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Bruntwood Prize: Brief Encounter with ... Janice Okoh

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Janice Okoh won the 2011 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting for Three Birds, which transfers this week to the Bush Theatre following its premiere at the Royal Exchange.

Here, in the first of a series of features on the Bruntwood, she tells Whatsonstage.com how she went from being an aspiring Mills and Boon novelist to an award-winning playwright.

Tell us about Three Birds, in a nutshell
Three Birds is about three children, who, each in their own individual way try to maintain a semblence of reality following a series of testing circumstances in their lives.

What inspired the play?
I will have to tell you after you've seen it. Seriously, it's really difficult to talk about what inspired me without giving most of the story away. All I can say is that the story originated from my personal experiences both as an adult and as a child.

Did you write is especially for the Bruntwood?
Not especially but when I started writing it, I knew that writing a play featuring kids would put off a lot of theatres due to the practicalities of casting children or older actors 'aging-down', as it were. In my research I'd read that the Bruntwood was not influenced or unduly concerned about such things so I thought it might have a chance there.

How did it feel when you won?
Amazing. Really surprised. I couldn't really believe it. I also felt a little bit terrified. It's a pretty small play - the action centres around the living-room of a council flat.

Have you always wanted to be a playwright?
No. Initially, as a teenager, I harboured ambitions of becoming a successful Mills and Boon novelist. Following a couple of early rejections, I pursued my academic education and began a career and wrote as a hobby. When I finally gave up on the Mills and Boon idea, I undertook some short writing courses and realized that I loved writing dialogue more than description so I tried to explore media that suited that. Radio first and then theatre.

You spent seven years in the city - was that valuable experience for your writing?
Working in the city has definitely given me first-hand knowledge of a very different and peculiar world which I have used for ideas. However, if you're talking about the actual craft of writing, no, not really.

What advice would you give to budding writers entering this year's Bruntwood?
Write a play that you really want to see up on stage yourself and write it from the heart.

Who are your playwriting heroes?
David Mamet, Dennis Kelly and Rajiv Joseph.

What have you got lined up next?
I have started writing another play, which I'm excited about. However, most of my time is taken up with learning about and writing scripts for television drama as I'm taking part in the BBC Writers' Academy.

Three Birds runs from 20 March to 20 April at the Bush. This year's Bruntwood Prize is accepting entries until 3 June 2013 - for more information visit writeaplay.co.uk


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