Leyla Josephine’s Collision of Theatre and Spoken-word Poetry
Image Credit: Perry Jonsson

Leyla Josephine is a performance artist and writer from Glasgow. She’s the former UK Spoken Word Slam Champion and her poem ‘I Think She Was a She’ went viral in 2014. This year, she brings her show Hopeless to the Edinburgh Fringe. Hopeless has been Longlisted for the Freedom of Expression Award from Amnesty International. Features Writer Carly Brown sat down with her to discuss creating a solo show, her work with refugees and how we might find hope in turbulent times.

A big part of the show is that joy is defiant

Tell us about your show.

It’s a one-woman show. It’s spoken word fused with my theatre background. It’s got lots of different themes coming through it. It talks a bit about refugees, walking, travelling, about moving on with your life and moving forward. It’s also about the news, how that can make us feel really hopeless and how it’s really important that we acknowledge the suffering and the joy within life. So it’s got so much in it.

Prior to Hopeless, you’ve won a lot of poetry slams and done a lot of feature sets. Is this the first solo show that you’ve created?

No it’s not – my graduation piece [from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland] was called What a fanny. It was a spoken word and theatre show I did when I graduated. But that was 2013, so quite a while ago. I did that for two nights in The Arches and then one night in York University. So it isn’t my first, but it’s definitely my first professional one.

Was there anything that you learned from doing that first solo show that you brought to writing Hopeless?

Yeah, I think I’ve grown up a lot and my poetry has grown up a lot. I definitely felt like that first show was kind of like: ‘Here’s all my issues. Here’s all my dramas.’ And I think Hopeless is much more considered and crafted actually. I’ve really thought about what I want the audience to feel, whereas the first one was just kind of giving everything that I had to it. The beautiful naiveté of doing your first show. That was the first time I’d written poetry as well. I think having four years to craft my practice has made it very different.

One of the theatrical elements that I noticed immediately in your show was your use of props – or, prop – with the duvet. I was wondering how you came about using that as a central part of the show?

I think that comes from my theatre background, knowing what an image means. The semiotics of what you see and what you read into that. I thought the duvet was a really easy way of being like, ‘I’m in my bed. I feel sad.’ That comfort that we look for. With the duvet, I had to spend a lot of time to get comfortable moving it.

Someone said to me yesterday, ‘I hated how you kept going back to your bed. I just wanted you to do something.’ But that’s what it’s about. That’s how you’re meant to feel.

The show weaves together autobiographical elements. One of the things that you discuss is working at a refugee camp in Athens. How did this experience impact your writing and what you wanted to get across in your show?

When I went, I wasn’t thinking about writing. Quite a big theme of the show is wanting to do something so you feel like you have purpose. That complicated thing when you want to do good, but are you wanting to do good for other people? Or do you want to do good for yourself?

I wrote maybe ten stories based on people I met out there. That was going to be a show at one point. But then I felt like, as a white woman, there was something really complex about me doing those stories. When I started writing Hopeless, I didn’t have any intention of putting those pieces in. But I realised that it was fundamental to my story. And I have to really trust that that was the right story to tell. I do have complicated questions like: Does that mean I’m exploiting their stories? Does that mean I can’t? But who is going to tell it? I just had to be so aware of that. It’s interesting and it’s complex. I wonder: What would they think if they saw it? But I have a friend, Amal Azzudin, who was one of the original Glasgow Girls. When she came to see it, she really loved it. That was a relief. That was almost a permission. Since that point, I’ve been able to go with it and not feel so guilty about it.

Even though the show deals with difficult themes, it has a lot of moments of levity and humor as well.

It has to. Otherwise people would be really upset when they left.

So was it important to get the balance right?

Definitely. I think it’s really important. A big part of the show is that joy is defiant. It doesn’t matter how shit things are, because there is always going to be joy. It was really important to give the audience a little bit of humour.

One of the things that you grapple with in the show overall is how do we deal with things and have agency when things do feel really hopeless. What do you want to leave the audience with at the end of the show, to carry with them, if anything?

I would love for them to feel hopeful. But I don’t think that I can, for everyone. I can just offer what I have and hopefully it will plant a seed somewhere. But I think admitting something is powerful. Admitting that everyone feels sad. Admitting that sometimes everyone does feel hopeless, actually that’s what connects us. That’s a really powerful thing, that people are aware they are not the only one feeling those struggles and pains. So I hope that they leave feeling a little bit more connected to the world around them.

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