PRODUCER PROFILE: Tolu Agbelusi
Tolu Agbelusi is a Nigerian British writer, performer, producer, educator and lawyer. Shortlisted for the 2018 White Review Poetry Prize, she is a BBC Slam Finalist and a Callaloo Fellow who is published nationally and internationally. Her first theatre production Ilé La Wà is now on tour following a brilliant first run at Stratford Circus. For more information about Agbelusi, visit www.ToluAgbelusi.com. www.whenifindhome.com is where to find information about the tour.
How did you fall into producing?
I fell into producing by mistake. I had a project (Home Is… project) that needed to be seen but I’m not from the theatre world so all the procedure and connections that may have facilitated that were not available to me. My only option as I saw it was to do it myself. I paid closer attention to what others were doing, cold called several people for advice or assistance and used my well tested abilities as a practical person who gets things done to move the project forward. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that the person who did what I was doing was usually called a producer.
How did ILÉ LA WÀ come about? Can you sum up months of process into a short story?
Ilé Là Wà is the theatre production hailing from the Home Is… project so it is rooted in conversations and poetry. I interviewed people around the country on film about their experiences of home and displacement, worked with poets to turn some of those narratives into poetry and to discuss important themes that repeated in our lived experiences as much as in the narratives collected, and then I started tying it all together in characters. The first draft of a scratch version of the play was completed in December 2015. It was around that time I submitted my second GFTA application for an R n D, the first one having been unsuccessful. The application process was stressful but I was determined and blessed with people who were happy to look over the applications. Second time lucky, we scratched a 20-minute version of the play with poets playing the roles at the Free Word centre in June 2016. The feedback was positive so I started calling around venues to see if anyone would take us on for real. Contact Manchester and Richmix London agreed to partner with us. I successfully applied for more funding, got a director, a cast of actors, and in November 2016, a full R n D showing took to the Contact main stage with a full preview produced to a sold-out audience at Richmix some two weeks later. It all seemed a bit surreal especially as I was acting, producing, marketing and tired. The aim was to tour in 2017 and so I attended a pitching event organised by House theatre and did a short presentation. Consequently, Stratford Circus partnered with us to showcase Ilé La Wà during the 2018 Refugee Week with 4 shows over 3 days. We sold out every night and planned to tour in October 2018. Venues were agreed and funding secured after about 3 unsuccessful attempts, but it wasn’t to be, at least not in October. The production team has now expanded to include Emmanuel Nwosu and Ilé La Wà is touring to 6 cities starting with Proteus in Basingstoke on 10th April, including to some of those venues that fell through in October. I have fought many fires on this journey and I expect there will be more. The process has been a learning one but much like Ilé La Wà means ‘we are home’, and home is as much conflict as it is resolution, I keep keeping on.
What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced on this production?
I can’t make my mind up whether it’s finding money or choosing the right collaborators. Procuring funding is definitely frustrating, particularly when you don’t have the funds to get an experienced bid writer. It takes ages and sucks the joy out of the process but it’s a necessity and I’m grateful to the Arts Council and Counterpoint Arts who funded us, and the venues who have partnered with us. The collaborator point is a much longer story.
How do you balance being writer, producer & actor?
I’ve always been a juggler. I work better when I’m doing a number of things but my schedule is crazy these days with workshops and my first poetry collection coming out soon. I’m still working on finding balance. If someone has keys to that secret, let me in please.
Who are your target audience members for the tour?
This is a play for everyone. For those with migrant histories of any kind, there’s a catharsis of seeing a reflection of our broad narratives on stage, so this is for us. It is also for any member of society who has ever had to ponder about belonging particularly in the age of Brexit.
How has Bridge the Gap helped your journey as a producer?
Bridge the Gap has exposed me to other producers like myself who are starting out with a million questions. The range of workshops, shows and people that I’ve been able to access, which I didn’t even know about before I joined the program, has boosted my knowledge bank immensely. The provision of a mentor is one of the biggest bonuses. Tracey Childs is my mentor and the ease with which I can approach her and ask the silliest question and get a response is not a resource I have found elsewhere. There’s a community feel here with people who have been through Stage One and therefore have a generosity that manifests in the way they share information and tips. I feel like I now have a better idea of the journey I want my producer career to take along with tools to assist on that journey.
What do you think of London as a place to make theatre?
London is a brilliant place to make theatre but it is sometimes impenetrable in that you have to know people to know people kind of way. Nevertheless, there those willing to help, even if it’s a recommendation. I’ve learnt to find kindred spirits who believe there is enough space for all of us.
One show you’ve seen and loved that will always stay with you?
Umoja at Shaftesbury Theatre in 2001.
Caught in the web of the government’s hostile environment as collateral damage or target, four strangers’ lives are interrupted when they can’t produce ID in a spot check.
“Ilé La Wà takes you on a journey of emotions…allowing you to appreciate your own journey no matter how difficult it may be” (Afridiziak). The Windrush scandal and a succession of Brexit immigration blunders have caused a growing sense of unease. In this rollercoaster described by Exeunt as ‘a strongly and beautifully worded reclamation of what it means to be and to belong’, Ilé La Wà challenges:
How do you belong to a place that doesn’t see you?