I always knew I wanted to write as a child. I used to write awful poetry which I wouldn’t show to anyone. When I was at law school, I wrote a lot for myself. In my second year I wrote for the student paper, and went to review a play by Roy Williams called Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. I didn’t write the review. I just felt that whatever that is, I want to do it. That play was telling my story. I wrote a play very quickly afterwards called Why Do All Katherines Call Themselves Kate. I sent it to the West Yorkshire Playhouse (now Leeds Playhouse) and the literary manager replied: it’s not very good but there’s potential. She gave me an opportunity and I wrote two short plays for them, on the back of which I got a commission from the BBC.
By the time I finished my degree I was fully committed to writing. At that time, there were a lot more resources for writer development with opportunities in regional theatre. I didn’t come from a family that necessarily wanted me to go into the arts. It’s usually law, medicine and engineering. I came to it very late and had to learn very quickly, making mistakes along the way. I feel like I worked throughout my whole twenties to get it.
It would be an understatement to say that literary managers/dramaturges Suzanne Bell and Alex Chisholm have had a great influence on me as a writer. The truth is, because of the time in my life when I found myself working with them, they had a great influence on me as a man. In many ways I owe these two extraordinary women everything. When I was at that crossroads in terms of deciding what I wanted to commit to doing with the rest of my life, it was their completely infectious passion for theatre and storytelling that was the deciding factor.
Though there were then many milestone in terms of getting started as a professional playwright, the biggest was winning a writing residency position with Papatango.
I had amassed a long rollcall of honours and awards, nominations and readings but as with so many new writing schemes, none of those plays had received the backing of a full production or found a producer willing to take that all-important risk on new talent. Becoming a resident with Papatango gave me the chance to make a professional breakthrough, moving on from ‘potential’ to realising my dreams. The residency brought me into a new network and dramatically widened my connections, which has proved vital over the years in taking positive steps forward.
During my residency I wrote a play called After Independence, which was subsequently produced by Papatango at the Arcola Theatre in London through May 2016.
The critical response felt pretty special. Better than winning an award. I think this is because I had worked hard for that moment for the best part of 9 years. I had done so many residencies and I had been shortlisted for major awards; I had so many close calls that I had honestly began to consider that I might never get the opportunity to make my professional debut.
Everything coming together the way it did felt like winning the lottery. You tell yourself over the years that all you can do is work hard and put yourself forward. And you go into the profession knowing that you are going to lose more prizes that you win. Just try to be ready, so that when you do win, you are ready to embrace it and run with it.
Then that moment finally comes, and for about 8 days after press night you wake up to confirmations that it had all been worth it like:
★★★★ “May Sumbwanyambe’s notable debut play” (Evening Standard)
★★★★ “A debut of astonishing maturity…Sumbwanyambe is a rare discovery” (The Times)
★★★ ★ “A strong debut” (Plays To See)
★★★★ “Beautifully crafted...Echoes of Chekhov” (Hackney Gazette)
“Highly intelligent and thoughtful…A writer of terrific potential” (Daily Telegraph)
“A beautiful production of a promising debut” (The Stage)
“Real eloquence and even-handedness…an insightful account of an impossible situation” (WhatsOnStage)
“A promising first play” (The Guardian)
“Sparks of genius” (Words of Color)
“A gripping clash…Sumbwanyambe’s writing maintains a cracking pace…Plaudits to Papatango for finding the best and brightest new writing talent in the UK” (One World)
“Hugely impressive” (The Spectator)
It’s a long old road to become a professional playwright: making my debut production was certainly not the end of my journey. Lots of good things happened as a result of its critical success, including that I was nominated for the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme by Josie Rourke and Clare Slater at the Donmar Warehouse to be their first Black British playwright-in-residence. At the time, Clare wrote that:
“I met May over 7 years ago now when I was working in the literary department at the National Theatre and he was part of the Old Vic New Voices programme. I have followed his writing with great interest ever since. He is a writer of extraordinary talent. If Channel 4 and the Donmar can support him at this key moment in his career then I’m certain that his writing, and his passion for the transformative power of theatre, would have a huge impact on our industry, audiences and culture. May’s play, ‘After Independence’, showcased his talent in 2016 and raised his profile deservedly. It was a phenomenal piece of work. Political, compelling, surprising, and uncomfortable, it garnered hugely positive reviews as well as winning the Alfred Fagan Audience Award. May is now at that crucial point in his career where he would benefit from an artistic home, giving him focussed support and creative nourishment, in order to ensure that he keeps writing and keeps surprising us all”.
Though the Donmar’s application wasn’t ultimately successful, as soon as I read Clare’s words I remember thinking just how right she was: I was at a crucial point in my career where I would benefit from an artistic home. While the Donmar application would have allowed me to have a much more regular presence in London, I thought at that point that I was always going to be primarily based in Edinburgh. I was born here and I’ve made a life and future for myself here. So if I was to have an artistic home, then it felt correct and necessary that be in Scotland.
I happily found that home with the National Theatre of Scotland, who put their faith in me and my writing, in a similar way to Papatango many years ago. I owe so much to NTS people like George Aza-Selinger (former literary manager) and Caroline Newell (Director of Artistic Development) for believing in me and backing me. Jackie Wylie (Artistic Director) gave me and my project her full support when she took over. Jackie and Brenna Hobson (Executive Producer and Deputy Chief Executive) really have created a first-class environment where minority peoples can not only see their stories and lives dramatised in the public arena but also have a fair chance to tell important stories on important stages themselves. The journey of becoming a professional playwright, for me at least, is the journey of finding a home.