Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, winner of the 2019 JMK Award, is an engaging and ambitious artist. In this interview, Tristan and I talk about his experience with directing ‘Little Baby Jesus’ and the passion and creativity that went into staging one of his all-time favourite plays.
Since this interview took place, the world of theatre has changed. When we spoke, it was not too long after the successful run of ‘Little Baby Jesus’ at the Orange Tree Theatre, a time when no one would have guessed that a global pandemic would have had such a sweeping impact on the theatre industry.
The lights have been shut off at many theatre venues across the UK for now and there’s still uncertainty hanging overhead on what will follow next. However, I hope in reading on, you are transported to a time when theatre was alive and seemingly unstoppable. I also hope that it reminds you that with creators like Tristan in the mix, there are reasons to be hopeful that theatre can make an exciting comeback when the lights do go back on.
|Name: Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu
Role: Writer, Director and Theatre-maker
The first is ‘Little Baby Jesus’ by Arinzé Kene, which centres around the lives of three black teenagers from London as they transition between childhood and young adulthood.
The second is ‘Gone Too Far!’ by Bola Agbaje which is set in 2007. Tristan was most excited by how it explores the tensions between Afro-Caribbeans and Jamaicans in Britain at the time. “I think the reason why [‘Gone Too Far!’] is amazing is because it addressed those tensions and I’d never got to see it. I’d never read something that was number one in a lingo that I understand from just being in London and from school and number two that was on a topic that was so, so common.”
Favourite part about the theatre:
From the initial workshopping stages to the development process where everyone has a safe exploration space to play, Tristan explains that there is so much that he loves about theatre. But the part which makes him feel like he’s “done his job”, is when a piece starts a conversation with the audience members that it was intended to reach.
“As much as I love that people love the quality of my actors and the quality of direction and stuff like that, the real truth and the real gift, if a play is doing well, is if afterwards in the bar you walk around and you can hear people talking about the themes in the play. It doesn’t even have to be themes that were directly in the play, but if it’s jumped off it that’s when I know I’ve done something right.”
Earliest memories of theatre-making:
Tristan is a writer and director but altogether sees himself as a theatre maker. With his earliest memories of directing, he laughs as he explains that he wasn’t aware that he was doing it at the start.
“I was in a summer school as part of the Ovalhouse in 2008 where we were doing a theatre version of the movie, Labyrinth by Jim Henson. I played David Bowie, may he rest in peace, and I was so scared to do it. There were lots of people from different walks of my life telling me, you should probably do this. I was like, oh, I’ll give it a go. And I did a couple of days and all of a sudden in my head I was like, I’ve got a song that would be really good for this scene. Let me bring that in. Oh, I’ve got costume ideas, let me bring this in. Oh, I’ve got an idea about the scene that we’re doing that could be a little bit different. Let me try that out. And I think I didn’t realize it at the time, but, I think that was the earliest memory where I can now look back and go, okay Tristan, you are always meant to create rather than just be in [a show]. Because that gave me as much joy as being on stage if not more.”
The Orange Tree Theatre’s production of ‘Little Baby Jesus’, directed by Tristan last year, received overwhelmingly positive responses from critics and audiences alike, and garnered two Off West End Award nominations including for Best Direction of a Play. This response is something which Tristan says he hasn’t taken lightly. “I feel so blessed that it went as well as it did. I feel really fulfilled. In terms of the praise, I’m so happy that people saw my style and they weren’t scared of it. They embraced it as wild and wonderful and wayward as it is.”
Of all the responses, Tristan confesses that the ones which meant the most were from young people: “The fact that young people from schools came to watch the show and there was a picture of a Year 11 school group that was probably doing drama, that all wrote reviews on it and shared the pictures of the reviews, that meant everything to me.”
Tristan’s directing style, one which many audience members may not have seen before, also received high praise. Tristan gives credit to the creators he’s been influenced by, trailblazers such as UK hip hop theatre artist Jonzi D, Damilola DK Fashola whose theatre style experiments with silhouettes and Brazilian theatre maker – Augusto Boal. “My theatrical style and practice, that I’m developing is this real love of physicality, wildness and stillness. Naturalistic with the absurd, big and small creation of characters and music being a character in my work.”
It was about a decade ago when Tristan was in his final year of secondary school and first came across ‘Little Baby Jesus’. “I was like, I’m going to do this play one day. I’m going to have it be in it or I’m going direct it. I used to send emails, to people I don’t know and ask can I do this this play? Please can somebody do this play?” Tristan would later direct a scratch version of it in 2015 with a training program called Stone Crabs, during his final year at Uni. He describes how he even invested some of his own funds into the project in order to have more rehearsal time with the actors. It wasn’t until 2019 when he won the JMK Award that he’d have the opportunity to mount a full professional production of the show. With funding from the JMK Trust and the Orange Tree, he was delighted not only to have a decent budget to stage this production but that everyone involved would be paid well.
“I really had to nit-pick my team” Tristan says. We discuss how he went about assembling his creative team and he outlines with such clarity and precision, the value of each team member in creating the world of the play. This ranges from the role of the sound designer, Nicola Chang to the movement consultant, DK Fashola. “Everybody needs to understand everybody’s roles and respect each other’s roles. There was such a respect for everybody’s roles and there was such love in that room. I want every rehearsal room to be like that.”
Anyebe Godwin, who had performed in Tristan’s previous scratch version of the play, was the first actor to be cast: “As soon as [Godwin] did it, it was just perfection.” Khai Shaw and Rachel Nwokoro, who had very recently graduated from drama school, were next to join the cast. “I found two actors who literally just graduated from drama school, one of them was graduating on the third or second day of rehearsals and they came and absolutely blew us away. Listen, they should be overbooked, they should be oversubscribed. Anyebe too should be oversubscribed.”
For any actors who are interested in starring in a piece directed by Tristan in future, his advice is this: “Actors. If there’s directors that you’ve seen their work and would love to be an artist in their room, you should invite them to any shows that you’re doing. If you haven’t got a big agent, but you’re in something, if we can see it, we’ll try and see it. I’m a big fan of bringing people from all over in, all different youth theatres.”
For Tristan’s production of ‘Little Baby Jesus’ at the Orange Tree Theatre, there was a four-week rehearsal process which involved improvisations and workshopping around the text. Tristan explains, “I enjoyed devising and finding skills that people are bringing and I enjoy treating my team like they are all artists in what they do. So, I want to tap into what your particular type of art is and how it can feed this production and its themes”.
When pressed on what the most challenging aspect of the experience was, Tristan speaks candidly, “the challenge that I didn’t anticipate when I first started was just how much I would care. I thought it’s going to be plain sailing. It wasn’t plain sailing in that I really had sleepless nights. I stayed at the Orange Tree for hours after everyone left to try to figure out the way to make things work. I was tired. I didn’t always eat well. My mental health was actually really good, but I was stretching it. I was fired up. It was fired up to make sure this works. But then at the end when we saw the finished product it was all worth it and my mental health became ten times better than it’s ever been.”
We touch on what Tristan wants to do next and I learn that there are so many things that he wants to do. In particular, he’s drawn to doing something that is epic. “Epic doesn’t mean lots of people on stage all the time, but there’s a sense of grandeur and then there’s also a sense of the personal within that and the sense of depth.”
To end we discuss what being a black theatre maker means to him, “I am a black theatre maker and that is part of who I am. I am a black British, Ghanaian artist and all of that makes who I am and the type of work I create and the lens which I see the world in. I want work that pushes boundaries and that innately has a sense of story and story-telling.
“There’s some black people that really didn’t like Little Baby Jesus and I was sitting right next to them. Either because it was not their reality or because there were some things in there that was a bit too hard for them to ingest at the time and that’s ok.
“I think it pleases me when black people get my work. It really, really does. But I was starting to understand that I have a particular type of work and I think I’m just making it work for my tribe. Whatever that tribe is. I know that my tribe may not just be black people, but whoever has core ideals and values like I do. Just to be in a space where they feel celebrated and also critiqued because that’s important too. I am so happy when I find those people.”
Thanks for reading! And a huge thank you to Tristan for the interview. If you’d like to see more of Tristan, here’s his social media links:
Instagram: @ tristanfaiduenu