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Talking to Micheal Buffong as Talawa and Birmingham Rep announce new producing partnership: Black Joy

Talking to Micheal Buffong as Talawa and Birmingham Rep announce new producing partnership: Black Joy

Buffong  is the artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company. He has previously directed Private LivesAll the Ordinary Angels, Six Degrees of Separation, On My Birthday and the multi-award winning A Raisin in the Sun for the Royal Exchange Theatre. Most recently he has directed Guys & DollsKing Lear, and All My Sons (Talawa Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre).

Other theatre credits include: God’s Property (Talawa Theatre Company, Soho Theatre and the Albany); The Serpent’s Tooth (Talawa Theatre Company and Almeida Theatre); Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (Royal National Theatre); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Leicester Curve); Crawling in the Dark (Almeida); To Kill a Mockingbird (West Yorkshire Playhouse and Birmingham Rep); Little Sweet Thing (Hampstead Theatre); Raising the Roof (Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue); Long Time No See and Unfinished Business (Talawa Theatre Company); Souls (Theatre Centre); The Prayer (Young Vic Studio); Stories From Mean Street (New End Theatre, Hampstead); Airport 2000 (Leicester Haymarket); Brother to Brother (Lyric Hammersmith); Scrape Off the Black (Theatre Royal Stratford East) and In Pieces (Coventry Belgrade).

Film and television credits include: Holby City, EastEnders, Admin, Placebo, Calais Rules, Doctors, Casualty, Comedy Shuffle, Hollyoaks, Feeling It, Blazed and Simple!.

Black Joy is a season of new work by Black creatives and artists, which will take to The REP’s three stages in 2021.

The ambitious co-producing relationship, funded from Arts Council England’s Sustained Theatre Fund, will present a major musical production for The REP’s 800 seat The HOUSE and two new commissioned plays for the 300 seat The STUDIO and the 150 seat The DOOR. In addition, there will be six seed commissions for theatre makers of all disciplines plus training and work opportunities for off stage and technical teams.

“… can be an act of resistance; as Audre Lorde puts it, it’s an “energy for change.” Michael Buffong 

  1. Why did you decide to go into theatre?

I fell in love with theatre when I was 17 and saw a play at Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was called ‘A Time for Celebration’ by Tundi Ikoli and was performed by the East London Youth Theatre. It was probably the first time I’d seen people on the stage who looked like me and talked like me; they were funny, they could sing and also be very moving and dramatic.

I just thought I want to be up there with that group of people doing that! So, I joined East London Youth Theatre and that’s how I started acting.

  • What do you like about the theatre?

What I like the most about theatre is the spell weaving. The ability of theatre makers to conjure worlds and events that transport your mind and emotions to other realms while you sit in front of them is magical.

There can be a great emotional pull in live theatre, as you respond to events that appear to be really happening in front your eyes, there are no camera tricks, no take two, when it’s good, there is something almost transcendental. It’s sometimes hard to believe that what you’ve witnessed didn’t take place as you saw it in the theatre, and when its good it looks effortless, which belies all the hard work that goes into any production. I love the fact that theatre is also a shared, communal experience which has the ability to speak great truth. Whether about the human condition or the wrongs in society, theatre lifts the lid on pain, hurt, love, jealousy, anger, betrayal.

Theatre has a way of being able to present the kind of stuff we might not see or be able to express in our everyday life.

  • You also have TV credits, tell us a bit about that journey.

I have been fortunate to work in TV. I had tried several times to get on to TV directing courses but never got on. Eventually a producer asked if I would like to do a few episodes of EastEnders, she had seen my short film. I was, like, absolutely! 

Then came a caveat from on high, much to the annoyance of the producer, saying that as I appeared not to be experienced enough, I could either apply again to the course, with the hope that this time my application would be looked on favourably or, I could have a go (with mentorship) but if it went wrong, I would probably never work at the Beeb again. I took my chances. I’d tried too many times to get on that course, and I’m happy to say it went well. 

I worked on several more episodes of EastEnders, as well as Casualty, Holby City, Doctors, Hollyoaks and a stint as a development producer/director for BBC comedy. I found that my work as a theatre director gave me great shorthand with the actors on set.

  • As artistic director of Talawa, what are the big challenges and what are the joys?

When I started this job, I set myself the challenge of making Talawa the go-to company for Black British work, where well-established practitioners work alongside new and upcoming ones at the start of their careers. That’s happened and is happening.

The big challenge now is sustaining the growth of the company so that we are able to develop Black theatre makers at all stages of their career and well into the future.  The challenge is to not only attracting funds from trust and foundations, but also getting the attention of philanthropic donors from within and without our community to enable and sustain our current growth.

The joys are being a part of someone’s amazing first moves into their chosen field, watching the audiences reacting to the work produced by theses theatre makers, the pride one feels when we produce something that is profound, enlightening, or entertaining and knowing that we have produced something that is valued by our artists, our community, and the world at large.

  • How has the lockdown been for Talawa? What are the changes you have made?

It’s been interesting and challenging. But we have a great team who have remained passionate and focused.

There is no doubt that the lockdown was a shock that had us reeling for a little while, but then we began to find ways to continue to interact with our artists, through our online Talawa Cafés, readings, informal meets, and mentoring. And as a team we found that we could continue to work effectively in this new online way.

  • Are you a fan of digital theatre? Is it an opportunity? Tell us about Tales from the Front Line.

At the beginning I was unsure, but now there is no doubt that digital theatre expands audiences; you reach people you might not have reached before. With King Lear: The Film for example, we reach audiences globally through Amazon Prime.

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Tales from the Front Line came to me when I realised that if we weren’t in lockdown and dealing with Covid, we would probably be talking about Brexit and Windrush. It felt like the people who had been demonised and they had been trying to get out of the country – people who look like me – were front-line workers dealing with Covid. Also, we didn’t see any type of Black representation in terms of front-line workers on the news.

I had to record what was happening, who was on the front line, get their testimonies, their thoughts, and feelings, and record it so their contribution would not be erased. I thought that was really important. I’m so glad that we have, and that these will be great testimonies of this time. And the fact that the stories are delivered digitally gives them enormous reach.

  • Many say that biggest casualties will be Black theatre productions, how do you think it will play out?

I really hope that won’t be the case. The coming year has to be all about absolute change, of reset, and I’m hoping that things will look different. There’s definitely a sense of movement in the right direction.

Talawa, and companies like us, are more important than ever; our raison d’etre is to have a truly diverse cultural offering in this country.

This is the time to double down.

  • Tell us about Black Joy – why did you choose this subject matter?

As yet, I can’t tell you more about what the plays will be other than a major musical production with a Black cast, and two new commissioned plays by Black writers for studio theatres, with a further six seed commissions for Black theatre makers of all disciplines plus training and work opportunities for off stage and technical teams. More will be revealed soon.

  • With the backdrop of Covid-19, what has this year taught you?

It taught me to slow down. Take time to appreciate those around you.

Think, regroup, and rest if you can.

  1. If Black Joy had a message, what would that message be?

That joy can be an act of resistance; as Audre Lorde puts it, it’s an “energy for change.”

Talawa was founded in 1986 by Yvonne Brewster, Carmen Munroe, Mona Hammond and Inigo Espejel, in response to the lack of creative opportunities for Black actors and the marginalisation of Black peoples from cultural processes. More about Black Joy HERE.