Nkenna Akunna caught up with the rising star Sheila Atim, to talk about her new role as a playwright.
Nkenna Akunna: I want to start with a bit of background. Where did you grow up, and when did you start acting?
Sheila Atim: I grew up in Essex. I started acting professionally about six years ago, but I’d always been involved in drama at school. I’ve also always played instruments and made music. Those two artistic aspects have always been a part of my life, even though they only recently became my career.
NA: And how did that transition happen for you?
SA: Originally I was going to pursue a scientific route. For various reasons, that didn’t happen. I did go to university and study biomedical science, but while I was there I already knew in my mind that I was going to pursue something artistic when I left. Still, it was a massive 180 to do at 18! I ended up going to an arts college called Wac Arts in Belsize Park, and then got into acting through that. It sort of happened by accident, but also made complete sense. [The shift] felt like universal intervention, if you believe in that kind of stuff. I definitely believe in the universe having its own energy that I can’t really understand.
NA: That resonates with me. There are a lot of unique stories that actually end up having similar trajectories, where people go into science or maths or some kind of field that signals a particular kind of success, and then we find the route back to another side of ourselves along the way. Do you connect your path to your background in any way?
SA: Yeah, in part. I do also really love science and actually there is actually a lot of it in the play. [But over time,] it just became clear to me that the artistic side of me was stronger. I do think there is the idea, particularly in the eyes of a parent who has come to a new country seeking a better life, that we should be seeking the kind of security that being a freelance artist doesn’t really offer. [I have a parent] who came, very young, to another country and has had to work very hard in order to create her own security. But I didn’t like being told that I could or couldn’t do something. I think it’s a hard battle when young people are forced to find themselves early. By nature as human beings, we are capable of so much. I don’t think I would be an actor if I hadn’t gone to uni to study biomed! All the things you learn, whatever path you take, feeds into the next step and therefore consequently forms how you move into the next part of your life.
NA: Can you talk to me a bit about how you conceived the play? I know that Anguis is structured around conversations between Cleo and a virologist. why was that the structure that made sense for you?
SA: It has been a journey! I first started with Cleopatra, then the virologist, Dr. Kate Williams, and though her story made up the second stage of the piece’s development, it has very much become the heart of the piece. There is something compelling about two women having a conversation across generations. I want it to feel like it could just be a generational gap between two people who are alive at the same time.
Within that I’m trying to explore ideas about womanhood, but also about so many things that I think are more universal. And that’s the battle at the moment for me; trying to make sure that I am negotiating all of those things and that everything has its place to be clearly spoken about, rather than just being me having a long rambling conversation about myself through all of these characters and no one having any understanding of what I am talking about [laugher].
NA: This set up provides a lot of scope, though! Because it’s not just across time but its also across cultures. I’m eager to see what you tease out from all the potential that is there. What are some of the other themes that you are trying to explore?
SA: Though the play aims to explore a lot, the overriding idea for me is that Cleo and Kate are having this conversation at a pivotal point in Kate’s life, even though Cleo doesn’t necessarily realise that at the time. Today, there’s a big discussion around how we process information as human beings, how we deal with the information that has been given to us, the truth versus the alternative, and how we navigate that. We are living in a time where there is a lot of activism coming in various forms. So how do we make decisions in the middle of all of that? I think it’s a very worthwhile thing to consider in the age of social media, where we have lost a little bit of the processing time that we as human beings used to give ourselves when navigating new information.
NA: Earlier, you talked a bit about singing being part of your upbringing, and I know that music is a part of this piece. How does it feature? Did you write some songs and create the piece around them?
SA: I considered doing that, but ultimately didn’t. I have never written a play before and so I wanted to put the focus into the dialogue first to give myself a bit of a head start with that. I anticipated it would be more of a journey. Then I wrote the songs, and then thought about where they fit in and what function they served within the piece. The music is in the world of the play; it’s not a musical, though.The songs do not necessarily provide moments where you come outside the piece.
NA: You said that this is the first play you’ve written. For people who don’t write often, it’s really easy to overlook the difficulty in that process.
SA: Yes! You’re right, it’s terrifying! I was in an interview the other day and when I hung up I was like, ‘oh my god, I’ve just gone on for an hour about how scared I am.’ But it is really difficult to do. There’s so much going on when you’re writing something. Every character, to some degree, has your voice because you have created them, but you’re also trying to give them separate voices and so they have to have voices that are different enough to actually be other people who are both independent of you, and independent of each other, but they all have to somehow come from your brain and say things you want them to say! And then there’s another level to it where you’re engaged in the overall message you want each character to say… I know this changes over time, but it is a long process and you can’t fast track it. I haven’t been able to cheat or to hide or to pull out any tricks at all. I just had to write it, and gradually find ways of making it better. I’ve been writing this since the end of February, so it hasn’t been that long.
NA: That is not long!
SA: I know. It’s probably what makes me even more terrified, but a lot of the process has actually been me thinking about it. There have been whole days where I haven’t even opened the laptop, just needed to get some thoughts in order and then maybe thinking about something else and then something else giving me an epiphany. It’s been really, really illuminating and a very consuming experience. I haven’t really been able to do a lot else in this time.
NA: Because when you’re creating the world of a play, it’s never really out of your mind.
SA: Yeah. It’s been consuming my thoughts! It’s always something to come back to, always something to prioritize. I really enjoy it.
NA: Finally: why did you choose to write a play as opposed to just performing, and what is your goal through this for the beyond?
SA: It was a sort of a commission, in a sense. I definitely didn’t think I would be writing a play at this point, but the question around creating things and pushing things into existence is something that has been on my mind for a while, and it’s something I think a lot of actors are doing, particularly a lot of actors who are Black or Asian or fall into some kind of marginalised group. As my profile has been steadily rising in the last couple of years following Girl From the North Country, especially given that I have always been somebody who likes to do lots of things, I am excited by the idea of creating things. So if I am put in a position where someone is coming to me and asking what I want to make? That seems like a chance I should take. If it’s terrible, then I’ll look back and say I tried it. It’s worth the try.
NA: Well, I can’t wait to see it.
SA: I have high hopes for it. The team have been really supportive so far. It is very strange to have something that is entirely in your head then come out and involve so many people. It is very, very bizarre, but I trust all those people. So yeah, I am looking forward to it.
Sheila Atim brings her first play, Anguis, to the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Dining Room as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 31st July to 26th August (excl 12th) at 3.00pm. More info and tickets available here.