After Nyne’s Dominic Stevenson was thrilled to spend time with writer Emma Adams whose play Animals is in the last few days of its run at Theatre503 in London as part of their season celebrating new writing from around the UK.
In a wide ranging discussion Dominic and Emma delve into detail on politics, gender and everything in between.
Emma it’s great to talk to you for After Nyne. We’re approaching the most important general election for a decade or more, what influence, if any, did this have on Animals and the timing of it being brought to the stage?
None what so ever. I started writing this play in 2011 and have been working on it (on and off) ever since. I do think however that there is a great serendipity about it being staged during the run up to the general election, because one of the major things that inspired me to write
Animals is anger about our politics. Specifically the hopeless premise that dominates our political conversation (austerity is necessary, privatisation is good, fear of immigrants is not unreasonable and every decent British person should have a fucking alarm clock). This is all pathetically inadequate.
We should be mobilising all our resources, right now, to combat climate change and build cooperative / holistic / incredible / generous / imaginative / exciting new ways of being. That’s what the science requires. But our political leaders do worse than nothing. So the impetus to write Animals was partly an expression about my frustration with this situation.
Our current Westminster administration has systematically tried to crush the spirit of those in need of help by the state, but some would consider that the elderly have escaped much of this ideological punishment. What were your reasons behind focussing on the elderly, rather than say the unemployed or immigrants, as the ones who become victims of The Utility’s regime?
I don’t really think the play is about the elderly as such, its much more about capitalism for me. I was drawn to write with elderly female characters in mind, because 1) they are hopelessly under represented in the theatre, film and TV and 2) the child in me thought it would be fun to see older women on stage snorting drugs, saying fuck and generally getting to do some bad ass stuff.
But actually in many ways in this play (because its set in the future) I’m interested in what my mid 40’s age group are thinking about and where we are headed and perhaps what a shock we are all collectively in for. Because so many of us (I’m 45) are really not engaging with the reality that’s awaiting us. If we continue to do nothing about unfettered capitalism and climate change, the science is clear, being alive and elderly in 2047 (when the play is set) will be harsh.
Some would consider that the concept of a utilitarian society dispensing with those they don’t need in a manner that keeps the masses at bay has been done with the novels 1984 and Logan’s Run. How, if in deed you wanted to, would you pull Animals away from such comparisons and set it apart?
I think Animals is influenced by the likes of 1984 and Logan’s Run but most particularly Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.
As for what may or may not set Animals apart? It’s pretty hard for me to objectively give you an assessment of what my work is or why it’s worthwhile. I can tell you why I was inspired to write it and why I care about it, but it’s for an audience to decide about the worth of what I’ve written I think. So to answer your question as honestly as I can: In general, I love telly and reading and history and politics and theatre and films and comics and music and all of these things inspire my writing.
I think in the case of Animals I wanted to write something that could be a lot of fun to watch but which would also be difficult to watch at times. I wanted it to be a challenging experience but fun too. I wanted it to have a proper story (because I love stories) but be an experience that could create dissonance and discomfort about the prevailing way of things. I wanted to write a play that entertains in the moment but which leaves questions for an audience.
The title Animals, along with the theme of utilitarianism, brings to mind Orwell and his two most famous works. Has Orwell, or indeed any other writers outside of the theatre, influenced your work and if so, in what way?
I am a fan of satirists Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, William Thackeray, Dario Fo and Franca Rame, Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton and Joan Littlewood and I suspect that they have all influenced how I think and why I write.
Though I should also say that I think in general I’m also influenced by Terry and June, Morecambe and Wise, Victoria Wood, Ionesco, Father Ted, Artaud, The League of Gentlemen, Brecht, all things Chris Morris, all things Julia Davis, Grange Hill, Martin Crimp and several Carry On Movies. I think there are elements of all of those things in Animals.
What do you hope for your own life, providing of course that society hasn’t fallen into the hands of a utilitarian regime, after you reach 60?
In 15 years it will be 2030 and I will be 60 years of age and I have to say that I think it’s a very uncertain future. If we choose to reimagine how to live in our world and take back the power that is ours and fight for decent values like love, generosity, integrity, community etc. then I think at 60 things will be hard but positive.
If not, I think I will face a very tough time. I think it’s a case of people letting go of their fear and embracing what is real. We can’t escape the planet that we’ve evolved to survive on.
What would be your message to young people considering whether to vote in the upcoming general election?
I would say be sceptical of middle aged playwrights who want to give you some advice for free. Then if anyone was still listening, I would say that anyone involved in a desperate battle for the future of this planet would be wise to consider using every tool that is available to them. And voting is one tool that’s there to use.
If you believe voting is a waste of time I can respect that, if you go do something you do believe in, which adds something to the mix for change, I don’t think voting is the only way. I think we all have things we can do. Use your head, heart and mind. Find your way. Just don’t do nothing because I promise you, that is the stuff that kicks at me now that I’m in my middle years. It’s not the stuff I did, its the stuff I didn’t get my act together to do when I was young that makes me growl at myself.
How do you rate the diversity in contemporary theatre, and what advice would you offer to women and those in the LGBT community who are looking to create a future for themselves within the world of theatre?
It’s interesting that you ask me that. Do you ask it of all the white middle class men you interview? Because diversity is an issue I don’t often see them asked about. Anyway, its patently clear that Theatre is absolutely dominated by white middle class men. That’s just a fact and it’s normalised, so that it feels like that’s just the way things are.
Which is weird because it’s not normal and this of course creates problems and weaknesses. Not because white middle class men are not talented, and not because they shouldn’t be heard. They obviously are and they should be, just not to the exclusion of everyone else. At this point I feel a burning obligation to say ‘but of course not all white middle class men are like this’ but I’ll skip that because 1) that’s also obvious and 2) because actually if you’re threatened by the ideas I’m talking about you’re a very big part of the problem.
Anyway, clearly if you’re not white, middleclass and male, its pretty tricky in theatre land. But that will not be a surprise to anyone who is not white, middleclass and male because we meet tricky situations everyday. Which is not to say that all of those groups of people have a monopoly on misery either, or that there are not white middle class men out there struggling or in need of a break.
But all that said and acknowledged, if you’re not white middle-class and male, you can expect things to be extra tough from time to time. And sometimes it’s going to be shit. And sometimes the hardest stuff will be the unspoken, unnoticed, normalised stuff that isn’t ‘ok’ but certainly does go on. You should know that and know it’s not an easy route, then do it anyway.
Because strength is found in friendship and determination and building peer groups and finding the cracks to squeeze through and doing what you believe and just not fucking giving up. Or, OK, sometimes giving up and falling down and feeling like you can’t go on, but then picking yourself up and starting again. Most of all, the most important thing to do is do not wait to be discovered and to do it anyway because what is the alternative?
You’re billed as a Yorkshire writer but how important is that identity to you, and what does, if anything, Yorkshire bring to your work?
I don’t bill myself as a Yorkshire writer. I suspect I’ve been billed in that way because Theatre 503 weren’t certain if people in London would know where Bradford is. It’s a city near Leeds, which is near Manchester, which is near Birmingham, which is near London. So they started calling me a Yorkshire based writer.
This makes me smile a bit as I’m sure that conjures up images of All Creatures Great and Small. Bradford is important to me. It’s a tough but beautiful place. I live right on the edge next to the Leeds Liverpool Canal. The upshot is that I get to see cows and sheep if I walk up the hill and I can get to London in about 2 and half hours if I walk down the hill (and get on the train).
I am a product of growing up in Bradford but primarily I think of myself as being a human being on a planet floating though space, because how fucking unlikely is that?
What does the next 12 months hold for Emma Adams?
I’m teaching at the Northern Film School in Leeds at the moment, working with students who are writing their first short screenplays, so it’s a massive challenge but amazing to see how their confidence and ideas are growing. In May I’m going to be back down in London as part of Chris Goode / Maddy Costa’s Open House team at Ovalhouse.
I’m excited to be part of it and I think it’s going to be an amazing week. Beyond that, theatre wise, I’m attached to write a new play for Six Lips Theatre about loneliness, creativity and busting myths around ‘tragic female lives’. I have all fingers crossed that the funding comes through, as I think it’s going to be an immense project.
Finally, I just found out that I’ve been selected to be part of CBBC’s New Voices Initiative which is a 6 month attachment to the channel. I love kids telly and it’s a long term dream of mine to write for CBBC, so I’m a bit giddy. People are sometimes a bit surprised when I tell them I write for children. But I’m not really sure why that should be, it seems perfectly natural to me, I can think of few more wonderful things than delighting kids with an amazing story.
by Emma Adams
Until 2 May, 7.45pm (Sun 5pm)
£15/£12 concessions (Pay What You Can Sundays)
Book your tickets HERE or by ringing 020 7978 7040.