Despite daily adversity, disabled artists are challenging and changing the industry. Lindsey Huebner talks to Matilda Ibini about her new play, Little Miss Burden.

I settle in my favourite café in preparation for the interview I’m about to have with the wonderful Matilda Ibini. Her CV reads like a writer’s bucket-list; participating in numerous prestigious writers’ groups with the Royal Court, the Soho Theatre, and the BBC Writers Room 10 scheme, to name a few. Her way with words is evident throughout the interview; both eloquent and thoughtful, the conversation leaves me wishing that we’d conducted the interview as a podcast to give readers the full experience of her insight.

Ibini describes herself as, “a playwright and screenwriter predominately.” She tells me, “I’ve written many plays, many of which have never and probably will never see the light of day.” A sentiment which many writers can relate to…

Ibini’s first play, Muscovado about slavery and the sugar trade began as a week-long run for black history month. She says, “someone from Theatre503 came to see it and programmed it there. It then embarked on a mini-UK tour, visiting cities that had historical ties to slavery.” Ibini credits this experience as opening her eyes to the industry.

Approximately five years after the success of Muscovado, Ibini’s second produced play, Little Miss Burden is opening at the Bunker Theatre. She admits it is, “a long time coming.” The play draws upon Ibini’s own experience of growing up with a physical impairment in a Nigerian household. Despite any similarities they may bear on the surface, Ibini says, “the character of Little Miss (also a wheelchair user) is not me. I felt like I was writing an avatar, offering my own experiences to this character and seeing how she took to the challenges I’d experienced in my own life. All of the characters in this piece are meldings of people I encountered growing up. People I admire.”

When writing a disabled character, it cannot be one-size fits all. Ibini says, “I could never speak for every disabled person’s experience. There are so many things that intersect disability: race, age, gender, socioeconomic standing. There can never be the disabled narrative. When you’re writing, specificity is key. ‘Disability’ is an umbrella term. I’m talking about physical impairment, which is very different from someone growing up with hearing impairment, for instance. The requirements for any disability are so distinct.”

Ibini credits her foothold in the industry in part to the various writers’ groups she has been a part of. Of these groups, she says:

“Other than the developmental support, they gave me an understanding of the kind of writer I want to be. Confidence-wise, it was amazing to feel my work was being championed and listened to. It also forced me to be a bit more vocal about my needs. I come with my disability; I can’t leave it at home. It’s up to people to meet those needs. When I was doing Soho and the Royal Court writers’ groups, I would say that my needs were quite minimal. As I got older, though, my needs grew – as did the things I needed in order to work. The unfortunate thing is the more complex your needs are, the less likely they will be met – for various reasons. It’s really quite sad and it can deter many disabled writers.”

When speaking of her own requirements, Ibini states:

“I rely predominantly on taxis: if I wasn’t earning, there’s no way I could afford a taxi anywhere. There usually isn’t any funding for taxi money to get to workshops, and if you’re taxi-ing to the theatre to see a show, it usually costs more than the ticket itself. It makes this career path inaccessible to a lot of talent out there. I was very fortunate that in the early days, my mom was my taxi driver. She’d wait in the car while I was in a workshop. My mom is literally the reason I can be a writer.”

I ask Ibini if she has any advice for the wealth of disabled talent who might feel that this industry is not a hospitable or welcoming place. She says, “Writing is a long game. There are no shortcuts, however, it’s fortuitous as there’s generally no hurry. Discover for yourselves what conditions you need in order to write. Understanding your process is key.” She continues, “let rejection be a comma, not a full stop. And finally, go see as many plays as possible. The infrastructure of the UK, though (and let’s face it, the world) is not always suited to those with a disability. Either way, read as much as you can.”

One of the goals of the piece is to counter tired ableist narratives and the assumptions that people can make about those with disabilities. Ibini enumerates a few myths that she regularly brushes up against. “People assume I don’t want to leave my house; that I don’t want to live my life; that I’ve given up; that I don’t want to be happy; that I’m waiting for a cure that will never come. People think they can put me in the corner and forget about me. Everything I do is of less value and less urgency.”  Ibini summarises, “we need to start seeing disabled people as human. I am not my condition. Rather, it plays a part in who I am. As someone with a disability, I am not seeking to be fixed and the goal is not to be like everyone else. The goal is just to live. This is a side that I don’t often see and it needs to be spoken about.”

The need for more diverse writers across the board cannot be understated. Ibini aptly points out, “If we’re not putting in the resources, we’re not going to get the diversity we claim to desire.” Unfortunately, with The Bunker’s imminent closure, one of London’s few accessible fringe venues will be lost.  Ibini predicts this will, “delay a whole bunch of artists getting into the industry.”

By this point in the interview, I am both fired-up and disheartened at the mammoth task of making the industry a more accessible, equitable place for all. I ask Ibini how one can be a better ally. She says for those with disabilities of any description, “so much talking done, has been done for us. The best thing you can do is pass us the microphone, step back and keep quiet. Give us adequate space and time for us to explain what we need. We’re too busy fighting to stay alive, let alone rise and create. Our lives are on the line every day.”

In the spirit of passing the mic, I will keep my surmising brief, with Ibini having said everything I could hope to encompass in a thousand words or less. I am dismayed at this uphill battle so many artists must endure on a daily basis, yet I sign-off encouraged that Ibini and other intersectional, disabled artists continue to rise and create in spite of the adversity our systems and ignorance put in their way. They are changing the industry for the better and I cannot wait to see the new world they create.

Little Miss Burden plays from 4 – 21 December. For more information or to book tickets, visit The Bunker Theatre website.