Behind-the-Scenes: Writing CHALK

Behind-the-Scenes: Writing CHALK

CHALK debuts at the Corpus Playroom next week, telling the story of two mixed-race sisters left in the care of their white father after the death of their mother. We spoke to the show's writer, HANNAH SHURY-SMITH, about the process of bringing the script to the stage

What inspired you to write Chalk?

There were several ideas floating around in my head throughout the writing process for Chalk. The key thing that probably ignited the process of drawing the pages of mind maps that eventually gave birth to a play was probably going to the Edinburgh Fringe. One night I saw a one-woman show about a queer, mixed-race woman basically exploring her racial and sexual identity – the themes of the show were so specific, yet everyone in the audience seemed to find a way to connect with or get invested in her identity crisis. I’ve been having an ongoing identity crisis since I got to Cambridge, and always felt it was too specific to me to make any useful art out of, but this show got me thinking: ‘Hey, why don’t I do that? Just write about what I’m literally thinking about all the time?’ And so, I did.

Producing any sort of art is hugely exposing… it’s like opening up your brain for all the world to see. This also means that basically everything in my life has shaped Chalk in one way or another. To list a few, the people in my life have hugely influenced the play: I already started writing about my relationship with my older sister in a play I started writing called Double Knots and a similar relationship is portrayed in Chalk, but this time the older sister is absent; I also already started writing on my relationship with my dad in a show called Spaces which we took to the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago, but the father in Chalk is a more fictionalised portrait and so, in my opinion, a more three-dimensional character; finally, the two best friends in the play are very much based on my own close friends, and I have repeatedly been messaging one of my friends back home to construct the character ‘MUSLIM WOMAN’. This latter character is probably my favourite (mainly because she’s based on two people that I value very much), but also because she really reminds me of the people that surrounded me back home, and how home is so different from Cambridge. It’s so exciting to get to represent a slice of home on the Cambridge stage.

What do you want audiences to discuss after seeing the show?

My dissertation supervisor would also be pleased to know that Chalk is also very much influenced by the deconstructionist representations of race figured in plays such as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon and Neighbors and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview (i.e. the texts I analyse in my dissertation). I simultaneously wrote my dissertation and Chalk, so the two very much influence each other, with the general hope being that Chalk can go some way to defamiliarize audiences and get them thinking more critically about the way that we form identity, particularly racial identity, and how constricting these structures can be.

Has the script changed as actors bring it to life?

From the outset I knew that once I wrote Chalk, I wanted to hand it off to a director to interpret and mould in whatever way they saw fit. In this case, I asked my hugely talented friend Zara Ramtohul-Akbar to direct the play as she is particularly experienced in working with new writing. Her approach to new writing is to allow the actors to improvise around scenes, meaning that the characters have really developed around the actors, with them even adding a couple of lines to my script. Given the themes of the play, I always wanted the script to evolve around the actor’s identities and experiences, and I am so excited that this play has come to be not only an exploration of all the crazy things going on in my head, but is equally informed by every member of the team. Hopefully this means that there are even more opportunities for audiences to identify with the characters.

Without spoiling too much, what is your favourite moment in the play?

The moments in the play which I am particularly excited to see staged are the moments of tenderness. Initially when I wrote the play, the driving force was how it structurally confronted racial identity – but, of course, I don’t want audiences to only be intellectually engaged in the theatre, but also to emotionally connect with the characters. For this reason, I am most excited to see the scenes between father and daughter, and also the liminal moments where lots of chalk is used and a (metaphorical and literal) sketch is drawn of the relationship between the two sisters. While we’re trying to do a lot of new and interesting stuff with Chalk – from physical theatre to voice overs, to the fact that the script never actually names the characters but instead lists them according to (often constrictive) categories such as ‘WHITE WOMAN’, ‘MUSLIM WOMAN’ and ‘BLACK WOMAN’ – ultimately all these characters are based on people I know and love, and ultimately the themes are all things I have directly experienced. I hope audiences leave having laughed, felt touched by the drama, and also intellectually stimulated. I hope that Chalk can get people talking – whether this feedback be good or bad, I feel this means that the play is doing something interesting and challenging and new, which (for me) is why new writing is so exciting.

Chalk is performing at the Corpus Playroom between Tuesday 3 and Saturday 7 March