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Brief Encounter With ... Janice Okoh

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What made you choose the subject (of Egusi Soup? I decided to write a play as part of my MA at the University of East Anglia. My tutor suggested I write about something that would put a bit of me onto the page so I chose to write a bit about what it's like to be British-Nigerian.

The play was premiered during this summer's Hotbed Festival. How has it changed since then? It's definitely shorter! There were also some bits that didn't quite work so I've either sharpened them up or taken them out. I hope it's much slicker.

How closely have you worked with the director and the designer? I have worked really closely with Paul, the director. He's pretty open-minded, says what he thinks and encourages me to really get involved. It's been fun. I didn't have much input with the designer for this staging, but the designer at Hotbed was pretty much spot-on.

What happens if their view of the play and the cast selected for it differs from your own? We had differing viewpoints during the development process and usually we argue our cases. Sometimes I've changed things, sometimes I haven't. Deep down, it's my viewpoint I'm trying to express and Paul goes with it. If there have been differing viewpoints, it's usually because I've been unclear with my expression.

I was really pleased with the casting at Hotbed. Paul is taking a couple of risks this time around that I might not have taken, but I trust his judgement and can't wait to see how the new actors interract with one another. I'm hoping it brings something extra to the play.

Had you a specific audience in mind when you began the play? I knew I wanted to write a play that was easily accessible to Nigerians but not exclusively so. For those who are curious, I also wanted to write something that would provide some insight into Nigerian culture but, most of all, it's something I'd like to watch. I think there is something in the play that will resonate with a lot of people.

Have you always wanted to be a playwright? No. I only came to playwriting a few years ago. I always wanted to be a novelist but after a time I realised that I loved writing dialogue and not so much the descriptive stuff so tried my hand at screenwriting. A fellow student on an evening course had written a radio play. I didn't know what one was so I asked to read it. I saw that it was all dialogue so decided to have a go.

I was lucky enough to get to write a radio play for BBC Radio 4, which was enjoyable but very hard as I was really inexperienced. During this period I discovered that a lot of writers new to radio writing are actually experienced playwrights. So I decided that I needed to learn how to write plays to get some sort of training in the basics of dramatic writing.

What other work do you do? I work part-time at a college in South East London. In administration. I really like being around kids. They have an energy that's really cool although, sometimes, they can be a bit unpredictable. I hope to teach there, eventually.

What has been the rest of your career pattern? I studied law and then worked in international law firms for several years. I then quit the city and went on to do an MA at the University of East Anglia. That takes me up to what I'm doing now – working part time and writing the rest.

Financial rewards aside, do you want to go on writing for the theatre, or would you prefer to write for film or television? And why? I'd love to continue writing for the theatre. Firstly, because I've only just started and feel there's so much to learn. You have so much freedom to write what you want with a play and you can take loads of risks and experiment. I would like to write for film in addition to contuing writing for the stage. I think writing for film presents its own set of unique challenges – such as it being more of a visual medium, and that there are a lot of structural rules that you have to adhere to (or at least be aware of) if you want a good chance at writing a strong screenplay.

What advice would you give someone else who wants to write plays? Try to write characters that are distinctive from one another. Once you've completed your first draft, don't even dare to think it's finished. That first draft is like a slab of marble sitting in the middle of the room. What you have to do next is re-write, re-write, re-write, have readings of the play with friends even, before you have that finished piece.

Janice Okoh was talking to Anne Morley-Priestman


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