In this episode of the Spotlight podcast, we talk to playwright Ella Hickson and director Natalie Abrahami about collaboration in theatre
Natalie and Ella have worked on some hugely successful projects together including Anna at the National Theatre and Swive (Elizabeth) at The Globe. In this podcast they chat to us about working in theatre, their continued collaboration and what they look for in actors. We also hear tips for writing or directing your own work and their advice for actors auditioning for theatre.
40 minute listen or full transcript can be found below.
Christina Care: Hello, and welcome to this episode of The Spotlight Podcast. I’m Christina Care, I work at Spotlight and today we have a very special episode all about collaboration in theatre. Talking to us today we have playwright, Ella Hickson, and theatre director, Natalie Abrahami. Natalie and Ella have worked together on Anna at The National Theatre, and are working together on the upcoming play, Swive at The Globe. Our conversation covers lots of different aspects of the theatre world and creative practice, so take a listen.
Ella, Natalie, thank you so much for joining us on The Spotlight Podcast. I want to start by asking you how you first became aware of each other’s work.
Ella Hickson: Very good question. A long, long time ago, before the world began.
Natalie Abrahami: I’m not sure exactly how I first became aware of your work, but I have a very vivid memory of meeting you in a room, not dissimilar to the room we’re recording this podcast in. But at The Gate, in that sort of weird-
Ella Hickson: Yes, oh we had a meeting about Oil.
Natalie Abrahami: Yes, in the cupboard. And Boys.
Ella Hickson: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Natalie Abrahami: In this sort of weird broom cupboard at The Gate that wasn’t really an office, but it was the only place that you could sort of have a conversation that was one-on-one. So this feels very familiar.
Ella Hickson: God that’s really funny. I remember those sorts of meetings. Yeah. And I remember… I’m trying to think the first piece of your work that I saw… I saw lots of shows at The Gate. Maybe you did one and I didn’t know at that time, maybe. Electric? Did you do Electric?
Natalie Abrahami: That was Carrie.
Ella Hickson: Was it Carrie? Awkward on podcast. I definitely saw Happy Days.
Natalie Abrahami: I like the interchangeableness.
Ella Hickson: Happy Days was the first one that I really knew who you were and was like, “Ooh, I really want to work with that person.” But yeah, I do remember that feeling of those… I remember this huge period of time where I would go and talk to people about Boys. I must’ve not written Oil at that stage, maybe we were talking about-
Natalie Abrahami: I think the first conversation we had was about Boys. And then, I think we knew each other already by Oil. Because I think we were already – I’m trying to get the timeline right – but I think we were already working on that project that may or may never see the light of day.
Ella Hickson: It will.
Natalie Abrahami: By Happy Days.
Ella Hickson: But I do remember those meetings on Boys because I remember going to speak, there’s this strange thing when you’ve written a play that no one’s put on yet where you go and have endless generals about a play. And really as a young writer, you’re just like, “Are you going to do it or you’re not going to do it?” And no one ever really answers that question. So you speak for like an hour or whatever. Like you guys have been quite clear that you weren’t, which was really useful at the top of the meeting, you were like, “This is what we’re doing this year.”
Natalie Abrahami: We have an international remit so it’s going to be hard for us to-
Ella Hickson: Yeah so it’s very difficult. But yeah, it’s just, I do remember that feeling of going to those meetings because you do so many generals when you’re new and you just go in going, “I don’t know what I meant to achieve.” And then you walk out being like, “I have no idea if I achieved it.”
Natalie Abrahami: No well, it’s just always important when you read… It’s the opposite of what I was taught at university. Whereas the life of the writer was irrelevant, you shouldn’t know anything about their lives or anything. But for me, the thing that matters is the collaboration so once you read a play, you want to know the person who’s written it and understand it. So I think those generals are the first conversation.
Ella Hickson: Step, yeah on those… Yeah. And they’re always useful looking back, they always are the beginning of something, that you just didn’t know what it was the beginning of at the time.
Christina Care: Yes.
Ella Hickson: Join the dots backwards.
Christina Care: So then how did you actually manage to start working with each other? Given you had all these conversations early on. What was the kind of initiating?
Natalie Abrahami: So, I think the first time that we started working with each other is that there was a project that I was / am still interested in. And I went to the National Theatre studio and said, “I’ve got this idea. I feel really excited about it. I’d love to find a collaborator. I’d like to find a writer to work with on it.” And they made lots of different suggestions and read lots of different people’s work and met lots of people and Ella was the person who I knew already, but it kind of felt like this would be a really good connection. So we have, I think that I can’t even bear to think but that’s probably like eight years of-
Ella Hickson: Yeah, it’s long.
Natalie Abrahami: A gestation period.
Ella Hickson: Yeah.
Christina Care: Right.
Ella Hickson: And it’s one of those projects, it’s very big. And I was really excited. Like Natalie gave me a book and I really remember reading it and gobbling it up. But it’s a very academic subject and it’s a very big subject, big academic subject. And at that time when we started that, I had either just written the first draught or had not… Certainly hadn’t written the final draught of Oil. And I was stuck in a slightly academic, logical process place, which wasn’t really broken until the writer. And so I had this kind of endless rewriting problem because I was trying to crack argument endlessly without having any real instincts. There was no real confidence. It was all like brain basically. And there wasn’t any sort of instinct or confidence about it. So there was a draught that I wrote for that play. And I do remember that very… my script meeting on that play was very clear. He was like, “This is not a good play.” And I was like, “Oh okay.” But I had really thought it was. So that was really very… That was really tough. And I needed to…
Natalie Abrahami: Well, it’s not my memory of that. I think it’s just, it was more than a play.
Ella Hickson: Yes. It was trying-
Christina Care: What do mean by that?
Natalie Abrahami: It’s an amazing play. I think it was… Is it fair to say it was about 200 pages?
Ella Hickson: Yeah.
Christina Care: Wow.
Natalie Abrahami: It was epic and there were lots of different plays within it. Each which was completely compelling and some were much more naturalistic and some were very, very fractured narratives. And so lots of experimentations of a form, but it sort of was on a journey.
Ella Hickson: Yes. I was… I felt with Oil and with that play actually, I was reaching further than my skillset at that time was capable of meeting. Having eyes bigger than your stomach in that way is sort of endlessly devastating of your confidence. It’s like a really bad way round. It’s actually something-
Christina Care: It can’t be too bad as a writer? Can’t be a bad thing all the time.
Ella Hickson: It’s good in a way, you really hone ambition and scale of ambition. But when your skillset can’t meet your imagination, you feel endlessly like you’re falling short and it’s hard to learn until something gets staged.
Natalie Abrahami: That’s the thing, it’s just so hard isn’t it? You learn. It is a craft, isn’t it? And we all learn through making and seeing how the work manifests. And there are so many scenes in that draught that I love and can see and stage so viscerally. Some in boardrooms, some on beaches, they’re kind of like really epic trenches. And so, I think it’s still… It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? To know how to focus that work sometimes.
Ella Hickson: Yeah. And because it’s a play about globalisation. And actually, it’s really interesting. I was just away in the last couple of days and I retold the story of the play to a table of people and they were all completely silent at the end. And they were like, “I mean, you have to write…” You know that’s the reason that you love it. Just, “You have to write that story.”-
Christina Care: It’s going to happen.
Ella Hickson: But it’s really, it’s still there’s a sort of the central thread of the story is very filmic. Like the bit of, it’s really interesting, the bit of the story I tell every time I tell it, it really feels like a film. Which is confusing, and I also am obsessed with it and I’ve just done a workshop on it in Barcelona, whether there is a formal representation of globalisation that takes in its sort of largeness and its fracturedness and its multi-lingualness. And actually, whilst I was away in Barcelona, I had an idea which I actually haven’t shared a Natalie yet. I’m going to share with her after this. But it would require… It’s to do with The National doing something they’ve never, ever done before. Which…
Christina Care: That sounds pretty exciting to me.
Ella Hickson: We’ll have to find out whether they would or wouldn’t do it.
Christina Care: I mean, that kind of neatly brings me to a question I’ve been wanting to ask you both, which is about the nature of theatre itself. What is it that compels you to work in that medium, as opposed to film let’s say or something else? What is it about theatre that you think is still dynamic and interesting?
Ella Hickson: I’m just addicted. Every time I sit down to write a film, I just wish I was writing a play.
Christina Care: Really?
Ella Hickson: Don’t really tell that to any of the people I write films for. I think it’s formal experimentation, which is to do with metaphor, but also I think to do with the stage I’m at in theatre. People give me… People let me make things now. And I think the frustration with film and TV of too many people and the processing time being so long and the imperative basically always being commercial at heart means that the formal experimentation, which is where the radicalism lies for me is just really, really hard to get away.
Christina Care: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Natalie Abrahami: I love films and would love to make films. But I think what I really enjoy about making theatre is that you are really experiencing it collectively. And the collective intelligence of an audience is so much greater than the individual. That what you notice from something when you first read it and then when you start to work on it with your core creative team and your actors and you think you’ve mined every single aspect of it. And then suddenly you show it to 400 people and they’re responding to things so differently. I just find that endlessly thrilling and really, really edifying. I learn so much from it. So I like that you can then be part of the process of how it is received in a way that feels very, very live and is unique to theatre.
Christina Care: Yeah, absolutely. I suppose in film, once you’ve made it, you’ve shot it a certain way. It’s shown to an audience perhaps as a test, but then you either have to re-shoot or you edit what you have. Whereas theatre is made live every day that it’s performed, or every iteration in which it’s performed. So I can understand that’s probably a much more compelling… I don’t know, maybe a more dynamic experience for you both as creators. That you can keep responding to audiences as they respond to your work. I want to ask you then, in terms of experimentation About Anna, why did you want to tell that story, Ella?
Ella Hickson: Oh little old Ella. Why did I want to tell that story? So the Brighams came to me with a book called Stasiland, which I really loved. Which is about a particular moment in post-war East Europe. So communist Eastern Europe. Eastern Germany. Eastern Berlin. And it was a combination of really loving that period, being very politically interested in communism. It’s actually a line that fell out of that play, which is a line that Natalie really loved. And she once said, “That is the best definition of capitalism I’ve ever heard.”
Christina Care: What’s the line?
Ella Hickson: I really held onto that.
Natalie Abrahami: I’m not sure I could quote the line-
Ella Hickson: I’m trying to think what that is…
But yeah, I was really interested in that period. I was really interested in communism and then there was a sort of genre element to it for me, which is about feminism, which is when I was watching Rosemary’s Baby. Or if you watch Psycho, or if you watch all of the female leads in horror films, genre-wise, their victimhood tends to be pretty complete and it usually ends in death or madness. And I was really interested in leaning into that genre and playing with audience expectations. So you go with her in her going mad and you go with her in the fact that society turns on her. And then there’s an unexpected… Just sort of subverting that genre in unexpected ways. It’s more interesting to me to get somebody to follow their prejudice and then to flip it than it is to blatantly state your case at the top. Really interested in that.
Christina Care: I’ve heard you talk about it as a sound experiment as well. I think that was a quote that I’ve read from you from-
Ella Hickson: Yeah, it was hugely. So yeah, in terms of the technical element rather than the story.
Christina Care: Yeah. So how was that for you then Natalie, in terms of that sort of story? What was the kind of challenge or the appeal of telling something in that way? Which maybe we should explain that the whole play is heard through earphones. The audience is all given headphones. And the actors are behind glass, for anyone who didn’t get a ticket. They were sold out very quickly. But so that meant obviously that there were some limitations in terms of your interaction with certain actors at certain points. And I just wonder, was that an interesting challenge for you Natalie?
Natalie Abrahami: Yeah, it was a completely fascinating challenge and it felt… So we set it in an East Berlin flat, in the flat of Hans and Anna. So essentially there was a sort of fourth wall realism element to it, where one wall would be – the exterior wall, which had windows looking out – was a sort of large glass sheet. So the audience could see in, but the only access that they had to hear was through headphones. And what it felt like was that we had all threw out everything we’d ever learned before, we had to sort of learn again because when you are trying to use your ears as a primary source, rather than your eyes, you’re just constantly learning about how you receive information differently. And so we would read a scene that Ella had written and it would make complete sense and we’d all understand it and then you’d start to stage it and you’d go, “Oh, because you’re only given this information in this particular order, you’re only hearing it in this particular way, the audience would be behind the curve or ahead of the curve.” and you wouldn’t know, there’s a lot of refactoring and recalibrating. So actors were being asked to d-voice or soft articulate so that things could be heard at the right degree. Or you were asking a lighting designer, John Clark, to make the lights dimmer so you could see less and therefore hear more. Or you were trying to stage things, often you were trying to stage things that everyone can see them downstage, centre, but here you’d be thinking, “Ooh, let’s stage something in a bedroom.” And Ella would in fact write something that would be intentionally off, out of view, so you were kind of hearing something but juxtaposes with what you were seeing. But there was something that we did in previews later on where we realised that we’d done a quite traditional staging on a sofa, but actually, it was much more effective if we flipped the staging so the actors were facing upstage. Because you then focused in on how you heard it better. So we were constantly learning a new sort of skill set, which I found really thrilling and complex.
Christina Care: Yeah, for sure. It does sound it. And I had heard that you’d written, Ella, dialogue for all the people, even if they weren’t heard.
Ella Hickson: It’s true and they learnt it and they learned 12 versions of it, in a week.
Natalie Abrahami: But what was extraordinary… So the script changed a lot because of how we’d discovered how the story manifested on an audience through listening rather than reading it. And we did change the script a lot and lots of things were cut and there was lots of sadness and yet lots of things were also reinstated. And that was kind of the joy of it, that people knew their characters so well, and they’d learnt all of their texts that when we then had to restructure something or reshape something and we’d go, “Well, what they would be talking about?” And then they’d be able to resurrect something like, “Oh, do you remember, we used to talk about this football match, we used to talk about this.” And so it was all shared knowledge. It felt like it was almost like a family where there were like different Christmases that they’d had. And they remember different things that had happened. It was like a shared memory of all the different iterations of the script as we made it. So our actors were incredibly inventive and long-suffering. We created almost like the equivalent of the Dogma 95 rules that they had for those films. We sort of had to create something for our process because it was such an odd thing. I’m not even sure I can call it a process, but for whatever we were doing, the making was so odd because we were sort of in tech from the very beginning, the actors were in that glass set. And we were listening on headphones and they were being both actors, but also makers. And so they came up with this lovely phrase that they were socialist sound performance artists, who were playing the space like an instrument.
Ella Hickson: Yeah, you did end up feeling that the story, both the logic of the plot that was seen by the audience, but also the backstories of the characters that related to that plot. There was a sort of shared realism that became really vivid. And we all felt like we were serving this third… The story became its own artist in the way that, like I would write overnight. And then I would write to try and either satisfy something artistically that wasn’t working or to kind of fill a plot issue or just to make something dramatagically stronger. And because there was such a level of character of ownership in the actors about their characters, because they’d been through so much, there was this real sense of that can’t possibly happen in relation to who I am or that is.
And it was really interesting in that way because as a writer, you really felt that you were serving a story that existed in the world. And that was quite thrilling in a way, I found it really emboldening. And actually, I wrote much easier and I wrote much quicker than ever I’d written before because I didn’t feel like I was holding the responsibility of the story. I felt like the story was being held by the room and by the process. And I was just feeding it. That was really interesting about it. I miss that a bit with what I’m currently doing. Because I’ve got to write the first draught.
Christina Care: Fair enough. A lot of our listeners will be actors or aspiring actors. It’s interesting to hear you talk about that process and the kind of life and the dynamism between the various roles that you hold. I wonder though, what is it about the certain actors that you want to work with? What is the quality behind them, Natalie, for you that you are looking for in terms of creating that collaboration?
Natalie Abrahami: I think that I’m often drawn to things that I don’t know how to make. That are problems that need to be solved or kind of challenges. And I feel really excited about that. But I’m very conscious that I won’t have all the answers. And so I’m always looking for people who are quite up for being on that journey and that they are as interested in the making of the piece as in the particular character that they might be playing. And what I love about working with actors is that as a director, if there are ten characters in a play, like there are in Anna, you’re thinking about it all the time, but you’re not carrying individual characters. And that’s what’s fascinating when you then start to get into rehearsals because an actor will say, “But my character can’t do that because of X, Y, Z.”
And you’re like, “Oh yes, of course, I hadn’t thought of that.” Because they are really holding that character journey or they go, “Oh, but my character could do this.” And they can make brilliant offers. And so I love that sort of collaboration. And I’m always keen for people who are… I love the idea of offers, that we’re all making offers and we’re working through sketches and we’re trying to find our way and that everything is evolving very gradually together and that we’re all kind of makers.
Christina Care: Yes. You’re all involved in the creation. Ella, you kind of suggested there that, that sort of process of writing and then giving it to the actors and them kind of… That was a very naturalistic kind of process altogether with Anna. I wonder, do you generally write with a casting in mind or is it very much… Is that usually how it goes?
Ella Hickson: Increasingly, yeah. Just because there are so… I love actors and I love working with them and it is such a treat to be able to write. I remember when I was rewriting, I was on a retreat in January in Vermont and we had fully cast. I think we’d got our acceptances in during that time, is that right? And as the acceptances would come in, I would so gleefully go to my computer and I’d print out their face and I was sticking them on my pinboard as I went. Because I just love them. And because they’re part of your… That team are hugely dear to you. All of those, the Anna WhatsApp group or Romola… They’re huge parts of your life. Even the boys that were in Boys still now, like Sam Kirk and Danny Crane and Eve and Tom and Alison and yeah…
So those guys who I worked with ages ago, they’re still incredibly dear to you and because they embody a moment in your life. And I think plays are really particular in that way that you tend to be wrestling, not only with a cultural zeitgeist, but you’re wrestling with something, often a sort of psychological knot in your own life that you’re slightly trying to ease or unpick or… And you hope the specificity of your engagement with that speaks to the universality of the problem. Just in that you are a human and the world is sort of humans. So if it’s your knot, it’s hopefully the world’s knot. And the actors are huge in that because they offer all their ideas and they’re a big, big part of it. In Wendy and Peter Pan as well, there are huge parts of that which was built for them and by them. Actually, Fiona Button who was Wendy in the first instance gave me a ring whilst we were doing it and I wear it every day, it’s right here.
Christina Care: Aww, wearing it right now.
Ella Hickson: Yeah. So it’s huge, those people in my life, they really are. And so when I get the opportunity to write for them, I find that really thrilling. Like Michael Gould’s been in the writing now and in Anna, and I just think he’s excellent and I love working with him. And I have a real… It’s also because you have a real sense of what they’re capable of. So then the meeting of that with what you’re capable of writing feels really…
But I did it in the very first thing I wrote, Eight. I wrote that I interviewed each of those, so there were the best eight actors I thought at university. And I had a cup of tea with all of them for an hour or so and talked to them. And then I would write these monologues around either what we’d talked about or often in relief to their characters. So my friend Ishmael, who’s one of my very, very oldest and dearest friends, still. She and I talked about Christianity a lot. And then I went away and wrote, Milly the Prostitute for her. So that’s kind of a… you can write towards, or you can write against. But there’s kind of an engagement with a human, lovely actors you’ve never met before bringing something to a part that you never imagined. It also is hugely creative.
Christina Care: Yeah, for sure. I’m curious then, you’re collaborating again, you’ve got another project together, which is starting soon. I think people can already book tickets actually for Swive. I want to ask you then about that, not to suggest obviously that, you obviously do enjoy working together, I can see that but I’m kind of curious did you feel like there was, not unfinished business, but something more you wanted to creatively get from each other in doing another project?
Ella Hickson: Whole play about globalisation, I think that Natalie quite like to creatively get from me.
Christina Care: Yes. Well other than that one yeah.
Natalie Abrahami: This is my ruse. This is my kind of soft cell.
Ella Hickson: Locked padded room.
Natalie Abrahami: If I’m in a room with you for long enough, will the play come out?
Ella Hickson: It will. Yes. I think for me, it’s really interesting. I really struggle with the solitude of writing. Left with my own brain in my own company for too long, I’m definitely not the best version of myself and therefore the work suffers as well. I need to be in sort of communal environments. It’s kind of like a very particular alchemy of aloneness and togetherness that creates the really good work. And it’s quite hard to strike in life. The rehearsal room, therefore, is an incredibly important place to me and being in a situation where I write a play and I hand it in and someone says, “Yeah, sure you can turn up.” Is devastating to me because it’s not that I need necessarily to be hugely instrumental, but I need the community. I need people. I’m suited to the circus in a way. And Natalie and I… I love working with Natalie in the room because she runs a really excellent room, which is like a very clever combination of, it looks like everyone’s allowed to do what they want all the time.
Natalie Abrahami: That sounds so dastardly.
Ella Hickson: But secretly… No, but it’s really good. There’s a really, really, really brilliant combination of freedom and security. And that is the axis on which I struggle in my life. And Natalie seems to facilitate it perfectly. So it works for me.
Natalie Abrahami: I remember early on in Anna rehearsals saying, I think it’s probably, “If you have got other things that you need to do, probably you could just be with us in the mornings and then we’ll muddle through in the afternoons.” And that became clear so quickly, that was not possible and that you were needed in rehearsals all the time. And we were just making it together, all of us and that felt really exciting. And so I guess not that there’s unfinished business, but it felt really thrilling to think that might be something we could do together on Swive as well. And that sort of dynamic of both of us being in the room and making it together felt really-
Ella Hickson: And so exciting.
Natalie Abrahami: With a company. And it would be a small company of actors. So it feels like that could be really exciting as a sort of chamber creation.
Ella Hickson: Yeah, it’s got a different vibe. And also it’s the thing that I’ve been thinking about, about the globalisation play, like the idea that you can make something in teams that feel… It’s really funny, it’s what was called for in The Writer weirdly. And then I’ve managed to sort of slightly facilitate in practical form. The sort of idea for the form that the globalisation play might take is a very communal effort. And the creatives were empowered in The Writer in that middle section, in the text, it says that the whole creative team should sort of make it. And that felt like that on Anna as well, that everybody had… Each member of the creative team was acknowledged as an active element of the making process. And I find that really thrilling. I want to work like that. I want to work in teams where everybody is operating autonomously, but to the creative, collective good of the project.
Christina Care: It’s interesting to me, you’ve touched upon Ella, and what you’ve just said there, it seems like the commune and the communal is something that you are thinking about in general, not just in terms of your writing, but also how you create. And capitalism is kind of a concern there as well, in a few of the things that you’ve written. I had read that you characterise The Writer as being about the inescapability of capitalism. Whereas a lot of the dialogue around the play was around, I guess feminist kinds of discussions. I wondered if I could read you something that you were quoted saying-
Ella Hickson: Oh Jesus.
Christina Care: And you could tell me maybe what you think of this topic now, to do with the feminism thing. I had read that you’d said that “every time Hamlet goes on people don’t talk about it as a treatise on masculinity. But if a woman happens to write a play with women in it, it gets called feminist.”
Ella Hickson: Yes, I’d stand by that, I think.
Christina Care: What is it about something being called feminist that you think is a… not a fraught title, but what was the concern there?
Ella Hickson: It’s very fraught this whole subject, isn’t it? Because obviously feminism has been and is doing great things, but it is… Yeah, it’s where you sit on that whole axis. And I don’t really know where I sit on this particularly because it changes I suppose. But whether to name the minority is to raise its value or whether to name the minority is to damn it to its exclusion. And that’s I guess what I was talking about. That in a sense, you will feel like equality has been reached, when… Actually, we didn’t get it on Anna, interestingly. Female lead, female title, and no one said it was about feminism. But it’s quite a capitalist form, the thriller. And also there’s a big technological experiment at the heart of it. Yeah, so it’s sort of a different thing. But you do, I mean, it’s just… It’s what you do when you’ve got a big old, long-running historical hegemonic norm, is that that just doesn’t get called out as male, you only get named if you’re a minority.
And so the naming of work as feminist feels… It’s just very difficult, this whole thing with women and celebrating it and naming it and making it a movement. I remember so clearly when I first started, we were young, British female writers. That’s what we were. And it was me and Lisa Kirkwood and Lucy Pebble, Laura Wade, Peggy Skinner, there’s a gang of us. They could not stop taking photos. And you thought, Oh, aren’t we doing a great thing? Isn’t this a great movement? And then suddenly, as we’re not a bunch of 19-year-olds like Anya and you know, they stopped taking the photos and you go, was that a step forward for mankind? Or was that them getting 10 women in their twenties in a room and getting them to lean on things in slightly sexy ways. And that was going on the front of the magazine.
It’s hard. That whole thing, I don’t really know. You want to raise the profile of something, but the means by which you raise the profile, especially in today’s culture is often through a media lens or through a particularly commercial lens. And the media and commercialism, certainly visual media is heavily weighted towards a sense of objectification, which tends to be patriarchal in its view. So you are forever caught inside the very clever paradoxes that capitalism creates for you.
Yeah. I certainly don’t think feminism is a bad word. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but I do think it can also be used to contain and belittle in a way that isn’t particularly helpful.
Christina Care: Yeah. Well, I’m curious to know in terms of Swive then, that’s kind of also a sex and power kind of story, I suppose. Just to put it in a really simplistic way myself. But do you think of it as a, particularly fem… Or what do you think the play says, Natalie, from your point of view? What is it about to you?
Natalie Abrahami: Are we talking about Anna or are we talking about Swive?
Christina Care: Swive.
Natalie Abrahami: We’re talking about Swive. Well, I was just thinking, as you were talking about aesthetics and beauty and power. I think that is something that is being explored in Swive. And the sense of image-making that Elizabeth had learned from her father who was sort of starting a Tudor legacy and he knew the importance of those paintings and how then she portrayed herself and her sense of how she created her status as this virgin queen and all of those things that allowed her to rule for 45 years. Which was a phenomenal amount of time to create stability, but also the most significant female Monarch of that at that time, I think is something that we are exploring because so often women are focused on earlier stages in their careers or in their trajectories. And actually, she rules into her seventies. So that’s something that I think we really want to shed a light on.
Ella Hickson: But the fact that we’re dealing with beauty and sex and age, and she happens to be a woman, again – I found this with Oil actually as well – is that no doubt it will get given a feminist reading or will get called feminist. And Elizabeth, much like in Oil, Elizabeth is a massive old patriarch. Like she really loved men and she ran a very hierarchical system and she believed that women were less than men. And she really believed the only way that she was any more than men is that she wasn’t a woman at all, but she was a type of God. There really, really wasn’t… I mean, she was terrible to her ladies in waiting. She was awful to her sisters. She betrayed her stepmother by sleeping with her husband. I mean, the fact that everybody will come out and talk about the fact it’s a feminist reworking.
I mean, it’s really like Elizabeth absolutely is not a feminist in that sense. So that’s what I’m saying about it. It’s often a slightly uninterrogated term. So they take female lead and issues of sex and they go, “Ooh, feminist.” And it’s like, it’s really… For Oil particularly, it was a very, very capitalist story. And she was a very, very capitalist woman. I mean, she was Thatcherite almost, May in Oil and yet repeatedly it got called the feminist play and it was just like, it just feels lazy actually, rather than anything else. That’s probably my point.
Christina Care: Fair enough. I’m going to change track now for a second and just talk to the fact that a lot of the people listening to this will be aspiring actors who maybe want to write their own work or direct their own work. And will particularly look into the theatre world to do that. I wonder if you each had any particular advice or what would you tell someone in that position who is entering theatre as a business in terms of navigating, creating your own stories for the first time?
Ella Hickson: I would say, there seems to be a real trend for this recently, and I can understand it because I think what you’re trying to do is wrestle your agency back from an industry that can be very frustrating and that can really make you feel like you don’t have any agency. And I self-produced a lot of my early work, and so I really can understand the benefit of doing that. But it really wasn’t until, I think The Writer is like my 10th or 11th play, that I would have written anything that felt as first person, I suppose, as that. I do think that a lot of the work I get sent from young writers, it feels very first person and very confessional and they’re also acting in it and they’ve also written it. And I think there is… I’m not sure that being in the work that you write extensively about yourself, that you are producing, potentially yourself and directing… I have questions about it in terms of craft.
And I have questions about it in terms of just interest level. But I do also think we’re at a particular time where people don’t really feel they’re allowed to write about anything but themselves. There’s a sort of identity politics issue there, which makes people write more and more and more only about themselves from their own point of view because there’s a lack of permission to do anything else. But I also question, and again, this is not with blame or anything else because I do think the identity politics situation is maybe rightly forcing this. But it’s very good for you to look at the world through other people’s eyes. And I think theatre particularly is about a journey of, humility is the wrong word, but I think a journey of understanding that you are given an opportunity to emotionally experience life through somebody that is different to you. And the active imagination as a writer of writing in the voice of somebody that is different to you, I think is part of the philosophical pursuit of theatre. Yeah, so when young people are writing and producing and acting in, and the work is confessional as well, I worry that they’re missing one of the very particular bits of a theatrical skill set that I think is really crucial.
Natalie Abrahami: I guess thinking a bit about auditions and reading new plays or plays and then going in to meet a writer and a director would be just… I think that there’s such a trend. I noticed, I think that there’s such a trend for self-taping at the moment, that people often feel that they have to learn the script in advance. And I think actually for a theatre meeting, often the director and the casting director and the writer, if they’re in that room would much prefer that that time that you spent learning those particular scenes or sides were spent thinking about the play and reading it in detail and really thinking about the character. Because I think we assume that over the length of the rehearsal period, those lines will get learned and indeed those lines will probably change as well. So you don’t want to have read them that early. But to really spend the time thinking deeply about the character is, I think, more useful and will allow you to be more movable and fleet of foot and shift in that meeting.
Because I think, whether we call them meetings or auditions, the original, the meaning of the word audition comes from to listen. And I think it is a listening exercise on both sides of really the director tuning into that actor and listening to what they think and what they might offer and how they respond to feedback and direction. But also for that actor to listen to the director and think, do we work well together? Can we collaborate? Can I take on board their notes and metabolise them and sort of do those shifts? And I think that sometimes those meetings can feel quite intimidating in some way. And you’ve got so much to prove in such a little time, but I think if one can just think about it, that actually it’s an opportunity to meet someone and to listen to them and to listen to each other.
It might not work out for that particular project, but your lives are long and you’ll meet again. It sort of takes the pressure off because actually people just want to see you do good. That’s the best hope that you can have in any audition is that you see people in their best light, that an actor can perform it as well as they did in their own bathroom or wherever they rehearsed it. So I think the idea of listening and really tuning in to each other is a helpful touchstone.
Christina Care: For sure. I won’t take too much more of your time. So just a few more questions. One is, what theatre out there at the moment is most exciting to you that you’ve seen or engaged with? And what would you like to tell next as a story?
Natalie Abrahami: I’m quite eclectic in my tastes. I don’t think that there’s a particular theatre that I go to religiously. I’m kind of magpie and go to lots of different places. And I think I’m probably in the minority, but I also really enjoy NT live and I will happily go to a live screening and see it from every room in the stalls. I think just, I love when you get those post-show and pre-show talks and you get to hear the actors or the designers and the creatives have those insights. I will receive my information or my theatre everywhere.
But I guess I’m always interested… I don’t often know what the next story I want to tell is until I’ve completed this one. So it probably will be something in… It feels interesting to me that we just did a sound experiment. And now we’re sort of working in a space where lighting is really critical, so it’s often like a pendulum where you go from one thing to another. So I’m working with Ella on Swive at the moment. And the next thing that I’m doing is an opera at The Opera House, The Turn of the Screw. So that’s kind of a completely different form-
Christina Care: Totally different again yeah.
Natalie Abrahami: Yeah. So I kind of enjoy that variety
Ella Hickson: Again, I’m sort of very eclectic. I see lots. I just love it. Like if I’m having a very bad day going to the theatre by myself is my medicine. Even if it’s bad, actually, I just love it. It’s just like a religion. And as I say, if I’m feeling sad, I read books on playwriting, like a weird geek, so that’s fine. And then what was the second part of the question?
Christina Care: What you like to tell next as a story?
Ella Hickson: I mean, I’d love to tell Swive next. That would be fun because it doesn’t exist yet, but it will. And yeah, I’m really I’m chewing on… I know, I always know… All I’m looking for is for the world to give me a clear year to write them. But if I have a clear year, I immediately panic and fall into some horrible black hole. So it’s kind of a constant game of, I know what the next four are. They’re really, really clear to me. And if somebody could build a magic commune that I could live in year-round, then I’d get them all written.
Natalie Abrahami: There’s a brief.
Ella Hickson: Yeah, if anyone wants to do that.
Christina Care: Perfect. Thank you so much, ladies.
Natalie Abrahami: Thank you.
Ella Hickson: Thank you.
Christina Care: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Spotlight Podcast. If you’ve got questions for us, or if you’d like us to talk about a particular topic in an upcoming podcast, get in contact with us. That’s all for now from the home of casting.
Listen to previous episodes of The Spotlight Podcast, where we cover topics such as voice work, mental health support, working with agents and lots more!
Published in November 2019.