Performance artist and poet Inua Ellams grew up in Nigeria, London and Dublin. His work has been produced at the National, the Arcola and Soho Theatre, and he won a Fringe First for The 14th Tale in 2009. He talks to Miriam Zendle about nerves, reading and the importance of originality…
How did you get into spoken word?
My background is in visual art and graphic design – I got into poetry while living in Dublin, and started writing when I returned to London because I couldn’t afford brushes! I became a really bad writer, but a good performer. When I realised that I was performing too much, but there was no content, I stopped, read and read and read. When I stepped back in, I had a more critical eye.
What influences you?
Moving around so much taught me about identity and the way that impacts on the voice of an individual. Destination and displacement are also strong themes throughout my work, as are discussions about the fundamental similarities and differences between people and cultures.
How did you move from spoken word and poetry to theatre?
I had grown tired of reading poems to drunk people in bars and wanted to create something dense, with the lyrical flourishes that I geek out on. I won a competition put together by [performance poetry organisation] Apples & Snakes, and wrote coming of age story The 14th Tale. Fuel helped me develop the piece, which debuted at the London Word Festival, then went to Edinburgh, where it won a Fringe First. I didn’t even know what that meant, I had no idea of the implications. It was only when I started being described as “groundbreaking” and “a new voice in black British theatre” that I became really humbled, and really frightened!
What’s is like to work at the National Theatre?
It’s amazing. Everything about working there is. They give you space to do what you do as best you can. I have never come across a machine so primed to do just that. It was quite an experience to work with them, to be in that space.
How do you cope with writing and performing work about difficult topics?
Black T-Shirt Collection is about sectarian violence and homosexuality in Nigeria, as well as the clothing and fashion industry. It is probably the most political and personal piece I have written – though it is entirely fictional and not biographical at all. I’m so close to the characters that when I’m performing, I begin to well up and I have to walk myself back from the edge, as otherwise I’ll just burst into tears. Because it’s my first tragedy, I had to get used to audiences not whooping and hollering at the end.
How do you deal with nerves?
I get nervous about not telling the story properly. Standing in front of an audience, my responsibility is to do justice to the text I’ve created. It’s like going on a date with your husband and sitting with him at the far end of the table, not communicating. When I get on stage, that’s what I try to do – honour the text.
You wrote 13 Fairy Negro Tales at 19 – are you still happy with it?
I’m still proud of the work that it did, proud of the people it touched. The language and the voice of the book is very alive and brave, raw and uncultured. Sometimes I wish I could write the way I wrote then. But there are things I wouldn’t write now – because I know more about writing! I sometimes look at it and cringe, but I absolutely love it for giving rise to the voice I currently have.
Do you have any advice for those interested in spoken word?
Read until your eyes bleed. One of the most frustrating things is seeing a young writer who believes they are being groundbreaking, when I’ve seen their style for thelast seven years in a row. Self-expression is important but it’s a waste of energy to make the same mistakes as someone else. Stand out in a crowd.
Black T-shirt Collection is at the National Theatre, London, from 12 to 24 April. Book tickets and visit Inua’s website.
Inua will be running workshops at International Student Drama Festival, Sheffield, in late June. Find out more about the event and apply to be our ISDF Reporter.
Image by Brian Roberts.
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