An Interview with Benedict Sandiford, Writer & Director of Sightline’s University of Reading and South Street Arts Centre Production, Being Gordon Greenidge, October 2017

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Writer-Director Benedict Sandiford with Performer Chris Udoh

 

Interview with Lucy Tyler Thursday 25th January 2018

So I’ve just got ten or so questions about the project and, basically, it’s to get a chronology from the beginning of the project, so to explore where the idea came from, right to the end, and then thoughts about the future [of the project]. So my first question is where did the idea come from to develop Being Gordon Greenidge?

So the seed thought was I was finding out that Gordon Greenidge went to school in Reading; that he came here when he was fourteen years old, and that he went to Alfred Sutton School. And part of the Sightlines’ remit [Sightlines is a programme of work at South Street Arts Centre, under which Being Gordon Greenidge was commissioned], has been Reading stories. We were really keen to work with BAFA , the Barbados and Friends Association Reading, and we knew that Reading was the biggest population of Bajans outside Barbados and always has been. We were looking for some way of connecting those things together. And when John [Luther – Artistic Director of South Street] and I had that conversation, that was the seed thought. Both he and I loved cricket and [the project] wasn’t just about ‘getting our cricket love out’; it meant we knew some things about the era that Gordon Greenidge played in, the importance of that era sociologically. That was the beginning of it.

Was there already an existing connection between BAFA and you or South Street?

No – there wasn’t, though yes in as much as South Street [Arts Centre] was very much aware of BAFA. But in terms of who we would go to and building on an existing connection: absolutely not. It was ground up. It was really exciting and, in terms of the development of the project, [making a connection became] a factor. For instance, I didn’t know at that stage that I was going to end up writing some of the journey that these people made. I did not know that because I hadn’t heard the stories and I hadn’t met the people. In fact, one of the things that worried me when I first set off was that Gordon Greenidge, while he was the most extraordinary batsman, and scored a weight of runs that’s quite nuts, he wasn’t the flamboyant character that you would naturally put in the middle as your central character in a theatre piece. With the BAFA connection, we didn’t think about it in terms of content at the beginning, but it became central. We met George [Franklin] first, who was the Chairman [now treasurer of BAFA]  up in the library and he was very positive and put us onto some people. And then there was a screening of “Our Journey So Far” which was a little documentary that they BAFA had made with some heritage lottery funding. John [Luther] and I went along to the screening of that and we were the only non-Bajan people. They gave us five minutes to talk at this screening.

When was that?

That was April last year.

April 2017.

Yeah. Maybe slightly earlier. But Spring 2017. And we went and spoke at that meeting and, afterwards, we just had conversations. We had conversations in that room and my little green [notebook] became full of names, numbers and emails and they got followed up from there.

And was it from that point that you started to contact those individuals?

Yes. On the most basic level, it was about garnering trust. It was always really important thing for me, because, right from the beginning, I had misgivings about a white, middle- class man telling this story. Even though I knew the cricket inside out, and, weirdly, I had a connection with West Indian cricket growing up, I am still white, middle-class and from Newark in Nottinghamshire […]. And so, it was about having proper conversations, taking our time, or my time, to let these [prospective interviewees associated with BAFA] know what I was trying to achieve. At that point it seemed that their input and their help and, in fact, their stories, were going to be integral to it. [Their testimonies] weren’t just to bolster my research, but actually put in the frame, and put in the story. And that’s when that started to happen. I met people who I hope are going to be friends for life and had really honest conversations. The kind of conversations that were really honest and some of it couldn’t go in the show. I met them for coffee, I went round their houses and had these conversations and I started to get information and create an dialogue around  the way we were going to do it. [I asked them if I might] actually transpose some of the [testimony] and turn it into seeds. I asked them if it was alright with them. And it’s funny: when you’re making a piece of theatre, people go ‘yeah – do what you want’. But they don’t really believe it’s going to happen!

Right. Because even though there’s an acknowledgement that it will happen, it doesn’t exist at that point.

Yes. Once I write it and it’s performed, it’s there forever.

Yes. So I’ve seen some parts of those interviews because they became a short film at the beginning of the play [thanks to the contributions of George Ormisher, Film Technician at UoR]. So I suppose it’s difficult to evaluate, but did it feel successful – this part of the project?

Oh – hugely. The documentary I suppose is the very visual underlining of what we’ve just been talking about. There are these guys and Una [another BAFA member] talking about their stories and journeys and various aspects of their lives. There’s content in the play because one of the characters (there’s only two), but one of them has moved to Reading. So his story about his housing and working in Reading is informed from the interviews. Some of it’s in the documentary, and some of it’s infused into the play, but it was all layered up from those interviews. There’s evidence of BAFA’s input [throughout the work]. Not only were the interviews successful, but they became integral. It couldn’t have happened without that. And it placed me, also for my own orientation, it placed me right in the middle of the conversation. It might not be my right to say that, but that’s how it felt. I felt right in the middle of the conversation as opposed to being outside of it.

Yes so it did multiple things. The stories from BAFA members contextualised Greenidge’s story, they gave you additional information for the writing that you weren’t necessarily anticipating, but, in addition, it changed your position as a writer.

That is exactly it. I felt I had a right to do it, not a right, but I felt that I was in a much more stronger position to do it and [it gave me] an enormous amount of confidence. In fact, the honest hand-on-heart, truth is sometimes I would phone George [Franklin] when I was struggling and try to meet up with him for inspiration. I’d come out feeling like ‘no, I am the right person to write this show. We’re in a privileged position and we have some funding. I can make this piece of theatre.’

I think that speaks to a method for how artists might be able to work on these kind of [community] projects. You’ve started to say that the engagement with BAFA gave you more information in terms of what you could put into the play-text itself, or more context for that work. So I wondered if you could tell me a little bit more about the writing of the script itself.

Writing the script was really interesting because, with it being a sightlines piece, it had to respond very strongly and clearly to the space in which it was going to be performed. We didn’t get confirmation about where it was going to be performed until further down the line. So, on my computer, there are about three and a half iterations of this show, one of which I was in. I was writing stuff for myself and for John. Because originally we were going to do it at Reading Cricket Club [Being Gordon Greenidge was eventually performed at the cricket pavilion at Reading School]. Now, Reading Cricket Club is a fab, beautiful old club, but we would have had to have done an awful lot. At this stage, it was going to be an end-on thing, the conceit was that Gordon Greenidge was going to come along tonight and do a Q&A, but that he didn’t turn up, or was late. So it was interesting [but ultimately that didn’t happen]. But there is a scene in the  show where Colin [played by Chris Tajah] gets out an old game called ‘Test Match’ and he paints the white players, who were supposed to represent the West Indian Team because the game was brought out in time for a West Indian Tour in England. And my first idea was that Colin would paint these figures. And that idea has been in every iteration of the show.

And that became a really central image.

Yeah I guess so.

So the script had to do many different things. It had to respond to these stories that you were being told from the BAFA community, it had to be a site-specific project, but you weren’t sure about the performance site, and you weren’t sure about your role as an actor in it. And then you came up with the concept of these two characters, Colin and his Grandson, Jordy. And they do these simultaneous monologues and ‘become’ Gordon Greendige in the process . And, in having Colin and Jordy, we get more of a sense of Reading as well. So just to go back to this question of racial representation in the script, and Bajan identities in Reading specifically, how did you do that? How did you create that voice and that identity, or was that something that was concerning as well?

It was concerning. I felt kind-of OK about the idea of writing it, particularly Colin. Colin was sixty-five or sixty-six. The second idea that I always had was to use some stuff from Exodus. To have a preacher in there. I knew that was going to happen. I had a conversation with Robin Bunce. Robin Bunch is Darcus Howe’s biographer and he was fantastic and really, really helpful. So we went thought the New English Bible – the one that Gordon would have been using at the time. Gordon was a very pious man and was thinking about going into the church when he was younger. So I knew that I had a preacher. It’s strange as someone who doesn’t have an organised religious faith, but I kept coming back round to this passage the whole time. I was struggling to write it, to be really honest. I wrote most of Jordy first; that was easier. He was younger and I could draw different voices and I could hear his voice. And then I scrapped pretty much everything I’d written for Colin. I feel slightly embarrassed about that. But maybe it’s an advantage of being an actor, I thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to have to write this as if I’m doing it’. I wrote it. I spent a long time with my eyes closed lying on the floor, getting into the character of a sixty-five year old man from Speightstown, Barbados, who’d moved to Reading, trying to absorb everything that I’d been told by members of BAFA, trying to hold onto the germs of what I wanted to create and my journey with it. I tried to write a one man show, if you like, of twenty five minutes for me, but just it wasn’t [for me].

That’s really interesting. So, in a way, your [acting] background and also this work you’d done with BAFA became really central to the writing process of Colin.

And then it came and it was no problem at all.

And then you got these very coherent stories that, together, worked to construct the idea of Gordon Greenidge. And after you’d done that, what about the casting. You’d got the script, you’d got the testimonies, I think you’d probably made the film by the time you’d cast. The film was complete, but you weren’t sure where the film was going to go, because it wasn’t going to go right at the top, was it?

It was going to go into a scene.

So tell me a little bit about casting. The casting was quite complex because I suppose you needed to two Bajan actors.

That would have been ideal, but, I think on our budget and timescale: impossible. I think we needed to push £1500 at a casting director and say bring us in a day’s worth of Bajan male 21-25 year olds and Bajan older men.

So would you have maybe looked at a first time actor?

Yes I would. But essentially, it was two of us making the whole thing in terms of that kind of stuff, so our hands were tied a little bit. But what I’ve been taught by John [Luther] is embrace your restrictions. We haven’t got any money to pay for these guys, so [let’s look at]  what have we got [and what we needed]. [The show required casting of two black males aged 21-25 and 65-66].  And, yet, the most important thing for me in the casting process was understanding about Greenidge’s cap and this reverence for this cap. And I spent ages going “ok this is heavy” – the heavy crown kind-of gig. And both actors that got the jobs [Chris Tajah and Chris Udoh] got it because they responded well to the cap.

They understood what was going to happen [the cap became a visual symbol demarcating the characters and Gordon Greendige]. They understood what the cap meant.

And what it representing. It’s interesting because Chris Udoh was an athelete, but didn’t play cricket and that was interesting. And, hand on heart, if we went again, I would need more time to spend with both actors on the cricket.

I think from going through the rehearsal notes, one of the most interesting things in the rehearsal for me was how much was about cricket rather than just about the play. It was about talking about what cricket is, and, also, how to play it, and what the rules of the game are, and what the complexities of the rules are. But as a process, that was really interesting because, to understand Gordon Greenidge, and to get into his character, [Chris Tajah and Chris Udoh] had to be able to understand cricket. So, for me, it was a really interesting process of rehearsal because of the emphasis on cricket and because, as a director, you weren’t just directing the play, but were giving them a degree in cricket and a history in it as well.

Yeah and trying to dispel the myths. I remember when we were rehearsing here, at The University of Reading, I remember talking at length about how hard the game is and, physically and mentally, how tough it is. And how brutal it is as a game because it has a perception of tea and toast and cricket whites.

I remember this conversation from rehearsal. You were trying to dispel the idea that cricket was a ‘gentleman’s game’. You were talking about [facts such as] there were more suicides in cricket than any other sport and the way cricket players talk to each other and undermine each other.

And the actors couldn’t believe that stuff!  As a cricketer and a cricket follower, you just know that that’s part of the game. Another thing to say about the casting is that Chris Tajah who played Colin, this happened to him. He followed the team, the journey and story were very real to him and he got the script. He felt it. And I suppose that goes back to ‘who am I to write this play’ and for someone to say ‘I know this, this is for real, it’s my lived experience’ –  that resonated quite strongly with me. And the cricket stuff was slightly less important for Colin. He was a watcher not a player. For Jordy, it was always going to be more active.

And Chris Tajah’s Colin was different to the Colin you created. In rehearsal, Chris Tajah created the idea of Colin as a recluse and built Colin around that idea. It changed the racial politics in the play. It became a really sad story [of migration and the material and emotional difficulties of it].

Yes it did. My thought initially was that we were going to have a TV in the room and it was all about the audience coming into Colin’s living room to [watch it and enjoy watching cricket with him]. And that sort of went as we took the documentary out of the scene as it was going to prove to be too long as we needed to dovetail the scenes. We ended up showing the documentary, clean, on its own, which was a good call, but it changed that environment. I suppose it is still monologue. You’ve got to do it, you have to embody it and speak it and it becomes quite different and moves.

That was a really interesting conversation about casting, now a little bit more about rehearsals.

Yes. We started rehearsals at South Street with Chris Tajah and Chris Udoh before we came to rehearse at The University of Reading. Rehearsal was bitty. We had some space issues. It was bitty. I was trying to work out splitting the time between the two monologues, thinking about where the work needed to be. I did more character stuff and journeys with Chris Tajah. I did character exercises. All of us got to be each other which I think is a really valuable thing. You get the actor to watch someone else being them. It can underline thoughts and create realisations.

And it was Colin who was really embodying the idea of the Bajan immigrant to Reading because Jordy, his Grandson, was third generation British man. So we were tracing a history back through Jordy to Colin and then Colin was embodying all of these voices you’d encountered and Greenidge himself. Can I ask you about the racial politics in the rehearsal room? Those questions you were discussing about the beginning: about who’s writing the script, and whose story is it, and the difficulties of telling the story. Did that come back in rehearsal, or had that dissipated by the time you got there?

It didn’t ever come up. I remember right at the beginning saying ‘some of this stuff might not be quite right. I’ve done my work, but the phrasing of it might change.’ The goal has to remain the same, but we can look at the way that things are phrased and constructed. But, actually, very little changed. So, no – it never came up. It was kind of good.

[In rehearsal, though,] there were moments when there was a real understanding that this was about race – about racism. And the vacuum of racism in cricket.

For me it was.

I remember the difficulties I felt when I was in rehearsal and I was practicing with Chris Udoh the moment when an audience member has to perform Tony Greig [and Greig’s notorious racist slur against West Indies cricket] and feeling the white burden of having to perform Greig with Chris and what was being negotiated there was a racist history.

That was one of the bravest bits of the text. I wanted that to punch its weight. I wanted a ‘lest we forget’ moment. That was written and deleted, written and deleted about three times. And then eventually I was like ‘no, I’m going to do it’.

Because, as an audience member, it is eye-wateringly unpleasant to perform.

I did it also in rehearsal. I had that same moment. I choked. I found it really difficult to speak. And I felt quite shaky afterwards.

Yeah me too.

I remember yours. I remember yours very, very clearly. And it validated it for me because that’s exactly what I wanted because I wanted it to be public. My reflection of that was that is the reflection of walking down the street and having the abuse hurled at you. It is a public thing.

And the emphasis on standing on the box. The audience member was helped up by Chris [Udoh]. So yeah there was loads of moments like that where the reality of what we were talking about, through cricket, shone through. So there was lots of things being negotiated: the racial history of cricket through the character of Gordon Greenidge, but particularly racialized experiences of Bajan community members in Reading. So loads of really complex things that you manage to do really effortlessly in performance.

I try to be really transparent with my own politics and feelings about the thing. I must have said two or three times a day that ‘this is a political play’. This is a political play. It’s a biopic, yes, it’s a story about a man. But this is a political play. We were lucky in that there was a lot of fun, the performances were charming, and I’ve always been a believer in that [way of doing politics].

Finally, how was it in performance for you? It was a brilliant social occasion, putting the candles to get people to the pavilion, volunteers from BAFA, the Bajan celebration, the film.

It was quite special really. In my head, I wanted the audience to walk up the drive, to [Reading School] that was formed in 1127, one of the oldest schools of England. It just looks like England, and you walk up this drive that seems to take fucking ever, then over on the left you see the cricket pavilion. There would be a Bajan flag and Bajan music coming out, and it was almost like a little bit of Barbados in England and Barbados is called ‘Little Britain’ sometimes. I wanted that, visually – that metaphor, to be there. I don’t know that we necessarily achieved that, but I think cricket is a really social sport. Even at a professional level, the teams can go hard at each other for five days and then they have a pint afterwards. At the club and friendly level, you play for four or five hours then have a couple of drinks. That element of having a drink, and being a social occasion, and being quite joyous.

That came through with the audiences that were there. This was for everybody and it was about Reading, Barbados in Reading. Somebody said to me ‘this play has changed how I feel about Reading’.

Wow. I’ll take that.

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