Jameela Khan wears many hats but mainly describes herself as a Producer and Director. She loves working with actors and in rehearsal rooms, and writing.
Knowing how rare opportunities are for Muslim children to see themselves represented on British stages, Amal funded Stratford Circus Arts Centre in London and Kala Sangam in Bradford to commission a piece of family theatre that would feel accessible to families of Muslim heritage. Jameela responded to the callout and won the commission with Bird in the Window, written and directed by Jameela and fellow theatre maker Umar Butt. It premiered at Kala Sangam in November 2021.
"I dream of making the equivalent of The Goonies for theatre."
When asked if her Muslim heritage inspires the work that she does, Jameela responds carefully. She thinks the stories we tell inevitably have personal aspects to them, that they’re a reflection of our lived experiences. But she isn’t so concerned with trying to identify the kind of work that she makes. She mentions director Alan Parker, how every film he made was so different. How refreshing, that he could do The Commitments about an Irish musical band as well as Bugsy Malone, a child gangster comedy set in New York - whatever moved him. She wants to be like that, and why can’t she be? She grew up watching lots of amazing films and wants to make something that kids will remember, that they’ll want to take their children to see.
Her dream is to make the equivalent of cult adventure comedy film The Goonies for the theatre.
"I thought, okay, as an exercise, I’ll try it. I’ll offer up some ideas that I know they won’t go for, because they’ll want something stereotypical about Muslims and I’m not going to do that.”
Engaging Muslim Artists
Jameela felt dubious about a callout for stories that put British Muslim experiences on stage. She was interested to know if this was just another arts organisation wanting to pay lip service to presenting diverse content.
Jameela submitted an idea for the callout and was selected to receive the full commission from Amal to develop Bird in the Window to tour around the UK. "It was a bit of a shock." For the first time, Jameela was given an opportunity to produce a piece of work where she had sole creative freedom and the funds to match.
Amal's commission award was not limited to financial support and came with development support from Kala Sangam. Jameela was able to create a majority Northern team around her and was provided with studio space, mentoring and support on navigating applying for additional funds to Arts Council England, a vital source of funding for many artists. She says the support given was instrumental in teaching her about the whole theatre-making process and what it takes to produce work from start to finish.
Jameela feels incredibly proud of Bird in the Window. Her support from Amal and the staged development of the piece helped her work out how to accomplish what she wanted. She wants to work this way for every piece of theatre she does.
The Audience Approves
Sitting in the audience with children and families was the true litmus test for the success of the piece. Seeing them react the way they did and having fun made her think, “Okay, this is good”. If they hadn’t responded so positively, then she might have decided this work wasn’t for her after all. Why make theatre if the audience isn’t going to react? For Jameela, it is about making work that resonates. Reactions included Muslim children in the audience exclaiming “Oh, is that a mussala (prayer mat)? Is he Muslim?!” Jameela was aware they only see these objects in their homes, in safe spaces, where they’re not asking each other whether they’re Muslim or not. It’s in public that they never see them. No one sees a prayer mat just rolled up on a set at the theatre. For Jameela, bringing these details into a fun, family show is the change she wants to be part of.