AN INTERVIEW WITH ANGELLA EMURWON, playwright, Strings
Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of Strings?
Strings began, really, with a friend’s request to borrow my father. Not for anything in particular, she had a father of her own but wanted to borrow mine. On the surface I understood the request. My father was not perfect, but he was special.
This request got me thinking about what fatherhood meant; who got to be called father; and how fathers are made. Of course Strings evolved to be about a lot more than that, but this is where the journey began.
Also, my plays up to that point had been mostly comedies. I am now accepting of the fact that my work will always contain humor because that is an important part of how I tell stories but at the time I wanted to write a drama, an ensemble drama to be exact, and I felt that spending time with the Lororibor family in Strings would be a good start to writing drama.
What writers do you find yourself going back to for inspiration and why?
So many many writers. I love Ugandan author Doreen Baingana (Tropical Fish). Her use of language is evocative, visceral and immersive. Reading her around the time I was deciding to become a full time writer helped me to understand and discover my voice as a Ugandan writer and director. I read everything she writes.
I love August Wilson (Two Trains Running), Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie), and Arthur Miller (Broken Glass) who create ordinary people with such power – breathing, sweating, complex people. I want to read everything they’ve written.
I will never forget how completely overwhelmed I was after reading Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. Completely overwhelmed – by the story, by how it is written, by the lives lived in it – overwhelmed! I reread chapters from it every now and then.
I read Wole Soyinka a lot, Death and the King’s Horseman and his other plays. I like how he is able to hold together the reality, the poetic, and the spiritual of life, setting, and people without incongruence.
Over the course of your career, do you find there are common themes running through all your work?
Yes. I’m fascinated by the often “small” choices people make everyday – who to become, how to show themselves to others, how to hide themselves from others, what they choose, what they feel was chosen for them, how we choose each other, and so on.
I’m fascinated by people (especially in my country) who may elicit quick judgments from the outside about their internal lives without any attempt at investigation – coffin makers, petrol attendants, cattle herds, women (many times), young people drifting, and so on.
As a result, I am fascinated by Love, Loss, and Regret. How do these identity rich feelings come about? How to respond when different ideas and realities find space and expression within the same person? And how can I create space in my work for people to see each other?
Your career is so varied and interesting – moving from stage to film, from directing and writing, all while teaching throughout. How do these things inform each other?
I love storytelling and I love people. I think everything I’ve learned, truly learned in life, has been as a story. And I suppose I’m always trying to be in projects and places where I can tell stories to learn about things and to share what I’ve learned.
Writing is quite solitary. And I think for the most part I write to investigate and understand whatever it is I am mulling on at the time.
Directing is exhilarating. I am able to get out of my head, the intensity of creating on my own, and welcome other creators into a collaborating storytelling space. It is challenging but exciting and it pushes me to have a wider view of life and work and myself as a person.
I love love teaching. For me, it is 50% sharing my knowledge and experience and 50% making creative inquiry, the work, the dream, exciting and inspiring! The education system that was left over from colonial times emphasizes learning by rote; often emphasizing the ‘what’ of the subject at the expense of the ‘why’ or sometimes even the ‘how’. And so while what is it to make art and what are the accomplishments of making art are important conversations and often the starting point, I love getting into the conversations that tackle the why of making art and how can we expand the ways to make art. And then seeing how this makes a difference for all of us collectively, for my students, and in my own work. Then the cycle begins again as I take this experience back to the solitary work of writing, then into how I engage with my collaborators as a director, then back to my students, and on and on.
What is your favorite story in any form?
Oh my! It would be just as hard to pick a favorite meal. At the time I am experiencing a wonderful story, it is my favorite story in that particular form.
I will say I absolutely love being told stories. I love to sit down with family or friends and be told a story – real or fiction. Or eavesdropping on stories in public transportation.
This is probably because most of my family are amazing storytellers. And the best stories are when 2 or 3 of them experience something and then tell the story together. It’s wonderful.
My mom has a very dry wit, my sister has a memory for details and can invent vocabulary, one of my brothers can make up an epic journey with you as a character in the center of it (my dad could do this too), and my other brother is the best incentive for anyone to learn Swahili. He tells the best stories and the best of these are in Swahili.
I guess that’s my favorite. I love to be told stories.
– Steve Scarpa