Features Q&A and Interviews Published 28 March 2011

Ella Hickson

On audience choice and writing away from herself.

Natasha Tripney

Hickson’s comet of a career began with Eight, which was staged at the Bedlam in 2008. She was coming to the end of her time at the University of Edinburgh and had been involved with student theatre during her time there. At the suggestion of her then-boyfriend she applied for and got one of the free slots at the Bedlam. As the name suggests, the play consists of eight separate monologues; Hickson admits that she was “afraid of the idea of writing a whole story arc.”However only four of these pieces were ever performed on any given night, something that was a “combination of a creative decision and a practical decision,” a means of fitting eight pieces into a one hour slot. The audience was given a synopsis of each piece beforehand and asked to vote for those they most wanted to see. This apparent gifting of choice and control to the audience had a definite potency, it tapped into something rich. “X Factor and Big Brother were both really big at the time and I felt audiences had to take responsibility for their decisions.” The audience, collectively, created the show they wanted, the voice of the majority won through and Hickson’s self-directed production, which featured all eight performers on stage throughout and seated to the sides of the stage like game show contestants waiting to be selected, made the audience conscious of the stories they didn’t pick as well as the ones they did. (The cast hated her for that, she admits, not altogether ruefully).

Eight was staged during the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe with a cast of student actors and “with no expectations; it was going to be something I tried before I got a proper job.” But the response was incredibly strong, it won that year’s Carol Tambor Award and “it hasn’t stopped since.” Eight’s success was such that it transferred to New York, where it was staged as part of two fringe festivals, Under the Radar and Coil before a stint at Florida’s Ringling International Festival. In New York all eight piece were performed together and it’s clear that Hickson doesn’t feel that decision, one suggested by the organisers of the festival, served the work well. “It felt very long; you were more inclined to try and make dramatic links, to try and find a story arc, when there inherently isn’t one.” Some people have told Hickson that the pieces in Eight can be split into two groups, “the sexologues and the deathologues, which certainly wasn’t intentional.”

Hickson has continued to work with many of the actors who appeared in Eight, including Gwendolen Chatfield, Kerri Hall and Michael Whitham, via her production company Tantrums. “This is the first time I’ve really stepped away from that group. Other people are directing my stuff now and I’m getting commissions. I’m having to move into a slightly different world where you can’t always work with your friends. I miss them, I miss the community aspect of it; I’ve always worked very collaboratively. The plays were very much born out of the environment that they were developed in, a combination of people’s ideas and the climate that we were living in at the time.”

This personal and professional shift was much in evidence in PMQ, a short piece written for Theatre 503’s Coalition season, a somewhat hit and miss series of plays written in response to the current government that took the idea of coalition literally and paired writers with choreographers, musicians and illustrators. Hickson’s play was written with frequent collaborator Chatfield and saw Hickson cutting through the satirical tangle to the man himself.“It was exciting to write about something other than my generation,” she says, adding that she was fortunate in getting both Chatfield and the actor Richard Lintern involved with the project. In PMQ, an impish Chatfield, guitar in hand, taunted and interrogated Lintern’s prime minister as he prepared himself for his first session of Prime Minister’s Question. Simultaneously brazen yet compassionate, it humanised rather than demonised and was all the stronger for it. “I love writing monologues but the idea of writing one for the Prime Minister seemed a bit much – but it worked out all right and broke down that barrier of age. It’s the thing I’ve written that’s furthest away from myself.” PMQ was also directed by Dacre, kick-starting their creative relationship, and there are plans to stage it at this year’s HighTide festival in Suffolk, so “it has a life; it has legs.”


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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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