Interview

In conversation with the Poet, Writer and Director Debo Oluwatuminu

Debo is a poet, writer, director, facilitator and collaborator, whose plays have been performed around the world, from the Arcola and Soho Theatre, to Israel including in 2007 alongside Conflict Zone Arts Asylum’s Artistic Director, Michael Ronen, a collaboration with writers from Palestine, Pakistan, Kosovo and Israel’s renowned Joshua Sobol, supported by the Jerwood Foundation. The resulting production Closing Time, featured at Soho Theatre, and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2007. From 2015 Debo was the Head Writer, Script Editor and Creative Consultant on Desperate Housewives Africa, writing eight of the episodes for EbonyLife TV adapted from the popular ABC/Disney series. He is associated with the Institute of the Imagination, Theatre, and the Arts (IITA), and the African Theatre Association (AfTA), based at Goldsmiths College, London. Debo recently led a workshop that introduced participants to the basics of writing a play as part of the Utopia Theatre’s Creative Hub. The “Hub” brings together over 40 African theatre professionals to offer free online workshops and masterclasses to people of African origin.

  1. When did you discover writing: what was the moment you thought this what I wanted to do?

Ans: Writing was something I’ve always done, as far back as I can remember. I didn’t think it was anything special, just the kind of thing you just, y’know, kind of did. I wrote tons of poetry, and even tried my hand on a series like Dallas in my earlier years, so, probably as far back as 10 or 11.

  1. What has changed dramatically since you started out as a writer?

Ans: What a loaded question! Only because there are so many facets to it! Intellectually, it has challenged my received assumptions, ignited my curiosity more and forced me to try to understand the human condition. 

Emotionally, I am more affected by what’s going on in the world and long to be, in some way, a part of the solution of putting our world to rights. 

Financially, it’s a bit of a rocky road. I write for stage and TV. In the West, screenwriters are  protected by Guilds. In a place like Nigeria, for example, a writer is paid for delivering the script and nothing else. No royalties, no residuals. That makes surviving primarily as a writer quite economically difficult. 

  1. What does The Script Kompany do?
Desperate Housewives Africa 2015 Co- writers Debo Oluwatuminu Tari Ekiyor Tosin Otudeko

Ans: Oh, almost anything and everything related to writing for stage, screen, or online consumption. We research, develop, and write scripts for varying mediums, read, assess plays and screenplays, and consult with clients on different kinds of projects and also develop TV series. 

We work with clients (usually aspiring writers or sometimes performers) to interrogate, structure and guide the creation of their masterpieces. Becoming, by Ayo-Dele Edwards, is an example of such work. We also write personalised poetry for differing occasions (which has been a lot of fun). Workshops, both in person and online is also another area of activity, and we conduct talks not just about writing, but about the artist’s view of the world.

  1. Your work has been performed on stage/TV how involved do you get in the production process as a writer? 

Ans: Great question. I am by nature, paradoxically, both an introvert and an extrovert, almost in equal measure. But I am an incurable collaborator. I love working with people of diverse creative (and I don’t just mean artistic!) prowess, so if the opportunity presents itself (and it usually does), I am usually a part of the production process. 

  1. What are some of the process any writer starting out must adhere to/ what will get them noticed?

Ans: Hmm. I know it sounds like a cliche, but one of the key realities that any creative must face is that you have to pay your dues. That sounds old and archaic, and with the advent of social media platforms and the like, people can easily circumnavigate the old doorkeepers. But there is something to be said for a kind of apprenticeship. I subscribe to the idea that art is ‘craft’. Any writer who’s had to stumble over bad drafts, drafts that don’t work, characters that resist you, scenarios that don’t make sense, or a world you can’t adequately visualise, will tell you that writing is really rewriting. 

And it’s never quite finished until the work interfaces with director, actors and performers and production crew. That’s why I love the collaboration. The process of growth and development for a writer rests in the willingness to learn from those who are there to ’serve’ the ultimate aim of the work – which some say is to serve the script (and that’s true), but I would say, ultimately, is to serve the audience. The writer must consider the audience worthy of their utmost respect. Long answer, sorry, don’t do soundbites.

  1. What kind of stories interest you? 

Ans: Elemental stories that pit characters against overwhelming odds. I like David v. Goliath scenarios. I am also an advocate for creating spaces for dialogue between radically opposing views, particularly as it seems, we’re becoming increasingly strident, litigious, and confrontational in our differences. I like to explore (or sometimes think to explore) stories that are hopeful and redemptive. I don’t want there to be discord between men and women, for example, black and white, rich, and poor, global North and the Global South, and so on. My instinct is always looking for a route to reconciliation and hope. Some will see this as naive. Maybe it is. Nihilism I think is the highway to despair. 

The Royal Hibiscus Hotel co-written by Ishaya Bako, Nicole Brown, Yinka Ogun, Debo Oluwatuminu now on Netflix
  1. Why do you think most people fail when it comes to writing: it is a complex craft?

Ans: It depends on what you mean by ‘fail’. There are specific pathways to succeed financially within specific contexts. Know the right people, join the right access routes, work within organisations, and work your way up, etc. But just because you haven’t had your work published, performed or whatever doesn’t mean you’ve failed. I honestly think you fail when you give up. I think what the writer needs is to develop good and honest artistic relationships who we can bounce ideas off. Our work needs to be peer-reviewed, sensitively but honestly critiqued and developed to enable it to achieve its potential. A creative piece of work is like a baby – it needs all the love and support it can possibly get. The potential writer only fails if they have a bad or unteachable attitude. We don’t stop learning. Writing doesn’t get easier, only our processes do. We also need to be ‘making’ our own work, creating our own audiences, and making our own money. Creatives must learn to be more business-like.

  1. How does a writer find its audience? 

Ans: You tell me! No, seriously, we have to market ourselves shamelessly! To be honest, I still struggle with that, as I’m quite a private person! Social media is as natural as air for younger artistes. For younger people in general. And, of course, I’m generalising. My point is this is always going to be a great platform to generate new audiences. How you put the material out there is also important, as we’re finding out as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Creatives are suddenly discovering ’new’ ways to put their material out there, and if it’s good, if it’s worth seeing and has something important to say, then they’ll start to grow those audiences. And I have to take my own advice. 

  1. Which do you prefer adapting a story or to produce original drama? What are the challenges of each?

Ans: It’s not an either/or category thing. It’s both/and. Writers are always looking for stories. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. I like to do both because they present their own unique, as you say, challenges. Adapting a story (book, play, poem, whatever), the first thing is to be clear about the reason for adapting it. Even if it’s something that’s commissioned. As a writer, you ultimately have to find the spark, the reason, the motivation for wanting to write it. 

Iyalode of Eti adapted from Duchess of Malfi (Utopia Theatre)

When I wrote Iyalode of Eti (an adaptation of the Duchess of Malfi – a project initiated by Moji of Utopia Theatre), I was keen to both honour the original author John Webster, but at the same time, make the piece mine. Transposing it to pre-colonial West Africa was one way of doing that, as was the decision to marinate it within the Yoruba cosmology. That was fun to do. So, I’d say, always acknowledge the shoulders of those you’re standing on, and be respectful and thankful. Secondly, do not be afraid to make it yours and take it, perhaps where the original author will not have imagined. Be true to the world you’ve created for your adaptation. 

In terms of writing original drama, it’s obviously much more work. Adapting is similar to buying a house, gutting it, and creating something completely different, using the shell of the original building. Writing from scratch requires much more work, research, and planning. The more work you put into developing your ‘dramaturgical blueprint’, the better your play. And even then, unless it’s tested in the rehearsal room, you still don’t really know what you’ve got. In my humble opinion, that is. 

  1. If there  is a formula to writing a play what would that be: does the 3-act structure always work?

Ans: I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘formula’. I would say ‘processes. And yes, there are processes that writers and theorists have debated for decades about the craft of writing. A lot of it is quite daunting, challenging and sometimes confusing. But after a while, you can start to distil a rough skeleton that can help your creativity. Working with a 3 Act Structure is always a good start, as long as we understand it. Writers, it seems to me, must think about ourselves as craftsmen (or craftspersons) first. We need to get it into our psyches that there are skills we can learn from master-craftspersons that we can practice and implement over time to improve our skills. E.g.

a) Be clear about what you want to say.

b) Think about your story in narrative terms – i.e. beginning, middle, end

c) Think Character, Conflict, Obstacles, Stakes and Resolution. 

d) Does your character change or stay resolute in their journey

e) And so on. 

  1. What  makes a new writer/piece of work stand out?

Ans: The application of all of the above. Also, a voice that’s not derivative. That’s why we’re asked to tell stories we’re familiar with and in our own voices. Don’t be afraid to develop your own voice. Also, surprise. We want to be surprised. We want to feel, emotion is crucial – we don’t want a philosophical debate, unless it’s reflected in the way the characters behave, in the world we’ve created for them, and responding to the challenges we’ve forced them to face. Audiences want to ‘feel’!

  1. Which writers or wrights do you recommend a must read/watch for examples of structure (other than your work of course)?

Ans: Soyinka (poetry and the reworking of language), Ngugi (evocative storyteller), Ben Okri (mix of material and spiritual dimensions), Achebe, Chimamanda, Athol Fugard, especially story telling style with Sizwe Banzi is Dead. There are many more including Agboluaje and others. 

  1. Why do you think a project like the Creative Hub is important?

Ans: Because it creates a communal platform where isolated and oftentimes ’silo’d’ creatives can discover themselves, learn together and build trust and momentum to develop relationships, community, and projects. The resource available through the diversity of skills, abilities, humanity and a genuine to connect with others is fantastic. I’m learning and discovering creatives I want to collaborate with on differing and simmering projects, and that’s always going to be a good thing. Trust, honesty, openness and vulnerability will ensure that we congregate more, listen to each other more, break down the walls that divide, demolish the ‘chips’ on our shoulders (real or imagined), and even in areas where we have considerable differences of opinion, be respectful enough of our shared humanity to find enough to agree on, and agree to disagree on the others. It’s a great initiative by Utopia Theatre.

  1. What do you like most about writing?

Ans: Breathing and creating something out of ’nothing’ – creating new worlds, scenarios and characters and providing employment for a host of amazing creatives!  https://utopiatheatre.co.uk/thecreativehub

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