An Interview with Sarah-Jane Dickenson
"Change is quite easy when it happens, because it happens very quickly. But the build up to change is the most difficult thing.“
Sarah Jane Dickenson talks to Harald Olkus about her play "Not Yet".
Ms. Dickenson, your play “Not Yet” was recently premiered at Hull’s Donald Roy Theatre. How was it received?
It was incredibly well received. The play was very successful. We had a very wide audience from local counsellors, theatre people, other writers, and lots of school children as well. So we had a real cross section of the community.
Rather than focusing on the historical events around the fall of the Berlin Wall, you seem to take a metaphorical approach.
Yes, one of the lead characters is a young German woman come to England to work as an assistant teacher. She hopes to become a teacher of German. The fall of the Berlin Wall disrupted her life. She checked the Stasi files and discovered that her father was a lawyer who worked for the East German state intelligence service - though we only learn that very late in the play.
She tries to get her young pupils to look beyond individual incidents to try and find out why people behave as they do. And in making them do that, she also makes them look at people in their own class – an economic migrant from eastern Europe, for example, or a girl who seems upset and gets involved in a fight, where it turns out the girl's mother is an alcoholic. She encourages them to look beyond the incidents to find out what’s wrong.
She also wants to show these young people that they can actually bring about change. She shows that she, too, had to face things in her past had to face the truth in order to bring changes to her life. And she tries to come to a deeper understanding and find shared truths.
In that sense, I take the fall of the Berlin Wall more as a metaphor. The set of the play, though, is designed as a huge wall that we can open and shut – a massive wall that moves around like a concertina.
So on the one hand the play is about prejudices …
Yes. It’s about how to move beyond prejudices – how to deal with prejudices and change people’s attitudes.
… and on the other hand your focus is on British society today.
It is very much about British society today. At present, the papers are full of articles about economic migrants or young carers – young people who have to look after their parents in a variety of situations. There's also a lot about gangs and the attitudes of young people, raising questions about whether young people have a sense of responsibility.
So the play is very much embedded in the current themes we’re preoccupied with over here at the moment. But using a situation such as the Wall coming down enables people to be put in a situation where they look at their past and find out whether they feel they had a past, or whether they feel their past has been wiped out and erased. So I'm trying to take events in Berlin in 1989 as a kind of backdrop to examine the present. For example, in the case of the economic migrants in the play, the father doesn’t think he has a past in this country and that’s why he wants to go back home.
Is eastern EU enlargement part of public debate in the UK?
As the issue of economic migration, yes, it is. Some of the more right wing UK press is against economic migrants and tends to lump them all together. They talk about asylum seekers and economic migrants all in the same breath, without ever distinguishing between them.
With the credit crunch at the moment, people are becoming far more aggressive towards economic migrants, even though they come from EU states. They are also ignoring the fact that we can go and work in any other EU country as well. They’re not looking at that at all. The right wing press are stirring things up. The young people aren’t aware of the differences, either. So at present in this country, there is quite a negative culture towards economic migrants.
When times get hard people often try to isolate both themselves and their markets.
Exactly. They do, and it’s happening here – and that was one of the reasons for doing the play. It’s actually making the issue more complex for them and therefore more difficult to dismiss migrant families.
Did your students learn more about these ideas by working on the play or were they open to them already?
They learnt a lot. They had to learn a lot about Berlin and a lot about the fall of the Berlin Wall because, for them, that was all just history. To play their roles, many of the actors had to deal with those issues. Previously, they hadn't seen it as touching their own lives they thought everything was over. But it takes a while for any country to deal with a massive change like this.
And then of course, we also have the economic migrant factor. They also had to work hard on that to grasp the difference asylum seekers and economic migrants and deal with their own views – and we're talking about bright and capable students, who have to be bright and capable to get a place to study here. So although they’re already open-minded, the play has certainly made them think about things going on in schools that they hadn't been aware of before.
What does the title “Not Yet” mean?
When I came to Berlin I was talking to a professor at one of the universities I think he was a sociology professor - and he asked me if I knew the German phrase “not yet”. I wasn't quite sure what he was getting at, but then he explained how "not yet" had initially been used in relation to the war. You know: “Have you dealt with the issues of the war, have you dealt the issues it raised?" – meaning, of course, the rise of fascism and all that. So afterwards, he said, they started saying: “Not yet, not yet, but we’re trying”. So that’s a phrase that’s used for the issues raised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now they say: "Not yet, we still haven't dealt with them all but we’re getting there.” So that’s where I got the expression from - a sort of “not yet, not yet”. I called the play "Not yet" because one of the themes is change.
Yes, the fall of the Wall ushered in enormous changes for the people here.
Change is quite easy when it happens, because it happens very quickly, doesn’t it? But building up to the change is the most difficult thing. The aim was partially to show children that they can bring about change and build up to change, and how you can change attitudes. And so “not yet” is something they can’t and shouldn’t accept because that means maybe you’re avoiding the issue – and maybe you really should just try and tackle the issues. And you actually have the power to do that. I found it a very powerful phrase. Germany had to cope with huge issues like this, which other European countries such as Britain haven’t had to deal with. I’m not sure how we as a country would have stood up to making those huge changes. And of course you reflect on your own country and think well, how would we have dealt with it? I think we would have ignored it. Being British, I think we would have just turned away.
The problems, though, were so big that you couldn’t ignore them. Many people in East Germany find the times are very hard because they haven't learnt to cope with change. They know they have to change, but they can’t.
Exactly. I believe that young people also think that they can’t bring about change. They feel powerless – and that's one reason why they often come out with this aggressive attitude. Actually I’m just trying to make them realise that they do have responsibility and they can make a difference – even if it’s a small difference.
Did you develop the play together with your students?
No, I wrote it and then we worked on it. But I was doing rewrites on it right until a week before production. The students had to be quite versatile, but they knew these changes were coming. They could tell I was unhappy with certain scenes and I’d say I think I need to change this scene.
The actors were your students.
Yes, the actors were our students but they were drawn from all three years of the undergraduate course. And since the play is not part of the curriculum, we held auditions for the parts. I chose about 26 for the cast and the crew as well. All the crew, for example, lighting or sound technicians, all of them are students. And a post-graduate music student composed the music.
And did you tour with the play after the shows at the university’s Donald Roy Theatre?
We’ve been touring round Yorkshire, one of the biggest counties in England. We’ve been to about eight local schools and colleges in the last few weeks. In some schools, we've performed the play and held workshops and in some we just give workshops. Since the play can be divided into sections, we’re able to take just sections of the play to other places.
I And so the students also have to learn how to go on tour?
Yes, they had to learn how to do workshops and how to organise tours – and that includes coping with different spaces. Yesterday we were in a little theatre about half the space of ours, and the next performance is in a big sports hall and they had to learn to deal with that.
Are you offering workshops for school classes?
We tend to have two workshops for schools. One is a physical workshop where they learn how to be a chorus member. We use a very dynamic and energised chorus quite a lot in the play. In fact, I see the chorus as the main character. We hold a physical workshop on how to be that chorus person, and how to devise chorus movements.
The other workshop is on the two issues in the play. We look at economic migration and explore the issues involved – for example, the girl looking after her alcoholic mother, or the fall of the Berlin Wall from the perspective of the German assistant. But we also look at how it feels having to deal with things in the past – and how that impacts the present.
Since you use both music and a chorus, this is quite physical theatre.
Yes, it is. There is physical theatre in it, but then there are also naturalistic scenes. It’s a complete mixture of the two. That makes it very interesting for young people – and of course the play is aimed at young people. Since they are children of a media age, they can deal with very different forms of theatre. They are used to different images and different styles of performance because they know them from computer games. So why shouldn't that also be on stage? They’re used to different forms of style, they’re used to abstract concepts and then they’re used to naturalistic scenes and they can take it all at the same time. Young people don’t have a problem with that at all.
So it is rather similar to their use of the media – and they are glad to find it presented in the same way in the play.
Exactly. They switch between styles and it’s all very high energy. Then it’s slowed right down, and then the speed is picked up again and it’s far more media rhythms than the rhythm of traditional theatre forms.
So it’s all those things that really interest me about writing for young people and why I find them such an amazing audience. They can take on board all these different, complex styles because they're used to this media they are the media generation.