Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Zahida Rahemtulla, a playwright and short story writer whose first two plays, The Wrong Bashir, and The Frontliners, will premiere on stage next year. The Frontliners received the Playwrights Guild of Canada RBC Emerging Playwright Award, Theatre BC’s Play of Special Merit Award, and was the runner-up for the national 2021 Voaden Literary Prize. 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 studied Literature and Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU in Abu Dhabi and worked in Vancouver’s immigrant and refugee non-profit sector for several years in the areas of housing, employment, and literacy. She is currently studying Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
Growing up, my siblings and I created and performed plays for our family. We had props, costumes, and tickets. Being in classical Indian dance-theatre dramas also helped pique early interest.
I got more involved in theatre at university in the United Arab Emirates performing in school plays. One play we did was a documentary theatre piece about being students in Abu Dhabi. It was funny but also touched on many complexities of the city and our student experience. After that, I started thinking about creating a comedic play about the community I was raised in, the Ismaili diaspora in Vancouver. I wanted to capture some of the unspoken circumstances of community life in a similarly earnest way. This idea became my first play, The Wrong Bashir.
Where do you find inspiration for your plays?
With The Wrong Bashir, my hope was to capture a transitional moment between generations as the Ismaili community changes in North America. I hoped to express something intangible that might be lost when a community migrates — not just language or culture — but traits that are harder to articulate that I’ve seen in my grandparents’ and parents’ generation. There’s also lots of Ismaili humour I was excited about.
The inspiration for my second play, The Frontliners, came from working in the immigrant and refugee nonprofit sector over the last years. In 2016, many Syrian families were arriving and waiting for houses while living in hotels, and those times remain some of my most memorable working experiences. When I wrote The Frontliners, 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.
Your play The Frontliners, for which you received the 2021 RBC Emerging Playwright award at PGC’s Tom Hendry Awards, will be on stage through Playwrights Theatre Centre’s New Play in Development Prize in Fall 2022. Can you tell us about the evolution of that piece, and the process of taking it from script to production?
I wrote the first draft of The Frontliners at the Arts Club Emerging Playwrights’ Unit in 2019, which helped me a lot in getting the project started. Since 2021, I have been developing it with Playwrights Theatre Centre’s (PTC) New Play in Development Prize.
PTC’s emphasis on cultural consultation, larger conversations, and building relationships have been formative for the play. We’ve been able to have partnerships with the Silk Road Institute in Montreal, rEvolver Fest, Fringe, workers in the community, and journalists who covered the period because of how community-engaged PTC’s processes are.
The upcoming November production of The Frontliners includes an original musical score co-composed by Oud player, Farouk Al-Sajee and co-composer/musician Ruby Singh, set design by Megan Lane, lighting design by Jamie Sweeney, producing by Alexander Zonjic and Maria Zarrillo, dramaturgy by Davey Samuel Calderon, and direction by Tanya Mathivanan.
November is our workshop production where we will try the design and script on its feet for the first time, and after this, we hope to have a premiere with a company in the future.
The workshop production of The Frontliners was made possible by a contribution from Bonnie Mah, a remarkable woman who quietly supports many emerging playwrights in the industry, which was matched by over 30 generous donors. It was also supported through Canada Council for the Arts and BC Arts Council.
What types of opportunities/supports do you think are most helpful for “emerging” playwrights and what have been some of the barriers?
I think seeing a script through to production is one big way to support new playwrights. Although there are several development opportunities for emerging playwrights, staying with a project until it reaches the stage is rare. It is well-known that the early years of being an artist can be the hardest, so taking risks with playwrights early means so much.
From my own experience for example, I’m not sure what I would have done without PTC’s New Play in Development Prize or Touchstone Theatre’s Flying Start program. I think I’d still be searching for producers for my plays. Prior to these initiatives, I felt like I was going around in circles, which can make one lose hope. I know many emerging playwrights who have been in the same boat.
Now that I’ve started to understand more of the barriers, one of my long-term interests is also cultivating the path for women whose works aren’t reaching the stage. Statistics confirm that there are still many gender disparities in theatre and in the ratio of women playwrights being produced. In Vancouver, I noticed from being part of the Wet Ink Collective, (a workshop group for women-identifying playwrights), that there’s many brilliant plays by women that aren’t known.
In terms of barriers, I’m also coming into theatre at a time where doors have been opened for me because of the work of BIPOC artists that came before me and spoke up, often at great sacrifice to themselves and their careers. There is still much to do to continue making the path accessible and ensuring diverse groups, such as newcomers, elders, and low-income persons also benefit from these gains.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on the workshop production of The Frontliners with Dramaturg Davey Samuel Calderon and the team at PTC. I’m also working with Director/Dramaturg Daniela Atiencia and the team at Touchstone Theatre to get The Wrong Bashir ready for premiere in March 2023.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
The Refugee Hotel by Carmen Aguirre, Buffoon by Anosh Irani, Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.