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Nationwide Voices – Blog Five

Written by Matilda Ibini

Matilda Ibini is a bionic playwright and screenwriter of Nigerian heritage from London. She has had work 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. 

In 2020 Matilda worked with ETT on an audio play for our digital project, F**ked Up Bedtime Stories. We were delighted to have her back to be our writer on attachment for Nationwide Voices!

This is a blog post with her thoughts and reflections on the Nationwide Voices session with guest speaker, Eve Leigh.


Hey curious reader,

The name’s Matilda Ibini, I’m a bionic playwright and screenwriter of Nigerian heritage from London. I first engaged with English Touring Theatre when I was commissioned to write a short audio story for their F**ked Up Bedtime Stories (for adults) earlier this year (which by the way is still online, available and free to listen to on all your favourite audio platforms).

I had so much fun writing and developing my audio short story which was directed by ETT’s (brilliant!) Creative Associate Jennifer Bakst, so when she asked if I wanted to be ETT’s nominated writer for the NV programme, I was delighted at the chance to collaborate again with Jenny and ETT (and a little chuffed they weren’t sick of me… yet). The sessions so far have been great and remind me as a writer, the learning is never over. There’s always a new technique to put in your toolbox, there’s always a new perspective to see your craft through and there’s always a new exercise to trial that may help your overall process.

So for this week’s session our amazing workshop leader Chris Bush led us through an exercise on plotting and how characters generate plot. She shared that this exercise will help ensure your plot and character feel interwoven and that the audience is experiencing the world of the play through your characters and their responses. We did this by analysing the protagonist of her phenomenal community play and it’s titular character, Pericles. But the great thing about this exercise is that it can be applied to not only your protagonist but all the characters in your play.

We did this by mapping out the following of Pericles in a spider like diagram:

-What is their mask?
-What weaknesses do they use their mask to hide?
-What are their strengths?
-What are their fears?
-What are their most desirable traits? (aspects of their personality that make you love them)
-What are their most despised traits? (aspects of their personality that make you hate them)

This exercise is also great as a visual aid, reminding you of the internal struggles your character faces that may not be present in the dialogue or even the story, but which impact the decisions they make. After all it was once said (I can’t remember by who) that theatre is live decision making and getting to watch the fall out of those decisions. So understanding the conscious and unconscious desires of your characters can be a really helpful way of generating conflict especially when they go against their internal motives/beliefs.

Our guest speaker this week was the incredibly talented Eve Leigh who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on her play Midnight Movie (and is a kind badass in the industry). She came to talk to us about writing between media.

Eve shared a different way of thinking about narrative that comes from games… (drumroll please)….MDA language – it is a way of understanding how action works in a game (but also theatre) and how audiences perceive action in a game (but also theatre). It is used in the early stages of game design and centres the audiences (gamers) experience.

The first principle is Mechanic which expresses How do you win?

Which can be interpreted to how does the audience win? What feels like a win to the audience? Is the win for the protagonist/antagonist different to the win for the audience? Another way of thinking about mechanic are what are your characters objectives?

The second principle is Dynamic which expresses How it feels to play the game? (Also – How it feels to watch the game?) For example the dynamics of playing football are different to the dynamics of playing poker. Part of the dynamic of poker is that you aren’t able to see other players decks so there’s a degree of suspense and strategy, whereas in football the more your able to see the whole field, the easier it is for the player to play football (but also if you’re watching the game and can’t see the field, it makes it harder to follow and therefore care about) meaning a major factor in the dynamic of football relies on seeing the whole field.

Which can be interpreted to how does it feel to watch the play for the audience? How active a role do they play in what is happening on stage?

The third principle is Aesthetic which expresses How does the game look?

Which can be interpreted to how does your play look and feel. Aesthetics can invite as well as set the audiences expectation. For example a panto has a very identifiable aesthetic – cartoonish, bright colours, 2D sets, heavy make-up etc. This also makes me think of horror movies (if you’re into that, I dabble) but we as an audience usually know something bad is about to happen if the scene is taking place at night or in a location with little light (basements, forests, graveyards) and most identifiably the music changes.

The MDA framework raised some questions about stories I am currently developing. How can I elevate my dynamic and aesthetic choices as a way to get the story leaping off the page? What will the audience expect when they see the aesthetics of my play and how can I fulfil, play with or subvert those expectations? Or how I could be bold in the offer of the storytelling style for collaborators (everything from the actors, lighting designer, sound designer, costume, movement etc)? I don’t have the answers right now but mining these questions feels like an exciting task. I also think this framework can be useful when redrafting your play, thinking about how your play is addressing each principle, and follow how those principles are actualised into the production. This is a framework I will definitely be coming back to and exploring further.

What was so great about exploring the MDA framework is how visual it is. Thinking of your play as a kind of game; the outcomes you want for your characters and the outcomes you want for your audience should be different as another way of creating conflict. Like I said earlier, throughout my career I feel like I am accumulating a toolbox of techniques, exercises, methods (almost like cheats in a game) to help me through the levels of writing and conquering my play. The further you go the harder the game gets, just like writing, so when you do win, it makes it that much sweeter. (I’m aware this is a very messy metaphor – kinda like my process). Basically there is no universal remote in playwriting. No one tool can fix all your plays problems and so your toolbox should be overflowing and varied because you never know when you’ll need to go rooting around in there for the right tool.