GDIF2014 Artist-In-Residence: Inua Ellams

‘Introvert and show-off; literary geek and hip-hop scenester – Ellams looks set for a long career mining his rich stock of internal contradictions.’ – Fest Magazaine

Born in Nigeria, Inua Ellams is an award winning poet, playwright and performer. His style is influenced by both classical literature and hip hop. Following is an article written by Inua himself, telling how GDIF helped him to overcome the fear performing in an open space and his return this year with more interactive activities with the audience.

Inua Ellams (credit Blake Ezra Cole)-small


The first time I went to the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, I went as a theatre maker/playwright telling Knight Watch – a story about the destruction of a city by the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. The story was divided into four sections and told in three different styles. The first in mellifluous prose, the second in classic poetic ballad form, the third in intense loose rhyme – closer to hip-hop than to any poetic form – and the last style was the first’s. The story was scored by Akinori Fujimoto on percussion and Mikey Fitzpatrick on flute, and was performed outdoors as is customary of the festival. Years before embarking on the project, following a disastrous Glastonbury festival where all the elements conspired against my poems, I swore never to perform outdoors. It was the reason I began to work in theatre, to share intricately written stories with audiences who’d want to hear them, in spaces where I could even control the smell should I wish.

Performing at G&D was in a sense, facing up to my greatest fears – to say I was terrified as the audience filed into the basketball court, took their seats patiently as Akinori struck the drums and Mikey began to blow, is an understatement. There were artistic and personal demons to wrestle with. The show happened in a blur; I wasn’t sure if the message embedded in the tale was understood, if the audience had stayed with me, if anything had worked. Days later, Kate McGrath of Fuel who produce my theatre work explained that not only had her twelve year old daughter understood the story, she had gotten the subtext; that the forest raised the young protagonist from the dead because he had been kind to the trees, and to survive, we have to rebuild our world in harmony with nature and the elements. Greenwich+Docklands Festival made me believe again. It taught me that if you respect the world and the spaces in which you live and create art that responds to it, the audience will walk with you to the liminal place where art exists, they will cross the line into that realm and follow you through to the other side.

It is said that in the in-between places (where the ocean meets the shore, in doorways when you are neither in nor out, in twilight when it isn’t dark or light) the fabric of the world is thin and ideas come into being; things materialise and dematerialise – magic happens, and is gone. The festival taps into this unquenchable of sources with the River Thames flowing to lap against the land, the mouths of streets that become theatres and disappear with applause, and at night when the acrobats and aerialists dive in and out of flood lights, existing and vanishing from one moment to the next, the world, our senses and our selves within it become fluid and this year, I will be attempting to document as much of this as possible.  I am incredibly excited to be returning to the festival not as a playwright but as the festival’s poet in residence. Over the weekend, I will be looking and listening out for glimmers of those liminal moments. I will run interactive poetry workshops from my twitter account for audiences at the festival, comment on shows and the general happenings, employing my visual arts background, I will also draw and sketch as the action unfolds, and finally I will write a poem inspired by the event to read at the close of the festival. The 2014 programme suggests this year’s festival will be just as magnificent as the years before and I hope you will join me in crossing the line, in following the performers on their journeys into the various realms, and through to the other side.

During the weekend of the festival, Inua will be running short interactive poetry workshops and writing an original composition to be performed on Sunday at 17:45.

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