Jemma McDonnell on making Goldfish Bowl with Caleb Femi

Jemma McDonnell, artistic director of The Paper Birds, tells us about the new show inspired by poet and former Young People’s Laureate for London, Caleb Femi.

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“I met Caleb Femi three years ago when I went to the Roundhouse Poetry Slam final and saw him perform his poetry. Caleb won the poetry slam that evening. While there was an incredible wealth of talent on stage, Caleb stood out for me. There was an honesty to him, to his words, to his face, and to the way he held himself. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

“I met with Caleb a couple of weeks later for a coffee. He came directly from work as a secondary school English teacher. We sat and talked about what it meant to be a teacher: the curriculum, the pressure put on teachers and students, and the things we are teaching and not teaching young people.

“I liked listening to Caleb. It was a little like listening to a very wise old man, someone who had seen a great deal in his life. But all these observations, stories and thoughts were coming from a young man in his early 20s.

Caleb Femi in Goldfish Bow at Battersea Arts Centre (Image: Camilla Greenwell, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
Caleb Femi in Goldfish Bow at Battersea Arts Centre (Image: Camilla Greenwell, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

“When we began making Goldfish Bowl, I came to realise that Caleb had seen a great deal in his life. From his early years growing up in Nigeria, to exploring the streets and high-rises in Peckham, finding friends, grime music, girls, heartache, selling drugs, driving cars, having fights, falling in love, hurting, mourning, seeking revenge, healing, starting again, teaching and writing poetry. The show started to form, and it seemed to be about the many small but defining moments that make up a life.

“Goldfish Bowl is about a real life and a real boy growing up on an estate in Peckham. It’s about finding a place in the world, trying to fit in and what was there for Caleb to fit in to. I think that is an interesting question politically right now.

Caleb Femi in Goldfish Bow at Battersea Arts Centre (Image: Camilla Greenwell, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
Caleb Femi in Goldfish Bow at Battersea Arts Centre (Image: Camilla Greenwell, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

“We would spend hours talking in the rehearsal room. I began to think of Caleb as if he had nine lives. Some of them were still to be played out. Some of them he had already lived and could now look back on, older and wiser.

“So, in Goldfish Bowl, we look at these lives, the many moments that have changed Caleb’s world, using live music from the incredible Lex Amor and illustrations by the magnificent Olivia Twist to help us do that. Then there is the poetry from Caleb. There is an honesty and wisdom in Caleb’s words and it is a beautiful thing to behold. I hope many people get to come and see it.”

Goldfish Bowl is presented by The Paper Birds and runs at Battersea Arts Centre until 16 June.