An Interview With Amahra Spence
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Amahra Spence - With Text

Amahra Spence is an early ’20-something’ Birmingham native with an identity crisis who stalks her Granddad!

Ha! We knew this would keep you reading…This month Amahra will be showcasing her debut play ‘Abuelo’ at The Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

In Abuelo she tells the compelling story of heritage through the legacy of her jolly, gambling, allotment-obsessed Grandfather. But the best part is that she’ll be doing it with her baby bump!

So what can we learn from generations? Find out in this interview…

At University, you met The Rep’s Artistic Director who said one day she would programme your work. How does it feel to finally achieve this?
When I was at University, Roxana Silbert came to visit and she asked my class mates and I what we wanted to see at The REP. Everyone else was being polite with their answers: “Shakespeare”, “Ibsen”, “Sarah Kane”. I remember sitting there thinking we’ve already seen all that stuff, now is a good a time to be a bit cheeky, so I said, “Hi Roxana, I’ve written a play and I want you to programme it.”Thank God she laughed. I met her again some time after and recall feeling half proud, half embarrassed that she remembered. There’s no none-cliché way to say how amazing it feels to be premiering my first full-length solo show there. I have been writing since I was a child and fell in love with theatre at The REP, so to be able to come full circle with a story that means so much to me, it really is a dream come true.

In 2014, you worked with The REP’s Foundry artist development programme. How has this prepared you for Abuelo?
First of all, I have to say opportunities like The Foundry don’t come around often. The REP is essentially your playground for a year! I’m still chuffed I got to have that! The entire REP team were so incredibly supportive throughout the whole programme. I also met the most incredible artists during my time there. It was such a privilege being part of an open, collaborative, honest group. I was also able to test early versions of Abuelo at the Foundry Nights and the feedback from those helped shape what the piece is now. It can be extremely daunting being in such an environment when starting out in your career, so The Foundry really helped to break down some of those initial fears. At the same time, I had the opportunity to explore and develop artistically and find my own lane. I had this wonderful epiphany towards the end, in a conversation with Tessa Walker (The REP’s Associate Director). I realised I wasn’t going to make work or tell stories about things I didn’t truly care about. It sounds so obvious, but it’s insanely easy to get caught up in things that don’t matter when starting out. So far, doing what I want to do is working out pretty neat!

Growing up, what was the relationship like between you and your Granddad?
My Grandad is a boss! I once saw him snap a pumpkin in half with his bare hands – clean, one break, like it was nothing! Definitely one of my favourite human beings ever. We’ve always been a super close family. I would look forward to our Saturdays with him growing up. I still do. Watching Catchphrase, his Muttley laugh, dinners bigger than we can deal with. I am fortunate to still have him with me and he has not changed at all…He just moans about his ailments a bit more, but that only adds to the comedy of him. I have always felt like he needed to be on stage, he is such a character, but it’s only in the last couple of years I have been compelled to finding out more about him. In writing Abuelo, there were so many extraordinary things I found out about his history, things my Mom didn’t even know; I now go around telling everyone to interrogate their elders. There’s so much to take and learn and share.

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“…I now go around telling everyone to interrogate their elders. There’s so much to take and learn and share.”

Why is it so important for you to be able to tell this story?
There are so many stories, narratives, and perspectives that go untold and it’s a tragedy. I can’t complain about the lack of diverse stories on mainstream stages if I’m not actively doing something about it. I have the opportunity to do that and while my Granddad is still here and its great to celebrate that with him.

What can we expect to see in the production?
Put it this way,‘Abuelo’ is a verbatim piece. I stalked my Granddad for months without him knowing, video camera, voice recorder, everything and he had no idea. So a lot of the stuff that happened over that time has made its way into the piece. It’s an autobiographical piece, as much about me and my journey as his own, so Granddad isn’t the only one exposed on stage.

In a quest for the integrity and pursuit of truth I am trying to maintain with ‘Abuelo’, Daniel Bailey (who is directing) and I were very conscious that we wanted to avoid all the clichés of making work about Caribbean culture. No, there is no reggae involved. No, we don’t want caricatures. We don’t do stereotypes. We don’t want to fit into a preceding narrative that has no resonance with my Granddad’s experience just because that might be what people are comfortable with. I had the opportunity to present a multi-faceted Jamaican man and talk about real stuff – I didn’t want to take that for granted.

As well as getting ready for your debut show, you are also getting ready to be a new Mommy, congratulations! How are you feeling?
I’m still waiting for it to sink in! Though, I have never been so amazed with the human body. Its a beautiful gift anyway, but to be able to one day tell my child that they played a part in me writing and sharing my first full-length show, what an incredible privilege! I’m living the dream here! We just came back from a week of‘Abuelo’previews at Ovalhouse and every evening, just before show time, baby would give me a massive “break a leg” kick. Its such an amazing experience.

Has your pregnancy had any influence on your creativity for Abuelo?
Motherhood now plays a big part in the story, which I could have never planned for. It also helped give the piece that extra meaning. Someone once told me children can be a reason or an excuse. I want to exemplify that anything is possible for my family and I count my blessings in that I have the support to achieve what I set out to. I have to say its making me more productive too. I have got to get a lot done if I’m to justify a nap or two in the afternoon, so its keeping me on my toes.

What advice can you give to a Skool Girl?
Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Make your own opportunities. Expect nothing to be handed to you. Create your space. Be honest with yourself. Live your truth. Go out and conquer. Most importantly, eat well and get a good night’s sleep.

Abuelo is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre 14- 16 January.
For more information visit, / Tickets: 0121 236 4455 

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