Lewisham playwright Janice Okoh talks to Heloise Wood about her upcoming play set in south east London, writing tips and conquering Mills and Boon ambitions.

HOW do you go from being a legal assistant to a full-time award winning playwright?

After spending seven years in the City Janice Okoh realised she wanted to write plays for a living.

Following a number of courses, a spell of working at Lewisham College and some serious graft she is now doing what she always dreamed of. 

Her play Three Birds won the 2011 Bruntwood Prize and is coming to the Bush Theatre in Shepherds Bush on March 20.

Set in south east London, the semi-autobiographical play is a dark and comic drama about childhood, family and fantasy centred around three siblings left home alone.

It is directed by Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester.

News Shopper: Playwright Janice Okah from Lewisham discusses award winning Three Birds

Janice said: “I started writing when I was about 14.  I was at boarding school and there was nothing else to do. I really wanted to become a Mills and Boons writer – I think they’re really good.”

She studied Law at Keele University and then worked in the City before deciding to concentrate on writing and took courses at Central St Martin’s, City Lit and then an MA at East Anglia.

Afterwards she worked  at Lewisham College in Lewisham Way, Brockley, until 2011 - which she “loved” - doing part-time administration and helping enrol people on the courses.

She said:  “It was great there - It enabled me to do my writing the rest of the time.”

To help her research future plays, Janice will interview people and ask if she can shadow them for a day in their job.

“It’s always good to hear people’s stories. I once did a play about marrying for money and I spoke to people who had been in that situation.

“There was one play I wrote where I didn’t do any research for it and when I looked back at the writing, I just couldn’t feel it.”

This approach has helped her draw on her life for Three Birds.

Janice, who also writes for radio and television, said: “It is semi autobiographical. Although my mum doesn’t completely agree, I feel we looked out for ourselves a bit and cooked for each other, things like that but heightened for the theatre.

“We moved to New Cross from Bermondsey when I was one, and I lived there most my life, just near the Deptford Market. My family all still live there, within about a mile of each other so I still go back there once a week.”

News Shopper: Playwright Janice Okah from Lewisham discusses award winning Three Birds

The playwright said she loves south east London because of the “mix of people”.

She added:“New Cross is seen as scary but it’s really cosmopolitan. And there’s a great Turkish place Meze Mangal in Lewisham Way - I love it.”

“I passed this theatre on New Cross Road recently and thought: that would be a great place for new writing. I would love to stage something there.”

She recommends aspiring playwrights be brave in finding their own style.

“I think it's good to write with as much truth as you and try not to be frightened – although it sounds cheesy.

“It is scary to try new things and it is easy to try the same as others.”

However Janice admitted she sometimes struggles with getting down to writing and said she sometimes finds it hard to keep disciplined.

She explained: “I work well with deadlines.  I’m doing other things like research but it’s very easy to do anything but write.”

“However I would still like to write a Mills and Boon just to say I’ve conquered it! I try not to read them because I’ll get sucked in but I do think they’re really good.”

Three Birds is running at The Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush between March 23 and April 13.

Tickets cost between £10 and £19.50.

For more information, visit bushtheatre.co.uk or call 02087435050.