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Azan Ahmed - 10 Nights Interview

Telling a warm story of forgiveness and acceptance, 10 Nights will have audiences embark on a spiritual sleepover, contemplating faith, friendships, and future. 10 Nights was written by Oliver Award nominated playwright and Offies finalist, Shahid Iqbal Khan (Stardust, Belgrade Theatre; Sheltering, BBC Radio 4), who made his radio debut earlier this year with Love Across The Ages on BBC Radio 4. 

Ahmed will lead as the role of Yasser, in this powerful one-man production. Azan kickstarted his career, in the Almeida Young Company and moved on to the Bush Theatre Company. He can currently be seen in season three of ITV’s Van Der Valk, as Eddie Suleman, and earlier this year in ITVX’s new comedy Count Abdulla. Azan’s other theatre credits include, The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe, Conspiracy at The New Diorama Theatre, and Cacophony atThe Yard Theatre. Alongside his work as an actor, Azan is a poet/playwright and founder of Deen & Dunya, a poetry initiative elevating Muslim voices.

Ahead of the production touring visiting London, Bristol, Hayes and Leicester we chatted to Azan to discuss the piece.

What attracted you to this role?
I'd never read a script which humanizes several Muslim men with such care, wit & heart. Plus, the challenge of doing a solo-show was really enticing. Being alone on stage, keeping an audience engaged while bringing nuance and truth to each part. It scared me enough to try.
How much of yourself do you see within the piece?
I see alot of myself in Yasser. Yasser feels like an imposter, an outcast. As a brown Muslim man in Britain, that's incredibly relatable unfortunately. Yasser doesn't know how to pick up the pieces of himself after a huge loss. I know what that's like. The problem with Yasser is, he's too proud & reactionary to ask for help. Yasser also unhealthily questions whether or not he's a good Muslim. I think everyone can relate to that idea of whether they're doing any good. The play interrogates this question with a beautiful honesty.
This is the first time I've heard my own name in a script, I never thought that would happen.

Azan Ahmed. Credit Phizzical Productions

How is the rehearsal process going?
It's been so joyous! Samir's care for the characters has been eye-opening, highlighting that community is at the heart of the play. We are discovering, digging and playing, always being surprised by the layers our writer Shahid has sprinkled across the text. Performing this show is like an emotional, physical & spiritual workout!
Do you find that you have to prepare any differently when you’ll be performing in a one-man show compared to screen work?
In either process, you're always in the pursuit of embodying truth. With screen work, particularly with my role as Detective Eddie Suleman in Van Der Valk, you only have one day to film one scene, then it's gone. You can compartmentalize. So I like to prepare surgically & studiously, searching for several approaches. Holding on tightly to his truth, letting go lightly when playing with scene partners & trusting that the camera and editing will make my piece fit a sprawling jigsaw. 

Whereas in a one-man show, I'm responsible for assembling the entire jigsaw live, alone, in front of prying eyes who might even heckle. I've gotta make big offers so each character's unique essence is clear while ensuring they still feel real. I have to invite the audience in to be engaged. All while maintaining clarity of the story. Still surgically precise, but alot more taxing physically. I've even had to change my entire gym routine!
How important is it that stories like these are seen by a wide ranging audience?
Stories are a bridge to connection, a bridge for empathy. We're in a time where Muslims are being de-humanised again, where journalism is no longer an indication of truth. So, intersectional stories from the underrepresented are essential. They're an offering from neighbour to neighbour to make us realise we all have more in common than headlines would have us believe.
You founded Deen and Dunya, a poetry initiative for elevating Muslim voices. What can you tell me about that project?
Deen & Dunya is a platform where we are encouraged to experiment & expand as creatives. Poets work alongside a DJ to create something unique. It was actually created in response to the original 10 Nights production, to show that Muslims arent just South Asian, that we have more than one story. So to be acting in it now feels so full-circle. Deen & Dunya has sold out the Royal Court, Shakespeares Globe, Bush Theatre & Stratford East, alhamdulillah. There's clearly an appetite.
What keeps you inspired as a person and as a creative?
My dad keeps me inspired. His life so far contains a million stories that need to be told. I'm learning that the most inspiring things aren't always done by those 'ahead' of you. Sometimes it's your peers to the left & right of you. I love seeing multidisciplinary work that challenges form. Currently finding a lot of inspiration from Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan, Nadir Nahdi, maatin, Rakaya Esime & Zain Dada. They are wordsmiths & visual makers who reframe the power dynamics inflicted on their identities. Other than that, I regain capacity for inspiration in stillness, refilling my cup being hidden away in nature or by the sea.
What do you hope an audience member takes away from 10 Nights?
I'd love if they leave feeling hopeful for change. Honestly, I just hope every audience member has a laugh. Hearts are heavy with the suffering in Palestine, Sudan & Congo. Everyone deserves a good night out right now.

10 Nights runs at Omnibus Theatre in London from 7th until 21st February, Tobacco Factory in Bristol on 23rd and 24th February, Beck Theatre in Hayes from 25th until 27th February and at Curve in Leicester on 1st and 2nd March. Click on the links for tickets.

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