Head of State comes to YASS Magazine

Set in the fictional country of Nechora, HEAD OF STATE follows newly elected Mo, as he accidentally becomes an over-the-phone therapist to the world’s most powerful leaders.

HEAD OF STATE is a brand new feel-good political satire for desperate times that explores the challenges faced by the global Left and the back catalogue of Ariana Grande.

Written by Rob Thorman, the show satirises different countries’ demons, explores how everyone in the world is still reeling from the same technological revolution and pushes audiences to see the climate emergency as an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and a chance to bridge the global divide.

Akshay Shah plays the charismatic left-wing firebrand Mo – Nechora’s newly elected Head of State – while Lawrence Russell plays every other country. The show is powered by an intense duel, as Mo’s chief of staff Joe – a centrist, sceptical of Mo’s grand ideas – throws everything and every character he can at Mo, to prove that Mo’s belief in a greater world is dangerously naïve. Rather than parody living world leaders, every country is personified as a recognisable personality disorder that Mo has to befriend, psychoanalyse and cure, all over the phone, in just a few minutes.

If the reality of the world feels too much to bear this February, retreat into a new fantastic fantastical political satire and treat yourself to HEAD OF STATE @ The Vault Festival.

YASS Magazine met Rob Thorman and Akshay Shah and they answered to all our questions.

What is “Head of State” and what shall we expect to see?

Rob: Head of State is a feel-good political satire. Set in the fictional country of Nechora, it follows newly elected Mo, as he becomes an over-the-phone therapist to all the world’s most powerful leaders. It’s a two person show where the wonderful Akshay Shah plays Nechora’s Head of State and the equally wonderful Lawrence Russell plays every other country. It’s big, bombastic, entertaining comedy but the show’s ultimately trying to say something about the state of politics today.

What is the message conveyed through this theatrical piece and what does the play explore?

R: All the different characters played by Lawrence Russell are all meant to be manifestations of the countries they represent – so lots of scenes explore some of the individual problems that the world’s different nations grapple with. Overall though through lots of fun and silly metaphors, the show’s trying to explore the possibility of change: whether it’s unhelpfully naïve to believe in it or whether believing in it is the only chance we have of making it happen. …You might be able to guess which one I hope people come away feeling!!

What inspired you to write “Head of State”?

R: You should never trust a writer who says “It came to me in a dream” …but this idea pretty much came to me in a dream (/as I was drifting off to sleep!) I’m really inspired by politicians like AOC and Faiza Shaheen and how they’re these incredibly smart powerful women who just exude charisma and energy. And I also have an unhealthy obsession with popular culture and popstars… So I was imagining what it would be like if someone that popular and that awesome could run the world and then suddenly had this idea of an incredibly pure character becoming a therapist to all the world’s dysfunctional leaders. Once I realised (/friends had encouraged me to see) that the idea was best realised as a two-person theatre show and that rather than parody living leaders, every country’s national problems should be distilled into a single personality disorder, the show really started to take shape!

Do you try to bridge the global divide and sensitise the audience regarding the climate emergency your political satire?

R: I think, bridging the divide is a really really tricky thing at the moment in the current climate. The language of compromise and connection is always very appealing to most sides of the political spectrum but then there’s also a real concern about giving away ground and the need to take a stand sometimes. What I love about Mo (and this is all credit to Akshay’s realisation of the character) is that he’s kind but he isn’t soft. He believes the best in people but if they’re wilfully ignorant or hateful he’s not afraid to call people out. As for the climate emergency and indeed all the pressing issues affecting the world at the moment, what I hope the show does, is make a pitch for it not being possible to solve these problems as individual nations and that instead we need to being even bolder in our efforts to co-operate and to break down the barriers between us.

You have been shortlisted for the BAFTA Rocliffe new writing award three times and have participated in the NFTS script development diploma two years running. What is the secret of your success?

R: Ha ha! That’s very kind but I’ll feel more successful when someone starts deciding they want to pay me for my writing! I think the secret to anyone’s success in the creative industry is persistence, resilience, and working on being kind to yourself. All of those things are A LOT easier to do if you come from privilege and too often I don’t think successful creatives want to acknowledge that as being a factor in their success.

Do you feel there is enough LGBTQ+ representation in the theatre industry?

R: I think as a straight, white male, I’m probably not in the best position to answer this question and I also think Akshay gave a brilliant response to a similar question that I wholeheartedly agree with. I think with all representation we’ve still got a long long way to go. But all credit to the VAULT Festival who make commissioning progressive theatre such a key part of their mission statement. Let’s keep going!

How has the audience responded that far?

R: The audiences’ responses have been absolutely fantastic. Everyone’s responded so warmly to the show which is an absolute credit to Akshay and Lawrence’s performances and how much energy they bring every night.

Who would you like to collaborate with?

R: Gosh, there are so many! I’m working on a couple of different projects with the very talented writers Molly O’Shea and Elaine Gracie. However, this is a very soppy answer but my dream would be to get to make one of the projects that I’ve worked on with my very talented wife Ella Jones who is an incredible director and storyteller. She’s just directed Season 2 of the amazing show Enterprice which is set in south London – it’s so funny and packed with such an array of talent. I’m so proud of her and I would love for the chance to work with her in a more official capacity in the future.

What are your future plans?

R: I’d love for the chance to get to grow Head of State’s audience and to try and take the show on to another festival or London theatre. I’m also really looking forward to getting back to writing and working on some new projects. I’ve got a few half-hour TV comedy pilots that I’m keen to start getting out there so…watch this space!

Do you feel there are any similarities between you and the character you are playing?

Akshah: I think what me and Mo have in common is that we both strive keep our values at the forefronts of our minds when we’re making our decisions as we move through life. Unfortunately, I’m not as much of an Ariana Grande stan…that is literally 1000% Rob’s area of expertise! I definitely became more of a fan through the rehearsal process!

Do you think there is enough representation of queer people of colour in the theatre industry?

A: I think its super important that we recognise that people of colour, queer people, and queer people of colour are very different, distinct groups who have vastly different experiences in the world as a whole, not just in the entertainment industry.

But. In short. No I don’t think there’s enough representation.

I think there needs to be huge mind-set adjustment because we’re not just fighting to be seen anymore, we’re also fighting to be recognised as having equal value, talent, and worthwhile contribution as cis, straight, white people beyond a tick-box quota or an after-thought.

I know this isn’t theatre, but I recently watched “A Personal History of David Copperfield” at the cinema and it’s the EPITOME of colour blind casting. Its how a period drama should be made! The story and characters are already fictional so I think that should mean that there’s free licence to cast whoever you want.

As an audience member, you blink at the beautifully mismatched casting for one second before you accept it immediately and just settle into what the story is trying to tell you about humanity. Seeing that film just highlighted so starkly to me that it honestly takes an almost embarrassingly tiny amount of bravery and creativity on the part of directors, producers, and casting to create a project that feels relevant and truthful to the world we live in today.

Yes, queer people and people of colour definitely have a responsibility to write our own stories. However, when we’re seeing so many films and plays being revived or rebooted in recent years, I honestly think it’s the responsibility of creative teams to ask themselves, what’s the point in telling (and financing) this story if it’s not offering some perspective or reflection of the world we’re in currently?  The world we live in is beautiful, colourful, vibrant, diverse, and amazing – so bloody show that!

What were the biggest challenges you faced while preparing for this role?

A: Honestly the thing I found really hard was the impromptu dancing. Especially when it got to the performances I found it so bloody scary!

This play is also my first professional theatre job, so I think that after I was offered the part, mustering up enough self-belief to convince myself that I could actually do it was one of the biggest challenges.

What were your first thoughts when you read the script?

A: This part is mine! 

How has the experience been?

A: As fun as the performances have been I think the thing that I’ve taken away from this is just how bloody brilliant, beautiful, soulful, kind, joyful, generous, and overall incredible Rob and Lawrence are. They’re just two of the nicest men in the world and going into a rehearsal space with them every day just felt like the most positive, enriching, empowering experience ever. Adore them both so much.

What are your future plans?

A: I want to tell stories that represent Asian people as dynamic, nuanced human beings beyond the defining factor of our race.

That’s not to say that stories about race and culture aren’t important. They’re immensely important when told truthfully.

However, too often, I think we see stories which rely on our cultures as a narrative tool to add novelty as opposed to showing those cultures as being living, breathing, constantly evolving entities that really affect our lives in very often subtle, and sometimes extreme ways.

Akshay Shah is signed with IAG. In 2019 he was one of the finalist prize winners of the TCN Monologue Slam. He has been training with Identity School of Acting for nearly three years where he has played Bennettin Punk Rock and Moe in Pomona. His short film credits include Shattered (Tony McGee).

Rob Thorman is a writer/director with a background in screenwriting. Rob has been shortlisted for the BAFTA Rocliffe new writing award three times and has participated in the NFTS script development diploma two years running. His short film The Ugly Duckling won Festival Favourite at Palm Springs Gay and Lesbian Festival and his musical-comedy When in Rome enjoyed a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe.

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