From Tekken 3 to Michaela Coel: a Conversation with Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu

A conversation with writer, director, polymath Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu


Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu is a modern Renaissance man. His career began with an improvisation of a demonic ADHD-ridden Texan elf with attachment issues and has taken him to writing for the Royal Court, directing at The Young Vic and performing at The National Theatre. 

He won the JMK Award in 2019, after the success of his own play Sweet Like Chocolate Boy, and his direction of Arinzé Kene’s Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree Theatre.

We meet in Carey Gardens in his home of Stockwell – a place where he is imagining a series of one man shows over several evenings that link up to make a coherent mosaic of a story. 

When did you write your first play?

My first play I wrote when I was 17. It was called Grave Misjudgements. It was about an underground fighting world where aliens would meet to fight. My teacher said this is great, but this is very adult – so I had to strip that all back to what I might know. So then I changed it to someone who fell into the wrong hands – not so much a gang as – a person who was very smart but could be easily led. I only realised that later on. 

Does that often happen – that you realise things as you go along

Most of the time. I realise that I create worlds first – yes I can start with a narrative, but the narrative develops as time goes on. This is where my teacher was right and my teacher was wrong – I could have written that play about underground fighting aliens – I had every right to do that and it was personal to me – but I also feel I need to live a bit of life before I can

But do you need a right to write about something

You need to ask yourself why you feel like you need to write it. Because ‘you’ writing it is part of ‘its’ story. It’s only when you are fully clear with that that you can begin to write something that’s much more unique.

What I watch is not necessarily what I create. I actually love naturalism – I love a well-made story. But I don’t have a drive to create that – my work doesn’t end up being an A-B-C-D story. I hate the character as just a device – I’m not a device for someone else! – but I can be a catalyst for someone else. 

I remember in English studying Ibsen that everyone seemed to have a certain purpose to play. Which is funny because they’d see all kitchen sink drama as a complete reality. But they’re all just caricatures

Not even just caricatures. It’s so skewed – we’re looking at the point of view of ONE person – looking at his life – most of the time HIS! I’m not to say that as a man I’ve got it right writing non-binary or women characters but I have a duty to get better at doing that. What I’ve found in the classics they force us to read is that women are devices and nothing but. They have no drive of their own, they’re not multifaceted – if they do that it’s because they’re villains with masculine traits who are just a device to be destroyed 

Are there productions you’ve seen with women that are multifaceted?

One play – called The House that Could Not Stand by Marcus Gardley. It was about Black women or women with black within them, women who were concubines or mistresses who would get money for that. The play itself was a spin on a play by Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, about a woman who didn’t want her daughters to get married. It was a crime that play didn’t get a rerun.

It becomes increasingly clear that Tristan’s interest is inextricably bound to stories of complicated people in complicated worlds. Gardley’s play is partly about the sexual rivalry among Beatrice’s locked-up daughters – but also about the multiple definitions of freedom in a household that includes a black servant yearning for manumission. What could he think of Yerma – where the protagonist’s desperate desire for motherhood becomes an obsession that eventually drives her to commit a horrific crime.

How come Lorca can write multifaceted female characters?

Because the man cared about the women he wrote about – he actually cared! It’s contested that he was a queer man – but he already has the viewpoint of women not as sexual devices because he didn’t need them as sexual devices! 

Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play of Moonlight, wrote a trilogy of plays called the Brother Sister trilogy [first played in Britain at the Young Vic]. His first play funnily enough was a play on Yerma called In The Red & Brown Water, set in the Deep South. With this type of writing – when like him he’s a very out queer man – women are treated in a far more complex manner. Because even if they are catalysts for a main character – it’s made very clear that they had a life before the man, and they’ll have a life after them! 

It feels as if your plays often portray fantastical events in otherwise realistic tones. Sometimes though it’s the other way round – realistic events in fantastical tones. 

But magic realism is usually consigned to novels.

It’s actually hard to present magic realism on stage. You can only realise it on stage if you understand other forms of live art – if you understand what it is to DJ, if you understand what it is to dance – any other form of live art that can become a manifestation of that magical realism is the only time it can really work. If you take it too naturalistically that is for film. 

You want to create a project where people watch your work and as they’re watching it they’re imagining something else – ‘in real life what would that look like?’. That moment is what I strive towards. 

This is the thing about film – how do I realise on film the moment of your imagination expanding in that moment. My conundrum is how do you make sure that happens on film too. 

Because all the images on film are given to you for free – you have everything that you need. Maybe half of it should be film but there are still theatrical devices for that. It’s why I (sort of) love the Golden Age of American musicals on film – yeah they’re singing and dancing but – what does that really mean in the real world? Probably just that they’re having sex. 

I can only think of the Lars Von Trier film Dogville where there is only tape on the floor to mark out the rooms. The rest is up to you. 

Yes – the film forces you to imagine it. Especially in this time of hyperreality, in a Keeping Up With the Joneses-type world where it’s an almost voyeuristic way of living. In terms of the TV we consume – its a reality TV – there only doing that because the camera IS THERE. The most powerful moment of The Hills is when they take the camera out and you realise it’s all a set. 

Is there a specific London theatre that is lighting the way for challenging plays?

I don’t think you can talk about challenging theatre in London without mentioning the Young Vic. First off their space is one of the most malleable spaces I’ve ever seen. It can become ANYTHING. That in itself gives it pride of place. Since Kwame [Kwei-Armah] has been there it’s had good times – but he hasn’t had the chance to have a tenure. David Lan was brilliant there as well – his predecessor. But the thing I found out about him recently was that his time there was more about curation, and finding people – rather than being an Artistic Director who decides what the biggest shows of the year will be and bags them for himself. The Bush Theatre as well has a genuine sense of care for the community around them. 

Uxbridge Road is the road with the most different nationalities living on it in England. 

Sweet Like Chocolate Boy

Do you prefer directing your own writing?

No. I will only direct my own writing if the writing came from a devising process or if its a short piece of work – under fifteen minutes. I know with Sweet Like Chocolate Boy I did do that – that was more of a necessity because I started to feel like I was the only one that can do this. 

I ended up getting my friend Emanuel Sugo [a polymath in his own right] to produce it with me – and then he ended up being the producer for the project. Now he’s a proper producer for all sorts of tings – theatre, film. We had a scratch at the Cockpit, which was just two weeks of rehearsal that I used my student loan for, then we did it at the Jack Studio in Brockley – then we toured it: Battersea, Tobacco Factory in Bristol, Peckham Theatre. After that one – I’m done with it in its theatrical form. And I’m done with directing my own writing. 

I’m not a device for someone else – but I can be a catalyst for someone else

I wish I could have a process when it comes to writing. I write anywhere but home. I realise I’m pretty good at writing whilst I’m moving – on a tube, bus – I like a walk somewhere where I tell myself I only have to write one word. 

When it comes to film, and screen, I would direct my own work. I haven’t got a handle on that medium yet –  but that’s why I want to understand it more. I see film less as a progression – a lot of the time people do theatre, go to film, and never go back to theatre. 

Which I partly understand. Because I love the UK theatre art form, but I don’t love the industry. 

There seems to be with actors who have started out in theatre an almost snobbery about film, about people who go straight into film – where theatre is the pure form and the only way to get the proper chops for acting

Because theatre is exercise. Physical exercise. You have to be good every night. I don’t think it’s a snobbery though – I think it’s a problem with the fact that more film and TV actors don’t want to try plays. That’s a brilliant thing. It’s just that theatre is so badly paid.

And how about mixing them?

That’s where we need to be!!!!! This is one of the issues which is that Covid has opened up the conversation that’s been going on underground for a very long time – which is a question of accessibility. How accessible is theatre actually? Of course we need to keep the liveness. But do the audience always need to be there? Can we have a mixture? I just don’t think the theatre industry is thinking ahead enough like that. 

If we don’t take on the idea that theatre is just not as accessible as all the other art forms – if we take pride in the fact that we exclude – the industry will fall, or – as has been happening – all the bright sparks will go to TV go to film – and never come back. 

Theatre in terms of pay – is shite. When we do theatre – it is because we love it. 

Some of them are paid below London living wage. Even in the big London theatres. To be the billionaires of the world you come to learn to step on a few heads. That’s how things have become this way. So that then when actors go to TV and get paid £500 per day [!!!] more people are going to see them, it’s less stressful. 

One thing about theatre though is the energy of theatre – in whatever form–

–There’s nothing like it. You can’t replace it. But you can adapt it. Too many artistic directors – too many people with money – are going: yeah we could do that, we could pay more – but we won’t.

How does the play change through the run? It must be fun being anonymously in the unlit crowd watching it happen?

Now you say that – but all my plays have broken the fourth wall. So eventually they’ll notice me! Did you forget your lines! Yes, yes you did. 

You used a classic device of leaving the house lights on the audience for portions of the play. As soon an audience isn’t in the dark – and we can’t hide in their little cavern and can all see each other we all share in the vulnerability of the cast

There’s something beautiful about that. I’d like to do more of this. There are free radicals in my work – which means there’s something I’ve said to the actors: ‘this can change every night, but it’s got to happen’. So every night they can change. In this country, with theatre, we take the text as God. Whereas usually in Europe the text is but a huge cog in the process. There are certain cracks in the foundation that we are allowed to exist within – 

Theatres have these incredible sound systems that are usually used for the sound effect of like – a creaking door. So to be able to listen to Jungle and Grime on these beasts is just mad

Music is a character in my work. I can’t get away from it. But I learnt from my teacher at uni P.A. Skantze, who taught me that sound shouldn’t just be used as a backdrop with no meaning. I knew with Little Baby Jesus that all the songs were due to nostalgia. Because when you hear that song – suddenly you’re 15 again. You’re hearing that song again on your flip phone, your motorola–

Sent by bluetooth–

–YES, all of that – infrared ting – because the show was about nostalgia. You hear the tunes and go ‘oh shiiiiit!’. Then what can you do is use a song – like: this is a Garage song that I know, but because of where it’s put in this scene it means something completely different now. My job is to make you see that song differently once you’ve left the theatre – like a piece of set or costume.

Do you write to music?

Sometimes – I usually have a song in my head. I’ve had the Tekken 3 soundtrack in my head for something I’ve been trying to write FOR YEARS. I can see scenes based on that soundtrack. All I can say is that in every play of mine – at some point – has a sonic or visual video game reference in it. 

What is an ideal theatre?

This [Carey Gardens]. I want to do bare one man shows here and the one man shows all create a bigger piece – episodes of something. You come back one day and they connect up to each other. My ideal theatre is not a theatre. My ideal theatre is a space that becomes a theatre. That’s the theatre I started with – I did promenade theatre in the Flower Garden in Kennington Park with Ovalhouse – that is the theatre I actually know more. 

There is a halo in Little Baby Jesus that crowns most of the set. Are you religious?

I am spiritual. I was brought up a Christian and I decided to take on christianity for myself. There’s lots of denotations of saying you’re religious that I don’t think I agree with. I’m queer and there are parts of religion that would not allow that. 

But for me it is about the depth that I want Christianity to be – about love, about a higher power – about humility. 

I feel like I’m always looking for my church. My church needs to be a place that I need to be all comfortable to myself in – and completely submit. I come to church for the music – I know there’s always a monetary thing behind the scripture – and obviously I’m having to hide my queerness so I don’t necessarily feel wanted in that space. 

There are times in sermons where I would just know – you don’t want to talk about this. I’ve been to queer churches but they’ve often felt overwhelmingly white. And also I don’t want to just talk about my queerness all the time. I want to see how the sermon can be used in the world and what it means on a practical level. 

Rachel Nwokoro and Khai Shaw in Little Baby Jesus

It’s like religion is beginning to take a more quietly formative role in people’s writing these days. Like with Michaela Coel.

Michaela is a spiritual woman. I don’t know if she’d like me saying this but I think she is still a little Christian. However she’s just not taken on the mantle of what it means to be a ‘Christian’. If you look at I May Destroy You – to me – the central thing that made that show incredible was the power – and also the strain – of forgiveness. And forgiveness, repentance, letting things go – it’s the bedrock of Christianity. 

I remember watching Chewing Gum Dreams [a fifteen minute monologue that preceded Chewing Gum] for the first time – another play about a girl in her teenage years growing up and learning about interracial dating and being a woman – and about the trouble of understanding your sexual awakening. Because she was a bully – as well as being bullied – that’s another thing about Michaela she doesn’t just want to be the good person – she thinks it’s important to see the dark underbelly, the mistakes we make, that aren’t necessarily evil – just human.

Sweet Like Chocolate Boy can be played by a cast of four to 14. There are moments in the play where the story can career from an innocent enough moment between two linking lovers to terrifying monologues of a racist father’s escaped subconscious on the topic of his daughter’s suitor.  

How do you work with actors considering in your plays they often have to code switch so fast between characters fundamentally different in their morals and outlook?  

I’ve come to learn that I like to stretch actors. Especially black actors. I really don’t think they get to show their chops enough. That play [Sweet Like…] is difficult if you’re not ready to be stretched. 

I have an idea – I call it the ‘buck’. Especially with black men in these drama training situations or just in terms of typecasting: you have to be the Idris Elba – the strong masculine – which isn’t a terrible character but not everyone can be that. I call it the buck because it makes me think of slavery.

Where the most rebellious black slave was seen as the buck – and he would always have to be broken. Sometimes by rape – which is where a lot of issues of homophobia have arisen in different countries. A lot of black men are being pushed to be that – and if you’re not that – yeah you’re quirky but this country in particular has not caught up with you yet and there’s not a real place for that.

Either they play the comic relief secondary characters, or they play the buck. 

What does the future have in store for theatre?

We’re making some moves in some places and we’re REALLY stagnant in others. The conversation about diversity about black, South Asian – we don’t see no Polynesian writers out here – when there’s just a plethora of writers out there trying to get their works and their cultures seen. 

I can’t even name a Maori playwright

There is one play I can name from New Zealand by Lenny James who went out there and wrote a play – The Sons of Charlie Paora

We need to have a conversation about the relation between African-American, Black British, African in the continent and the islands of the Caribbean and who gets to do those and why. The fact that our split is profitable to others we need to have a conversation that theatre needs to be seen on the same level as film and TV. 

What I want to study: in what ways can theatre not just engage the community – but be made by, with, and for the community. Once the play ends – how do we continue the conversations (other than the post-show talk no-one stays for)?

As the photographer arrives I ask how the clearly unassuming Tristan – who I have no doubt will before long be behind a camera – feels in front of it. 

Oh – I’m just terrible.

Rampa  They Will Be