Utopia Theatre Company founder Moji Kareem is eager to take audiences to another level of theatregoing experience. As an absurdist play The Shepherd’s Chameleon seems the perfect production to push the boundaries with. Speaking to the director and actor I discover Kareem’s lifelong passion for theatre and her personal vision for the future of theatre.
Why did you choose to put on this unusual play?
(Laughs) I chose it because it’s one of the rarely performed plays and I like Theatre of the Absurd. I really enjoyed reading it and thought of how I would put it on stage. Theatre of the Absurd is itself a theatrical part of existentiality with lots of physical movement. It came about after the Second World War and it was a rebellion against idealism, institutions and general bourgeoisie culture. A group of people including the playwright Eugene Ionesco came and decided that the emotional connection between the audience and the people on stage needs to be looked at and extended.
You specifically cast physical theatre actors. Why did you make that decision?
That was a directorial decision. The play itself is an ordinary play and I’ve taken out all the original stage directions and put in my own. A physical actor is an actor where all their motivations and drive is not necessarily internalised; it’s their movements that drives all of what they do on stage.
I wanted to read theatre at university but my parents wouldn’t allow me to. In Nigeria it’s just not one of the courses that is encouraged for children to do, so I read English literature.
It’s not naturalistic so the movements the actor makes on stage are not necessarily the movements they would make in real life. That’s a very specific art form but the way is there are other elements which are layered into that. I’ve taken ideas from different ways of doing theatre so I incorporate music, sound, comedy and gestures. There are natural movements, physical movements, and dance movements so it’s almost like a mish mash of everything.
What inspired you to set up Utopia Theatre Company?
One of the reasons I set the company up is that I go to the theatre all the time but I sometimes get disappointed. I wonder why people don’t experiment more the way they do with films or opera. I would like to push the boundaries and I would also like to give actors the opportunity to explore different ways of working and collaborating. Because it’s such a small company we are not able to do everything I would like us to do, so we are trying to showcase our work and hopefully get funding. Failing that I’d at least like get other artists on board so we can experiment with some other ways of doing theatre.
Having studied in York have you noticed any differences between northern and southern England?
Not really apart from obviously in the south there are more opportunities and more things to see. More artists in London are breaking out and taking the bull by the horns. But the inspiration to form the company came from York because the city is full of theatre students who graduate and can’t find work. Two of the people in this cast were at the university with me and both of them have acted for me before. The people are very friendly and the York Theatre was very supportive; I did an internship there and they’ve been very helpful. I have very good memories of York.
I was born here and I went back to Nigeria when I was six and then I came back to England when I was 23. I can hardly remember life before I was six; all I remember is having to eat cornflakes and then travelling to Nigeria. Just the transformation of getting to Nigeria and then they drop you in the boarding school and that’s it really. I enjoyed my time at boarding school; it was harsh but I had a great time. My parents were very strict so it was almost like a summer camp.
How did you become interested in theatre?
I don’t want to be put in any particular box I just do plays on the basis that we have something new to offer the audience. It’s all about using inspiration to do something different
I’ve always been interested in theatre, even when I was at secondary school. I wanted to read theatre at university but my parents wouldn’t allow me to. In Nigeria it’s just not one of the courses that is encouraged for children to do, so I read English literature. Then in Nigeria you do National Youth Service and I was at the television authority and was placed in the drama department. I got to be part of lots of different things so that ignited my existing interest in theatre. Since I came to the UK I’ve always been involved in theatre and I went on to do my degree in theatre so it’s been a lifelong passion.
Your directorial debut House of Corrections was fantastically received. How do you feel about receiving your first industry reviews?
Ooh I’m looking forward to it! I’m the sort of person that’s open to constructive criticism or feedback as they call it. I think in so far you have reasons for whatever your opinions are and I’m happy with it and I look forward to it. I know that one of those things that is needed in order to progress.
What do you think people will take away from this production?
I think one of them is that they will take away the feeling that life is fun. (Laughs.) I see life as a vicious circle; we go round and round and sometimes things don’t make any sense but when you look at it overall it is fun to have life. It is fun to be able to go from one day to another day even though things we do on a day to day basis may be mundane. That’s what happens in this play; there are lots of mundane conversations and mundane actions but by the time you’ve got to the end of the play you come out thinking ‘Actually that’s been fun!’ Sometimes we go through life thinking we haven’t achieved much and actually when you put it altogether you have achieved a lot. Just staying alive is a huge thing to feel good about.
The Shepherd's Chameleon in rehearsals [image by Sloetry]
What’s your next step after this production?
(Laughs.)I have plans but they are rather secret! It’s a project where I will take a classic text and set it in Africa. It’s a big project and I’ve been advised that not too many people should know about it at this stage. So I can’t tell you much more than that, sorry! (Laughs.) In this project it will be an all black cast and it’s an opportunity that I would like to give black actors. But Utopia isn’t a black theatre company because what I want the company to provide is an opportunity for everyone really.
Any actor that is ready to have a foothold in the profession and have the chance to have people see their work. I don’t want to be put in any particular box I just do plays on the basis that we have something new to offer the audience. It’s all about using inspiration to do something different.