror’ and the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Hafsah and I also came together, through Outside the Frame Arts, with a common goal of wanting to challenge racism and hear silenced voices. This underpins our shared values as a collective.

Hafsah: Much of what was weaved into my script came from lived experiences: being stopped by Greek guards, and made to prove I was carrying a child and not a bomb. Cases where children had been reported to Prevent or Muslims had been arrested and unjustly incarcerated, or families separated due to questionable counter-terrorism charges, were well known to us. The academic reading we did reiterated the role of the state and the draconian measures deployed to fight terrorism.

Nikki: We would recommend reading Deport, Deprive, Extradite: 21st Century State Extremism by Nisha Kapoor, The Muslims Are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani and Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.

How does it work in practice when you collaborate? What are some of the benefits and challenges you encounter?

Nikki: We hadn’t worked on something like this before, so we worked out our process as went along. It’s very challenging. We are good friends, so boundaries can be blurry. Yet our friendship meant when we were in a room together creating, we were spontaneous and risk-taking. We spent nearly a year researching, interviewing and running workshops with Muslim women. We devised ideas and set each other creative writing tasks. Hafsah went away to write the script. We then invited feedback from other writers.

Hafsah: The collaboration was a very new process for both of us. I was used to writing in solitude as writers often do, and Nikki accustomed to teamwork when making theatre. We reconfigured our creative approach to include and respect each other’s practices. We learnt from each other, and brought different tools to the table. Managing our friendship as well as nourishing our professional relationship was enriching.

Can you tell me more about the writing and directing processes? How did your ideas evolve as you progressed further into the project?

Hafsah: We had a lot of information, so we asked ourselves: what are we trying to ask with this work? There were at least two spin-off plays we could have developed. We had to ask ourselves which parts of the script were strongest. When re-writing for Push Festival, I tightened the old script after discussions with Nikki. It needed humour as the themes are heavy. As Toni Morrison once said, “It’s important to guide the reader safely through”. Often when I need to write, I look for a hook to immerse myself in the world that I am trying to create… an image, a photo or a metaphor. In this case it was Martin Roth’s ‘An Analog Guy In A Digital World’ track.

Nikki: Directing a one-woman-show was very intimate and new. I am used to work with bigger groups where plays are devised by the company. As director, I make sure the person who is performing feels comfortable to explore and push themselves out of their comfort, so building trust is key. When rehearsing, we play theatre games and explore occupying space. It’s a different process when the performer is the writer too. It was important to constantly check in with Hafsah. Ideas evolve when you rehearse and bring the script alive. Yet Hafsah is such a brilliant writer. I felt proud working with her on this.

Do you have any advice for young people who want to get involved in theatre and the arts?

Nikki: Think outside of the box. There are lots of different ways to be involved in the arts – producing, performing, directing, developing projects and running workshops. I was once put off by working in the arts because of the competitiveness which felt soulless. I realised that there are other ways to do this. Being community minded, supporting others and mentoring people so we can all help sustain ourselves.

Hafsah: Don’t let anyone put you off. If it’s something you want to pursue, go for it. Join schemes at local theatres and arts centres – many have programmes running for young people. Experiment and don’t be afraid to try something new. Look for writers’ groups, drama workshops and training courses. Enjoy the process!

What’s next for you both?

Nikki: We will see what shape the play will take, it all depends on funding and our capacity. Cuts of the Cloth was a labour of love. Taking time to think and reflect about the right direction is vital.

Hafsah: It would be great to tour the piece. There is definitely an interest, but we’re taking a break for now. Individually, I’m starting a commission with SICK! Festival, and I recently became The Royal Exchange’s Supported Artist 2019.

Next article in issue 63

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