INTERVIEW: Esohe Uwadiae on ‘She is a Place Called Home’

London’s VAULT Festival has just begun and I’m excited to head down to Waterloo and see a huge range of performances by companies I’d never have heard of before, and of course I’ll be covering (though on a very small scale) some of the work I see and chatting with some of the performers about their shows. First up, is writer Esohe Uwadiae on their debut play, She is a Place Called Home.

Tell us a little bit about your play, She is a Place Called Home?

The play follows two British Nigerian sisters as they navigate the fall out in their family as a result of their Dad’s decision to get another wife (as in, in addition to their Mum).

Sisterhood is very much at the heart of this story, as apart from the Dad’s decision, it is the thing that drives the plot. When the play begins, they are very much still dealing with the weight of their shared familial history while navigating the new challenges their Dad’s decision present. For instance, one of the sisters is recovering from an eating disorder, and the trauma of that shared experience remains present in their interactions. So we really dig into how family conflicts can trigger those who are healing, but how it also creates a situation where those who are experiencing difficulties are able to slip under the radar amidst all the conflict.

There’s a lot of love between them, evident from the opening moments of the play, but there’s a lot of lies and secrecy too.

What inspired you to write the piece – was it a real life influence or something you had seen recently?

During the writing process I was quite inspired by my Law degree, as I studied things like Family Law and Legal Pluralism where I got to understand the real human cost of gaps existing in the law. I wanted to write a play that explored the experience of people who fell through those cracks and polygamy in Nigerian culture was the perfect topic to do that with. Growing up, I heard all the stories, even saw it within my own family, but only after my degree did I begin to question what the legality of the situation meant for the parties involved, specifically in the British context.

For instance, in the UK to have two or more legal partners would be considered bigamy, but that’s only if they are married in a way that the law recognises as capable of producing a valid marriage. For several cultures, the way in which people get married would not meet this criteria. So what you find is there are people existing in situations where according to the law of their culture their husband has got another wife, but the law of Britain doesn’t recognise this, leaving them with no real recourse to stop this from happening if they were against it.

This play is extremely timely as the Law Commission is currently reviewing the law on weddings to modernise it, but traditional marriages, such as the one that happens within the play, are unlikely to be recognised. What you then have is a country that heralds its diversity as being one of its strengths, but either expects, or pretends to itself, that people leave behind their traditions when they move here. That isn’t the case.

Have you had any experience with theatre or is this your first play?

This is my first play. Prior to this, I’d written one thing, a monologue called The Performance of a Lifetime, when I was in my final year of university, as part of a non-binary bonanza cabaret that my friend was throwing.

You developed the play as part of VAULT New Writers’ Scheme – what was that experience like and what key things did you learn?

It was the most transformational experience, and the only reason why this play exists. The scheme was led by Camilla Whitehill (Freeman, Where Do Little Birds Go?) and we’d have weekly workshops led by her and a guest working in the industry. Because of that we were able to meet and learn from some incredible people such as Isley Lynn (Skin A Cat, War of the Worlds), Ella Road (The Phlebotomist) and Vinay Patel (An Adventure).

As we got to watch shows that were on in the festival, I could also experience a large range of theatre forms and see in practice the things that I was learning. This really helped to cement things for me, particularly as I didn’t have a theatre background, and was the groundwork for my future experiences.

One of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of backing yourself, of being able to say this is my work and I believe in it and think it’s good. It began building my confidence to be able to call myself a playwright. I still get nervous about doing it but having a show in VAULT Festival has got me referring to myself as this more and more.

The scheme also unpicked a lot of anxieties I had around writing, such as the idea that it’s bad to use Word to write or that there is a timeline of success that you need to be working to. It made me realise just how individual and personal each playwright’s journey is, which gave me greater appreciation for my own journey.

As the writer, are you heavily involved in the rehearsal process or do you leave the director and actors to it?

So far I’ve left the director (Layla Madanat) and actors (Nicole Acquah and Jordan Noel) to it. We’re quite early on in the rehearsal process and I want them to have a chance to get into the characters and the story without me there imposing my vision and ideas. This is because despite having written the script, there’s so much in there that I can’t see, and it would be a shame if those elements went unnoticed because I was too involved too soon. I think it can also help them to feel like the story belongs to them as well, in that sense, the script is the foundation upon which we can all build something great.

Saying that, we have a live document where they ask me questions about things they’d like to know ranging from ‘Where do they live?’ to ‘Who is that monologue being delivered to?’ This has only made the sisters feel more alive to me and the more I sit with them, the more my heart breaks for them.

Is there anything in particular you’d like the audience to take away from your piece?

Look after yourself. Be kind to yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first. You can’t save everyone, especially someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Not really. My main focus is trying to write, however badly, because at least it’ll exist, and I’ll adjust my approach as needed to ensure that. What that ends up looking like is very much determined by what I’m writing. For some scenes, I might listen to music to try and capture the feeling I want to emulate. Sometimes I’ll imagine a scene and say it out loud before writing it down to hear what it sounds like. When I was writing my most recent play, I found that I could only work between 12am and 3am, but only after eating a white chocolate Magnum and having watched something funny.

Give me your VAULT recommendations!

Do check out the VAULT Festival website, or head down to The Vaults and see what’s on. I often stumble on gems that way.

Finally, what’s next for the show after VAULT and for yourself as a writer?

The show was recently shortlisted for the Untapped Award, a partnership between New Diorama Theatre, Underbelly and Oberon Books. If we’re successful, we’ll be spending the summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, so fingers crossed for that.

More personally, I recently finished the Royal Court Theatre’s writers’ group where I had to write a play which I’m excited to keep working on. I’ve also got a long list of ideas in my phone for a series of shorts that I really want to get done, plus a novel that I keep meaning to finish.

On a larger scale, I really want to partner with local groups within the community. As they say, talent is everywhere, opportunity is not, and I’d love the chance to support people and groups in the same way that so many people have taken time to support me.

You can catch She is a Place Called Home at VAULT Festival from 3-8 March – get tickets here. You can keep up to date with the show on their socials.

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