Theatre leader Pooja Ghai: ‘I couldn’t sit back and complain about roles I wasn’t getting’

Show caption ‘I found a space for telling stories that mattered’ … Pooja Ghai. Photograph: Bettina Adela Photography Theatre Theatre leader Pooja Ghai: ‘I couldn’t sit back and complain about roles I wasn’t getting’ The actor and new artistic director of Tamasha theatre company, dedicated to stories from the global majority, talks about her campaign to change the industry Arifa Akbar @Arifa_Akbar Wed 12 Jan 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Pooja Ghai struggled to find her footing as a professional actor at first. It was the early 1990s and she wasn’t given many auditions. When parts were offered, they were limited to older Indian aunties or grandmothers. “My first role on television was on Holby City playing a 60-year-old woman. I was 23,” says Ghai.

Then she discovered Tamasha theatre company, set up in 1989 by Kristine Landon-Smith and Sudha Bhuchar, and everything changed. Originally offering opportunities to south Asian artists (the company has since broadened its reach to all global majority artists), Tamasha instantly felt like a home, says Ghai, now an award-winning director as well as an actor.

“They were telling stories that encapsulated migrant, colonial and postcolonial experiences and I thought ‘This is why I want to do what I’m doing.’ I’d found a space for telling stories that mattered.”

More than two decades later, Ghai, who has worked as an associate director at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London, and associate artist at Kali theatre company, is Tamasha’s new artistic director and she has big plans for its future.

One recurring, and problematic, feature of organisations dedicated to global majority artists is their perennial status as “emerging” companies, she says. It is something she wants to address.

“Tamasha’s been around for over 30 years and it’s still an emerging company that looks at talent development. My ambition is to keep growing that foundation but to elevate it to a mid-scale touring company that’s promoting and working with mid-career and established artists as well. There is no reason that Tamasha shouldn’t be on a par with English Touring Theatre or Headlong.”

Jaz Deol, Shubham Saraf and Raj Bajaj in Lions and Tigers, directed by Pooja Ghai at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, in 2017. Photograph: Marc Brenner

That does, of course, require more financial backing, she adds, along with support from established institutions. Would she want to stage work by Tamasha at our biggest venues, such as the National Theatre?

“I absolutely think we should be on at the National, and I would welcome a conversation between the two organisations. In my 20-year career, the National hasn’t felt like the natural home for stories from the global majority that celebrate the multiculturalism of our nation.”

She does, however, think there has been a breakthrough with black diaspora stories. “Seeing this work on our stages is amazing, but we still have a long way to go. It’s about opening up that thinking to all other global majority artists and challenging what we deem to be a ‘risk’.”

Clint Dyer, a black Briton, was appointed deputy artistic director at the National last year. Does this make her more hopeful? “Clint is a brilliant artist and a warrior. It’s an exciting thing to see him there and, yes, I hope it shifts the conversation.”

Stories about the British empire, its colonial history and postcolonial experiences are vital to her, and she would like to see these issues explored on stage. “We are not taught our colonial histories in schools. We don’t talk about the darker side of the British empire and we need to.”

I absolutely think we should be on at the National, and I would welcome a conversation between the two organisations

To that end, she wants to revive Tanika Gupta’s Lions and Tigers, originally staged at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London in 2017, and directed by Ghai. “It was about young revolutionaries from the 1930s trying to overthrow British rule in India and it was one of the most important pieces of theatre I have ever done.”

She also wants to examine what it means to be Asian in Britain today and is directing Lotus Beauty, a Hampstead theatre production in association with Tamasha, this spring. Serendipitously, Ghai was invited to direct Satinder Chohan’s play before she took over Tamasha (Chohan had originally been commissioned by Tamasha 10 years ago). Lotus Beauty follows the lives of five multigenerational women at a beauty salon in Southall and touches on identity, female friendship, domestic violence and suicide. “It’s very funny, moving and deeply honest about the complexity of being a migrant and building a community together,” she says.

Joanne Sandi, Michael Bertenshaw and Julie Yammanee in Rapunzel at Theatre Royal Stratford East, directed by Pooja Ghai in 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

It is the job of theatre-makers to grapple with difficult topical conversations, she believes, especially when there are so many divisions in society and when “cancel culture” poses a threat to artistic freedom. “The question is how to hold the space for difficult conversation and debates with opposing opinions respectfully, and find common ground to move forward, so we’re not just staying in our silos and echo chambers.”

What difficult debates does she mean? Stories of racism, colourism and misogyny within global majority communities as well as Islamophobia: “Since 9/11, we have seen the capitalisation of fear culture. For me, having conversations around Islamophobia and what it means, not only though the impact of a white supremacist system but around attitudes within our own community – what’s going on inside and how it impacts our young people – feels important.”

Ghai was born in Kenya, to Kenyan Indian parents, and spent her first 14 years there. She signed up for her first play at the age of 11 while at boarding school and was instantly hooked. “It was Tom Sawyer and I was playing Aunt Polly. I fell in love with what I’d experienced after our first performance. And looking at the cast around me, there was every creed, culture and colour. We all celebrated each other’s differences and thrived off that. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

Satinder Chohan whose play Lotus Beauty will be directed by Pooja Ghai. Photograph: © Katherine Leedale

She encountered a very different world after coming to Britain and launching her career as an actor. She set up a university drama society while studying psychology and sociology at Oxford Brookes and took shows to the Edinburgh festival fringe every year, producing, directing and acting. “It gave me a real sense of building something. It was exhilarating.”

But on a drama course elsewhere, her eyes were opened to the limits and labels imposed on her. She remembers being told: “You’re quite a good actress but you’re Indian and you’re fat so you won’t work.” It left her feeling “floored”, she says. “I didn’t know I didn’t belong. It’s only as I moved in the profession that I thought ‘Why is everything so limited for me?’”

Fifteen years on as an actor, she was still feeling confined: “I did a lot of radio, TV and theatre but I could see I was never going to be really challenged as an actor because of the roles I was getting or being seen for.”

She was so disheartened she decided to leave the industry but after a heart attack and being diagnosed with lupus, she returned, now more determined to campaign for change. “I felt like I couldn’t be away from acting and storytelling. I felt we needed more pathways, we needed to give more voice to people of colour, we needed to have new leadership at the table, to diversify our boards. I couldn’t sit back and complain about what I wasn’t getting. I needed to go out and understand how we could make change and not feel that because we weren’t white we didn’t have a voice.”

She signed up to the campaigning group Artistic Directors of the Future, where she is co-chair, which aims to demystify leadership. The silver lining to the pandemic is that it has given us a chance to re-evaluate and rebuild, she thinks. Just as she saw solutions, and gained strength, after hitting rock bottom, she thinks we can do the same thing collectively. “It’s been a tough time for the sector but we as artists are challenging the structures. We are thinking about how we level up and of the systems and structures in place that won’t allow for that levelling up. There’s a long way to go.”

Lotus Beauty is at Hampstead theatre, London, 13 May-18 June.