When actor and director Pravesh Kumar started Rifco in 1999, it was to redress a perceived lack of voice for other British Asian artists and an almost non-existent theatre-going experience for those from the same community, which he felt was an untapped market. Seventeen years on, Kumar’s vision has been vindicated and the long-held belief that the British Asian community shuns live theatre has disintegrated. He took time out of tech rehearsals for his latest theatrical excursion Laila – The Musical to talk to Paul Couch.
Pravesh, Laila – The Musical opens for previews this week in Watford – how are rehearsals going?
Really, really well! We’re now in the technical rehearsal – we’ve done five weeks on in-room rehearsals and they’ve gone really well. It’s a big old show and it’s really exciting because I’ve got some returning cast members who’ve worked with me before, like Shin [Parwana – leading Bhangra vocalist], and then there’re lots of new people, which is very, very exciting. I think for at least three of them it’s their stage debut so they’re very new! It’s great to work with new British Asian talent and to support their formative, early careers. It’s great to be able to do that.
The show’s a love story, right?
Yes, Leila The Musical is based on one of the epic Eastern love stories called Layla-Majnun, which means Laila Madman. It’s a fairly big, well-known story in the East – relatively unknown in the West – and it’s 700 years older than Romeo &Juliet and is remarkably similar in plot. So [laughs] there has been talk of ‘could it have travelled down the spice routes and inspired Shakespeare’s version, or is it just a coincidence?’ It’s been passed down through song and verse for hundreds of years, which is why it becomes a natural musical. It’s been sung in Qawwali form and in poetry. Having been inspired by that poetry, we’ve gone for a kind of Sufi Pop-Meets-Western-Musical. What we’ve done is taken the heart of that music and that’s inspired us. In Pakistan, Sufi music is huge, so what we’ve done is create a new British musical based around it.
But you’ve used a Western lyricist – Dougal Irvine?
Dougal did Britain’s Got Bhangra with me before and we’ve worked together for many years, and he’s Associate Artist at Curve, Leicester, now, which is very exciting. It’s the same writing team as Britain’s Got Bhangra, which did very well critically and at the box-office. So we got together again as three writers – Sumeet Chopra is the composer, Dougal the lyricist, and I did the book, as well as directing. When you’re writing a new musical, it’s a challenge and you want to work with collaborators that you trust and have a short-hand with. So few new British musicals get made; at the writing stage, it’s just a challenge – even simple things like even getting us all in the same room. But it’s been a great process for us; all three of us work very closely together, seamlessly. I suppose in a new musical the lyrics and music and the words have to all come together as one. There’ve been three years of workshops and re-writes so we’re at a very exciting stage right know with the technical rehearsals and just putting it all together.
Given the past work of Rifco, I’m guessing it’s going to be bright and glitzy, full of dance numbers?
You know, it’s interesting. I think this new work is more of a challenge; as an artist, I always want to challenge myself. This I think is moving away from that kind of glitzy, sparkly musical. I suppose it has got that part of it but it’s got much more of a story-telling theatrical format. But it is colourful, it is beautiful, it is decadent, but I suppose it is very different to the early work. It’s much less literal than some of the earlier work but musically it’s stunning – and I can say that because I haven’t written the music! I’m really proud to be associated with it.
There’s a perception that, while Asian film is hugely popular around the world, there’s been something of a cultural resistance to live theatre, would you agree with that?
I think we’ve been able to change that over the last 10 years. If you look at our sales, they’re incredible. I think the resistance in getting diverse British audiences to theatres is about making work for them. It’s about how it’s focussed. Sometimes I go and see something that is supposedly made for me, I’m sitting there as a British Asian thinking well that’s from a very different point of view. I might not want to watch a piece of work about terrorists! I think we’ve got to make work for everyone and be more inclusive. What Rifco does is celebrate British diversity and our audiences have grown hugely and we’re selling out theatres across the country. I think that’s because we’re making work that’s middle-class, high-quality and speaking to an audience that is really under-represented and I think that’s why it’s working for us.
I can’t say that we [British Asians] have a cultural resistance. If you come to see Rifco’s work, our audiences by the weekend are 99 percent South Asian.
What about audiences. For Britain’s Got Bhangra, for example, was it primarily an Asian audience or a mixture?
Absolutely – that’s what we do! And because of the kind of work we do, and the viewpoint we have, I’m looking at it from inside the community, because I am British Asian, I’m not doing an exotic look at India – it’s basically truthful and organic and, therefore, accessible to this audience. I don’t think we see a cultural resistance, in fact quite the opposite. For Britain’s Got Bhangra, for most nights I’d say our audience was 70 percent South Asian. Some nights, in some areas, for example, in Leeds, we were very mixed. Oxford Playhouse was predominantly British White. A lot of people came to see it but the ethnic mix depends very much on where we’re playing.
So what was the idea of setting up Rifco in the first place?
Well, I was an actor and I’d been doing lots of work and I thought there’s this whole voice here – my voice – as a British Asian. There were companies that were doing that kind of work. There wasn’t a lot of it and I started the company really by accident when I started doing comedy review shows in the early days – the late 90s – and hit upon this huge audience. It was unbelievable – we were selling 400 or 500 seats a night to a new kind of audience that weren’t going to the theatre. Then I thought, well, why are we not making more work like this? So I started a professional company and challenge myself as an artist. That audience is now part of the conversation when we’re developing the work. you know so that when we when we make a new piece of work, I already know who we’re talking to.
One of the reasons I wanted to do Laila – The Musical was that I wanted to do a contemporary British Asian musical that would entice the young, Muslim audiences who have very little to go and see and our social media’s showing there’s a huge pick up from this new audience even for Rifco. We find it hard to entice sometimes the young, Muslim audiences and this show has really gone far to do that.
And what do you have planned for Rifco after Laila – The Musical?
We’re working on a new play, which is based on the First World War Indian soldiers’ story. It’s kind of an epic drama and we’re working on at the moment, probably for 2017 late or early 2018. I’m also working on another musical. The other great thing we’re doing is we’re working with we’ve launched a scheme called Rifco Associates, which is about emerging and mid-career artists and finding opportunities for them, so we’re working with people on their second or third play. It’s cross-art form, it’s about finding a real opportunity for those artists that may not be finding it easy in the business.
Leila – The Musical is at Watford Palace Theatre from 2 – 17 April 2016, then touring | Image: Contributed