How Nanny McPhee inspired a play on racism

Joe Sellman-Leava, Co-Artistic Director of Worklight Theatre talks passionately in this guest blog about how to get your voice heard, and how actor Emma Thompson was involved in the starting point for award-winning theatre piece Labels, ahead of its visit to The Studio at The Lowry on Fri 13 May.

pleasance edinburgh
Labels in Bunker 1 at Pleasance Courtyard 2015

In 2009, in our final year at the University of Exeter, I and my future co-artistic director of Worklight Theatre, Michael Woodman, were lucky enough to have got a place on a drama workshop led by Oscar winner, activist and the all-round awesome Emma Thompson. We sat in awe as she explained, with a quiet fire in her eyes, how her son Tindy had endured racism from students and residents during his time studying there, and how she believed you have to do something with your anger, or it will fester and eat away at you.


So here she was, doing something with her anger. She’d asked us to prepare some short pieces on the topic of racism and prejudice, as ideas to shape together into a public performance for the following day. I’d agonised over several drafts of short stories themed around difference and prejudice, but nothing I felt remotely able to share with the cat, let alone Nanny McPhee.
As I put my pen down and made some tea in my parents’ kitchen, I filled them in on what I was writing for – on why the best thing by far about Love Actually, was paying a visit to little old Exeter. Mum said the same thing she had for years – that she couldn’t believe how, in this day and age, people still said and did the things they did based on skin colour. How she, strange as it may sound, just doesn’t see colour when she looks at people. Dad made the same joke he often made at this – pointing at himself and saying: “yeah, but it’s pretty obvious isn’t it!?”


And gradually, over lots of tea, it emerged: why we’d really changed our surname from Patel to Sellman-Leava; the conversation my Dad had overheard at a job interview, about the name on his CV, that prompted this change; the names I’d been called by a former friend of my mum, without even knowing it. From this candid conversation, another story wrote itself. And the recurring motif of names, the power of language, and the refusal of some people to see grey areas, gave me the idea of repeated use of black and white labels throughout the performance.


The workshop and performance came and went in a flash. I remember small gems from Emma as we workshopped our ideas. Though mine wasn’t used in the group piece, she took my script and at the performance the following day told me, (and my starstruck parents) that I had a voice, and should keep writing. Over the next few years, I performed and tweaked Labels at a series of scratch nights and new writing festivals. But acting jobs, day jobs and making and touring Worklight’s first two shows meant I never got around to ‘finishing’ the 10 minute performance piece.


In early 2015, I realised how often I’d watched shows like Question Time, boiling with frustration at how the Nigel Farages of this world dominating the conversation, and never being able to participate. I’d just moved to London and shivered at the thought of getting Labels out of its box and ready for Edinburgh Fringe. But if I couldn’t do it this year, I told myself, then I never would. Through a series of flurried writing sessions, scratch performances, frantic phone calls and – most importantly – winging it, I managed to get a slot at Pleasance, a creative team, and enough deadlines and commitments to ensure I couldn’t back out. Then, through sheer chance, I meet Emma Thompson again, during a rehearsal break at Morley College, and she took a draft of the new script. A few weeks later she emailed with more encouragement and one or two thoughts on taking it forward.


pleasance edinburgh
Labels in Bunker 1 at Pleasance Courtyard 2015

The next few months were unpredictable and bittersweet. For every piece of good news in our small world there was bad news in the big one. Against predictions, Worklight won an arts council grant to develop the show; against predictions, the Conservatives won a majority and immediately adopted a crueler immigration policy and scrapped the human rights act. The show was well reviewed in newspapers throughout the Fringe, and we glowed with pride; but the headlines of the same papers depicted a worsening refugee crisis, and we flushed with anger and shame. We returned to London with two awards in our case and a planned tour we’d never dreamed of; the same day, the news was awash with an image of a small boy on a beach – a brutal symbol of our collective indifference.


We’ve done the show more than 100 times now, and we’re not even close to finishing the tour. We’ve had the support of too many people to name. We’ve had audiences who laughed with us and cried with us. Who have agreed with us and disagreed with us and we’ve had grown men welling up as they tell us their own experiences of racism once I’ve finished telling mine.


I started writing Labels because I wanted to impress one of my heroes. I carried on because she told me to. And I finished it because I remembered what she’d said:


You have to do something with your anger.


Written by Joe Sellman-Leava, Co-Artistic Director of Worklight Theatre.


For more information on Labels or to purchase tickets, visit our website or call box office on 0843 208 6000.