Meet the Writer: Kalungi Ssebandeke

We’re excited to announce the recipient of the Bush’s new Passing the Baton Commission for the main house as Kalungi Ssebandeke.

Passing the Baton is a three-year programme to rediscover artists of colour who carved their way through British playwriting with distinction. In 2018 we introduce you to Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock, a playwright on whose shoulders we stand.

You can read Winsome’s introduction to Passing the Baton here.

Alongside these plays, each year a promising emerging writer of colour will be commissioned to pass the baton between generations. Kalungi Ssebandeke is the first writer to receive the Passing the Baton commission. He’ll be mentored by Winsome Pinnock and our literary team.

Kalungi’s debut play Assata Taught Me received rave reviews at the Gate Theatre last year. He has worked at the Bush as an actor in We Are Proud To Present… and Black Lives, Black Words and is currently studying acting at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. You may recognise him as Nate from Series 10 of Doctor Who.


What does the Passing the Baton commission mean to you?

It means I get to write something fresh and new which is always a challenge if you’re not certain whether that piece of writing is gonna get read or considered. So it gives me the confidence to write knowing that it has legs and will be in safe hands being read by the Bush. The sort of work that I like is being produced here so it means so much.

From working here as an actor to now having the opportunity to write for the Bush just goes to show that perseverance and belief in myself as a performer, artist and writer pays off. It means even more because Passing the Baton is championing artists that wouldn’t otherwise be championed. So I get an opportunity to not only continue on where people like Winsome Pinnock started, who paved the way for us, but also to kind of introduce new stories that are inspired by the work that her generation started. It’s amazing to be almost piggy baking off of great work that the generation before us started.

Passing the Baton is a nice analogy because as you know in a relay you’re not casually passing the baton on it’s intentional. And it means that once I take the baton I’m not just gonna be casually walking off. I have to continue on for the next person with the same purpose and same intention.

Winsome Pinnock and Kalungi Ssebandeke at the Bush Theatre. Photo: Rebekah Ellerby

Winsome Pinnock and Kalungi Ssebandeke at the Bush Theatre. Photo: Rebekah Ellerby

What’s your experience been like transitioning between an actor and a writer?

I think I’ve always been both but the transition’s been made easier because I’ve taken a little time out from working as an actor by just training, going off to drama school. So it means I can focus on the drama school training but also focus on the writing at the same time because I’m not chasing an acting career at this moment in time. So that makes the transition a little bit easier.

How does your acting and writing experiences inform each other?

They relate to each other in that the acting helps the writing and the writing helps the acting. So it when it comes to characterisation I take on board the work I do as an actor and vice versa.

Kalungi Ssebandeke starred in We Are Proud to Present at the Bush Theatre in 2014. Photo: keith Pattison

Kalungi Ssebandeke starred in We Are Proud to Present at the Bush Theatre in 2014. Photo: Keith Pattison

What has your experience been like as a playwright so far, especially having Assata Taught Me at the Gate Theatre?

It was amazing. It’s been more than I expected actually. Having a play published that was probably one of the most exciting things about the whole process. Then the feedback after from people who saw it and people that have also had a chance to re-read it has been great. The comments that people have made have been more than just flattering. They’ve meant so much to me because people have talked about how it’s changed their view on how they look at race, which a subject in the play. It’s great to know that my play kinda sparked something in someone.

Adjoa Andoh (who also stars in Leave Taking) as Assata and Kenneth Omole (Fanuco) in Assata Taught Me at Gate Theatre in 2017. Photo:  Ikinyum Photography

Adjoa Andoh (who also stars in Leave Taking) as Assata and Kenneth Omole (Fanuco) in Assata Taught Me at the Gate Theatre in 2017. Photo: Ikinyum Photography

Do you have inkling what this next commission might be about?

It’s early days! But I do have a few little ideas… I don’t want to commit to something and then that idea gets taken over by another idea. But I’m sure that whatever it is I come up with is gonna be exciting.

“Even when it seems like I’m not observing I’m observing and being very open to different ideas and people’s stories and listening to people.”

You spoke about Passing the Baton on from the last generation. What about Winsome in particular, did you know her work before this?

I’d heard of her because she’s part of the list of writers that always come up in discussion when it comes to Black writers. But what’s even more interesting is that I was sat next to her when she was watching my play. After she saw it, we started speaking for a bit and just kinda left it at that. Then fast forward and this commission is happening. I’m in the process of reading Talking in Tongues and regrettably and ashamedly I wasn’t familiar with Leave Taking. So I’m really excited to see it.

What are your tips for newer writers?

One major tip I always think of, and Winsome does a similar thing, is setting aside time to write for a minimum time of 90 minutes a day. It’s known as the Golden Rule. You set aside that time to just free write without censoring yourself and without even like taking your eye off the laptop, piece of paper, type writer, whatever it is you’re using. Just keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. You might write five pages or ten pages in that session. If you do that every day for seven days you’ve got a first draft of a one act play.

Also, keep on observing. Like I observe everything. Every single thing like, even when it seems like I’m not observing I’m observing and being very open to different ideas and people’s stories and listening to people. I think it’s probably underrated to just listen more than speaking. It’s really helps the writing.

Interviewer: Rebekah Ellerby @rebekahellerby

You can follow Kalungi on Twitter here @Kalungi_.

Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock is in the Theatre 24 May – 30 Jun 2018. Find out more and book tickets for Leave Taking here.

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