Interview: Joe Sellman-Leava, Labels

Joe Sellman-Leava is co-artistic director of Worklight Theatre, and writer of the award-winning Labels, a solo show that tells a very personal story and invites us to consider its implications on a much broader political scale. In this interview, Joe explains a little about the show’s background, and how it’s been received so far.

Labels can currently be seen at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 30th April – you can read my 5-star review over at Carn’s Theatre Passion – before embarking on a national tour.

If you could sum up the show in one sentence, what would it be?

A personal, political odyssey through right-wing rhetoric, prejudice and family. 

What inspired you to write Labels?

I was in a drama workshop at Exeter University in 2009, exploring racism and inequality. It was led by Emma Thompson, who was doing a series of talks and events at the University after her son Tindy experienced racist abuse during his degree. I wrote the beginnings of what eventually became Labels, in preparation for that workshop. Afterwards I kept writing and developing it in small bites. A year later, in early 2015, with a general election looming and national debate dominated by anti-immigration rhetoric, I felt it was time to finish the show and start touring it.

Emma Thompson described the show as “simple, powerful, important and funny”. What does it mean to you to have such a successful and influential supporter?

It means a lot! Firstly, it’s a huge validation, especially when the show was initially inspired by her workshop. Also, getting new audiences to trust you is hard, and Emma’s words have meant that people who might never have connected with us have now seen the show, told their friends and will hopefully stay interested in what Worklight are doing next.

Photo credit: Ben Borely
Photo credit: Ben Borely

The show is obviously very current. Did it develop in the way you expected when you started writing it, or has it taken other directions as a result of world events?

Specific events in the last 12 months or so have definitely made their impact on the show, and we felt we had a responsibility to respond to what was happening given the themes and content of the show. That said, things were different 6 years ago when I started writing this, and different again when my parents were experiencing some of the things the show discusses. As well as responding to what’s happening now, we’ve always tried to acknowledge the timeless elements of the show (people have always migrated), as well as the fact that history repeats itself: for instance, we cite Enoch Powell’s speeches alongside those of David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

You share several very personal and quite difficult memories – both your own and your family’s. Has that been hard, and does it get any easier the more you perform the show?

It’s not hard performing it, but creating the show had its challenges with regard to including personal stories. So much of the content is derived from my parents’ first hand experiences of racism, as well as other experiences or conversations within our family. When the story isn’t yours alone, you have to tread carefully so no one feels used, or exploited when it’s made public. So yes, performing the show feels fine, but getting the show to a place where it did justice to the people whose stories it’s built on, that was challenging!

How have audiences responded? Have you had any unexpected reactions?

Responses have been very positive: after most shows people are keen to chat and lots of them tell us how the story resonated because they’ve experienced racism or other forms of prejudice in their own lives. Or because they’ve seen a friend or family member on the receiving end of those experiences. As for unexpected reactions…there are sometimes people who disagree with certain opinions expressed in the show, and to be honest we always welcome this. Theatre should be a space where people can discuss, debate, disagree, and Worklight try to embrace the opportunity live performance has to create this kind of experience for audiences which, for instance, film or TV can’t in quite the same way.

Photo credit: Anna Bruce
Photo credit: Anna Bruce

You do a lot of impressions in Labels. Which was the toughest one to get the hang of? And which is your favourite?

I find the Australian accent quite tricky, so Tony Abbott is probably the toughest! My favourite is Ed Miliband… let’s hope he finds something new to do soon, or I’ll have to retire his impression!

When did Katharina [Reinthaller, the director] come on board? How has it been working with her on developing the show?

Katharina came on board in March 2015, via Jessica Beck – a director both of us have worked with a lot. Her input as director and dramaturg has been invaluable and took the show forward in new, exciting ways. She has a fantastic ear for the power of language, imagery and the way stories resonate, so the countless hours spent working through the many, many drafts of the text with her were a joy. And her equally brilliant eye for proxemics, energetic shifts and rhythmic changes meant she took the performance to a new level. It’s her first collaboration with Worklight and we’re thrilled she’ll be directing our next show, Fix!

How does it feel to be launching the new theatre space at Stratford East?

It’s a real privilege and very exciting! Stratford East is truly committed to being “a people’s theatre” and you can see this in their programme, their audiences, the very building itself. We couldn’t think of a better fit for the show.

What’s one thing you hope your audiences will take away from the show?

We want people to leave thinking about and talking about what they’ve seen!

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