INTERVIEW – ELLA HICKSON
by Tristan Summerscale
Tell us about your new play, Precious Little Talent, which is about to open at the Trafalgar Studios.
Precious Little Talent is a tale of a young girl who has just graduated and failed to find a job, is out of money and doesn’t have anywhere to go so she goes to find her father who she hasn’t seen in years, who is now living in New York. While looking for him she meets Sam, an American boy and he manages to change her outlook. It’s a really charming combination of comedy and pathos, it’s a laughter and tears kind of play with some seriously contemporary themes which hopefully means it appeals to a really wide audience.
What inspired the play? It’s very rooted in recent history and the recession for example.
‘Eight’ toured to New York before it came to London and that experience was relatively formative for me. I was young and very new to the industry and yet this whirlwind of excitement and success had landed on the first thing I had tried. I think Precious Little Talent is about rooting yourself, understanding where you are going by investigating where you come from. I had a huge impulse to control the trajectory of my life at that time as a combination of the success of Eight and the recession and not being able to get a job had taken all this control from me, so I suppose the play investigates that.
What are the major themes that interest you and drive your writing?
I never write with themes in mind, but in hindsight it certainly seems that most of my work deals with the issue of faith; the lack of it and what happens when people lose the ability to believe in things, how that can twist the individual and corrode the society around them.
You wrote a play last year, PMQ, that imagines David Cameron’s preparation for his first Prime Minister’s Question Time. What were the challenges of writing such a well known figure, and do you consider your writing to be politically motivated?
I would say I am political with a little p. It’s a very old adage but drama tends to look at the political through the personal and that was very much my approach to the monologue for David Cameron. My job, I felt, was about trying to understand the man, trying to find something human behind the figurehead. I think there is such a large degree of performance involved in politics I was interested in what happens when that performance breaks down. So the challenge was only to try and understand him and his fears, so only the challenges of writing for any other human.
You’ve now written, or are writing, for stage, radio and screen. What are the challenges and rewards of each?
Radio is great because you get to be formally quite inventive and it lends itself to interior monologue in a way that other formats don’t which is something that I really enjoy and thrive off. Screen is something that I’m only just starting to get my teeth into, I’m not yet well trained enough in the craft of it to facilitate what I really want to say which is frustrating. Stage is where I feel most at home. I have written five plays now so I suppose it makes sense that I am most comfortable with it but I also enjoy the rigor of writing for the stage. There is a real craft and engineering to good dramatic action and I enjoy that learning process.
You’re the Lyric theatre’s writer in residence. What does that entail and how has it shaped your writing?
Being on attachment at The Lyric has been great; I have received a lot of support. I am part of the readers and associate meetings and I sometimes sit in on the Lyric Young Company meetings which are great, there is a lot to be learnt from people who are just starting out, they usually have their priorities in the right place. I’ve been really luck y to find myself there, they are great people.
You’ve had/are having plays put on at Latitude and Hightide. Tell us about those plays and the experience of putting them on at a festival.
Neither of the plays has gone on yet so I’m not quite sure what the experience will be! However, the preparation process for both has been relatively straight forward. PMQ will just transfer at the end of this month with a little re-rehearsal and re-blocking. Hot Mess is a larger project for Latitude because it’s a full length play we’re re-casting and fully re-rehearsing it, hopefully heading to the island that it was written about to rehearse which will be great fun.
You’re currently working with James Dacre who is directing your show, can you give us an insight into the relationship between a writer and director? Is it hard to yield control of your creation?
It’s been a learning curve as this is one of the first few times I’ve ever had to do it as I’ve usually directed my own stuff. I have a really good working relationship with James and there’s definitely a culture of open communication and co-operation which makes it all a lot easier.
What authors have inspired you?
I’m quite faddy with my reading, I tend to get into particular authors at a particular time and become very influenced by them and then move on to someone else, I’m clearly very fickle! Recently I’ve been reading some F. Scott Fitzgerald shorts and before that I was crazy about Jonathan Franzen – oh actually with Obama in between for research, so currently the theme seems to be American!
What is the most successful scene you’ve ever written, or the one you’re happiest with?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think it would probably be one from my latest play ‘Boys’ – it was the first play that I have written that I felt almost in control of, I felt slightly capable when writing it. There are scenes in that which I love because they are personal and I think well crafted, or well crafted relative to the rest of my work so far.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I am currently writing a radio 4 play, I am working on a TV idea with Channel 4 and developing something with another TV company. Hot Mess will go into rehearsal pretty soon too. I’m itching to write a new play but I’d quite like a holiday first!
What book/film/music/poetry/any cultural thing that isn’t a play would you recommend to our readers?
Ted Hughes – Birthday Letters. It is the most brilliant catalogue of the various states of a relationship, the power of foresight and hindsight and the terrible damage we can do one another just by loving.
You’ve had a huge amount of success early on in your career. What are your aspirations, and how do you want to improve as a writer?
I just want to keep writing. Each play teaches me more, I want to read more and write more so that I can hone my craft, I’m exciting about having a full toolbox so that I can real nail what I want to say.
What was the best play of 2010 and why?
That’s really tough – I’m bad at thinking in chapters like that, I can’t quite remember what happened when. Clybourne Park I thought was conceptually great and I loved what it did to the audience. Oh, oh – I know, I say Rory Kinnear in Hamlet at The National – hands down Mr. Kinnear gets it, he blows my mind.
Precious Little Talent will be showing at the Trafalgar Studios from the 5th-30th April.