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As part of the Black History Month Meet the Artist Q&A, we spoke with actor, writer, and director, Kalungi Ssebandeke.

Kalungi, who won the 2023 JMK Directing Award, makes his directorial debut at The Orange Tree Theatre with the play Meetings, by Mustapha Matura.

Meetings plays from Saturday 14 October to Saturday 11 November 2023. For more information and how to book tickets, visit Orange Tree Theatre website.

Tell us about yourself

I am an actor, writer, director, and musician. I have been acting for 16 years and trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I got a Master's in acting.

Since then, I have been doing a range of theatre shows. I am returning to the Orange Tree Theatre, having performed, and written a show there.

I just love the arts and the creative side of my life. Alongside my acting, I have also been writing. I wrote my debut play, Assata Taught Me in 2017 and that received its world premiere at the Gate Theatre. It starred Adjoa Andoh and was directed by BAFTA nominee, Lynette Linton. It was my first professional production, and since then I have been fortunate enough to have a few commissions and win a few writing awards. Most recently, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama partnered with Boundless Theatre to set out a show prize for their acting alumni. Together with the Museum of Youth Culture, they chose the writer that they felt was ready to write a big play for their students. And I won that prize.

I am developing my play, Black Terror, about Bill Richmond who was a former African American slave turned Bare Knuckle boxer in Georgian England. I am telling his story and setting it in a hybrid of present day and also the past. Directing is as a new love that I found and a new skill that I developed. Meetings is my professional directorial debut.

Congratulations on receiving the JMK award. Could you share more about the award?

The JMK Award is an award set up by the parents of a promising director, James Menzies Kitchin, who unfortunately passed away at the age of 28. His mother and friends set up the JMK trust, to support emerging directors. The award has been going on for 28 years and this year, I was the recipient of it. There is a plethora of directors the JMK Trust has supported, who have gone on to direct a range of work. I never thought I would be in a position to win it. It just happened to be that this was the year it was for me. I owe all my opportunities to direct to the JMK Trust.

What inspired you to become a director?

Directing is something that I have been working towards for a while. Even throughout my years of acting and writing, I was observing the directors I worked with. I worked with directors such as Matthew Xia, Monique Touko. I also worked with Chiwetel Ejiofor on a short film; I watched how he worked and the generosity he had. These are people I really admire, and I was hoping to do what they were doing.

An opportunity presented itself where I worked as a writer-director and facilitator for White City Youth Theatre. The project was set up for young, emerging writers and directors to work with a professional to create a project over the summer. They rehearsed and performed it at the Bush Theatre – it was amazing! This led me to work at an independent boarding school as a director in residence. I was able to hone my directing skills in a non-pressurised environment.

Bristol School of Acting got in touch and asked if I would like to direct something at the newly formed drama school, Bristol School of Acting, and I said yes. So, you know, things snowballed beautifully. I guess you could say luckily, but also intentionally. From then, Meetings became an opportunity I was ready to take on.

Can you share a bit about the show? What is it about?

Meeting was written by Mustapha Matura and received its world premiere in New York in 1981. The story follows a couple, Hugh and Jean, who in Port of Spain are living a middle-class life. One day, Hugh comes across a lady selling mangoes and it just inspired a nostalgic desire to taste all the old Trinidadian foods that he has not had for a long time. This leads to him wanting to find someone to cook him that food. They hire a young cook who brings the food, but also inspires an existential spiritual awakening that puts a wedge between the couple's long lasting relationship, putting it at risk. The play is funny, profound and asks a lot of questions around corporate responsibility and the voyeuristic desire to live with people who are not up to date with the modern world. The production is going to excite all the different senses of the audience. The audience can expect Calypso music, Trinidadian food being talked about and made on stage. There is beautiful set and lighting and movement direction. We have a really talented team that I am proud of.

How has Orange Tree Theatre supported your journey as both for playwright and a director?

Orange Tree Theatre have supported my creative journey since 2019 where I first worked as an actor, then a writer. The new artistic director, Tom Littler, has also been supportive and made his resources available. The whole team – from production manager, stage management, the company manager – have all been onboard with a lot of the ideas. The Orange Tree is very ambitious in all their productions, with plays set all over the world. It is the right kind of theatre for me to mount my first ever theatrical production as a director.

Have you got any advice for young black people who want to get into theatre?

Take some time to train if you can. It could be part time or full-time training - there is always scholarships and funding available.

Young people can join their local youth theatre. Most theatres have a young company. I know the Orange Tree has a young company. Reach out to friends and create work, write plays for each other. Speak to directors, ask them questions and if you could shadow them.

For the past three years, I have been holding a Young Reviewer Project with the Wandsworth Arts Fringe, where I teach young people how to write reviews.

Updated: 17 October 2023

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