MY STORY MENA, the creative culture you heard of first today

Kerry Michael is an award-winning theatre director who ran the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) for 13 years until 2017, and in the following year was made an MBE. During lockdown he has turned his focus to MENA – Middle Eastern and North African arts professionals – and has founded MENA Arts UK – and a campaign, both launched today.

Middle Eastern and North African seems a rather wide-ranging description. Who are we talking about?

It’s an area of the world that is clustered and has therefore labelled together for many years.  Not all but some of that is positive: culture, languages, influences.  And, we have also always been a buffer between the East and West.  We discussed long and hard whether to call ourselves something symbolic; but if you are from that region you will be aware of the acronym MENA, and so we are taking ownership of it.  But we are also MENA+ and that “plus” is for the surrounding area.   That place in the world is never still and depending on how you understand history, those boundaries are fluid.

How did you get involved, and does your own family’s background have a bearing?

I’m a British Cypriot, the son of economic migrants whose parents were given a passport by that empire.  I’ve been proud to be a minority within minorities, but, even after all these years, I’ve struggled with how and when I bring attention to my otherness.  So this is a response to that, it’s political but also very personal.

What was the driving force behind the creation of MENA Arts UK, and who is the steering group?

The need is obvious.  We want to take better control of how our otherness is presented in culture in this country.  We also want to help the wider sector to find us, be inspired by us,  and understand us better.  We will also use our coming together to support each other and use our collective strength to call out the lazy and inappropriate stereotypes that harm us.  One of the few good outcomes of 2020 is that getting 200 people in one place online for a town hall meeting is now an easy thing to do.  And it wasn’t hard to build on our first town hall and create a structure for those who were able to volunteer more time.  There is a Steering Group of 11 who are all freelancers, wanting to make something positive out of lockdown. We are all of various backgrounds, ages and creative disciplines.    

You have your own company now, Kyriacos and Company. What is it doing and will its work coincide with that of MENA Arts UK?

I left TRSE as I wanted to let someone else have the opportunity of running a publicly funded building.  Only once I did that did I start thinking about what I wanted to do next.   I am, at my core, an artist - a director who also writes a bit, who needs to make shows.  Kyriacos And Company is a vehicle for me to do that.  After leaving TRSE I also wanted to push myself to do new things, so I spent last summer at the National Film and Television School learning how to make movies; the company is also developing TV and film projects as well as work for the stage.

Why does attention need to be focussed on MENA arts professionals, and what is the MENA narrative?

We need to all get better at being specific and understanding our differences.  We also need to make serious change in response to Black Lives Matter. I made a speech five years ago about how TRSE would stop using BAME. It’s too general and it devalues the specific experiences by the black community in the UK.  So, MENA Arts UK wants to help the arts sector understand our specificness and how BAME is too problematic for the world we are in now.  

As chair of MENA Arts UK, what are your ambitions for it?

My ultimate ambition is that in ten years we will have made the need to campaign redundant, and we can shift all our focus on commissioning work from artists within our directory.  In the meantime, we need MENA+ arts professionals working in the UK’s live and recorded arts industries to sign up, whether they work on or off the stage or screen.  No one institution or funding body in the UK is going to do this for us so we need to mobilise, be part of our own support network, find new collaborators, and meet the prejudice we face head on by disarming them with our brilliance. That’s my strategy.

You had many successes at the TRSA and one of them was to confirm it in its role as a community theatre in which different elements of society in the immediate hinterland were attracted by your programming. Do you see integration as part of MENA Arts UK’s role, and how can you underline the identity of MENA artists for British audiences?

British audiences are MENA audiences.  It’s when we seek to divide them we get into problems. If you choose to make culturally specific work, and if you make it well, with, for example, people who are from that culture at the heart of it, you transcend the culture and you make stories for everyone about humanity.  

Will there be MENA productions we can look forward to seeing?

Today we announce a competition for eight new pieces of work that are captured on film.  Each commission will receive £1,000 to create a one-minute work that is filmed, responding to the question “How should the MENA+ arts community celebrate what we have in common?”  I’m excited to see what this gives us.  And how the 60-second constraint inspires the artists.

Because of Covid the arts are in a critical state now, with theatres closed and freelancers having to find work outside their profession. Why is this the right time to be launching a new initiative?

The worst thing we can do is go back to how things were before lockdown.  Too much has changed.  I love UK theatre, it’s been good to me, and made me who I am, but there is and was a lot that wasn’t right, so we must use COVID as a reset.  We must not forget seeing George Floyd murdered in front of our eyes, that Black Lives Matter, how freelancers are too easily expendable, and those huge Arts Council emergency grants must find their way down to our members and other freelancers, soon.

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