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Ella Road

Playwright Ella Road achieved critical acclaim with her play The Phlebotomist, which was nominated for an Olivier Award after a run at both Hampstead Theatre Downstairs and its main stage. Road has now written a short film called Something Will Disappear for the Almeida Theatre's upcoming climate change festival, Shifting Tides. The writer spoke with BroadwayWorld about the project, her writing and how the theatre industry might emerge from the pandemic.

When did you know you wanted to write for the stage?

I think it happened whilst I was at drama school. I did a degree beforehand, and was quite intimidated by people who wrote at uni - it just seemed so exposing and impenetrable - but when I went to drama school and immersed myself in the nuts and bolts of it I realised that it was all about characters and relationships, and I stopped wanting to just dress up and play Juliet and started really wanting to experiment, and to make stuff. I started messing around with script writing properly not long after I graduated.

Prior to the pandemic, UK theatre was in a really good place creatively. What plays and playwrights have particularly stood out for you in recent years?

That's a tricky question - there's been so much brilliant stuff on! As a quick fire response I loved: The Arrival, Fairview, Summer and Smoke, Sweat, and Nine Night. I'm also a big fan of Lucy Prebble's work, and Duncan Macmillan. Winsome Pinnock has been a long running inspiration. And I also love Florian Zeller's writing - it's so clever.

You trained as an actor. Has this enhanced your ability to write?

One of the things that's always fascinated me when acting is the process of inhabiting other characters' experiences and voices, and knowing them well enough to see the world through their eyes, and to know what they'd say and do in different scenarios. For me script writing is a bit like improvising as several characters simultaneously!

I also hope that acting has given me a heightened respect for what actors do and what might support them best in a rehearsal room and performance. When I write, I am writing for an audience, but I'm really writing for the creatives who are going to make the piece. The script remains merely a script, and not a play, without the skills of the actors - and directors, designers, stage managers and technicians - that bring themselves to it and imbue it with life.

What is your writing process or does it depend on the project?

It really varies - and depends on how much cerebral research I need to do and how much research I need to do through play and collaboration - but I like to get out a rough first draft (and when I say rough, I mean rough) quite early and then find the story within it. That searching process tends to take far longer than the first draft stage - it's a bit like chipping away at a block of rock to find the statue... For me part of that search often involves hearing it aloud, and also getting actors to improvise around the scenes and characters.

I'm big into R&D workshops. Once you've got a sense of what the core elements of the piece are, there's nothing like spending time with a crew who are dedicated to getting to know the world of the piece and then throwing spaghetti around the room. As Einstein said, 'Play is the highest form of research'. And I reckon he knew a thing or two.

Acting on stage can provide an immediate response to your work as the audience applaud. Writing is a far more isolated endeavour. Do you find solace in that or do you yearn for collaboration either during the writing process or when it gets to the rehearsal room?

I do enjoy spending time alone, and there's something very empowering about being the engine of a creative process - the first person to find a seed and nourish an idea through germination. At my core though, I think I'm an extrovert; I get energy off other people, and I crave collaboration. One of the sad things on a personal level about the COVID-19 theatre cancellations was realising that my summer suddenly looked very different. After a year of head-down solo writing, I was gearing up to have two plays on back to back (Fair Play at The Bush and How To Eat An Elephant at Theatre Royal Plymouth). I had to give myself a moment to grieve and let go of the prospect of a glorious summer in rehearsal rooms with some wonderful creatives!

The Shifting Tides digital festival will address the climate crisis. Is climate change something you were already passionate and knowledgeable about or did you have to undertake a lot of research for the project?

The play I'm writing for the Almeida at the moment asks questions about climate change and colonialism, and so the team knew it was an area of interest. I've been involved in campaigning around the climate crisis for a long while, and I was a representative at the London Theatre Consortium's Climate Lab last year. This is only a very short short-film (about 2mins long!), so there wasn't a huge amount of content to research for! But it feels great that with festivals like Shifting Tides, and spaces like the Climate Lab, we're starting to have serious conversations about sustainability in theatre.

Even in the year since they asked me to write the text in response to the Youth Board's provocation 'something will disappear', the conversation around the climate crisis has evolved massively - both within our industry and the wider world - but I think the film's message still stands. And ultimately, even though the general public are much more aware of the impacts of climate change, we're yet to see much movement on a structural level to abate the crisis.

What is your short film Something Will Disappear about and what can we expect?

It's a simple little short - more of a call to arms, rather than a film with a complex story or characters (so please don't expect an epic adventure!). The Youth Board at the Almeida gave me the title as a provocation. The text explores the concept that it's 'easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism', and how our inaction when it comes to combating the climate crisis comes partly from a crisis of the imagination.

Have you written for the medium of film before? What are the main differences between writing for the screen and the stage?

Yes - and quite a bit of the work I'm doing now is for screen - but I certainly still consider myself first and foremost a playwright. The main difference I've found is that screenwriting is much more specific and visual than playwriting, which I find to be more metaphorical and aural. On screen putting in tiny gestures and visual details can tell a huge part of a story, and reveal loads about a character and their intentions, whereas my approach to playwriting is much more dialogue and body focused, with more reliance on character and story being revealed through the pace, tone, language, action.

Something Will Disappear is unusual in that it's really a piece of text recited by a group of speakers, rather than naturalistic dialogue, so it's probably not a brilliant example of this binary!

The Phlebotomist received tremendous critical acclaim. Does such attention put a lot of pressure on you as a writer to deliver the goods again, as it were? Do you pay much attention to reviews?

I try not to allow myself to feel that pressure, or to get too obsessed with reviews, but it's quite hard to totally ignore when it's often the language through which our industry tries to understand itself. I certainly have felt a bit of second album syndrome! But I've accidentally got around it by writing my projects in the wrong order... Fair Play, which was supposed to be on right now (!) I kind of bashed out as a 'mistress' project when I should have been moving along with my 'tricky second album' project. I'm hoping by the time that second album actually materialises it won't feel like such a big deal... or maybe I'll be too old to care.

To be honest I'm mainly just thankful that people connected to The Phlebotomist in the way that they did and shared my (geeky) awe at the ethical questions in the subject matter. The attention it got has been invaluable in opening doors to the joyful process of developing other ideas, and I have the Hampstead Theatre and my whole Phlebotomist crew to thank for that. We made that play together, and I couldn't have dreamt up a better team.

There are so many budding writers but it's an incredibly competitive field. What advice would you give to someone hoping to write a script and get it out there?

Hmm. Be pushy if you have to (but always polite), and don't be afraid to ask for help. Try to find autonomy and empowerment in your writing process, and remember that while theatre is a hugely collaborative medium and you need others to make it; no one needs to give you permission to write. Try to enjoy it - even when it feels like wading through treacle. And most importantly write about things you really care about, rather than what you think other people want to hear. Remember that you are not writing theatre for 'theatre people'. There's a whole world out there.

How are you coping and keeping busy during lockdown? Has the isolation fuelled your creativity in any way or has it had the opposite effect?

I used to have a Yuval Noah Harari quote pinned above my desk saying 'Consistency is the playground of dull minds', and I feel like that quote has come into its own over the past few months... However I've actually been really lucky to have fingers in film & TV pies, and some catching up to do on theatre commissions, so I've kept nice and busy throughout lockdown, which has been a blessing. I've been a bit bored with the monotony and inability to change gear, but that's a very privileged complaint in the circumstances.

What I've missed most has actually been the more interactive work I do - like teaching and facilitating and community projects - which has been less possible during lockdown. I normally run workshops in prisons with Synergy Theatre and do bits of support work, and try to vary my working week so I'm not just sitting at a laptop getting lost in my own head 24/7. I've managed to do some of teaching online - running a creative writing course for young people shielding with Cystic Fibrosis through BBC Children in Need - but it's not the same as real life! I think that kind of work (as well as seeing my mates) is what normally keeps me sane among inevitable isolation writing life...

With theatres having gone dark, are you having to seek other, unrelated work or have you had support from theatres/the Arts Council to enable you to keep writing?

I haven't applied for any of those grants because I feel that there are other freelancers out there who need the support more right now, many quite desperately. I recently started a job in a writers' room for a comedy TV series - I can't say what it is yet, but it's been very fun (if a little odd doing it on Zoom!), and I've felt unbelievably blessed to have been working at a time when most of my companions are struggling to patch together the equivalent of a furlough from grants and benevolence funds.

Closures and job losses are of course devastating. Looking ahead though, can you see any positives that might eventually come from this in terms of creativity? There's talk of theatre taking a back to basics approach when it returns. How do you see the industry bouncing back from the pandemic and moving forward?

I feel like the pandemic has held a magnifying glass up to many of the issues, structural problems and unhealthy power dynamics already present within the theatre industry (as well as society in general). Our industry was balancing on a shoe-string before, with many projects and workers operating in precarious, unsustainable and sometimes exploitative ways. I certainly hope we're able to restructure things better on the other side and move forwards more sustainably, rather than just reaching for what we had before.

The arts is a complex ecology, and supporting the sprawling web of people who feed it requires a nuanced understanding of the intersectionality of the various social barriers and financial pressures those people face. Unfortunately the quantity of funds, set-up and planned dissemination of the government's arts package won't be sufficient to really support our industry. Their 'rescue' attempt is largely directed at bricks and mortar and seems to forget to rescue the actual people who sustain it.

I'm optimistic that people will rally, though. And I'm not worried about creativity itself. Humans are boundlessly creative, with so much happening in the world - from the challenging and necessary conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement; to the bizarre behaviour of the current government; to the predicament facing renters - I've no doubt that people will have things to make art about. The challenge will be building a system where art can be made by and enjoyed by everyone. And it looks like we'll need to harness some creativity to make that possible.

To reframe my Harari quote from earlier: although this period has been monotonous in many ways, it has also represented a great shift in perspective that may in fact open up imaginative doorways, rather than stifle them. Some people have had the time and space to really consider broader questions about their circumstances and the ways we live our lives - and in some cases unfortunately people have been forced into situations where they've had no choice but to see things differently. There are already loads of really exciting conversations happening where artists are allowing themselves to imagine what they'd actually like our industry to look like.

What's next for you and are there any upcoming projects we can we look forward to in the future?

The next thing actually in front of an audience will probably be Fair Play, which will be going on when The Bush is able to open fully again. It's about the gender debate in female athletics and how we measure 'equality', and I can't wait to get into rehearsals. In the meantime I'll be giving attention to film projects I'm developing, and getting on with wrangling my not-so-second-second-album. The TV series I'm working on is also set to begin filming at the end of this year (Covid permitting!) which should be super exciting. And I think I'll try to spend as much time as possible up mountains when I'm not on my laptop...

Something Will Disappear is available to stream 18 July with the Shifting Tides festival running from 16 July

Photo Credit: Phil Sharp

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