No-one likes to feel damned with faint praise. When Janice Okoh’s 2011 Bruntwood Prize-winning play Three Birds was staged at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in February it attracted mostly three-star reviews. When we meet to talk about the play’s London run at the Bush Theatre, Okoh is phlegmatic about the average reviews – although she confesses her calm is hard-won. ‘I received a lot of criticism when the play was on in Manchester’, she says. ‘That was quite damaging for me. You can’t really defend yourself, so now I try not to read the negative reviews. I didn’t find it all helpful, although some of it was fair.’
For Okoh, who had previously been working in the City in an uninspiring secretarial job, her spell in the critical spotlight seems to have been something of a jolt. As playwright she demonstrates a good deal of irreverence in her work, a willingness to experiment, to break away from traditional theatrical forms; it’s the kind of approach which was unlikely to win over everyone, a hard script to pitch, though that’s part of the play’s power.
The Bruntwood Prize has provided her with a platform from which to pitch new work. It ‘isn’t necessarily about just the best writing,’ Okoh explains, ‘it’s about giving a chance to plays that are really imaginative and might not get seen otherwise. They have no ambition other than putting on a great play.’
The Prize allowed Okoh to test and sharpen her skills as a dramatist. She wanted to pick up more work in radio (and already had three Radio 4 plays to her name before winning the Prize), but says ‘the industry doesn’t really rate radio as well as theatre, so to find an agent I had to make sure I could do theatre too. I also realised I could experiment more and take more risks in theatre – it’s definitely more freeing. Once I got into it and realized how much I could do with dialogue I really enjoyed it.’
With a prize-winning play to her name, Okoh is indeed now starting to find more work in radio and TV, and is currently preparing to write for EastEnders, having secured a place in the BBC Writers’ Academy last year. She’s a strong advocate for continuing drama (‘it influences my theatre work, rather than the other way round’), so it’s not much of a surprise that she sees the BBC’s longest-running soap as an ideal place for her to develop her talent.
Themes of loss and grief run through her writing. Her only other stage play to date, Egusi Soup, explored the ways in which a British-Nigerian family come to terms with the loss of their father, while in Three Birds it’s an absent mother who provides the play’s dramatic context. Okoh’s father died before she turned to playwriting, and, she says, ‘writing about death and loss was something I really knew I had to do. Three Birds is about grieving, and about how people cope with it. We all cope in different ways, but everyone hates letting go.’
If writing well about the commonality of grief is important, Okoh is equally attracted to the altruistic goal of introducing audiences to people and parts of society they might not otherwise understand or encounter. Egusi Soup depicted the cultural faiths and activities of the Nigerian diaspora. In Three Birds the focus is on the lives of a poor but proud family on an addict-filled estate. ‘We need to tell stories about people who don’t fit the same-old, same-old pattern,’ Okoh says animatedly.’ We should be out there giving a voice to people.’
In Three Birds Okoh gives a voice to bereft children, capturing their fear and confusion about the often bewildering world around them. Her three child characters act in a grotesquely unfamiliar way as they cope with life by themselves, and the only adult figures in their lives – a mildly racist teacher and a malevolent man with an emotional stranglehold on the family – turn out to be disappointments. ‘I wanted the adults to be different and larger than life,’ Okoh explains, ‘because when I was younger that was what they were like. I was seeing the play through the play’s nine-year-old girl’s eyes. As a result the adults seem outlandish.’
Okoh adds that she didn’t feel the need to set up extensive back-stories for her characters because ‘that’s life. I wanted to set up the story as a big bang: there’s the family, and it’s up to you to work out what’s going on.’ As a result it takes time for the audience to appreciate the depth of the mystery behind the story, which provides much of the play’s dramatic tension. Okoh agrees that this adds a detective-story nature to the piece, rather in the style of an Agatha Christie novel. ‘To me, Ms Jenkins is the detective. She arrives and has to work out what’s happening. When I wrote it she was right at the end. The audience would know the secret, but she wouldn’t.’
Ms Jenkins also provides much of the play’s comedy, and features heavily in an important scene early on. It’s hard to imagine the play working without that scene, despite Okoh’s suggestion that it wasn’t conceived until the rest of the play had been written. This reflects her belief that plays ‘must be allowed to evolve’ even after the script has been printed and bound. While she loves the story and had a clear vision for how it should appear on stage, she found playwriting to be partly a collaborative endeavour and credits the play’s director, Sarah Frankcom, with helping her develop Ms Jenkins into a rounder character.
Audiences, too, help her to develop her work. ‘During the play’s first night in Manchester,’ she explains, ‘I made changes based on how the audience reacted. That really helped. I could see what did and didn’t work, and I think you can afford to be brutal about what isn’t working.’ Now that Okoh is lining up more work in radio and TV she’s aware that she’ll lose the immediacy of reacting to audiences but is hopeful she ‘can keep that alive without being overwhelmed by everything else’ as she turns her attention to broadcasting.
Indeed, Okoh sees TV as a format that could introduce new audiences to theatre. Last year Arts Council England revealed that theatre audiences had slumped, with non-national theatre company productions reporting a 13 per cent audience decline between 2009 and 2011. Okoh agrees with a recent Guardian article suggesting that the lack of theatre on TV makes it hard to win new audiences.
‘I remember seeing theatre on TV in the past,’ she says, citing the BBC’s long-running Play for Today series, ‘and I miss it. I think there’s always space on TV for new drama, and I don’t think the people who need to see theatre are seeing it. I do think it’s getting better, though. Theatres are trying to be more open to different audiences and that really matters, especially for new writers.’ This, she suggests, works for TV and radio too. ‘What tends to help me get work is writing about things that people might never have heard of. That lures audiences who are curious, and that’s really important.’
Audiences will certainly be in contact with Okoh’s work again before long. She has plenty of work lined up for the rest of the year, including her stint with the EastEnders team. She pitches prolifically, and despite her recent brushes with criticism she seems reasonably relaxed about the attendant rejections. ‘Actually,’ she says, ‘it kind of makes sure you always have something to do, and I have so much to do at the moment that it doesn’t really hurt. I don’t like being rejected, but it’s part of the process.’
Okoh’s clear-headed approach to rejection would evidently be a useful skill for aspiring playwrights. As we finish our conversation I ask if she has any advice for writers looking at this year’s looming deadline for Bruntwood Prize entries (it closes on 3rd June). ‘If you have the right idea, if you’re able to develop the detail and if you have a reason for it, then go for it. You can’t just cobble it together. I have no idea who’s going to win this year, and I can’t wait to see. It’s a great challenge for new talent.’
Three Birds is at the Bush Theatre, London, from 20th March – 20 April 2013. For tickets visit the Bush Theatre website.