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An interview with playwright Matilda Ibini

28 November 2017 | Natasha Sutton-Williams

Matilda Ibini is a playwright whose work has been performed at the National Theatre, Hampstead Theatre and Soho Theatre. Her latest play Little Miss Burden illustrates Ibini's experience growing up in London with Muscular Dystrophy in a religious Nigerian household. It's a coming-of-age tale that fuses storytelling, animation and creative access to demystify tropes about growing up with a physical impairment.

Most of your plays sit within magical realism. This is the first time you have written a play about your lived experience. What sparked you to do this?
 
Rage. I did Bryony Kimmings’ weeklong workshop when I was in a dark funk and felt disillusioned with writing. During the workshop we had to explore a new idea. Bryony was very encouraging of mining your personal experiences for stories. I used the most personal thing I had but never felt comfortable writing about: my disability. Each of us had to perform 30 seconds of this idea. Mine was a mess but had a spark of rage that I enjoyed dipping my toe in. Bryony offered if I ever wanted to develop something around that rage to let her know. That’s when Little Miss Burden was born.
 
What are the challenges of writing your own story and presenting it on stage? 
 
Firstly, remembering and recording difficult experiences and confronting painful memories. It’s really important to take care of yourself when doing this type of work. Secondly, writing objectively about your own life is both scary and liberating. It was important to separate the writer from the character, which is why the character is not called Matilda. I didn’t want to self-censor myself.
Thirdly, you’re writing about real events and most people involved in those events are still alive. That scared the bejesus out of me! Am I allowed to disclose what went on? It can feel like you are giving away secrets. Fourthly, the fear of being judged. With this piece I am putting a segment of my life out there to be criticised whether I like it or not.
 
Who is this play written for? Abled people? Disabled people? Both? 
 
I want to say both but I’d be lying if I did. So much of theatre is for the non-disabled. For once I’m writing a show for disabled people but from the experience of someone who is physically impaired. Disability itself is such an umbrella term that there couldn’t possibly be a show that was for every single disabled person. I’m writing the show I needed to see when I was growing up with this condition. I’m writing the show I wish I’d seen at the beginning of my career. It’s taken me seven years to reconcile with the fact I purposely avoided writing about disability. I didn’t want to be known as a disabled writer who only wrote about disability. I just wanted to be a writer. My disability doesn’t impair me from making the same benchmark quality of work as my non-disabled peers.
 
It’s hard enough to be a playwright, let alone a BAME playwright, let alone a BAME disabled playwright! What challenges do you face in the industry? 
 
Access is a major one. There are economic and sociological barriers facing disabled artists in systematic ways by default when you have a disability. Most fringe theatres are physically inaccessible but also don’t do much in trying to attract disabled artists. It is difficult not seeing yourself represented in the industry. If you do see yourself on stage/screen, it’s usually way off the mark. Don’t even get me started on gender! To deny there is a gender imbalance in theatre (or in the world) is to deny that the earth orbits the sun.
 
There’s pressure as a BAME playwright (whatever that means) to write about your “BAME” experience. What if I want to write about a couple who apply for the Mars One trip but only one of them is successful in applying? Or a sequel to the musical Cats but as a kitchen-sink drama called Rats? I could write them but no one would want them (not just because they’re bad ideas) but because what do they have to do with being black, female or disabled?
 
What have you learnt during your research and development for the show?
 
If you want to make your work more accessible you just have to do it. Creative access is a theatrical aesthetic pioneered by Jenny Sealey, Graeae Theatre’s Artistic Director. There is no rulebook. The first step is incorporating access into your budget. We’re working with an amazing trio of performers with a variety of skills. The show will have integrated British Sign Language, as well as creative captioning. The importance of access is not an afterthought but a creative tool, a provocation to theatremakers to engage more disabled audiences and artists to the theatre.
 
What do you want an audience to come away with having seen this show? 
 
I think it’s important to sit through a show where the story isn’t for you or about you. I do that every time I see any kind of live performance. It’s not about people like me, or even at times accessible to people like me but I can still find ways to engage with characters and stories. I want disabled people with similar experiences to feel included and important; for non-disabled people to enjoy a show that isn’t about them. How else are we going to better understand each other?
 
Little Miss Burden will be presented to the public as a work in progress at the Bush Theatre on 8 December.
 
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