“For lasting change to happen in theatre we need a well-funded sector which means permanent and sustained government funding, so that anyone irrespective of your background and entry level is paid a liveable wage.“ Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini
The new play Sleepova by Ibini is part of the Bush Theatre’s 50th birthday season. Current on now at the Bush ALT sat down with the writer to talk!
Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini is an award-winning bionic, Queer playwright, screenwriter and (occasional) facilitator from London… (a Nigerian Londoner if you will). Matilda has Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy and is a wheelchair user. Matilda writes for stage, TV, film and audio. Their work often centres women, disabled people, Queer people and the Black British experience through a magical realist lens.
Matilda was awarded a scholarship from #BAFTA and Warner Brothers to study a Masters in Playwriting & Screenwriting at City University and gained a Distinction. Their debut play ‘Muscovado’ was produced by BurntOut Theatre, premiered in October 2014 and toured the UK in 2015. Muscovado subsequently co-won the Alfred Fagon Audience Award 2015. Their audio drama ‘The Grape that Rolled Under the Fridge‘ was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2019. Matilda’s next play ‘Little Miss Burden‘ was produced by Harts Theatre Company and the Bunker Theatre. It premiered at the Bunker Theatre in 2019, was a finalist for an Off West End Award for Best New Play, won a Popcorn Finalist Award and is published by Concord Theatricals.
Matilda’s work has been staged at the Old Vic Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, Bush Theatre, Royal Court Theatre, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, National Theatre Shed, St James Theatre, Royal Exchange Manchester, Soho Theatre, Arcola Theatre, Bunker Theatre, Hackney Showroom and Vaults Festival. Matilda has screen projects in development with BBC Films, Home Team, Ardimages UK and Raw TV. Sleepova is an ode to black women, their boundless spirits, and wild dreams tickets are on sell here. The show ends 8 April 2023.
1.What made you decide to write plays? I grew up watching hundreds of Nollywood films with my mum and siblings (and sometimes aunties). I started writing Scooby Doo fan fiction in primary school (and a bit into secondary) which then evolved into writing poetry in secondary school. I attended a Saturday youth drama group (my mum thought it would help build my confidence and counter the bullying I experienced in secondary school). So, in short, I’ve had a love of storytelling from young, but it was the youth group that introduced me to the idea of plays and having an encouraging English Teacher who told me to keep writing and many subsequent mentors I’ve had from university and onwards.
2. What stories do you think we need to tell? All stories are valid and need to be told however my personal preference are stories that are full of the extraordinary, other worldly, as well as the (extra) ordinary, the familiar and familial stories too. Watching, reading, consuming, and listening to stories continues to develop my empathy and great stories motivate me to transform my empathy into action.
3. Is theatre a better place for equality since 2020? No. I also don’t want to erase the progress that has been achieved so far by so many – but my goodness do we have a way to go! I feel it will be hard(er) to dismantle the inequality in theatre the longer we have this current and corrupt government in power. For lasting change to happen in theatre we need a well-funded sector which means permanent and sustained government funding, so that anyone irrespective of your background and entry level is paid a liveable wage. So many talented and passionate people simply cannot afford to work in theatre, that inequality (just one of many) has existed long before 2020, long before I even had a career.
4. Tell us about what inspired Sleepova? It started at a Soho Theatre’s Writers Lab workshop back in 2011, questioning why my mum didn’t let me and my sisters go to sleepovers. I started asking my friends if they were allowed to go to sleepovers and the unanimous answer was no. And then overtime that question changed and evolved, the characters gradually formed into clearer beings that became vessels for the many black girls and femmes I’d met in my life and how our experiences of growing up in London (or any city in the UK) and the similarities and differences in those experiences.
5. What are some of the main themes? Friendship, grief, chronic illness, sexuality, and faith.
6. Who are the protagonist? The show centres on a friendship between Rey, Elle, Shan, and Funmi.
7.What Playwrights do admire the most? Winsome Pinnock, Bola Agbaje, Debbie Hannan, Travis Alabanza, Touretteshero, Dipo Baruwa-Etti, Temi Wilkey, Oladipo Agboluaje, Theresa Ikoko, debbie tucker green, Chinonyerem Odimba, Gabriel Bisset-Smith, Lynn Nottage, Isley Lynn, Shahid Iqbal Khan, Tom Ryalls, Lettie Precious, Iman Qureshi, Yolanda Mercy, Phoebe Éclair-Powell, Natasha Sutton-Williams, Ryan Calais Cameron, Suzan-Lori Parks are just some of the names from a very very very longlist. They all remind me to be brave, bold, and unapologetic in my work.
8. How did the play get to the Bush?
Autumn 2018 Lynette Linton, artistic director of Bush Theatre, messages me, (we first met on the Soho Writers Lab back in 2014 as baby playwrights). Since then, had read each other’s plays and had supported each other’s work. Lynette hits me up that she’s been invited for an interview for the Artistic Director job at the Bush, part of the interview is pitching a season of work she’d program and she wanted to know if it was ok to name me in her pitch and I said of course, so I shared with her an idea I had for a play that I eventually wanted to write but kept putting off. Fast forward a few weeks (maybe months) later, she gets the AD job, and it wasn’t long till she came back to me and told me she wanted to commission that same play idea. Then the pandemonium in 2020 happened, Sleepova gets programmed in 2021 and then fast forward another 2 years to 2023, the show is opening on the mainstage. It’s all been very surreal.
9. When you write a play and see it on stage who do you process it? I’m a visual writer and so when I’m writing anything, part of my process is adapting what is in my mind on to the page. I first think about the world of the story and characters, I do a lot of free writing before uncovering or discovering the story I want to tell and who I’ll need to tell it. I usually have titles for my plays quite early on in the process, a working title of sorts and sometimes it may need a tweak but often the first title I have is the one I go with. I’ve only started to think about staging etc if the play is programmed, but when I’m writing a play I want the play to be engaging to read, hard to put down. Seeing your work onstage will never not be an achievement because only I and the collaborators involved will know the obstacles, challenges, setbacks we faced to get it in front of an audience.
10. Do you have any fave scenes on stage without giving to much away? I love the movement, for me they capture the spirits of the characters.
11. How involved are you in the rehearsal room? As much as I can be. I was in rehearsals some days in person and other days on zoom. This made the rehearsal process more accessible for me. I’m a collaborative writer and so I’m open to offerings from the director, cast, dramaturg and creative team in terms of sharpening moments or clarifying narratives and motives. I love to throw ideas around and see what sticks as well as be surprised about where new ideas might take us. Jade Lewis (director of Sleepova) is a brilliant and collaborative director and I loved how her mind processed story, her imaginative vision for the production, as well as how she is able to hold the actors and creative team in the room. I’ve heard from writer friends about writers not being welcome in the rehearsal room and if that’s how some directors work then we could never work together. I respect and trust directors like Jade and I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly collaborative and generous directors in my career. Production rehearsal images: Helen Murray