Q&A: Playwright Sabrina Mahfouz

Interviews | 17 Oct 2017

Q&A: Playwright Sabrina Mahfouz

Sabrina Mahfouz is a British Egyptian writer and performance poet, whose previous plays include Dry Ice, Clean, Chef and Battleface. Her play Zeraffa Giraffa, based on the children's book about a giraffe who was sent from Egypt to France as a gift, is currently at the Little Angel Theatre and transfers to the Clapham Omnibus next month.

What was it about the story of Zeraffa that appealed to you?

When I read it and researched the story around it I found it fascinating. It revealed a lot of stuff about Egypt that I wasn't aware of; I found it very illuminating. Also it seemed to have a lot to say about refugees, and children in particular. Even though the central character isn't a refugee, he nevertheless doesn't have much choice about the journey he's making.

This is your first children's show - did you enjoy the challenge?

The thing that really interested me was creating a children's show that was looking at these dark and important issues. Trying to make that feel like an entertaining and heartwarming theatrical experience, while not glossing over the issues, felt like a brilliant challenge... Young audiences are very attentive, they take everything in. My son's two and half and he's seen three performances of it now now. He was completely silent the whole time, staring at the stage. I didn't expect that because an hour is a long time.

Were you much of a theatregoer as a kid?

Not really. My family came from all over the world so most of our money went on travel. So although travelling was very culturally enriching it meant I didn't go to much theatre or arts events until my 20s.

What sparked your interest in writing?

Reading sparked my interest in writing; as a kid I'd borrow as much as I could from the Omnibus, which back then was a library. Then in my early 20s I saw some people reading out their writing at the Southbank Centre, and found out about performance poetry which has been a really great avenue for me.

Did that lead you naturally into theatre?

I guess it does seem to transfer quite well... There is an intrinsic theatricality to performance poetry, and my poems always featured multiple characters so people were always telling me to write a play.

Who are your biggest inspirations as a writer?

They change all the time, it depends who I'm reading. From a kids' point of view there's obviously Roald Dahl, and poets like Roger McGough and Allan Ahlberg, and then there's my contemporaries like Laura Dockrill and Hollie McNish, and Nawal El Saadawi, whose novel I'm currently adapting into an opera... There are different people for different stages in my life.

How do you manage all your projects?

It's not easy, but having a kid meant that financially I had to say yes to everything. That's the honest answer. People think you do everything purely out of passion, but it's a job. Now my son's a bit older and at nursery I finally have the brain space to create my own projects again, so that's what I'll be spending the next couple of years doing. But you just have to try and prioritise as much as possible. The days of sitting in coffee shops waiting for inspiration are most definitely gone.

Do you think it's harder for people emerging now than it used to be?

I don't think so, because there's so much support now. When I did my first theatre show in 2011 I bankrupted myself and had to pay for everything because nobody was really that interested. Now that style of writing is considered exciting and sellable, so people are much more interested in supporting it. From the Roundhouse to the Albany or Apples and Snakes, there are so many theatres now that will help people develop their work.

You've clearly made some big financial sacrifices to get to where you are

When I mentor young people, I see their faces falling when I tell them because they expect that when you have some profile that means you're doing ok financially. And then I tell them I still have to borrow money off friends at least once every three months... It's partly because of the way the pay structure works - you get paid in instalments for a job that will last at least a year. And over that year the amount of money versus that amount of time you're spending on the project just doesn't work out. Most of my friends in music and visual arts who've been successful are still having to do other jobs on the side.

Would you take on film and TV work?

For sure, I've been working on various TV treatments and scripts and been on [development] programmes with the BBC and Channel 4. It's where a lot of theatre writers end up, partly for financial reasons but also because it's an exciting place to be creatively at the moment. So I'm definitely up for doing some TV stuff.

Finally, to return to Zeraffa Giraffa, what's one thing you'd say to entice people along?

Well, seeing a giraffe on stage is not something you're going to experience very often without paying West End prices!

- Sabrina Mahfouz was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

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