“Empathy is our most important resource”: Alexander Ananasso on A God Who Can Speak
Alexander Ananasso has long been immersed in theatre and is now making his official playwriting debut with his first full-length play, A God Who Can Speak. Due to open at The Space theatre on 2nd September, the play deals with otherness in many different ways. Through themes such as religion, sexual orientation and disability, it seeks to explore feelings and concepts that transcend labels and the discriminatory behaviours they attract.
The Upcoming spoke to Ananasso about the discoveries he made during the research process and about his personal experiences. The playwright, who teaches acting and personal growth and works extensively with the concept of theatre as a form of healing, shared his views on the crossover between the arts, self-discovery and mental health, and told us why watching a play can be a life-transforming experience for the audience.
When did you first conceive the idea of making this play? What motivated you to write it?
When I write, I don’t know what I will write about. It was a surprise to me that I ended up with a gay Muslim story. A bit less surprised that it included a deaf character and the use of BSL, as I was always fascinated by this language and I even took a certifying course. The first draft was down exactly a year ago, September 2021, and it was originally a three-page monologue. It quickly became evident that there was potential for a full show and I thought it may just be my first solo show. The concepts of sexuality and religion are often present in my writing. I am big on mental health and self-awareness. I am a very spiritual person, though agnostic and not religious, and passionate about inclusion. Being inclusive for me means asking questions and making sure that others feel welcome and part of the conversation or group. They’re not just there as tokens of diversity. I reckon that these interests of mine, together with rising racism, homophobia and Islamophobia around me, are what sparked the idea and the will to create and complete A God Who Can Speak.
What kind of research did the project involve?
Lots of research: I talked to many Muslims, especially gay Muslims, as I needed to hear their points of view on religion, extremism, sexuality, gender… I am really grateful for the fascinating conversations I had. I sent some previous drafts of my script to people to get their feedback. I reached out to many charities and I’m so humbled to have received good feedback and even support from some of them, such as Deaf Rainbow UK and Pink Therapy; in particular, I want to thank London Friend for deciding to sponsor my production. Thanks to another of my supporters, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, I could have a very insightful conversation with Asifa Lahore, a British-Pakistani Muslim Drag Queen. Asifa explained how Islam used to be the “religion of peace”, all about love and charity, helping your family, your community… And then everything changed after 9/11. Suddenly the Western media turned all Muslims into potential terrorists. I thought that it must be so awful, just a terrible stigma to have to live with. Something else that I personally find awful – more subtle but equally violent – is how much Western people tend to feel entitled to tell others (especially foreigners and immigrants) how they should behave: e.g. judging a Muslim woman for wearing a chador or being surprised when a Muslim woman does not wear a chador or expecting all Muslim men to be patriarchal chauvinists. Something that I was told and that might be surprising to some here in the West, is that most Muslims are actually liberal and pretty accepting people. But, as it often happens, a small part of them, who happens to be more vocal, is the one that the society will think of when they think of this religion, and they are the more rigid or fundamentalist ones. Of course, I think that organised religion can indeed often create prejudices in the believers’ minds; but I believe it has more to do with people not thinking with their own heads and feeling with their own hearts, than the religion itself. For example, as far as I know, there is nothing in the Quran that is obviously against homosexuality. The same goes for the Bible. Asifa actually mentioned to me that there’s a part in the Quran where a transgender person is actually even welcome in the Prophet’s parlour.
Did you come to any new realisations during the research process?
I was actually pretty shocked to hear from several gay Muslims how much racism and Islamophobia are present in the gay community. They always tend to feel like they’re not white enough nor brown/black/Asian enough; they’re not gay enough nor out enough. They feel like they can never win. Not a pretty feeling, I would imagine. What was heart-warming was to hear from Muslim and deaf people, from LGBTQ+ people (and also others not in these groups) that my play was important: that it needed to be done and that they were thankful that I was doing it. At first, I was hesitant because I’m not Muslim or deaf, and I didn’t want to misrepresent anything or result in being offensive in any way. But I knew that I could relate to some of the issues and that we actually shared a number of them. But I feel (and was also told) that it’s helpful that a European white hearing guy will talk about these things, precisely because I’m not part of the Muslim community and I am not deaf. Awareness is pivotal: you need to start somewhere. I say we start by discussing, and not labelling people as simply different from us. Instinctively, in every living human brain, “different” equals “fear”, and that often leads to a number of “othering” issues, including xenophobia, homotransphobia, racism and more. My play is not a documentary: it’s not representative of the average Muslim family. It’s a story of a guy who happens to be very creative, gay and Muslim, and his family didn’t take his sexual orientation well – but we don’t actually know much about what else happened, because Mohamed (the protagonist) seems to be, for the most part, lost in his own head, and this, together with having to hide his love story, leads to some pretty poor choices. Sometimes the little things, or just talking, are what help us feel better, and Mohamed didn’t feel he had any of that. I also worked with a BSL consultant, as the concepts I have to sign in the play are quite subtle and complex for a beginner such as myself. I had already done some research on deaf culture. Many of people feel like they’re not disabled at all. I kind of get that, for one thing because they get to experience life in a way that hearing people won’t. For example, I personally always found fascinating the concept of experiencing spirituality through silence. As I wrote this play, this made me think about how rules could be bent if there was a “valid” reason, such as a disability. So if they can be bent for that, why not for loving someone who’s the same gender as you? Why can’t we make our own rules for relating to the Divine? Some religious people do get this; many sadly don’t.
What will you be bringing to the play from your own personal experience?
I grew up in a very religious country. And was born in the city that has the most “sacred and profane” paradoxes: Rome. There’s extreme Christianity and rigidity there, but also more progress than in many other parts of the country. There is much racism, xenophobia and homotransphobia, too. Being a gay man, it probably wasn’t the best place for me to grow up in. I experienced discrimination, bullying and prejudice in my own skin. I’ve suffered both physical attacks (a few) and (many more) micro-aggressions. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why I’m so big on mental health now. Feeling different, wrong and isolated can have a very bad impact on your mind and body. I have met many people who are or were depressed, who had to flee their families, who don’t talk to their parents anymore. Not everyone reacts in the same way: some might appear exuberant or over the top, but that might be their own way to search for happiness – they feel the need to express themselves instead of repressing what they have inside, and they just do it. Can everyone else say they listen to their own inner nature in the same way? I feel that people should speak less and listen more. Empathy is our most important resource. I tried to convey this in my play.
How does the UK fare in these matters?
Here in London things are different, and though they’re not great, especially after Brexit and the rise in xenophobia (and relative hate for foreign cultures and religions) and homotransphobia, I still think they’re better than in Italy. At least here there’s much more awareness of those issues. Of course, on the other hand, the English culture is riddled with classism and just general “othering” problems, some of the worst I’ve ever seen. This is especially true for the entertainment industry, where a non-UK-born person (even if living in the UK most or all their lives) is never seen on UK stages or screens, if not for a tokenistic or stereotypical role. A British actor would be expected to interpret a foreign character and speak (or more often butcher) a foreign language, but virtually never is a non-UK-born actor seen playing a British character. Even plays and TV series set in London often have a non-diverse cast – I mean, have you been in London? 33% of its population is non-UK-born. And that number is from 2010. This is why in 2020 I co-founded the Equity Non-UK-Born Artists Network. I’m passionate about languages, multiculturalism and the concept of “othering”, and it’s all very personal stuff. All this certainly informs my writing.
This is your second work as a playwright. Do you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Well, when I wrote the first draft of Deliverance, my 15-minute play, I didn’t know who’d have watched it, but I felt it was important that I kept working on it. And then when it was selected to be produced in NYC in June 2022 as part of the SPOT One Act Festival, I was really chuffed. I think people interested in mental health in general would possibly be interested in my plays. As I mentioned, I often write about the concept of “othering”: meaning a form of prejudice or discrimination, be it internal or practical, obvious/physical or a micro-aggression, or even just silencing.
You are the writer and performer of this play and you also have some directorial experience. How would you describe the interconnectedness between these roles?
Writing was always part of my acting process: I would always write the backstory of the character (usually tens of pages!) and it would help me hugely in shaping it. The way I write and direct is very sensory. I use lots of visual and sound inputs, and I also love to involve the audience if I can, making the show at least semi-immersive. I did it for my previous play, Seven Short Blasts and will also do it even more in A God Who Can Speak. I won’t deny that writing, directing and starring in a solo show is not a Sunday stroll in the park! But I always love a challenge. I always taught in my classes that acting, writing and directing are interconnected skills. It’s very helpful for an actor to be able to write and direct, or at least to know the basics of each. The same goes for a playwright and for a director. It’s a team effort! The finished work is the show: the script, the directorial notes, the character work are all backstage work, leading to what the audience will see on stage (or on the screen).
In what ways is theatre therapeutic?
Theatre is a form of art and art is a form of therapy. Theatre is therapy for society. Its job is to hold a mirror to your face and show you the things that you could be if you had the courage, the things you fear, the things you love but don’t dare reveal… Theatre cannot not be about the individual witness/watching, hence, it’s also political: it’s about the people. It’s about your personal journey, therefore it’s about society’s collective journey. To me, the actor must be fully vulnerable when on stage, showing their truthful self (only possible when they are embracing their character fully). When this happens, the audience is naturally drawn to watching, because people are not used to seeing vulnerable people just be themselves or speaking up or even just speaking through what they feel, instead of shutting down or dissimulating. If we really allow ourselves to comprehend what our “unfulfilled need” is and we embrace it, we give ourselves permission to use our pain and fears, to elevate them, instead of just allowing them to be hidden somewhere within us and fester; we turn them into something good, something real and beautiful for the audience to witness. In holistic therapies, I learned that when you witness truthful change, not only are you manifesting that change, but it changes you too in some way – if you’re open to allowing it and are willing to put in the work.
The idea of exposing the private in public is an aspect of theatre-making that denotes vulnerability. Does achieving openness and authenticity always involve a risk?
No. It’s our own projected fear that makes us believe that if we are open and vulnerable, it won’t go down well for us. Our ego’s job is to put up a persona, a mask, and to make sure we’re doing fine. Just fine, not happy or truly fulfilled, that’s not its job. It’s short-sighted. Its everyday purpose is not to let us crumble under the weight and obstacles of life. When we treat ourselves with love and compassion, giving attention to those parts of us that we want to pretend don’t exist, when we allow ourselves to say what we feel even though it makes us vulnerable, we are giving ourselves a chance. We are fighting to be truthful with ourselves. Chances are that being open and assertive, instead of repressed, passive-aggressive or conceited, is actually going to help make that connection you dread but secretly need. And if it’s not, you were still genuine and open, so you probably still did the right thing and were true to yourself. The right people will see that. I feel that in life we must learn to see through people’s masks. We put on so many defences that we don’t allow others to see who we really are because we’re scared they won’t like it. It’s tough work, but it’s highly rewarding. Big fan of psychotherapy here!
What do you hope the audience will take away from your play?
When someone asks me what the message of a play is, I tend to ask back, “What did you think the message was?”. I don’t like to feed the audience my opinions (in the way I do here, in an interview). Theatre is not real life or a documentary. I want my work to influence, move, and if I’m really good, even heal and change people. At the very least, they should leave with something to reflect upon. I do have a message in mind, and opinions of course, but I’m more interested in exploring the nuances of life, where most things are not black or white, and also every person is unique, hence they may be inspired or react in a different way, including hating it of course! Oh, and of course even though I’m Italian, there is no mention of this in the play – groundbreaking!
Are there any particular themes that you would like to explore in future?
I have already started on a few more plays, some about historical figures who reveal their true nature, another one is set in the American countryside and the protagonist is a mother who is trying to pretend she can’t see the issues between her husband and son…
What do you think of the current theatre scene in London? What would you like to see more of?
I think there’s too much concern with production and too little with acting. Theatre can be made of just an actor and a chair — or, (gasp!) they could be standing! There are some wonderful fringe productions, but when it comes to big ones or the West End, I often find I’m drawn to only one actor in the whole cast, if any. I would love to see less “technique” and more emotion, more truth. That’s the reason why I go to the theatre. Often I’m not looking to be entertained. I’m pretty good at entertaining myself. I just want to witness a sacred, magical moment and let it speak to my soul. Is that too much to ask?
A God Who Can Speak is at The Space Theatre from 2nd September until 4th September 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.