Former Creative Arts student, Zodwa Nyoni, is taking the world of stage by storm. She is a successful poet and playwright who has featured in many international anthologies. Ode to Leeds is her latest masterpiece, which will be showcased at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 10 June to 1 July. We caught up with her to find out more.
Tell us about Ode to Leeds. Where did the idea come from?
“Ode To Leeds is a coming of age story about five young poets from Leeds who are selected to compete at the world’s most prestigious international poetry slam competition in New York City.
“In the play, the young poets are part of a writing organisation called Metaphonetics which they all joined at various times. This mirrors my experiences of joining Leeds Young Authors (LYA) in 2005. By joining LYA, I was given an outlet for my writing. I met fellow poets who, in other circumstances I wouldn’t have met or been friends with and together we found a commonality in poetry. I was part of LYA for six years before writing for theatre.
“Those six years were filled with wonderful experiences nationally and internationally. The friendships that I made in that time developed over the years. That is what inspired Ode to Leeds. It’s not just about poetry, it’s about significant moments and relationships that have an impact on your growth; especially during your adolescence when you are trying to figure out who you are or are going to be.”
How did you get into writing and poetry?
“I started writing during my GCSEs. I had a wonderful English teacher who made English Literature such an adventure. He brought the worlds of poetry and fiction alive. It made me want to create those worlds and understand how a writer constructed them. I didn't do anything with my writing until I started my English Literature A-Level and joined LYA.”
How was your time at Leeds City College and what did you study?
“I studied Performing Arts in 2006 followed by a Foundation Degree in Theatre Studies in 2008. I hadn’t studied performing arts prior to this nor drama at school. But through writing and performing my own poetry, I wanted to learn more about the arts especially within education. My family and I are academic so there is always an interest to couple both academic and vocational learning.”
How did the college help you get to where you are now?
“Both courses were practical and covered a wide variety of mediums within the arts. I was at Leeds City College for four years and in that time I trained as an actor, in technical theatre, directing and creative writing.
“The most significant influence was in my last year of the Foundation Degree. We were working on a play called The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson as our final project. I was playing the character of Vi. I remember we were in rehearsals and I was just fascinated by the structure of the play. Vi’s character is the mother and she comes back repeatedly in the play as a ghost or apparition to the middle daughter Mary. I was fascinated by Stephenson’s treatment of Vi and how a character that is dead can impact on the living; and not just through memory, but through live action. It is also a funny and poignant play about family, dysfunction, memory and loss. In rehearsals I just wanted to unpick this further. To this day I can still remember Vi’s monologues. The play had such an emotional impact on me.
“I knew then that, as much as I loved all aspects of theatre, my place was in writing the text. I wanted to give an audience the emotional ride that The Memory of Water had given me. I wanted to write the clues that actors have to find. I wanted to create a world that a director has to take from the page to the stage. I wanted to watch the crew build what I had imagined in my mind. Stephenson’s use of Vi’s character actually inspired my treatment of the character, Boi Boi in my first full length play Boi Boi is Dead in 2015.
Tell me about other projects you have been involved in/created?
“Prior to Boi Boi is Dead, I wrote short plays including: The Povo Die Till Freedom Comes (Freedom Studios, 2010), The Night Shift (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2011), Home has Died (Lift off Festival, Leeds Beckett, 2012 / National Gallery Bulawayo, Zimbabwe 2013/ eKhaya MultiArts Centre Durban, South Africa 2014) and Come To Where I’m From (Paines Plough, 2013).
“In 2014, I was commissioned to write a new play for entertainment venue, Oron Mor in Glasgow and the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of A Play, A Pie and A Pint. The play was called Nine Lives. It was about Ishmael, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who has been dispersed to Leeds. It toured from 2014 - 2016 with Leeds Studio. It showcased at 18 venues nationally and internationally, including the Houses of Parliament, Paris Fringe Festival and the Arcola Theatre; where Sir Ian McKellen was in attendance.
“With Boi Boi is Dead in 2015, I had the opportunity to work with Lucian Msamati whom I’d long admired as an actor. He directed the play which won the Channel 4 Playwright’s Scheme and was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
“Since then, I’ve toured plays to America with Tangled Roots (2015), worked on a European project, Phone Home (2016) with Upstart Theatre (London), Pathos Theatre (Munich) and Highway Productions (Athens). My first radio play, Love Again (2016) was narrated by Maxine Peake.
“As well as developing Ode to Leeds, I opened Weathered Estates (2017) in Hull as part of Hull 2017 City of Culture.
What's next for you?
“I am currently developing new ideas for theatre and TV. Later this year I will be directing my first play, which I’m nervous and excited by.”
To book tickets for Ode to Leeds, click here.