Interview with Umar Ahmed

How did you get started in theatre?

I was pushed into Theatre.

I was 6 years old and in an army boarding school in Pakistan in Abbottabad, and every year we used to have a parent’s day at the end of our school year. All the parents throughout Pakistan would come and take us home for a month on our holidays. For the day, the students had three choices. Either we could audition for the military band (drums and bagpipes), train gymnastics, or walk a mile with the soldiers. I auditioned for the gymnastics.

We had to do a somersault - shown to us just once by our P.E teacher.  I landed on my neck - to this day my neck still cracks. My teacher laughed and told me I would never succeed in anything physical and that I should concentrate on writing more. Fast forward three years; assembly room - Pollokshields primary School in Glasgow and our teacher asked all the students if we would like to sing or do something physical like handstands or dance for the parent’s evening. My friend pushed my hand in the air and told the teacher – Mrs Hamilton- that I could do a handstand. Lo and behold I did a handstand, danced and sang Greece lighting in my wi black leather jacket with my hair jelled back in front of all the teachers and all the parents and all the pupils and thought: “This is Great! This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!”

So I guess I got into theatre because my friends and teachers saw something in me and pushed me towards it.

Could you give us some insight as to the process in the rehearsal room? Any favourite moments?

Like everything else in the world nothing is perfect, right? We all have our good days and we all have our bad days. So accept change.

For me theatre should be imaginative, suggestive, undiluted, un polluted, and metaphorical. It's our job to expose humanity.

My process is simple. Don’t dictate. Facilitate and collaborate. Because many minds are better than one.

My process is made up of a lot of questions to be answered and worked out collectively.

The play never finishes evolving, adapting, and changing until the last night of the show is over.

As a director, I can only prepare the ground work. If we can make the foundations strong then we can build anything.

My favorite moments in MOVE ON are when Kaveh reaches out to us - the audience- and transcends the visceral images created by him so that we can appreciate something incredibly personal to him and connect it to us, and at the same time it’s greater than him or us. A shared humanity.  

Can you tell us about any other pieces you've directed and how this has compared?

I have professionally directed 5 works of my own and have been an assistant on many others. I have been fortunate enough to work with many wonderful theatre practitioners but I am a performer first and foremost and this gives me the language and courage to meet other professionals on common ground.

So far, in my career I have realised and recognised one thing which all my work has in common: storytelling.

The difference with MOVE ON is that this play is intensely personal to me and Kaveh. It shares with the audience our vulnerabilities and encourages the audience to sit up and pay attention. It demands understanding and compassion and it questions.

Could you tell us more about your company, Bilji? Any projects coming up?

Bijli came out of necessity. It was a seed sowed in my mind after playing the same stereotypical, linear, single end, one dimensional roles in my 17 years of being a performer, over and over and over again.

Bijli stands for diversity, humanity, truth, compassion and innovation.

In 2016 I directed “If I had a Girl”,  a verbatim play about honor based violence towards Asian women in Indian and Pakistani communities in Scotland. It was written by Mariem Omari – Co Artistic Director of Bijli.

This year the play successfully finished its tour of many sold out performances throughout Scotland.

Mariem and I have the same ethos. After the feedback we got from venues in Scotland about how they had never seen so many minority ethic audiences sitting side by side totally engaged and invested in the play, Mariem and I thought, well, we need to take a stand and change that script for the next coming generation. Hence Bijli was born.

Bijli’s next work “One Mississippi”, by Mariem Omari,  is a verbatim physical theatre play which explores how the impact of childhood experience shapes men’s adult lives. It’s an uncompromising insight into what takes us to breaking point. It will open on October the10th at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and will also be showing at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow on the 13th and 14th of October. We Intend to tour One Mississippi nationally in 2018.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get involved in making their own theatre work?

Be kind and be generous! Work openly and collaboratively. Accept change. Find a story you want to tell and share it. Give a shit about your work. You are not alone. Theatre is a three dimensional medium and welcomes different forms. Its for you, it’s for me, it’s for everyone! All you need is one human being transforming themselves into another human being in front of another human being. Be happy. Theatre is in your homes. Theatre is on your streets, theatre is in our lives. Start from there.   

What is the circus/theatre like in your home town? 

It was only yesterday that I went to SIRF riverside festival in Stockton. I was in awe of so many different street performances from so many different corners of the world telling and sharing their stories in their own ways. It was lush.

What would you like to be doing in ten years time?

I would like to be sitting in a café somewhere - I imagine it will be raining outside - surrounded by many different voices. All speaking to each other with love and harmony. You’re alright, I’m alright.

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