While the publicly accessible parts of the former fish market are bathed in brightly lit calm, the vast hangar-like rehearsal room turned performance space is a hive of activity in preparation for the latest show by Ankur Productions.
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Playback, written by Davey Anderson and directed by Paddy Cunneen, is an epic rites-of-passage tale told through an urban soundtrack; a work that aims to be a cross-cultural hybrid of gig, road movie and promenade theatre.
Playback is also Ankur’s follow-up to Roadkill, the company’s site-specific smash-hit Edinburgh Festival Fringe play that took an audience of just 12 on a harrowing trawl through sex trafficking inside a real city-centre flat. Like Playback, Roadkill used a mix of forms to create a startling piece of home-grown drama. It went on to scoop a slew of much-deserved accolades, including a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel award and the 2010 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.
If the sheer claustrophobic power of Roadkill is a world away from the expansiveness of Playback, it also marked a turning point for the company set up in 2004 by artistic director Lalitha Rajan to provide a sustained artistic platform for Scotland’s black and ethnic-minority community. Up until Roadkill, Ankur had produced a number of quietly ambitious works including a production of Martin Crimp’s play Fewer Emergencies and a large-scale commission for writer Shan Khan to reinvent ancient myth in a contemporary Glasgow setting with Heer Ranjha (Retold).
Running parallel with these high-profile works were a number of projects that bridged the gap between professional and community theatre, including a new play, Detainee A, and the multicultural musical celebration Scotland United. It was Roadkill, however, which raised the bar for the company – and provided a pretty tough act to follow.
There will be a poignancy when Playback’s opening night arrives, as it will mark the final fling for Rajan before she departs the company to embark on a Clore fellowship, an artistic initiative designed to develop future cultural leaders.
“It’s been interesting trying to manage expectations,” she says, seated in her office on the other side of the Briggait, “because there’d been so much hype after Roadkill that we had to try and cool things down a little bit. Playback is a completely different kettle of fish, and it brings a whole set of challenges – partly because of the scale of it but also because we’re bringing young people from across Glasgow into a project of this magnitude and have to keep them involved and engaged.
“But, to be fair, it’s been good to have that interest in the organisation. I think we probably needed that kind of profile and drive to do something like this justice.
“So no complaints – but it always was our plan to keep the organisation fairly quiet, just because I think we needed to establish more ground before we got overly ambitious. Little had been done before us in this context of building a bridge between community work and professional work. I think we needed to earn our stripes before we could work on different levels, and Roadkill was a massive leap for us.
“The main drive of the organisation has always been about trying to work across different art forms and different communities, so I hope people start to notice that aspect of our work now. There’ve been advantages of us chipping away on the margins, but there’ve been disadvantages as well. Now we’re in a position where people who maybe hadn’t noticed us before suddenly want to work with us, and that puts us in a position where we can make work that’s even more ambitious.”
All of which raises the question: why does Rajan want to leave now? “I sort of feel that I’ve given Ankur enough to now manage on its own, and that it’s time for someone else to come in with new energy and ideas,” she explains.
“I had the drive at the start when the organisation needed a real sharp focus, but I feel now it could be any number of things. So now I feel I could let it go so I can explore some of my own artistic ideas which I haven’t had time to explore.”
Rajan was born in India and grew up in America, where she studied art before moving to Scotland to do a PhD in avant-garde performance. During this period she attended all the main theatres, and too often was surprised to find herself the only person from an ethnic minority in the audience. It began to bother her, she says, that none of her peers seemed willing to expose themselves to the burgeoning array of internationally inclined culture to which Glasgow was playing host – but it was only after doing some research that she discovered the gulf between western structures and those in Asia and elsewhere in terms of presentation.
“Communities from Asia aren’t by and large used to engaging with formal cultural and art structures,” she explains. “They’re more used to engaging with folk culture at a very localised level. So it’s a huge leap to go from that to investigate venues and organised programmes of work.
“Even here, things tend to happen in community halls, so part of setting up Ankur was to try and engage with that in terms of outreach work, but also develop talent for professional work. We’ve been very deliberate about doing work in the main venues, so these communities can become habituated to going out to these venues, where different communities can come together.”
Playback came out of a project in which the Ankur team discovered that young people were much more interested in music and urban arts, and that young Asians in different parts of town had markedly different interests. On the south side, for instance, they were interested in capoeira, the African-Brazilian dance form; in Maryhill they went more for street dance. This provided an insight into how much each group kept to their own area.
“They engage and reference a lot more filmic material,” Rajan observes, “so jump-cuts become their language. Also, it’s hard expecting them to go out to an ordinary theatre, which is partly why we’re doing the play in a space that has none of that sort of baggage. Trying to build new audiences among the Asian community is a challenge if you go down the conventional route of soap-opera-style naturalistic theatre. I don’t necessarily think that works, and I think it’s much more interesting for them if you do things in a different, more experimental way.
“I’m interested in how you can make work that is innovative and exciting, but at the same time has a broad reach. To communicate the value of the arts to people – that’s the challenge.”
Playback is at the Briggait, Glasgow, Thursday until Saturday, October 23.