I never saw plays about people like me on Australian stages. Writing my own has shown me a good story connects with everyone

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: China News Service/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: China News Service/Getty Images

There’s a moment in my play when one of the characters Bill is trying to convince the protagonist Nas to go away on a holiday with his wife so he can make her fall in love with him again.

“Just the two of you,” Bill says.

“Why do you keep saying ‘just the two of you’? What does that even mean? It would be too quiet. I don’t know if I would like it,” Nas responds.

When I first watched my play in front of a live audience this line received a lot of reaction from the Desi community who I was writing about. I heard murmurs of affirmation and thankfully many laughs as well. Going away as a couple as we all knew was a strange concept in a community where family was at the heart of everything. In fact in the past, couples mostly only really spent time “just the two of them” on their honeymoon before kids came along.

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The realisation that her father had never spent significant amounts of time alone with her mother sends Nas’s daughter Salima reeling. “Are you telling me that you and mum have never had time alone as a couple? Is that the reason you both are having trouble? Because I was always in the way?” Salima exclaims before having a minor existential crisis.

This is a play about different generations of immigrants – first gen like Nas, and second gen like Salima – and their attitudes to life. But they are also just an average family. And that’s what I wanted to see. Ordinary families like the one I grew up in who faced generational and relationship issues like everyone did, but who also happened to be from India or Pakistan.

Mostly, I wrote this play because I never saw plays about people like me on our stages here in Australia.

In fact the whole concept of becoming a playwright never occurred to me growing up in this country. It was only after I moved to London and I saw that playwrights didn’t have to be old, white men, that they could look like me, did I even consider it as an option.

I had some success having my work shown in theatres in the UK on main stages like the Hampstead theatre and Soho theatre. But when I arrived here in Australia what I heard was that the kind of stories I wanted to tell were being relegated as “community theatre”, a tag that seemed to have all kinds of connotations including that the work did not warrant the same level of merit as, say, a show that was being put on our main stages.

Community theatre was for specific communities I was being told, not mainstream audiences. It was a claim that really stung. And it’s perhaps the reason why we see such little diversity on our main stages – though perhaps that’s slowly changing.

One thing I have learned over my many years of writing is that no one knows what mainstream audiences want – they are all just guessing. And when works for the stage in this country are being primarily programmed by people who come from a similar background, a lot of stories that deserve mainstream attention are being sidelined when they ought not to be.

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My play is currently showing because we are doing it independently. Everyone involved in the production is doing so for the love of it as there is little to no money involved. With a cast and crew that is 80% POC, we all know the importance of making shows like ours a part of the cultural canon of this country.

As someone who grew up having to put myself in the shoes of countless white characters just in order to see an aspect of myself represented on the stage or screen, I can tell you that if you give audiences the chance they will lose themselves in the story. In fact many might even appreciate seeing a slice of life they hadn’t seen before.

When I write about a South Asian family, arranged marriages, having different generational viewpoints, I’m not just highlighting aspects of a community who many consider a small minority (when in fact Indians now makeup the largest migrant group to Australia) – I’m also bringing visibility to a significant portion of the population whose voices need to be heard.

And I can tell you wholeheartedly, there is nothing like seeing yourself represented that makes you feel like you belong in a country you’ve made home.

When I see audiences from a similar cultural background as me getting the inside jokes I feel great joy, not just because I am highlighting a cultural aspect that only we know about, but because I am also telling the world – this is who we are.

• Saman Shad is a writer based in Sydney. The Marriage Agency is playing at the KXT in Kings Cross until 1 October