PLAYWRIGHT’S PROCESS: Zahida Rahemtulla on writing The Frontliners
In our latest installment of our Playwright’s Process series, we chatted with playwright Zahida Rahemtulla, whose play, The Frontliners, will premiere at the Waterfront Theatre in November 2022.
Zahida is a playwright and short story writer whose first two plays, The Wrong Bashir, and The Frontliners, will premiere on stage this season. The Frontliners received the 2021 Playwrights Guild of Canada RBC Emerging Playwright Award, Theatre BC’s Play of Special Merit Award, and was runner-up for the national Voaden Prize in Playwriting. The Wrong Bashir is being developed for the stage by Touchstone Theatre. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Alice Munro Award and long-listed for the CBC short story prize. Zahida worked for several years in the immigrant and refugee non-profit sector in the areas of housing, employment, and literacy. She studied Literature and Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi.
What drew you to writing The Frontliners?
Working on the settlement frontlines over the last five years left me with many experiences, ironies, and paradoxes I wished to explore through theatre. In particular, the period in 2016 when Syrian families were waiting to move from hotels into permanent housing are very memorable to me. When I wrote the play, I wanted to look at this moment in history from the frontline perspective.
I was also inspired to dive into some of the complexities of the sector — such as complexities within groups of colour, different groups of refugees, class, status, and the reception of migrants. I found the chaos, humour, and surprise of the frontlines the right place to explore that.
How would you describe your writing process for your plays? What are the key values for your process?
One thing I love about writing for theatre is how much less lonely it is. On days when I am stuck on a draft at my computer, I always look forward to the day we’ll workshop the play with the team, and it motivates me to keep going. Of course time spent alone is still inevitable, but I appreciate how in theatre, actors lend their voices to drafts-in-progress, dramaturgs help dream up the ending you couldn’t see yourself, and audiences give ideas and inform the process at readings when the play isn’t even finished yet! Working with dramaturgs and thinking aloud has been especially helpful for me, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some pretty solid and amazing dramaturgs.
In regard to The Frontliners specifically, PTC’s emphasis on cultural consultation, larger conversations, and building relationships has been formative. We’ve been able to have partnerships with the Silk Road Institute in Montreal, rEvolver Fest, Fringe, frontline workers in the sector, individuals who arrived during this time, musicians, and journalists because of how PTC values public involvement and seeking multiple perspectives as the script develops, rather than waiting until the play hits the stage to engage.
What things in the theatre world would you like to challenge?
As a playwright, I have an interest in new play development and how we can create more equitable pathways for new voices to reach the stage. Now that I’ve been in the industry longer, one of my long-term goals is improving the path for women whose works aren’t reaching the stage. Statistics confirm that there are still many gender disparities in theatre. I think even as we’ve tried to push for change and diversity on different fronts, women and women-identifying people within these different equity-seeking groups often still struggle. For example, in Vancouver, I was part of a women’s writing collective, (Wet Ink), and I noticed that there’s many brilliant plays by women (being written as we speak), that aren’t known. I think there’s also unquantifiable challenges women-identifying creators, playwrights, producers, and other theatre artists face that are hard to put into a set of data or a graph – (and even sometimes hard to articulate with words) – but occur on a regular basis in theatre.
More generally, maybe it’s also time to open up discussions around rethinking the structure of artistic directors selecting seasons towards more collaborative, consensus-based, and community-involved models. In film and literary publishing genres for example, there are more voices at the decision-making table, and in comparison, the model we have in theatre seems old-fashioned, and might not be serving us the best anymore.
This isn’t necessarily a challenge, but something else I think about a lot is how to nurture the community of diverse professional actors (particularly over the age of 50). Through experiences trying to cast my own plays and speaking with other writers and producers, there are shortages. I wonder about creating educational opportunities and training programs that could help bridge the gap and create more pathways into the industry for older, diverse actors who may not have had an opportunity to be part of theatre, but are interested, so we could help launch their careers later in life.
If you have one, do you have a favourite character in The Frontliners? Or, who do you have a particularly soft spot for?
Yusuf –I think he is the heart of the play because of how he mentors Omar and the sacrifice he makes at the end. Omar too, because of his sincerity and commitment to things larger than himself, which comes at great personal cost.
What animal or plant do you most identify with?
Anything that migrates!
See The Frontliners at the Waterfront Theatre in November 2022.