Karla is a writer, producer and soon actor, assistant producer at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra and the presenter of the Arts Emergency podcast.
1. Which stories - films/books/comics or TV shows - do you think have made the greatest impact on you?
When I was a kid I was obsessed with the novels of Malorie Blackman. She wrote about characters I could really identify with, who were thrust into exceptional circumstances. It’s a tricky balance to strike, writing for children while creating a real sense of jeopardy, but she mastered it.
Since then, thrillers and murder mysteries have always been my go to genres in TV drama. Not the watered down, cuddly stuff like Midsummer Murders though. I think sanitising a killing or violent crime of any sort is actually more offensive than being explicit about it. Murder is horrible and dark and twisted. If you’re going to tell a murder story, it shouldn’t betray the truth of that and should, most importantly, show the ramifications of the crime.
I like reading and watching things that really explore the consequences of the characters’ decisions and how they affect others as well as themselves. So I love anything that tells one story from lots of different perspectives. Time shift drama, if done well, can be absolutely brilliant too. There was a BBC drama years ago called Inside Men which told the stories of three men involved in a bank heist and chronicled events before and after the crime was committed. Because the writer, Tony Basgallop, played around so cleverly with the chronology of the story, every episode had me on the edge of my seat and absolutely kept me guessing right up until the final few scenes.
2. My last blog started with a single line of advice from my English teacher and you’ve mentioned in the past how your English teacher made a big impact on you. Can you tell us a little about her and any stories she pointed you to you might not otherwise have discovered…?
I remember writing my very first monologue in drama class and my drama teacher being quite horrified because it was a little graphic. But when I gave it to my English teacher, Dr. Andrews, she looked past the graphic nature and just saw an intriguing story that was raw with emotion. She told me to keep writing because she thought I really had something and asked me if I might like to join the Creative Writing class she taught the following term. I did and for the first time it felt like I had a place to channel all of my opinions and emotions without judgement. I wrote short stories and opinion pieces and some really, really awful poetry. But it didn’t matter that the poetry was bad or that my opinions were very different to most of the other kids in my small town high school in Georgia, USA. What mattered was that I had somewhere to put all of my thoughts instead of just having them rattling around in my skull. As a teenager dealing with some pretty tough stuff, that kind of saved me.
I was a dancer, did a lot of theatre and absolutely believed that my future lay in performing. But when my knees started to develop serious issues and I felt like my body was failing me, I started to feel incredibly lost. Then, one day, Dr. Andrews told me that everything I needed to make a life for myself was in my heart and in my head. Hearing that made something within me click, I suppose, and I threw myself into writing, thought about other career options and just sort of got on with it really.
We read A Tale of Two Cities with her and I loved the way she taught it, really focusing on the perspectives of different characters and the complexities of their histories so we didn’t demonise any of them. I also read Les Mis under her tutelage – a real challenge of a book at that age but she made it fun.
I was thinking about a short story I read in her class only the other day actually. A dark little tale that affected me so much I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. It was called The Lottery (by Shirley Jackson) and was set in a small town, not totally unlike the one we all lived in. It found the characters caught up in the hustle and bustle of an exciting day leading up to all the townspeople gathering together before a wooden stage. Then they all drew bits of paper from a hat before opening their scraps in unison. Eventually, a woman is revealed to be carrying the bit of paper that has a black spot drawn on it. At first, you, the reader, believe she’s won something exciting, money perhaps, especially when you see members of her own family pushing her up to the front. But it is soon revealed that she has, in fact, been selected to be publicly stoned by the other townspeople and that the chilling ritual took place every year. It was their way of releasing tension in order to establish a crime free town. A sacrifice of life that they believed was for the greater good.
I remember being shocked and frustrated by the unfairness of the story. I’d grown up watching soap operas, where no bad deed went unpunished and good people were eventually rewarded somehow. So the idea of a completely innocent person meeting such a brutal end really messed with my head. But, the truth is, it was a far more honest portrayal of what life is actually like than any soap opera is. And maybe that’s what I struggled with so much.
I thought about that story recently after hearing what happened to the man who was dragged off the United Airlines flight after being selected at random to leave an oversold flight. He’d done nothing wrong and had bought a ticket just like everyone else but losing out in a lottery suddenly meant he deserved to be treated like he wasn’t even human somehow. It was shocking. Maybe that short story was a damning prediction of the future, a future Dr. Andrews was trying to prepare us all for.
Maybe what happened to that man just serves as metaphor for so many wider issues – the random lottery we all find ourselves in. Racism, sexism, being a refugee by accident of birth or being born into poverty... So many of us have been forced to leave or told we are less despite playing by the rules.
3. Is there a current playwright or screenwriter whose work you always try to see and why?
I’m a huge fan of both Dennis Kelly and Jack Thorne, who have been successful in writing for both stage and screen. I love Kelly’s play The Ritual Slaughter of George Mastromas – an absolute masterclass in writing the anti-hero. His TV series Utopia is one of the most perfect pieces of television I’ve ever seen. From the colourist to the director, to the fantastic ensemble cast and, of course, the writer himself, I really couldn’t fault it.
I’ve read almost all of Thorne’s plays and seen just about everything he’s ever done for television. He writes young people especially so wonderfully. Flawed and destructive, but beautiful all the same. Michal Keyamo, who is directing my Fringe show Rupture, is currently working on Thorne’s new musical Junkyard. It’s hard for me to find a musical I genuinely connect with but if any writer can win me round, Thorne will be the one to do it. Looking forward to seeing the show later this month.
4. What was the last story you read/heard/saw that surprised you?
So earlier I talked about BBC drama Inside Men and how it really kept me guessing. Another drama that does that brilliantly is the exceptional Line of Duty, in which writer Jed Mercurio turns the typical police procedural well and truly on its head. I’ve watched shows like Silent Witness for years and they give you such a grounding in the narrative structure of a good mystery, you become pretty well practiced at knowing what twist might come next and who might’ve dunnit. But Line of Duty is a cut above because every twist is a genuine surprise. A lot of that comes from Jed’s willingness to throw any character under the bus. He’ll happily spend an entire first episode allowing you, the audience, to really get to know a character and become invested in them. Then he’ll kill them off at a moment’s notice. It’s jawdropping stuff and the show has massively influenced my writing, particularly the six-part mystery thriller I’m developing at the moment with Tall Story Pictures (ITV Studios).
5. Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I vaguely remember writing something about a female pirate with long fiery red hair when I was in Year 4 but I think that may have been more of a character study than an actual story. She was a powerful woman though and ran things on her ship. I think I was just writing the kind of person I wanted to be. Strong and determined, lauded for being assertive rather than put down for being “bossy” like so many young girls are. But I was also writing the image of a woman I thought was cool and beautiful. And she definitely wasn’t mixed race like I am. Society’s idea of what attractive was had fully infiltrated my young mind.
About a year after that, I started writing a story called Bloodshot. It was pages and pages long so I reckon I believed I was writing my first novel. It was about a detective called Ruby, her relationship with her dad and a difficult case she was worried she might lose her job over. She was pretty kick ass but very flawed. I think she had a drinking problem too. Most TV detectives seemed to have a drinking problem in the nineties so that’s probably where I got that idea from!
6. You’ve just written a new play – can you tell us about it?
So it’s called Rupture and is a futuristic tragicomedy that explores climate change, bureaucracy and betrayal. It’s set a couple of decades after a catastrophic world event. The planet has survived but is still very much broken. The environment is too messed up for people to go outside so everyone lives in a giant secure unit and so many natural resources we take for granted these days are either obsolete or hard to come by. It is in this world that we meet Jay, who’s sort of an everyman really. He starts work in a mysterious government bureau he’s wanted to work in his whole life, most likely in a bid to make himself slightly less unremarkable. He believes The Bureau is saving the world, one person at a time, and he’s desperate to be a part of that. But soon he is faced with a terrible decision and has to consider exactly what he is willing to sacrifice in the name of the greater good. When an old flame comes back into his life, the two of them start to uncover the dark side of The Bureau and it’s not long before everything Jay believes about the world begins to unravel.
There’s a lot of laughs in this twisted little dystopian satire but embedded in the narrative are some incredibly important questions about how the decisions we make now could affect the world in the future.
7. In everything I’ve read of yours there’s a clear socio-political undercurrent. Do you think it’s important for writers to tackle big issues?
Absolutely! I’m a big fan of TV writer Jimmy McGovern, for example. He’s done justice to some really important stories over the years, including Common, which explores the disgusting joint enterprise law and its effect on working class youths. He also wrote the dramatisation of the Hillsborough disaster, which focuses on the families’ fight for justice. He’s really inspired me to have an element of social commentary running through every bit of my writing because it’s not just about what story you tell, it’s about why you are choosing to tell it. What purpose could it serve outside of just being a bit of entertainment?
The ultimate dream for me is to reach a couple who live in a slightly less metropolitan part of the country and maybe read the Daily Mail and watch Sky News. I’d like my work to maybe get them to think a little differently about the world and about certain people they might have judged unfairly on account of the media and the government’s attempts to brainwash them.
I, Daniel Blake was undoubtedly my favourite film of last year and one of the most important films to come out in about a decade. I’ve been a long-time admirer of Ken Loach’s work and the idea that a piece of art such as I, Daniel Blake could actually provoke a discussion in parliament about the issues raised was massively inspiring for me. Loach and Paul Laverty (the writer) played an absolute blinder.
8. Did the play just flow or did you have to battle to find the story?
I think the story was always there. I’m a big planner when it comes to writing these days. If you’re writing a one person show with one linear storyline, particularly one that is in anyway autobiographical, allowing the writing to simply flow from your imagination to the page may be the best way forward and I definitely wouldn’t argue with that. But the more multi-faceted characters you start to employ with their own storylines and agendas, the more useful planning can be. I’m now a bit of a geek in that regard and use an Excel spreadsheet grid a mentor of mine gave me a couple of years back. I hated it at first but the more I used it, the more it drummed narrative structure into my head and soon writers’ block became a thing of the past.
So the story for Rupture was locked into the grid before I even wrote the first scene. What was tricky, however, was establishing the world. A world ninety years into the future. A world so different from my own but with enough identifying factors to make it seem like a natural progression.
Sci-fi is tough and to make it believable, every little detail has to add up, because if one thing is not quite right, the whole world collapses. So yeah, it was totally kicking my arse at one point and I nearly gave up. A fellow playwright read what I had and encouraged me to continue as she really thought I had something. I tried and tried but I was still struggling.
Then, Donald Trump got elected and suddenly my vision of the future became so much clearer. The fog dissipated and things just kind of flowed after that. I think the inauguration meant it also became an even more urgent story to tell and I’m definitely a person who works better under pressure!
9. You’re hoping to take the play to the Edinburgh Festival – what inspired you to take on that challenge?
Yeah! We’re performing the show at Underbelly’s Big Belly during this year’s Fringe and I couldn’t be more excited. Getting a show like this to the Fringe is sure to be a challenge but I’m hoping we can take full advantage of our 23 show run and share what my director and I believe is a really important and relevant story.
I was at the festival for eight days last year and saw such a broad range of amazingly brilliant stuff but I couldn’t help but notice that the Fringe isn’t very socio-economically or ethnically diverse. I think the main reason for that is the cost of taking a show there. When you add up paying fees for the actors as well as travel, accommodation, venue deposits, brochure entry fees, artwork, Fringe registration and renting your rehearsal space and paying actors and the director for R&D time, my show should cost around £21,000. Even if you were to just take a one person show where you don’t pay yourself and you self-produce, you’re still looking at a minimum of £6,000.
It’s terrible. But standing on the sidelines and watching as the Fringe gets whiter and posher isn’t going to change anything. So the plan is to get there, hopefully make a splash and then pass on the privilege we acquire. I’m donating 10% of my ticket profits to a charity called Arts Emergency, who I’ve worked with for years now. We help young people from low income backgrounds gain access to the arts and humanities and get into careers in the creative industries. So it makes sense that the BAME and working class theatre-makers of the future, some of whom AE will be supporting, should reap the benefits of whatever we achieve in Edinburgh.
And, if I manage to successfully produce a show this year, I can give advice to others in similar situations for years to come - people who may not have the resources or connections others might.
10. You’re writing, producing and acting in the play. Which role are you finding most fulfilling?
Ah yes – another budget related decision! I’m cheap labour! It’s hard to say which role is most fulfilling. Nothing fulfils me more than writing but, aside from the stress that scrambling for money brings, I’m loving the production side of things too. It’s a bit like planning a wedding only you don’t actually have to marry anyone in the end! I massively enjoy having a project to sink my teeth into and I relish making decisions. My day job is Assistant Producing in radio for 1Xtra and Radio 1 and there are a lot of similarities, I guess.
Looking forward to the acting – we’ll be workshopping the show in May. But it’s too early to call how fulfilling I’ll find it. It’ll be my first time performing my own material though so I’m hugely excited about that!
11. When the audience leave the theatre, what do you hope they’ll be feeling?
I think I want them to feel an element of what I felt when I read that short story in my high school English class, I suppose! A level of discomfort that isn’t easily shaken off. I want people to really question what’s going on in the world and maybe even consider what they can do as an individual to steer things in another direction.
Betrayal is a major theme throughout the narrative and I think almost everyone in the audience will identify with it, whichever side of a betrayal they’ve been on. Hopefully, this exploration of it will encourage people to think a bit more carefully about how they represent themselves and certain situations and maybe even decide that the ramifications of being dishonest just aren’t worth it. Betrayal ultimately stems from cowardice though so much of avoiding being the perpetrator of it comes from facing up to who you are and cross-examining your own behaviour and that can be tough.
The main character, Jay, has to make a huge decision in the play and the choice he eventually makes will either polarize the audience or make many of them feel like there is no clear cut right or wrong. So much of this play is intended to play within that grey area and provoke conversation around it so I’m looking forward to hearing some interesting post-show debates!
12. You’re hoping to crowd-fund the production – how do you go about that?
It’s a lot of work setting up a page with all your donation rewards, a video and a detailed blurb but it’s totally worth it, particularly if you go for the flexible funding option. That means you get the funding whether you reach the target or not. While it’s really important we do make the full amount from the crowdfunder, knowing you won’t come away with nothing definitely takes away some of the anxiety.
I have a friend who works for a film company and he offered to shoot my video for me and then another friend who is a professional editor took care of that side of things for me. I think taking a show to the Fringe, particularly if you’re not made of money, is all about having great friends who are willing to chip in in various ways. Taking advantage or relying fully on one person is not in my nature though - it’s better to ask loads of people for one small favour each rather than essentially turn someone close to you into your PA. And, of course, showing them genuine gratitude in return is key. It takes a village and all that.
13. Are there any artists – writers, directors, musicians, actors etc – you’d love to work with and why?
Fight Club is my favourite film of all time so I’m a big David Fincher fan, although I suppose mentioning him is a pretty lofty aspiration!
There’s a fair few TV directors I’d love to work with - Euros Lyn tops the list though. He’s directed everything from Black Mirror to Happy Valley, Cucumber to Capital, Broadchurch to Last Tango (in Halifax) and the heartbreaking Damilola, Our Loved Boy. I also think Marc Munden, who directed Utopia and National Treasure, is incredible. His voice as a director is so strong and specific that it makes his work quite unmistakable.
Dream writing collabs would definitely include the likes of Charlie Brooker, Michaela Coel and Sharon Horgan.
I write a lot of roles specifically for actors that have inspired me - I’ve been following Daniel Kaluuya’s career from Skins to Psychoville and The Fades to the more recent Get Out, so there are definitely a few roles for him in my writing. I’d also love to work with the massively underrated Wunmi Mosaku who I first saw in Jazz inspired mini-series Dancing on the Edge and then as the villainous Maxine in much loved but short lived zombie drama In the Flesh. She’s in Guerrilla at the moment and it’s such a brilliant series. I’m two episodes in and hoping I’ll get to see more of her character as this powerful story further unfurls.
Nicola Walker and Amelia Bullmore are two of Britain’s very best actors and I’ve written countless roles for them. They are both capable of bringing such depth to a character through delivering some of the most amazingly nuanced performances I’ve ever seen on screen. They never over-act, instead allowing the emotion to simmer below the surface pulling you in so deeply you often aren’t at all prepared for the ensuing explosion that may or may not come. They also both have such incredible comic timing and you can see why writers like Sally Wainwright trust them to have the dramatic dexterity to pull off slightly more challenging material.
Because of my work in music radio, I spend a lot of time thinking about soundtracks and who I’d like to step in as music consultant on various different projects I’m developing. I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many talented people at Radio 1, 1Xtra and Asian Network. I’d love to work on a dark teen drama with Jamz Supernova, a comedy with Mistajam or Bobby Friction on music duties and a thriller with Benji B.
There is a feature film I’ve been writing for a while now. I kind of dip in and out of it every few months and much of it has been written with the music of Chase & Status playing in the background. It’s about two brothers and the absolute dream would be for Chase & Status to compose an original soundtrack for the film. Another lofty aspiration, I guess, but I’m a huge fan and you never know what the future may hold!
14. What is going on in the world today that you think would make a great story?
If I think it’ll make a great story, I’ve probably already started trying to write it! I’ve been working on two other plays. One is about a family man turned assassin and is set in Karachi. It’s inspired by true events and explores the consequences of war in neighbouring countries. The other is a one woman show based on the real life story of a young carer who goes to unexpected lengths to cover the cost of her mother’s nursing.
I’m also working on a novel that initially began as a short story inspired by a news article I read years ago about a couple who were gay bashed on Hackney Road. I was living on Hackney Road at the time and had no idea this had happened until I read the article a couple of years later. The piece explored the long term ramifications of the incident on the lives of the men who had survived it so I wanted to write a story about two characters going through something similar. Now I want to continue following one of the characters and tell a coming of age story, half told from his perspective and half told from the perspectives of significant people in his life.
I like to have a few projects on the go at once so I can move between different worlds depending on what I might be in the mood to focus on on any given day. It’s like slipping on a costume, embodying those characters and stepping into their world for the day.
15. Where will you be ten years from now?
If all goes well, at a football match, with my partner and our young children, who will somehow grow up to be really self-aware, politically astute and grounded, despite the fact that Mum has a couple of shows on the telly and a few well reviewed plays under her belt. My partner is a bit worried about leaving our dog/cat home alone for so long but we have a dog/cat so that’s grand and my partner is clearly an incredibly caring human being so that’s also quite wonderful.
And I’ve got a couple of messages on my phone from my brother telling me how brilliantly his life is going. He’s really enjoying his world tour and can’t wait to catch up over dinner when he gets back. He’s read my novel on the tour bus. He tells me he really loved it and actually got to the end which is amazing because he hates reading most of the time.
Then after the match we’ll go to our favourite restaurant and speculate what Arts Emergency might do next. The whole of the UK is covered now and there’s new AE youth centres set up for young people to make brilliant art in without worrying about money or lack of space. Our founder Neil is even talking about helping older people, who the system let down many years ago but we believe really deserve a chance.
And that’s about it really. Yeah. That’ll do.
16. If there was a single piece of advice you could give to a novice storyteller what would it be?
Learn the rules before you try to break them. Really focus on learning structure and planning each project carefully because getting that “boring” bit out of the way with at the beginning means you get to spend the rest of the process having fun!
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