CHAPTER FIVE – HOW TO TAKE OFF

Anna Reynolds, writer

How To Take Off is the latest in the Nothing on Earth Shorts series, and again it’s been an absolute pleasure and joy to work on, both discovering the stories of modern commercial women pilots, and also rehearsing the film with director Rosamunde Hutt and performer Safiyya Ingar.

The film is a composite of different experiences. I was especially inspired by the true story of a trailblazing female pilot who was the first ever woman to captain for her airline. I was captivated by her fierce energy and passion. One of a handful of women in a huge otherwise male cohort at flight training school, she talked breezily about the many ways in which she’d had to fight for the chances her male colleagues seemed to assume theirs as right. She also painted a vivid picture of how she earned the respect of her crew and of the passengers overheard exclamations of horror or anxiety when she made her announcement every time she took off; ‘This is your captain speaking…’ – I thought it would make a wonderful addition to our series of women out front, in the air, rising up.

Below are links to some more of these inspiring stories:

https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/world-youngest-female-pilot-never-passenger-flying-anny-divya-30-years-old-mumbai-air-india-a7887526.html
https://www.brandsynario.com/14-pakistani-female-pilots-dared-conquer-skies/

One thing that also enchanted me was how much the female pilots I researched all loved to fly – as simple as that – ‘There’s nothing like it, nothing on earth’ was an often-heard refrain, phrased in different ways but all with the common denominator: nothing would ever be the same again, now that they had taken off, controlled a plane, held the world in the palm of their hands and watched the earth’s curvature.

These women also shared other qualities with those World War Two aviators I wrote about in Learning to Fly, our first film; glamour, sass, and attitude. Irresistible.

Over to Director, Rosamunde

We are nearing the end – for now – of our series looking at Women and Flight and what an exhilarating ride it has been. We have been overjoyed in our discoveries of intrepid female adventurers – dipping and diving, wheeling and banking – soaring high across the 20th and 21st centuries. Behind the scenes we are constantly adding to our library of pioneering female pilots – Amelia Earhart, who had nursed patients during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Helene Dutrieu, who shocked the press when they discovered she didn’t wear a corset whilst flying, Florence Lowe Barnes, known as ‘Pancho’, who disguised herself as a man whilst living in Mexico, Bessie Coleman, the first African American to get a pilot’s license, known as Queen Bess, Marie Marvingt, nicknamed the ‘fiancée of danger’, who at one point disguised herself as a man so she could serve as a foot soldier, and of course the mighty Amy Johnson who was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia.

Friends have joined in the search; one recently sent this photo of a plaque in south London honouring Hilda Hewlett, who co-ran the first flying school in the United Kingdom,

Plaque to pilot Hilda Hewlett

and Nia Davies, Betty in How To Build A Plane, was delighted to spot this beautiful painting by the Futurist painter Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, entitled Synthesis of Aerial Communications, painted 1933-34.

Synthesis of Aerial Communications by Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, 1933-34. Copyright ‘The Galleries at Moore. La Futurista: Benedetta Cappa Marinetti.’

A woman flying a plane seems to be a symbol for a type of freedom. Jude Kelly, director of the WOW (Women on the World) Foundation, recently summing up what has changed for women over the last 30 years, said: ‘girls and young women are entitled to dream as big as they want to, so the fact they can dream to be a stand-up comedian, along with dreaming to fly aeroplanes and run countries, these are all very important things, the scale of the dreaming has changed.’ (BBC Radio 4, Women’s Hour, 1st October 2020).

By liz west from Boxborough, MA – Amy Johnson, pilot, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10708252

Amy Johnson became the first woman in England to be granted an Air Ministry ground engineer license and said in 1932: ‘Women are on the threshold of another career which has so far been regarded as the strict province of men – aeronautical engineering’. She defied stereotyping and dared to dream as does Boushra, the heroine of How To Take Off.

Safiyya Ingar explains what drew her to playing the role of Boushra:

THE NARRATIVE IS CHANGING

Safiyya as Mariah Jones in Box of Delights at Wiltons Music Hall, 2018

The narrative is changing… and it terrifies some people. We are burning down the ideas that people are content with having about women, especially women of colour, women of different faiths. We can touch the skies, be superheroes, code, engineer, craft, create, kick absolute butt and look a million bucks while doing so! We always have and always will! Embrace it. 

How To Take Off is about a young modern Muslim woman becoming the first female Captain at the airline she works at. No easy feat by any means. The only woman of 450 in her training academy. These numbers are not made up. And in the beginning of the process I was blown away by the knowledge that women are so unrepresented in this field too.

It’s one of the things that drew me to this piece. Being fiercely competitive myself I always love proving people wrong, even if it means falling out of a tree or taking a few hits to prove I can do something. I truly believe it’s a power women have boiling under their skin, always. The inherent desire to challenge, endure and survive. 

Now as a Muslim woman, I see the stories about us being told from a particular lens, with very little input from the women who are being depicted. So with the character of Boushra (who was already beautifully written by Anna Reynolds) I was given the space to express the internal struggle that goes on in a young South Asian Muslim woman from the beginning and how, in some experiences, that struggle can affect the decisions they make in life. We are not limited by any great external factor (such as our faith). A lot of the limits are closer to home, more human than people want to acknowledge and admit. Because the reality is, like a lot of women, the limits are all to do with family, societal standards and quite frankly, the patriarchy, which has held women of all races down and back for generations. It links us all and unfortunately still holds a place in typical gender education and conditioning; “who is ‘allowed’ to do certain jobs?” “Yes, but you have to think ‘realistically’, what about when you get married and have kids?” “Women aren’t strong enough to do that though, are they?” “Girls have dollies and prams and kitchen sets as toys. Boys are given toolboxes, cars and rockets!” 

In fact, Boushra’s faith is never mentioned in this piece which I admire greatly about Anna’s writing. She is a Muslim woman, who does her job and does it brilliantly well! She wears her hijab which isn’t some overstated symbol, there is no “tearing it off in an act of rebellion”. It is her and part of her identity, but her real identity is as Captain Boushra El-Aimeni! She relishes her position and takes absolute pride in the fact that she got herself there! 

Much like myself, who was not held back by some strange idea that a south Asian Muslim woman (who comes from a low economic background and now identifies as gender fluid) can enrol in a world class drama school, win an award and scholarship, and graduate to roll straight into a steady career as an actor!

Safiyya as Magnet in Holes at Nottingham Playhouse, 2018

Boushra combats the ideas held against her in every way, we see her vulnerable and scared and, in those moments, boiling over with self-doubt, her mother enters to uplift and encourage her. We see her feisty, brave and strong, not because she must be but because she is! Honestly, I welled up when I read the script because I thought “FINALLY! A woman I know! A woman I see in myself! A Muslim sister who reflects those I know who are out there slaying! Becoming pilots, lawyers, surgeons, photographers, screen writers, journalists, comic book artists because we are perfectly capable of doing so! And we will make it known that this is what we do!” And no, we are not discouraged by our faith to pursue any of these professions! The ones who try to hold us back are… well… need I say it?

Katherine Switzer at the 2011 Berlin Marathon Expo

Side note: (Whilst typing this, an actor I admire, Norman Reedus, shared a picture of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon. A still of her being chased down by the race manager of the marathon to try to stop her competing. I looked up her story in her own words and it sounded absolutely terrifying. However it was incredibly reassuring to hear of the men around her who supported her and physically kept people from touching her allowing her to keep running. I often wonder what women could achieve if more men stepped out of their way to assist us like that… just a thought. Thank you, Norman.)

THE FUTURE OF THEATRE

Safiyya Ingar in How To Take Off

Now the process of filming this piece was incredibly isolating. Rosamunde, Anna and I would rehearse via Zoom and then I would be suddenly alone to film the shots. Embracing this new medium of storytelling (theatre through screens) was difficult for me… I will make this incredibly clear… this is NOT “the future of theatre”. It can’t be! We stand to lose everything theatre is, the sense of connection not just with the audience but those who are creating the work. Bouncing off the energies of everyone else present in the space with you while creating work, finding the rhythm and journey through the text, teasing someone for wearing odd socks to rehearsals every day, having a cup of tea and gossip about an altercation we witnessed on the journey in!

Because I am in London, all the life and chaos that comes with it is part of the entire process… and unfortunately, it’s taken the world turning on its head for me to realise this. All these external factors bleed into the worlds we build together, and I am not ashamed to admit this piece was a struggle for this reason alone. But the team was incredibly supportive, and I was very grateful to work with a team so passionate about these stories and getting the best out of what we are “allowed” to do now. (And just to say a massive thank you to Rosamunde for asking me to do this project with her! Thank you for allowing me to use this project to spread my wings and fly!)

But selfishness aside, I understand how working digitally is incredibly helpful in terms of accessibility in many ways! I have done two audio plays and How To Take Off during lockdown and they are all FREE to access (so children and audiences from low income households can watch/listen to theatre from home and on their own devices). We have the ability to put in captioning and BSL interpreters! It gives something for people to look forward to and experience new writing in a way they otherwise may not have been aware of or been able to physically attend should everything be “normal” right now.

So it is in some ways a blessing that these stories are out there for people to access, it can aid curriculums in the future and young people can find these stories perhaps during research and may be inspired to chase a career like becoming an aircraft pilot one day! I guess that’s the idea though isn’t it… with these stories? For me it is anyway! To reach everyone, to inspire and empower!

I want someone to watch this story, see a girl in a headscarf and open their minds to the idea that a Muslim woman can achieve their dreams and break from the stereotypes placed on us! And that a woman can absolutely fly an absolutely massive plane and look fabulous doing it! And lastly, I really hope any parent watching this will walk away and ask their daughter if she’s ever wanted to fly a plane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *