Playwright, performer, poet – Tasnim Hossain

Tasnim Hossain is a playwright, performer and poet who explores cultural diversity through her work. I caught up with her to chat about her art, inspiration and more.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in Bangladesh, but really, my parents were in Canberra years before I was born and came back with me as a baby, so Canberra has been the only place I’ve ever called home. That’s very slowly starting to change, as I moved to Sydney for work earlier this year, but I’m still resisting the shift in allegiance.

I’m currently working in communications for an international development NGO and I write around that. I love both jobs; my undergrad degree was in International Relations from ANU (see? I really am a Canberra kid) and so my comms work keeps me connected to the world and my writing is an outlet and a lens through which I can make sense of what I see. I was just having this conversation with one of my colleagues the other day about whether I’m a comms person, moonlighting as a playwright, or if I’m a playwright, moonlighting as a comms person. (He works in communications with me so was firmly in favour of the former though I’m still not sure.)

In terms of how people describe me, well, one of my friends once told me, in all seriousness, that I was crazy. I had to ask for clarification, putting to him the question of whether I was batshit crazy or endearingly crazy. He answered that it was definitely endearingly crazy, so let’s go with that.

You’re a playwright and poet – what draws you to writing for performance?

I love writing for performance because it is immediate and visceral in a way that other forms of literature aren’t. A reader is an active participant in reading a text, whether it is a poem, a story, an essay, whatever, but for an audience to see it and hear it, it is something else entirely.

I also love being able to gauge people’s engagement and reactions. They can applaud, they can look bored, they can ignore me and talk to their friends, they can tell me it was moving, and that is all something that I can find out straight away.

Another thing that I love about writing for the theatre in particular is the fact that it is an ongoing collaboration. Other forms of writing are often such a solitary pursuit. You plug away at a draft, you might talk to some people about your ideas, you might show them your draft when it’s done, otherwise it’s really only you and your words in a room. Writing a play requires so many things, at all stages of its creation; dramaturgs, actors, directors, designers, producers are all vital to getting words on pieces of paper realised as a play.

Zak and Reefa’s Bollywood Funeral was a smash at Perth Fringe and You Are Here this year – tell us a bit about how the play came together.

Zak and Reefa came about in a really organic way. I always tell anecdotes about unsolicited marriage proposals that have come my way and the idiosyncrasies of growing up in a tight-knit migrant community. I think the weird love/hate relationship second gen young people can have regarding their migrant communities is a really common one.

I’ve been supported a lot by Canberra Youth Theatre (CYT) in the past, and it was whilst telling the Artistic Director of CYT the arranged marriage story, that she suggested I turn it into a play. I thought about it for a while and even drafted a couple of scenes but it just never seemed to gel, so I just left it.

Fast forward a year and a bit and during a meandering conversation with a theatre designer/dramaturg friend (the lovely Chris Brain, also a CYT alumnus), we started talking about the fact that we should write a show to take to Fringe World in Perth (Perth seems a bit random, but Chris is currently a student at WAAPA, the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts). So we dusted off this idea and got cracking on the writing.

I also had support writing the script through Playwriting Australia’s Lotus Program for Asian-Australian writers, where I had the opportunity to talk through the script with a bunch of other participants, often second- or third-generation Australians like me, and established playwrights.

Once the script was finalised, we brought in a director (Casey Elder, again, from CYT), did a heap of rehearsals that involved copious amounts of Gilmore Girls watching, and took the show to Perth. After yet another bout of rewriting, where the single solo show was split into two separate but complementary solo shows, we had a second season at You Are Here in Canberra, with Vivek Sharma, a local Canberran actor, playing the role of Zak in his very own show, alongside me, as Reefa.

For me, I realised that since the lack of diverse voices and faces and stories on stage is a problem, I’d have to actually do something about it instead of waiting for someone to come along and fix it. The theatre, and arts more broadly, have a huge capacity to reach people and it’s important that art reflects the lived experiences of everyday people. Getting to work with a bunch of people who were just as excited as me to see this story onstage was huge.

Why a one-woman play? It seems like a hard format to write and perform in!

I love solo shows! They are my absolute favourite type of theatre. I think in a solo performance, you can’t hide behind whizbangery, as I think of it. The writing, the performance, the characters, the energy have to be spot-on, otherwise the whole thing will fall on its face. I have been lucky to have seen a few solo shows which have completely blown me away, shows which made me fall in love with theatre. That said, I am no actor, so it was certainly a very steep learning curve, to first memorise and then perform what was, essentially, a 45 minute monologue.

For me, solo performance also harks back to a kind of troubadour or tale-teller role, a role that has transported generations of people in cultures everywhere to stories outside of their own experiences. I think solo shows and monologues also have a great synergy with spoken word poetry, my other great love, and can be poetic and stylised in a way that dialogue (although also awesome), particularly naturalistic dialogue, can’t always really justify.

What’s the Australian Theatre for Young People fellowship all about? What’s the best thing about it?

So I’m currently involved in a writing mentorship at ATYP, the Australian Theatre for Young People, here in Sydney. The mentoring program runs around the country, in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and brings together four emerging playwrights in each city to work for a year with industry mentors, usually playwrights. We write two short pieces over the course of the year and have them rehearsed by actors with an experienced director, for a staged reading. Seeing your words in the hands of actors is really the only way to know if what you’ve written actually works for stage and the mentorship gives us space to play and experiment.

It is such a privilege to be able to work with such talented young writers and the powerhouse of support for new Australian writing that is ATYP. Being able to meet my peers and work and laugh and hang out with them, here at the beginning of our precarious journey as artists, is such a joy.

What do you do for fun?

Hahaha, good question! I read, pretty much whatever really, but at the moment, I’m reading lots of play scripts and Australian novels and short story collections published in the last year. I eat (it’s Ramadan at the moment, so I’ve got food on my mind). I hang out with a bunch of my high school friends who’ve all made the dreaded exodus to Sydney. I stay in my pyjamas all day and watch terrible (and sometimes passably respectable) TV shows. I sit in my window and watch people wander through Kings Cross, just outside my shoebox studio apartment.

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