What Is Communal Storytelling? | Writing SILENCE

6 September 2022

SILENCE co-writer Alexandra Wood shares insights into communal storytelling and the process of adapting Kavita Puri’s book ‘Partition Voices: Untold British Stories’ into a stage play.

What about the story behind SILENCE makes it suitable for this kind of collaborative process?

The stories of Partition don’t belong to any one group, people from different religions and backgrounds were, and still are, affected by what happened, and I think a collaborative creative process helps reflect that, and helps avoid a one-sided version of events being presented.

Describe your collaborative writing process in 3 words:

Different, illuminating, respectful.

How was the process of writing as a team different to the way you typically work?

It’s completely different. When writing an original play I research and develop my idea and a story will emerge, whereas with this project the stories already existed, so it was more about using my skills as a playwright to dramatise them. I would usually be in control of the whole, whereas with this project I trusted that Clare, Abdul and Kavita were taking care of the shape of the whole, and my job was to ensure the individual scenes I had been assigned worked.

What challenges did you encounter?

Sometimes it was a challenge to have to curtail the individual stories for the sake of the whole. It meant containing stories when they had the potential to be more expansive, but this was absolutely necessary dramaturgically.

What was the most rewarding part of working on SILENCE as a team of writers?

I enjoyed getting to know the other writers, even though there weren’t that many opportunities to be in the same room together. The first couple of days of rehearsals were an exciting time to watch how other writers work, since I’m rarely in a rehearsal with another writer. Listening to the discussions the group was having, and to how different people thought about the project, was really fascinating. 

Can you share with us your favourite moment in the script development process?

Although I wasn’t in the room, and only watched a recording of it, I thought the first read-through of the script was revelatory. It revealed how deeply people connected with the stories and really brought home to me the importance of sharing these stories in this form, in a theatre, in which audience members might be as impacted by each others’ responses as by the performance itself.  

How did you ensure that you are accurately representing the lived experiences and voices of those whose stories SILENCE is based on?

Kavita shared the transcripts of her interviews, so I was mindful from the start that these were real people’s lives and representing them as truthfully as possible was essential. I was careful not to write anything factually inaccurate, and always trusted in the whole team to feedback on the scenes and highlight if anything was wrong. 

What is the power of communal storytelling?

Because it isn’t coming from just one person’s imagination, I think it allows the subject, the stories, to be the focus, rather than the creator. And perhaps it also empowers an audience to feel more involved, that their responses are part of the collective storytelling taking place. Communal storytelling instinctively feels more open, more generous, more inclusive.

Why should audiences see SILENCE?

Audiences should see the show because these stories need to be heard. As a nation we need to learn about and understand what happened during Partition if we want to understand multicultural Britain today. It’s not just a show about historical events, it’s about who we are now and how we got here. Thinking about these questions in a theatre, amongst a temporarily assembled community (the audience), is a powerful experience.

What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing SILENCE?

I hope they come away knowing a little bit more than they did about what happened during Partition, and as a result, about who we are as a nation now. As with any show, I hope they come out with some questions they are curious about and that it opens up conversations with others they might not otherwise have had.

Alexandra Wood’s plays include The Tyler Sisters (Hampstead Theatre), Never Vera Blue (Futures Theatre), The Human Ear (Paines Plough), Ages (Old Vic New Voices), a translation of Manfred Karge’s Man to Man (Wales Millennium Centre and Edinburgh Fringe), Merit (Plymouth Drum), The Initiate (Paines Plough, winner of a Scotsman Fringe First), The Empty Quarter (Hampstead Theatre), an adaptation of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (Young Vic/ART), The Centre (Islington Community Theatre), Unbroken (Gate Theatre), The Lion’s Mouth (Rough Cuts/Royal Court Theatre), The Eleventh Capital (Royal Court), the radio play Twelve Years (BBC Radio 4), and her audio play Descent (Audible). Her short plays include Pope’s Grotto (Paines Plough/ Come to Where I’m From), My Name is Tania Head (Decade/Headlong) and work for the Royal Court Theatre, Oxford School of Drama, Rose Bruford College, Dry Write, nabokov and curious directive. She is a past winner of the George Devine Award and was the Big Room Playwright-in-Residence at Paines Plough in 2013.


1-17 September | SILENCE at the Donmar Warehouse

22 September – 1 October | SILENCE at Tara Theatre