Interview: Natalie Ibu, Artistic Director of tiata fahodzi

Natalie Ibu is Artistic Director of tiata fahodzi, the UK’s leading African theatre company. This February the company will be presenting I know all the secrets in my world in The Studio at The Lowry. Here, Rachel Wrigley catches up with Natalie to find out more about the company and the show.

Natalie Ibu - Picture Credit by Robert Day

The show is about a father and son’s struggle to find ways to communicate. How do you think these relationships are different (or not) in African communities?
i know all the secrets in my world is about their struggle to find ways to communicate in the face of devastating grief – in a time where they feel so much and no words are right or big enough. I think that question is pertinent for us all – man or woman, African or not – but I was particularly interested in exploring it within the context of masculinity. I’m not sure whether black masculinity is distinct from masculinity – doesn’t masculinity cover all masculinity? – but I do know that there are certain stereotypes and singular narratives about black men that I felt compelled to counter and challenge and – always as an artist – tell the stories that aren’t being told, show the people whose experiences seem to be ignored and absent in theatre. When I started thinking about this play – and still, I’d argue – it felt like mainstream culture was dominated by the central idea that black men are absent fathers, disloyal, unemotional etc. For i know all the secrets in my world, I wanted to give a voice, space and visibility to all the men whose story is not that – all those African men who are loving, emotional, present, involved and nurturing forces. So this story is about and for those men. I wanted to ask a wider question about masculinity – about how we (society) nurtures our men and boys and whether we are truly equipping them for life, really nourishing all aspects of them. Who does a singular and narrow definition of masculinity really serve?


The show has been produced with an all-male cast, and an all-female creative and production team. Can you tell us more about that dynamic?
Whilst we see the men of this particular family, it is about men and women and it felt really exciting that the dynamic of the creative team could add something to the production. Theatre is collaborative and personal and every production – whether text based or devised – reflects the people who made it; they bring their own experiences, sensibilities and taste to the process but it felt thrilling that this play about – amongst lots of things – the space and indentation an absent woman has left on and in a family could mirror that from the get go. We – at tiata fahodzi – are also massive champions of diversity because we think it makes the best work and creates the best experiences for audiences. We’re naturally diverse because our stories centre around African heritage protagonists living in multicultural Britain but we look for opportunities to be diverse in our diversity. Gender is part of that so I’m proud that this black female led company has enjoyed the extraordinary talents of eight women – who have experience of Japan, Australia, Scotland, England, Ireland, African, Caribbean – as well as the unique experience of two British Black actors who feature.
You joined tiata fahodzi in 2014. Can you tell us about your journey so far as Artistic Director?
I took over the company in December 2014 and am the third artistic director. It was a real honour and privilege to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor Lucian Msamati (an extraordinary artist who went on to be the first black Iago in Othello at the RSC last year) and charismatic founder Femi Elofowoju Jr. I joined at the time the company was moving to its new home at Watford Palace Theatre and this new start felt like the perfect time to shake up the what, where, how and who. This meansthat my first year was a whirlwind of activity, firsts and debuts and very little sleep.
Our vision – the artistic programme – has always mirrored that of the African diaspora and so I have been developing the what to reflect the ever-changing community. I – and many of our audience, whether of African heritage or not – are of the “mixed experience”. For me, this means that we’re a people who straddle many cultures, languages, classes, heritages, races and politics and all these things make us who we are. I want to make work that reflects that complex identity politic and is concerned with the multiple rather than the singular. This – I hope – means that everyone, whether we share the same skin tone or not (and even that is multiple), can see themselves in our work because – in the case of i know – being African heritage doesn’t affect the way this father and son love and lose, how they grieve.
We’re a small national portfolio organisation and tour one piece of work a year but this meant that we only got to meet our audiences once a year – a lot changes in a year and we wanted to be more frequent friends with our audience. So, we’ve been debuting a new model which means we share work earlier and more often and go further. So this year alone, we’ve shared a work in progress version of this show at Latitude Festival, Pulse Festival and DEparture Lounge in Derby. We’ve met hundreds of women as part of aunty aunty: the style consultation at Africa Utopia at the Southbank Centre. We took over Watford Palace Theatre with tiata delights – our festival for new artists and new work – in November, facilitating a conversation and workshops between established leading artists (Bonnie Greer, Misfits’ Danny Sapani, Cucumbers’ Cyril Nri to name a few) and emerging artists and then threw a party to celebrate our 18th birthday in the evening. Our year finishes with a bang – i know all the secrets in my world is on the largest tour the company has ever delivered. 5 weeks, 13 venues, 30 performances – and all those places are new to the company so it’s really exciting.


The show toured as a work-in-progress in (summer 2015) how has it changed since then?
One of the characteristics of the African culture is our fondness for family and our all inclusive concept of family. My friends and I laugh about how many aunties and uncles we have – a term that’s a mark of respect rather than meaning any DNA is shared. I was interested in how we might replicate that idea with our audiences? I want to make work in conversation with our audience so that they get to feed the work as it’s made. Then, when they come and see the “finished” piece, it’s like being reunited with an old friend or “auntie”.
Whilst I started thinking about the piece of work in 2008 at Contact Theatre, it found it’s current form last summer when we toured the festivals. It was really useful to get the chance to witness how different audiences responded to it – from the music festival audience at Latitude to the industry audience at Pulse Festival in Ipswich. It’s a real luxury – sadly – to get a chance to experiment so thoughtfully. If you saw the summer version, you’ll recognise structural tweaks so that the story is tighter than it once was and small aesthetic changes but the big transformative change is a different soundscape. Whilst the play features very few words, it’s full of sound and I’ve had the privilege of working with the very talented Helen Skiera who has composed, designed and performed the sound design. It’s a #spoileralert but all of the/every sound you hear, post the death of the mother, is Helen’s own vocals composed and manipulated to create an dynamic sound world for this story to sit within.


What has been the audience response to the show so far? What journey would you like the audience to go on?
Audiences have been so brilliant and really generous with their emotions – they cry and laugh and go on the ride with our father and son. They’re always surprised by how effectively we can tell the story without a reliance of words and often say that you couldn’t tell this story with words. They really get it and are really vocal afterwards which is really delightful – making work feels scary, no matter how many plays you’ve directed, and even more so when you’re trying to do something different so it’s a real privilege to have their undivided attention and all of their imagination and emotions for 59 minutes. For me, the play is as much about love as it is about loss so I hope – for audiences – it’s as hopeful as it is heartbreaking.
tiata fahodzi is the UK’s leading African theatre company. Who are you inspired by?
Gosh. I’m inspired by all sorts of people and things. At the moment, I’m really interested in the communities that gather around hashtags on twitter, like #blackgirlmagic and all the expressions of encouragement and celebration that are tagged by that hashtag in a time when it feels hard to celebrate anything. I’m also obsessed with podcasts and a return to talk radio – Serial (isn’t everyone?) and Death, Sex and Money, which is a startling humane series celebrating people. I’m also addicted to an online video series The { } And – where couples (family, lovers, friends) ask each other a series of questions from a blind pile. It is so simply done and so illuminating – it explores relationships, communication and how we connect to each other. It’s breathtaking. There’s probably a theme between the things I’m fangirling over and the work I’ve just finished making. That’s part of what I love about my job, for a couple of months you become an expert of a very idiosyncratic world – the themes of the play seem to be everywhere you turn when you’re working on a new show.
What’s next for tiata fahodzi?
We’re a tiny company doing a lot with ambitions to do even more so the first thing is some time off to mark a wonderful year and the beginning of year two so we’ll be closing the office. I’m going on holiday. Our General Manager is running a marathon in Paris and our intern is going on a city break. Our General Manager puts me to shame. Then, I go into rehearsal with a brand new play by award-winning Charlene James, commissioned for some incredible third year actors at RADA. After, it’s straight onto pre-production on a next tour so we hope we’ll be seeing The Lowry again with another tale about contemporary multi-cultural Britain.


I know all the secrets in my world comes to The Studio at The Lowry Wed 24 Feb, 8pm. For more information or to book tickets call box office on 0843 208 6000 or visit the website by clicking here.