Tag Archives: Joan Littlewood

20 Questions…. Samantha Ellis

To celebrate this weekend’s Fun Palaces and Agent 160 Theatre’s involvement, here’s one of my occasional ’20 Questions…’ blog, when I ask novelists, actors, burlesque performers, directors, non-fiction writers, poets, the creative great and the good to respond as they wish to a series of questions. It is my great delight to present Samantha Ellis and her wonderful, witty, inspiring responses….

Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis is a playwright and the author of the reading memoir How to be a Heroine; Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much. Her plays include Cling to me Like Ivy (Birmingham Rep and on tour, published by Nick Hern Books) and Sugar and Snow (BBC Radio 4), and she’s just had Starlore for Beginners and other plays on at Theatre 503. Goat and Monkey Theatre are producing her immersive Victorian thriller Anatomical Venus in 2015. Her short play This Time I Win is part of  Agent 160 Theatre Company’s Fun Palace, celebrating Joan Littlewood’s centenary 4 – 5 October 2014 at Wales Millennium Centre.  www.samanthaellis.me.uk

What first drew you to writing?

When I was really small I used to sit under the kitchen table where all the women in my family were cooking—my job was to pull the leaves off the parsley for tabbouleh—and listen to the grownups telling stories. The stories took me to another place—Baghdad, where my family are from—but also gave me nightmares (not everything that happened there was good). I was told to stop having such an overactive imagination. But then I read Anne of Green Gables. She also had an overactive imagination and she used it: to become a writer and tell stories of her own. So I thought I would too.

What was your big breakthrough?

In my twenties I was too scared to write the plays I wanted to write, and I was working as a journalist, which was not what I really wanted to be doing. I was researching a piece about the premiere of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and she just seemed so tough, so clear, so passionate, so angry, and I realised I wanted to write like that too, to give it everything I’ve got, to be brave. If I could. If I can.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

 Keeping thin-skinned enough to be open to ideas, and write from the heart, while also being thick-skinned enough to cope with the rest of it (meetings, rehearsals, reviews…)

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

The book that rocked my world, more than any other, was Wuthering Heights. For years I tried to date Heathcliff. With predictable results.

What’s more important: form or content?

Both.

How do you know when a project is finished?

I never know! I wish I did.

Do you read your reviews?

Yes. I like to know what the response is, and to try to learn from feedback if it’s useful. But I try not to get upset if it’s not super-positive (I don’t always succeed).

What advice would you give a young writer?

Stay curious, keep exploring, read everything, watch plays. And join a writers’ group or start your own—for honest criticism, for good advice, for the fun of being part of a gang, for drinking with on opening nights.

What work of art would you most like to own?

I just like looking at it.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That it should be easy. That you just lie back on your chaise longue and inspiration happens…it doesn’t, unless you really, really work at it.

What are you working on now?

I’m working with you! I’m so glad to be part of the women playwrights’ collective Agent 160, and to be making a Fun Palace inspired by Joan Littlewood at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff this weekend. My short play, This Time I Win, is about a woman discovering her inner (furious) feminist.

I’m also writing a book about Anne Brontë, called Take Courage (those were her amazing last words).

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

Wuthering Heights (both the book and the Kate Bush song). A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lace. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Thousand and One Nights. When Harry Met Sally. Moonstruck and, most recently, Pride, which made me think about how outsiders can come together to change the world. Oh & certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I wish I hadn’t been so eager to please, to write “nicely”, to plane off all the rough edges, to write characters that were familiar and non-scary…it turns out the more odd and specific the writing is, the more people respond to it. The more I’ve written from my broken, messy, awkward, confused heart, the bigger and more truthful the work has seemed when it was finished…much better than trying to write something perfect and general and “universal”. And writing about people who aren’t often written about is a radical act.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To keep doing what I’m doing.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

On my last day at university, a friend gave me a postcard of a Paul Klee painting and on the back of it he’d written out a bit of a letter Chekhov wrote to Olga Knipper, saying: “Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling. There are in store for you many unsuccessful days and whole unsuccessful seasons: there will be great misunderstandings and deep disappointments… you must be prepared for all this, expect it and nevertheless, stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way.” I think about that all the time…that it’s not going to be easy, but you just have to keep going. I also do a lot of baking and go for a lot of long walks.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

“Samantha Ellis has no humanity.” It was my first ever review, of a play I took to the Edinburgh Fringe when I was 21. My friends and I got the paper at a late night newsagent’s off Prince’s Street, and read it under an orange streetlight. I cried off all my mascara and then we got chips and vinegar and ate them as the dawn came up.

And the best thing?

I love that Lee Randall of the Scotsman called my book “a life-affirming feminist text”. But even better than that is if I write something my mum likes. She’s my biggest inspiration.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

Wow…I wish I knew…

What is your philosophy or life motto?

I love the improvisation rule “yes and”; when someone makes an offer you should accept (yes) but also offer something new (and). I think it works for life as well as art.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

You don’t have to be perfect or finished or grown up to write; you can write out of rawness and uncertainty and doubt (in fact it’s probably better to).

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

My mum’s recipe for kichri (Iraqi Jewish rice & lentils) is the answer to most questions, I find… http://www.samanthaellis.me.uk/2010/04/lentils-are-for-consolation.html

Samantha Ellis's memoir of reading too much...

Samantha Ellis’s memoir of reading too much…

Links and further information on Samantha Ellis:

http://agent160theatre.blogspot.co.uk/

http://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/Book/296/Cling-To-Me-Like-Ivy.html

http://www.hive.co.uk/book/cling-to-me-like-ivy/9697228/

http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-To-Be-Heroine-learned/dp/0701187514

http://www.hive.co.uk/book/how-to-be-a-heroine-or-what-ive-learned-from-reading-too-much/18159868/

Juggling productions – The 9 Fridas, Woman of Flowers, and Fun Palaces

It’s a phenomenally busy week – perhaps the busiest I have ever experienced with productions opening, rehearsals beginning, and deadlines looming all in the same five days..

'The 9 Fridas' last rehearsal before get-in at Wellspring Theatre

‘The 9 Fridas’ last rehearsal before get-in at Wellspring Theatre

It’s production week for ‘The 9 Fridas’ in Taipei. We have a group photograph at the end of the final rehearsal in Mobius Strip Theatre Company’s welcoming and creative studio – cast, crew, lighting and costume designers, company manager, director and playwright all squeezing into a final celebratory shot. Many take on their Frida Kahlo self portrait pose – including our fabulous stage manager, Knife (front row right), which tells a lot about our dynamic and sense of ownership of the material. The ensemble feeling and collective endeavour is inspiring and been very much my experience when working with the terrific Mobius Strip company.

Sandra, Knife and Jack backstage at the Wellspring Theatre. Bump-in.

Sandra, Knife and Jack backstage at the Wellspring Theatre. Bump-in.

‘Bump-in’ to theatres are notoriously tricky and stressful, but our stage management are full of energy and joie-de-vivre as the company start moving in, making the Wellspring Theatre our space, even for a short time.

Longshan temple, Taipei

Longshan temple, Taipei

Director Phillip Zarrilli and I make a trip to nearby Longshan temple, to make an offering for the success of the production. It is a beautiful space, filled with incense and flower and food offerings.  I could linger for a long time in such a vibrant yet peaceful place – but I have a rehearsal to go to.

Taipei is seven hours ahead of UK time, so when I finish my day’s rehearsal with Mobius Strip on ‘The 9 Fridas’, I skype into opening rehearsals with Forest Forge Theatre Company in England.

Kirstie Davis, director of 'Woman of Flowers' at first day of rehearsals.

Kirstie Davis, director of ‘Woman of Flowers’ at first day of rehearsals.

I don’t know how we managed before the marvellous invention of skype. Just as I skyped into the first read through of ‘The 9 Fridas’ in the Spring from Berlin to Taipei, I skyped into ‘Woman of Flowers’, my forthcoming production with Forest Forge Theatre Company, directed by Kirstie Davis. ‘Woman of Flowers’ tours the UK from mid-September and tour dates are here.

Attending rehearsals of 'Woman of Flowers' by skype.

Attending rehearsals of ‘Woman of Flowers’ by skype.

‘Woman of Flowers’ is a new text (which I will write about in future posts), and attending rehearsals to make adjustments and revisions is essential, especially as the script will be published. Miraculously the internet connection from Taipei to Ringwood is strong and I can answer questions from the actors and be a part of the process virtually, until I return to the UK and join the rehearsals in ‘meat space’ next week.  I’m grateful that Kirstie is such an open director, willing to incorporate new technologies into her rehearsal process – and for the actors for being unfazed at having the playwright present via a slim computer screen.

The final commitment of the week is my Agent 160 commission for the Cardiff Fun Palace. I’m proud to be one of the patrons of this company set up to address the gender imbalance in theatre (only 17% of produced plays are by women), and this project is special, commissioning 16 short monologues by women playwrights all across the UK. The work we make and the individual projects created by other pop-up Fun Palaces will be shown over the weekend of 4th and 5th October across the UK and the world. My deadline looms. Time seems elastic and my working day mounts to 16 hours as I swing between time zones, writing when the UK has yet to wake and sleeping while the UK working day comes to an end. I’m delighted to be part of the Fun Palace initiative set up by Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings to commemorate legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood and her radical vision.

You can read Stella Duffy’s latest blog on Fun Palaces – by, for and of the people here  and the fabulous treats in store for the Cardiff Fun Palace, set up by Agent 160 Theatre through their blog. All events are free, but you can support this initiative in Cardiff Bay through their kickstarter campaign.

This may be the last from me for a few days.

I’ve got quite a few things going on….

 

 

Agent 160 and Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palaces….

October 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood. In celebration of her vision, and in defiance of the austerity climate and cuts in the arts, Stella Duffy and Sarah Jane Rawlings are encouraging pop-up fun palaces across the UK.

Littlewood’s Fun Palace was an unrealised dream of a venue housing culture and science, inviting  participation and engagement.

“Choose what you want to do … dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

2014’s pop-up Fun Palaces are happening all across the UK, using venues and buildings already in existence, but asking for a new attitude and mentality. You can read more of Stella Duffy’s approach here 

Agent 160 Theatre Company is creating the Fun Palace in Wales, and as one of the patrons of the organisation alongside Sharon Morgan and Timberlake Wertenbaker, I’m honoured to be involved. Agent 160 is a company of women playwrights, initiated to address the massive gender imbalance in professional theatre, where only 17% of all plays produced are by women playwrights. It takes its name from the Restoration playwright and spy, Aphra Behn (1640-1689), whose code name was Agent 160.

Agent 160 is commissioning 16 women playwrights to write short monologues, to be performed by women and directed by women, at The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff over the weekend of October 4th and 5th 2014.The playwrights are: Sandra Bendelow, Sam Burns, Vittoria Cafolla, Poppy Corbett, Branwen Davies, Abigail Docherty, Clare Duffy, Samantha Ellis, Sarah Grochala, Katie McCullough, Sharon Morgan, Kaite O’Reilly, Lisa Parry, Marged Parry, Lindsay Rodden and Shannon Yee.

On her plans for the Welsh Agent 160 Fun Palace, designer Anna Bliss Scully says:

“I will create a space where members of the public can chance upon a new world; a secret story; a slip in time; a fresh perspective. It might be a car, a shed, a boat, or an area of a building they know well, but within it, the audience will find a new dimension: a space that responds to them, to its surrounding environment, and to the story we tell within it.” 

 Agent 160 have a Kickstarter campaign to ensure this dream project happens, and you can support the initiative or just find out more at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/agent160/you-can-help-make-agent-160s-fun-palace-in-wales-h

Austerity is not a time for imaginations to become small, or the arts to be crushed. If you can support this initiative – either Agent 160’s Kickstarter campaign or whatever one may be local to you (or create your own!), please do so.