“It’s a constant conversation you are having with yourself”: Ella Hickson on creativity, playwriting and politics of the stage

By Adele Cooke

Ella Hickson is a force to be reckoned with. Since her first play, Eight, won a Fringe First back in August 2008,  Hickson has gone from strength to strength. Boasting an impressive career that encompasses writing, producing and adapting, Hickson is surprisingly grounded and modest despite her many accolades. I sat down with the playwright to discuss her creative process and the world of professional theatre.

At what point did you decide you weren’t just dabbling in playwriting, but you could actually make a career out of being a professional playwright?

I think everyone always feels like they’re dabbling forever. Creatively you never feel like a professional in that sense I guess. But I had a funny journey as I produced my first few plays, so I was a professional producer at the same time as I was sort of a professional playwright. I knew I could make a living out of it for the first year actually because I had to. But probably it was five years before I felt like it was professional.


Do you ever miss student playwriting and student theatre?

Yes, I do miss student theatre. There was a great sense of camaraderie and energy. The stakes felt low and I think those three things together create really magic work in a way. Now there is a level of professionalism and the stakes are higher and as a professional you have to set boundaries that you just don’t have as a student. So yeah, I miss it. It was great. It was a very happy time.


I think everyone always feels like they’re dabbling forever.


Do you also find it challenging to keep writing after you’ve been awarded several accolades, and is there a pressure to keep writing and keep writing high-quality works?

I don’t feel like I’ve been awarded accolades, I don’t know what that means. I mean yes with the compulsion to write and the stories that I want to tell. I think that’s quite a human muscular compulsion. It’s little or not very much to do with how the shows are received by other people. It’s a constant conversation you are having with yourself and the nub of that conversation happens during the writing process. Usually, the production process or the people seeing it and reviewing it happens some months away. It’s often years from where you were at the time you were writing it. So, the creative conversation that is most alive to you is actually quite disconnected from then. When you sit and watch your own play you’re probably watching a moment of your own psychology or a moment of your creative journey that actually happened two years earlier. So other people’s opinions or how a show is received isn’t that useful often because you’ve already kind of gone past that moment.


Is it strange watching your own plays though, because you’ve already had that experience?

Yeah, it’s excruciating. It’s really tricky and it can be gorgeous. You can see lots of things you never imagined. The production can bring something to it that you never had any idea of. But equally, it can be very difficult when you’ve had a very particular idea of something and then that isn’t realised – that’s hard. And often they’re personal. They’re slices of experiences and again because you’re watching them at a much later date to when you lived them, it’s like reading your own diaries. If I ever get to see the early plays from when I was a student I feel desperately self-involved and neurotic, but also there are bits in them that are lovely, like looking at a picture of yourself from when you were seventeen.


it’s like reading your own diaries.


Do you find it challenging to produce new plays and adaptations in quick succession? Or is it just part of your creative process?

Yeah, it’s different parts of your brain actually. Adaptations are easier in some ways. It’s more of a job of craft and logic, whereas new plays are always a bit more personal and you’re often wrestling emotionally with something. So yes, you have to work out how you can navigate those two things at the same time for sure.


You’ve said in the past that the writing process is a painful one, how do you navigate that and what is your process?

These days it’s less painful, I think it’s about confidence. I get up every morning and go to a studio. I go on retreats probably like two to three months a year. It’s about calm. I find the forces of industry and professionalism contradictory to the places you need to be psychologically to get good work done. That can be hard when you’ve got to keep certain things out. It’s not so painful anymore. I think the key for me was about learning to write things for myself and then giving them to people. Whereas when you’re writing for someone else and you feel that you’re either seeking approval, that’s really hard. It’s sort of not where writing comes from in quite the same way.


We’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.


Have you found that your voice has changed since you were writing as a student versus now and how do you adapt and go along with the different voice that you’ve developed?

Yeah, I think your voice is always in development, it’s sort of questioning what’s coming out of you. It’s just part of growing up and growing older and how you feel about things and how you think about things changes. Your voice is your person and it’s about how you are in the world and what you go through and what you interact with or feel politically. That’s also to do with the political temperature of the culture that you’re in. I think that’s all environmental.


Do you think with the division of our society and its polarisation at the moment, it is becoming harder to find a uniting idea or a sentiment or a feeling that can be shared by both the viewer and the character, and you as the playwright? Or do you think that society is dividing itself so much that you won’t be able to do that in the same way that you did with something like ‘Eight’?

I think the theatre industry and audiences in the subsidised sector and theatre practitioners tend to be politically united. That’s more of a problem. I think that theatre audiences and theatre practitioners and theatre, in general, occupy a very specific political position that isn’t shared by huge sections of the rest of the country. Hence they don’t come and watch theatre. So, I think that divide is actually more significant than any divide within the theatre world itself. We’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.


you’re often wrestling emotionally with something


But then how do you cope with that? Is it by isolating yourself as you’ve said and going on the retreats and keeping those voices out of your ears?

Yes, I try and stay outside of it as much as possible. You still try and write in opposition to it. You try and avoid narcissism or solely writing about things for other people. But I think increasingly as TV and film become more prominent we have to think constantly about what they can offer that theatre can’t in terms of accessing mass audiences. That’s a constant and challenging conversation we’re all having all the time.


Photograph: Peter Hickson

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