This month’s interview is with Grace Chapman – co-artistic director of NOVAE theatre and the writer of Don’t Look Away, an investigation into our collective response to the international refugee crisis. Nominated for the Adopt A Playwright Award last year, Grace’s previous work includes Beneath The Weeds, The Barricade, It’s Not A Sprint, Fixture and The Acceptance Speech.
Her latest show is previewing in Harrogate (opening tomorrow), before a 2-week run at the Pleasance Islington in early May. For more info, scroll to the bottom or click here.
Don’t Look Away is about a woman who invites an asylum seeker into her home. What inspired you to write it?
I first had the idea for Don’t Look Away when my mum and dad hosted asylum seekers in our home in 2015. After speaking to them about the joys and challenges of doing so, I then went to spend some time in Bradford with my auntie – who volunteers with asylum seekers. I was struck by the community of care being built in these cities, from normal people. There is a vacuum of support from the government which ordinary people are rushing to fill, whether by opening their homes, providing hot meals or teaching English lessons in their spare time. The play’s central character of Cath embodies this compassion but then, perhaps, takes it too far.
Since then, I’ve been developing the script by working closely with charities, like the Refugee Council, as script consultants ensure the story I’m telling is as authentic as possible. Saying this however, the asylum process itself provides more of a structure to the play. The real story and heart comes from the character of Cath who witnesses the impact of this ‘hostile environment’, and decides to act.
Do you always like to work from personal experience?
I find it useful to draw on my own experiences. This show begins and ends with ‘Cath’. It is ultimately her story and she is directly inspired by the women in my life – my mum, my aunty – who have been supporting asylum seekers and refugees in their local areas. Of course, using personal experience isn’t the only way to work and I think it’s vital for playwrights to be able to tell stories that aren’t their own – but I do find it a really useful jumping-off point.
What kind of stories inspire you?
I love stories where ordinary people do extraordinary things, against the odds. Whether that’s in life – or on stage. There is something so electric about seeing someone really relatable being thrust into a situation that is out of their control and facing an impossible decision from which there’s no going back. There’s such inherent drama in these moments.
Why is now the right time for Don’t Look Away?
The story is more relevant than ever. ‘The Jungle’ may have been formally demolished but it hasn’t gone anywhere – there are still thousands of people living in tents in Calais, trying to make it to the UK only to be greeted by this hostile environment. I met an asylum seeker in Bradford, a few years ago, who’d been waiting for asylum for over a year. An incredibly intelligent guy, living on barely anything and not allowed to work. He has since been granted asylum but the waiting was very painful. That treatment of people is ongoing.
What do you hope audiences will take away from it?
I’m hoping we raise awareness of the UK asylum process and challenge audiences to consider their own response to the crisis. As individuals, how much more can and should we do? Where do we draw the line? How much are we willing to sacrifice of our own lives to help others? Should we be expected to? Don’t Look Away naturally doesn’t provide all of the answers, but I’m hoping it triggers overdue debate.
NOVAE theatre is fairly new. Where did you come from, and what are the objectives of the company?
Co-artistic director Ellie Simpson and I met in Idle Motion theatre company, which we founded with friends from school. We’d devise shows together as an ensemble and tour the UK and internationally and it was a run by fierce women – we loved it. Then in 2016, we decided to stop making work. I had been writing for a few years and Ellie was looking to go into more producing work. Then last year, I wrote a one woman show and asked her to direct it and produce it with me. She said ‘yes’ (thank god!). Since then, we’ve taken the show to Edinburgh, Pleasance, Brighton Dome and VAULT and it’s honestly been a blast. I think, as a company, we just love telling stories with complicated, flawed female characters at their heart. Our theatre is always dynamic, inventive and ultimately collaborative.
Who else is onboard to work on Don’t Look Away?
Our team are awesome. We have long term collaborator and award-winning director Nick Pitt and movement director Dan Canham (who’s worked at the NT) – alongside an incredibly talented design team who aren’t afraid to take risks to push the story and characters. We also have an all-female producing team who never fail to surprise us with how capable they are – they just get stuff done! The cast are brilliant as well, we can’t wait to get started. When you have such talent in a room, it rarely feels like work.
What’s next for NOVAE and for you personally?
At the moment we are just concentrating on making Don’t Look Away the best it can be…then we’re not sure. As the writer, I have an idea for a new show which I’m really excited about. But it’s very early days and – at the moment – it’s just a blank page! Hopefully not for long…
Don’t Look Away is visiting Harrogate Theatre (24-26 April) and Pleasance Theatre, Islington (7-18 May).