Q&A: Fin Kennedy

Fin Kennedy’s first play. Protection, was staged at Soho Theatre in 2003, where he was also Pearson writer-in-residence.

His second play How To Disappear Completely & Never Be Found, was the first unproduced play in 40 years to win the John Whiting Playwrighting Award,

His latest project is Unstated, a play based on the testimonies of refugees.

How did you become involved in this project?

I always had an association with The Red Room under Lisa Goldman, I was part of their writer’s group, so when Topher Campbell took over I met him and he told me about his plans for Journeys To Work, which was about economic migrants and played at a theatre festival in Copenhagen last year. I wasn’t involved in that show but in many ways it was the precursor to this one and I always thought it sounded great. When The Red Room were looking for an atmospheric London venue for Unstated I suggested Southwark Playhouse its temporary space in the arches at London Bridge is amazing, and perfect for a show like this and The Red Room loved it too. Soon after that they rang me up and asked if I wanted to be the writer for it. It’s always interested me to seek out stories you rarely hear from people you don’t see on stage very much, so I jumped at the chance.

Unstated is based on the true testimonies of refugees. As a writer, how much creative scope did you have?

Absolutely loads! It’s been brilliant. The way it worked was that Topher Campbell, the director, embarked on a huge research process where he conducted filmed interviews with a whole range of people, from refugees themselves, to lawyers, to political activists and various other people from the voluntary sector working in this field around the country. I joined the team for some of these interviews and watched the rest of them on film. I even did a site visit to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) near Heathrow airport, a grim high security place where I visited a young Nigerian man who had been on a hunger strike after being beaten up by guards; his hand had been broken so badly it needed surgery, and he’d been denied medical attention and had his case files confiscated so he couldn’t appeal his deportation. His case was so shocking that I started a bit of a letter writing campaign to MPs and Colnbrook’s management. It didn’t work he was deported to Nigeria soon after I met him. I realised then that his case wasn’t an unjust anomaly, there are thousands more like him, it’s the system itself which is out of control it’s cruel, unfair and unaccountable.

It was stories like his which I tried to do justice to in the play. A lot of the testimonies are filmed, so those are presented in an edited verbatim form on screen, but what I was able to do as a playwright was to bring to life scenes to which the interviewees only allude such as their interrogation when they first arrived in the UK, or the wranglings amongst an IRC management discussing tactics to deal with a hunger strike. I’ve also been able to bring to life those levels higher up the immigration system ‘food chain’ to which we weren’t able to gain access, such as scenes involving Home Office ministers and tabloid newspaper editors.

There’s also been really exciting opportunities to merge live stage action with filmed footage so sometimes an actor might interact with an interviewee on screen, or a scene might pause while a clip plays which reminds the audience that the facts under discussion in the scene aren’t fiction but actually from a true story. A lot of that is Topher’s vision and it feels like a really innovative way to approach documentary theatre; the footage is the backbone and the drama fleshes it out and takes us to the places which documentary alone can’t reach.

Is it the aim of the production to try and shift public attitudes about refugees in the UK?

Yes – the debate about immigration and asylum has been dominated for too long by factually inaccurate tabloid hysteria, which has had an unfair access to power and exerted a disproportionate influence on government policy. The result is an inhumane and unfair system which takes place behind closed doors, and the people who suffer are some of the most vulnerable and traumatised in the world. ‘Asylum seeker’ has pretty much become an insult, synonymous with ‘scrounger’, and that’s a shocking state of affairs for a nation which used to be known around the world for fairness and tolerance, and offering a hand in adversity to persecuted people.

In fact our director, Topher, has said he’d actually like to see some sort of legislative change arise as a result of this show. I admire that as an ambition but I’m not sure it’s within the powers of one production though we are inviting lots of politicians. What we can do though is throw our weight into the debate and try to show what drives people to consider that being beaten up in a cell near Heathrow is better than going back to their country of origin. That and exposing the channels of political power that have made the system so awful.

Is theatre a valuable medium in dealing with such issues?

I think so. It’s one of the few areas we have left as a forum for collective self-examination. Where else will 150 people come together each night to consider a contemporary issue, and have the opportunity to discuss it afterwards? We’ve also produced this show in collaboration with lots of voluntary sector groups such as The Refugee Council and the TUC, who are very active in this field, so there will be all sorts of links and literature available if people want to take action.

The power of Unstated lies in its documentary-drama mix the filmed footage aims to put the record straight on the facts about immigration and asylum, whilst the drama tries to show the human stories behind the headlines, and what takes place behind closed doors. But there’s plenty of gallows humour in there as well, something that theatre does particularly well. I also don’t believe in browbeating an audience, nor in preaching to the converted, so one thing I’ve tried to do is give a voice to the right wing opinions in this debate. The basic structure of drama characters pursuing an objective and encountering obstacles makes it a natural forum for political arguments to come alive. Plus we can safely assume that most theatre audiences are broadly left-liberal politically, so the mischief maker in me enjoys provoking them a bit with some other perspectives. I think that’s how you engage audiences politically; challenge them to engage with the other side so that they can articulate their own position in response.

Are there any plans to bring How To Disappear… to London?

Yes – but I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you about it yet. If it happens it’ll be this autumn. Keep an eye on my website. It was on in Australia and New Zealand this year and will be having its American premiere next January, so its journey is far from over.

Any future plans and projects you want to share with us?

I wrote a crazy verse play, a modern Jacobean tragedy at the start of this year, for my favourite small company Liquid Theatre. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. The problem is it involves a cast of 15 so we’re trying to get a bigger co-producer interested at the moment no mean feat! (Expressions of interest on a postcard please).

I’ll also be at the Edinburgh Fringe again this summer with my school group, this year it’s a series of gory urban fairytales set in East London called Stolen Secrets.

Half Moon Young People’s Theatre are reviving my hip hop drama about pirate radio, Locked In, for a national tour this autumn. I’ve also just finished my first radio play for Radio 4, that will be going out in September. Apart from that, I’m leaving London and moving to Brighton in September so I’m hoping to forge some links with the Brighton Festival. I’m looking forward to a bit of time away from the London treadmill to develop some new ideas under my own steam.

Unstated will be at Southwark Playhouse from 2 – 12 July 2008 and will then tour.

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