I needed to make a difference

Mahendra Patel reflects on his Nest Residency

Being a musician for many years, I’ve often witnessed Discrimination on many levels, and I thought if I could turn this into a play, theatre piece this could be good.  For me it had to be done very differently to what I had seen on stage in the past, it would need to grab people’s attention, make them sit up, be involved somehow – and then of course go tell their friends, post on social media to get more people to come and see.

So the idea came and a few days later a friend posted online about ‘Talking Birds Nest Residency’ I had an idea that needed exploring, researching, bouncing around, talking through with a few theatre professionals. I grabbed my tablet made a few videos, picked the one I thought described what I wanted to do best and I applied for the scheme.

Tick tock time went by and one day I see a reply from them, my heart starts beating faster, getting anxious, scared of opening the email I put the kettle on and made a coffee.  Grabbed one of my drums to feel calm again and 2 hrs later I slowly took my mouse, clicked on the email . . … Nearly fell out of my chair with the biggest grin, I got it!  No Match Funding needed! I was going to be a Nest Resident, and so it started with a meeting with Janet and Derek.  To be honest I couldn’t believe it, but they believed in me to get this started.  

‘When Instruments come to Jam’ has at its heart the idea of using instruments as a metaphor to show discrimination on many levels.  So I started to focus on the conversations instruments would have if they communicated with each other, (as humans would) the fun, laughter, judgemental, good/bad thoughts, gossiping, sarcasm, joking around and then of course discriminating!

I’ve not written a play before, so Talking Birds they got me a meeting with Ola Animashawun to help me start to sketch out the story I wanted to tell – this was a chance for me to start sounding out my ideas with a theatre professional/dramaturg, and for me this was again all new territory.  Within a short time I’d realised there was a lot of work to be done by myself – he left me with provocations regards my idea which going forward would help me structure my idea/my play. I had conversations about my idea with musicians and animators and they all helped influence the way the idea shaped up.

About a month later my partner and I were off on a short break to Bulgaria (sadly not part of the residency!), the weather was great and I found this wonderful beach bar.  The laptop came out and for the first time I was inspired to start writing the beginnings of ‘When Instruments come to Jam’, for some reason the beach bar provided the perfect conditions, the sea, sand and gentle breeze.  

How do you write about ‘discrimination’?  It’s simple, you draw on your very own experiences from the first day at school to today!  Remarks about colour/size/abilities/being too good/being too bad/ethnic background/standing up for yourself/for your friends/not being white! And to be honest not all was that bad – especially because most remarks/insults around ethnic background were wrong (for some reason very few people could actually truly insult me about this since they never take the time find out what my ethnic background actually is!)

Transferring this to instruments at first was difficult but then surprising enough started to become easier as even instruments have a make-up.  Colour/size/background/abilities/the sound they produce/presence and they too have feelings.  It’s hard to explain that although music has no barriers, the musicians choose to put up barriers.  

As the title says, the story starts ‘When instruments come to Jam’ – although I have an idea of how the story plays out, I want to develop it collaboratively over time, maybe once a week with an open call to musicians to attend; building up a group producing great music regardless of knowing or ever having played alongside each other…. that’s where the trouble starts!

Without this Nest Residency, I would not have been able to get started  on this project – the funds and support allowed me to schedule time in to my work specifically for this project/idea, think about why I wanted to tell this story, and who it was for.  Being a full time musician means I have to generate my own income and anytime spent on ideas, looking at new projects in my own time would mean I’m not earning.  The Nest Residency meant I could afford to spend time on this and explore this idea of mine: contacting artists, writers, audience development specialists. I wanted to see if, firstly, this kind of delivery has been done in theatre, have instruments been used as a metaphor and the main point was would audiences be open to a play without spoken words and just music? I’ve spent a lot of time wondering, experimenting, and being ‘brave’ in order to develop the idea further.

The next step for this project has been to apply to (and be shortlisted for) the We are Unlimited/City of Culture Trust commissions, taking this to the next level of applying for an Emerging Artist Award in theatre. My time as a Nest Resident exploring this idea needs to end to move forward.  I’d like to thank Talking Birds for their time, guidance so far and hope that we’ll continue this on the next step as it starts to take flight . . .

Eugene & the Difference Engine

Daniel Nicholas blogs on making a show with the Difference Engine

I’m not sure what year it was, maybe 2015 or 2016, could even be earlier than that. I was living in Leicester, working part time at Tesco’s, when I went to a talk about this new software made by Talking Birds Theatre Company, that can give captioning in real time to theatre performances, straight to audience members’ phones; the Difference Engine.

Flash forward five or so years later, and I’m gearing up for my first tour (pandemic pending) of my first theatre show ‘Eugene’ which has the Difference Engine at the heart of it.

When I first found out about the Difference Engine, it was the idea of sending messages to audiences’ phones that grabbed me most: could these messages be secrets that the characters on stage don’t know about? Whilst at the same time captioning what the actors on stage are saying.

The creative possibilities were racing through my head. But the big one was the multiple channels, having different audiences receiving different things that could influence how different audience members see the show – and therefore with everything that happens on the stage being the same, individuals will be seeing the show through a different lens, without realising it. This goes hand in hand with making a piece of theatre for the d/Deaf community.

That has been the goal of my show Eugene, to give audiences different ways of seeing the same thing on stage at the same time. Eugene is about a millionaire Steve Jobs-esque figure launching the first super human A.I. It all takes place at a press conference/ product launch. And although Eugene the A.I. appears on a screen at the back of the stage, it also talks to audiences directly throughout. What messages they receive, however, depends on what option they selected on the Difference Engine at the start. The character on stage and the A.I. interact: it’s very much a 2 person show, but with one actor.
It’s been difficult, don’t get me wrong, coming up with a script that works on multiple levels, and then inputting that into the Difference Engine. But I think the results (will be) worth it, when for the first time I have a show that’s accessible to d/Deaf audiences, where different audiences have a different experience at the same time: I’m happy to do the hard work, no question.

I think there’s a danger, sometimes, of tacking on accessibility to shows or products, it being thought of as an afterthought, or squeezed in when all the work is done – sometimes it just isn’t. But if I’ve learnt anything from this process, it is that by harnessing the resources that are there for accessibility, like the Difference Engine, something new and innovative can be created that can be enjoyed by many more people. And why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Eugene was the Edinburgh Fringe National Partnerships Award Winner for Yorkshire 2020/21