Congratulations on Two Billion Beats’s forthcoming world premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre, where you star alongside Anoushka Chadha! Without giving away any spoilers, could you explain the meaning behind the title of the play?
Thank you so much, it’s honestly a dream working with such an incredible team. I keep saying it to people but I know I’m part of something really special with this project. Spoiler free… this play is a story of two sisters battling it all in their own worlds and how their worlds collide through truth, history, TikToks and sisterly love. Sounds like a lot but this play really does capture a whole world that is rooted in reality. It’s funny too, I promise!
Two Billion Beats is written by Sonali Bhattacharyya, whose repertoire speaks of her sustained focus in asking the public to consider their active and passive responsibilities in maintaining less-than-ideal status-quos. How has the process been to work with Sonali directly and to collaborate on bringing the passionate Asha to life?
Want to start off by saying [Sonali] is absolutely incredible! She’s been on my radar since training (because even in drama schools there is a complete lack of education on writers from the global majority so the few of us global majority actors there have to do the work ourselves. So the second I found her, I was holding onto the dream of working with her for dear life! I’d actually met her for the first time earlier last year following a performance I had done at Tara Arts, which reaffirmed everything I’d thought about her so when this part came up I was incredibly excited.
Asha, funnily enough, was written in a rhythm that felt like me so I was able to just stab at it and completely make sense of it, injecting my humor and sass into it…I got the part and then the rehearsals have been like that too. We have so much fun that it doesn’t even feel like work, we ask questions and Sonali is so detailed she always knows the answer. We joke about our characters in alternative realities and what they’d be like doing TikTok videos.. Through getting on our feet and playing with the text some things have changed quite dramatically to suit me and my sense of play.
I’m incredibly active with an imagination that oftens feels a little intrusive and hard to keep up with, especially in spaces where there is an unspoken hierarchy lingering… but Sonali is so down to earth and wonderful (as is the entire team) she listens, shares her perspective, we all laugh and from that ideas are born! It’s literally magic.
With the ongoing pandemic, it must have been incredible to work with an intimate creative team and prepare for an in-person production together: how has the preparation and rehearsal process been as a group, and did any of it feel different to how these cooperative roles would’ve come together pre-pandemic?
Nearly two years into this awfulness it really has felt like nothing will ever be the same again… and of course it never will be. The immediate changes, like masks and not being able to be as tactile with the team as I know I usually would be, have certainly been strange. But we do our best! I’ve been privileged enough to receive quite a few in-person acting opportunities during this time and so I’ve now found a routine and balance (which of course changes with each building following a certain set of guidelines and adjusting accordingly).
One of the biggest changes has been the number of actors in a company as a means of keeping productions as safe and as long running as possible. So going from working with as many as ten other actors to two (at most three) has been strange and quite daunting… and because of the lack of mingling it can get a little isolating. I have done several two/three-handers pre-pandemic, even done a whole one woman show for a few months… but now it feels like there is an unnecessary pressure in the theatre world to prove something, which is absolutely freaking bizarre given the state of things!
Slimy comments like “Yes you and one other person are on stage now.. Don’t disappoint us or you won’t make it onto a “best theatre” list or “we won't give you a great review”. I know this work means a lot in the grand scheme of things, now more than ever… but I still want it to be fun and joyful! Something that people can look forward to and buzz about. Not make it some weird “pandemic play” competition. (Also shout out to Sonali for not mentioning the pandemic in this play at all! We are rolling pandemic free for Two Billion Beats!)
The play centers on a “minor feeling”: that of people of colour who regularly feel alienated by the white-washed history taught in our schools, and must independently supplement their education themselves to understand their place in the world. I’m curious to know if you went through the same experience growing up, and if you remembered the turning point of finally finding a historical subject you truly resonated with?
Absolutely. 100%. It’s kind of heartbreaking thinking about it… There’s been several moments in my life where I’ve stopped and gone “damn it was all a lie!” or “what?! I didn’t know that happened!!”, that even happened yesterday when I was watching Derry Girls for the first time and realized I know absolutely nothing about Ireland! IRELAND for god's sake! It’s like right there (*points at a map*)!
But it just goes to show there are such shady angles of history and as I decolonize my mind, the more I realize just how much people will go to their graves in complete denial of any of it. My best friends were some of those people, awful nonsense like openly idolizing Churchill, likening me to animals and justifying the use of the p slur and c slur when referring to shops… you know what I mean? Needless to say I’m not very close to them anymore. I’m an Indian Muslim queer woman so I’ve had to deal with my fair share of awfulness, I’ve been through a lot.
My dad was always incredibly well versed with things, we’d always watch the news together, he’d tell me stories of him growing up in Manchester in the 70’s, the racism he and his friends faced while simply trying to play football… and even though as I’m older and I’ve realized he’s had his own issues and biases, he always taught me to question things, challenge things. “Never let anyone take you for a mug! You stand your ground, you hear me?” That has landed me into trouble before and I went through a phase of opting to just growl and bare it. But as I understood how much learned prejudice I carried I started getting angry at myself, questioning myself, challenging myself and in doing so made it a point to raise my voice again. As a way of keeping others in check of course but keeping myself in check too. To always stay listening and informed.
During drama school my white peers would argue with me about things like “people of color stealing roles” and I knew they were sick of me but I never let them think for one second that any of what they said is ok. It was exhausting but I did my best to speak when I felt like I had it in me… I’m sure I made mistakes during that time but I’d be damned if I let anyone undermine the talents and hard work the actors of color had to go through in order to feel worthy.
I’m sure people have said it before and I understand how much of a late cop-out it sounds like - believe me I know - but BLM was a proper turning point for me (during the pandemic especially) in terms of me really putting my money where my mouth is. I’ve marched before, screamed Allahuakbar into the skies while we prayed for Palestine, I've watched the way the world turned after 9/11, I’ve seen racial prejudices hashed out in my own community. I carry privilege in my skin though... I know that; I’m by no means perfect but I will always make sure I will stand up for everyone! I’m stronger now than ever before.
I love that a description of the play cites Sylvia Pankhurst and B. R. Ambedkar as inspirations of Asha: it’s a beautiful inclusion that seems especially relevant in present day when the discourse of White Allies feels particularly fraught; for Asha, both Pankhurst and Embedkar are equally important as people who stepped outside of the rule book to fight for change. Would you say that these two figures, and others like them, are generally known by the British public?
Brilliant follow up to the previous question. I know for a fact that the majority of people haven’t heard about these two at all! I went to an all girls secondary school where the buildings were named after famous women in history: Tereshkova, Parks, Curie, Nightingale, and Pankhurst… and I had never heard of Sylvia! To be really honest even at that age I knew that a lot of history was agenda-driven, so it was meant I didn't have any real desire to learn in history lessons (as I know a lot of other girls felt), which is why I never took it for GCSE’s… so Asha’s enthusiasm for discovering all these new things (at her age of 17) mirrors my current mid 20’s enthusiasm!
There’s a certain pride I have in uncovering new historical facts and I wish I had known more back then… could’ve really schooled some folks. So I guess circling back to the question… in a way that’s the whole problem isn't it? History is being taught wrong, so we don’t learn, so nothing ever changes and then those kids who learned that history grow up and either behave a certain way because that’s all they’ve learned, and/or they grow up to become the history teachers who are made to teach the kids the same thing. I’m so grateful that the conversation is finally opening up now though! The denial is still there but we’re going to outgrow it some day! I can feel it!
Sonali masterfully employs the school - such a relatable location - as a battlefield, for both the micro and macro struggles of growing up in an unjust world. Could you describe how Bettina’s (Asha’s younger sister) troubles at school complements/complicates Asha’s own journey?
Bettina’s struggles, for me, reflect the battles we can fight in our everyday lives that can make just as big a difference as fighting the bigger world. We can look around, doom scroll, exhaust ourselves with the news and see new info cards on instagram that inform us of something else big and horrific that we should all know about and fight against– it’s a form of activism that has come in handy during the pandemic for sure.
But there is a limit to what we can do right? Especially when we’re trying so hard to fight it all, we miss the things happening right next to us. Bettina and Asha have their own hopes and dreams and anxieties, one could argue that one is more important than the other but I think part of growing up is realizing that it isn't a competition!
And sometimes the biggest impact we can make is by looking at the person next to us and making sure they’re okay, be it a family member, friend or a complete stranger.
The world is scary and we all get scared sometimes, it’s what you do in the face of it that counts. How can that small action you take make something huge happen?
With you and Anoushka comprising the full cast of Two Billion Beats, it must have been a great opportunity to really connect and develop the dynamic between the sisters together, especially when comedy is concerned! How has it been to work with each other, and did any of your IRL interactions influence your onstage chemistry?
Oh for sure! I actually met Anoushka in the auditions as there was a pairing round so I had a chance to read alongside her. We definitely complimented each other's energy! Without wanting to assign us ‘personality types’, we are really different from one another and it helps so much! We have a lot of fun! When we were casted we were emailed each other's details so we followed and messaged each other - it was just before the holidays in December - congratulating one another and celebrating the idea of starting the new year working together.
We’re both equally hard working and enthusiastic, we throw ourselves at every opportunity and it’s led to some brilliant things being born, things that are now firmly embedded in the play. There was a day we did the promo shoot for the play in our school uniforms and it was like -1C outside but we shivered and played together, keeping each other warm and posing for shots as dramatically as we can, making up jokes to the lads who worked in the swimming center nearby that we were shooting for the George ASDA school uniform campaigns– it properly felt like sisters having fun!
Bettina and Asha represent a real-life balance that is often lost in equally prioritizing personal challenges as well as societal ones. Can you share with us how Nimmo Ismail’s direction helped maintain the sensitive harmony between both characters’ storylines for the audience?
Nimmo has this brilliant way of letting us run wild, exploring and allowing us to understand the characters ourselves first before stepping in to help us finetune things. She’s so patient and enjoys traveling through the journey with us! I can’t swear in this (I don’t think) but if I could type it I would… I [redacted] love working with her. She’s just as curious as we are, she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and she works with us to figure things out.
She’s also absolutely hilarious so she makes us feel so at ease in the space, so where vulnerability is required, we never feel pressured or judged… and through that we find ourselves immediately going to places where, if I’m truly honest, I sometimes don’t even find myself going until the second week of shows! When the team is gone and we can kind of… breathe more into it! That sounds awful doesn’t it? Or does it? I don’t know. For me it’s a testament to what magic can happen in a creative space when the right people are at the helm, people who love and support and care. No ego, no BS!
Though the play is a coming-of-age story, I can’t help but recognize Asha and Bettina in many adults I know, including myself. The world has us constantly oscillating between keeping our heads down to survive, or angry yet not knowing how to improve the world for ourselves and others. Without giving anything away, do you have any takeaways from the play that acts as good advice for living in this condition?
I’m so glad you saw that too! I saw it as well! It is difficult, we want to keep fighting but it is so exhausting. We all get scared sometimes too and that’s okay. But I think the one thing we can’t do is just give up altogether. Because that’s when the wrong kinds of people win, and lord knows they are winning… all the time!
So it can feel like you’re just screaming into the void despairingly. But do what you can, listen, cry, back away when you need to, drink water, protect your peace, conserve your energy, reset and try again!
As a prolific actor, voice artist and writer yourself, I’m sure our readers would love to know what you’re up to next! Do you have any news of upcoming projects to share with us?
I’m so sorry but this made me gush and laugh out loud a little! I seriously have a hard time giving myself any credit for things… even when my literal credits are stacking up! But thank you for that little ego boost. It's currently the middle of the night and my partner is asleep beside me… and even though I’m literally reeling having just accepted another job offer I still needed that! The last thing he said to me before he fell asleep was “stop doubting yourself, okay?”... I hope I can.
Back to the question… unfortunately a lot of things are under NDA at the moment. A few video games… dream-come-true level roles! A couple of films that are currently in post-production. And as previously mentioned, I accepted another role which will be hitting your screens next year. It’s mad!
Theatre is so much more immediate. I’m in the building all day and it’s all I think about for weeks as I research and learn lines. I bash out the shows, friends and family come to see it and I (occasionally) read reviews– it consumes my life until I find the next thing to jump onto. Whereas all the other stuff has either been done or is still in process so won’t become a reality for me until I can yell about it on Twitter and at some point play the games I’m starring in… which a cool flex, not going to lie!
So for the moment, keep your eyes peeled. I have a feeling I’ll be flitting around a lot this year! For now, come join us at the Orange Tree in Richmond for Two Billion Beats, if you can! We will be streaming it too so if you can’t make it in person, we’ll be coming to you!