Having cut her scriptwriting teeth in the world of TV soap, Suhayla El-Bushra is about to see her first full length play on stage at the Royal Court. The former teacher’s new drama Pigeons is about to swoop into Sloane Square as part of the theatre’s Open Court season. Having grown up in both the Sudan and the wilds of North London I’m curious to know how such different landscapes have informed the mother of two’s writing. Thoughtful, warm and highly articulate El-Bushra appears to have an affinity with today’s youth which spills out into her work.
How are you feeling about having your first play performed?
I’m really excited and nervous because it’s gonna be out there after spending a lot of time writing on my own in a room. I’ve written another play called Cuckoo which I wrote before Pigeons, but that won’t be shown until next year at the Unicorn so this will be my first proper production. It’s quite daunting but very exciting and obviously it being a part of the Open Court season is great. It’s quite a momentous thing to be part of I think.
What do you think of the Open Court season?
I’d like people to be entertained and moved by Pigeons. I’d like them to laugh and I just hope they get an insight into the characters and maybe a bit of food for thought.
I just think it sounds brilliant. So much energy has gone into it and there’s always so much going on and such a fast turn over. I think it’s very fearless and theatres don’t really operate in that way anymore. Usually when you approach a theatre with a script they tell you from the get go that they’re booked up for the next year and a half so it’s very hard if you’re a new writer. So I think this ‘Let’s just throw it up in the air and see what happens’ attitude means there’s an opportunity to get your stuff put on and learn from that experience. I think it’s just what theatre needs.
How would you describe your new play Pigeons?
It’s a play first and foremost about the end of friendship between two teenage boys. There’s more to it than that but that’s the basis. I took part in something at the Bush Theatre called The 66 Books which was a series of responses to the 66 books of the King James Bible. The piece I wrote for it was based on Peter 2, ‘Beware of false teachers.’ As part of another screenplay that got dispended I did some research into the relationship between British nationalism and Islamic extremism and how the two fuelled each other. I thought that was interesting but as soon as I had the idea of the two boys I realised I didn’t want it to be about any ideology.
This play is about things that led them to fall out with each other. So it does touch upon the emotional reasons that may lead someone into some kind of fanaticism but it isn’t about the political ideology itself. It’s an emotional story and it’s really about teenage boys. It’s all the sort of rudeness and smuttiness and laughter and sensitivity and all the things that go with that age group.
To write from a teenager’s perspective did you do any research into youth culture?
Royal Court's Open Court Season
I used to work as a teacher with excluded kids in a pupil referral unit so I think some of that seeped into both of the characters. Also, I grew up in north London and I think you just remember stuff. When I was teaching I felt as though these teenagers were very misunderstood and very demonised in the press. I’d be on buses and see people’s reaction when they got on the bus and I thought it was very unfair and sometimes I think I want to give them a voice.
What do you think is the main obstacle that teenagers in Britain face?
Ooh. That’s a big one. You’re probably better off asking a teenager! (Laughs.) I think at the moment I feel there’s massive social segregation. I went to a comprehensive school that was mixed and I fear that is dying out. I think there’s a real divisiveness in where parents send their children.
How has your own background growing up in a Muslim country influenced your writing?
I moved to Sudan when I was three so I grew up in a very Islamic environment. I was ten when we moved back to the UK. Coming back was incredibly overwhelming and intense. I think kids in England are much more knowing especially London kids. I think it’s a good thing to have gone through and it’s influenced my writing a lot. I was in Sudan just before the Sharia law came into place. I grew up in a Muslim country with Muslim relatives where it was the prevalent culture and ever since I moved to England all the images I see in the media have been at odds with my own experience. Obviously since 9/11 and the London bombings it’s been harder and harder to show those representations.
When I was teaching I felt as though these teenagers were very misunderstood and very demonised in the press. I’d be on buses and see people’s reaction when they got on the bus and I thought it was very unfair and sometimes I think I want to give them a voice.
In the play Amir’s father is what I would consider a very typical Muslim. Amir rejects all of that and just wants to be an English boy but when his dad dies he feels he needs to cling to something of his dad’s. Because his dad’s not there he looks towards another form of Islam, which I don’t believe to be Islam in any way. When I was doing my research it’s typically second generation Muslims who haven’t been practicing, or converts who don’t really understand Islam who are manipulated into believing this particular form of extremism. With both Ashley and Amir their vulnerability leads them to be manipulated.
Can you remember what made you want to write?
I think it was something I always did. I did a theatre studies degree and then I became a drama teacher but I remember feeling that it wasn’t very creative. I wanted to be working with young people and devising and creating but the bureaucracy and paperwork was stopping all that. So I started writing just on my own and I did a short film making course and realised that I didn’t want to write prose, I wanted to write scripts. Then there was a screenwriting MA in Leeds where a friend lived and she said I could live in her attic and so I spent a year doing nothing but writing but I loved it. I think it was at that point that I realised that this was what I wanted to do.
How did you get into writing for television?
Suhayla El-Bushra's Pigeons
I got an agent fairly quickly after my MA and I wrote a sample script, which got taken on to Doctors so I got to write a few episodes. Then some of my work was sent to Hollyoaks and it took about a year to get arranged but then I got added to the team. It’s brilliant.
It’s just such good training for any writer. You spend a lot of time stuck with twenty other writers in a room coming up with storylines and its brilliant fun and a really nice way to work. Stuff gets made which is great about working on a show like that. It’s such a fast turn over so you know the end point is people seeing your work, which as a writer alone in a room can be such a difficult thing to make happen.
What would you like people to take away from Pigeons?
Ooh, that’s a really difficult question! I’d like them to be entertained and moved. I’d like them to laugh and I just hope they get an insight into the characters and maybe a bit of food for thought.
Info: Pigeons by Suhayla El Bushra is at The Royal Court from 25-29 June 2013 | Pigeons will embark on a London schools tour in Autumn 2013