Interview with Playwright Ella Carmen Greenhill about her new play Plastic Figurines

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Q+A WITH PLAYWRIGHT ELLA CARMEN GREENHILL

 What is Plastic Figurines about?

When Rose’s mum is diagnosed with Leukaemia Rose has to give up her life at University and return home to look after her autistic brother Michael. The siblings have to get to know each other again but when tragedy strikes on Michael’s 18th birthday Rose has to learn to cope on her own and ultimately to forgive herself. The play is really about guilt.

What inspired you to write this play?

My brother is on the autistic spectrum but I suppose what I wanted to explore was the less obvious things autism throws up for a family. Plastic Figurines could easily be Michael’s story but it isn’t, it’s Rose’s and we see it all through her eyes. I wanted to explore sibling relationships and show that these two are like any brother and sister; the same beautiful and ugly parts are there as with any family.

 How difficult is it to write a play about a subject that it so close to you?

I think the important thing is to distance myself a bit. Plastic Figurines is in many ways a very personal play. It is inspired by my own experiences of autism, sibling relationships and losing my mum. At the same time it is a complete work of fiction and, whilst Rose and Michael are very close to my heart, they are not me and my brother. It’s so important for me to keep in my head that I’m making this up and that this isn’t autobiographical, even if some bits are taken from personal experience. There have been times that I’ve worried what people might think but if I do that too much I’ll never write anything.

Can you tell me about the research work for the play?

I’ve watched and read a lot but the most helpful things has been talking to other people who are close to someone on the autistic spectrum, particularly parents. In the play Rose thinks she has to fulfil a parental role and so I wanted to tap into the guilt that she has because she can’t do it ‘right’. It was interesting discussing with other people, including people in my own family about guilt and trying to be the ‘perfect’ family. I joined forums and chatted and what was great was that people were really keen to talk about their experiences. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but the play does explore the mutual need between Rose and Michael and how actually she might be just as reliant on him, maybe more so. That was something that came from my own experiences as well as other people I’ve talked to.

 How does it fit in with your previous work?

From what I’ve just said it probably doesn’t seem like it but I would say the play is much more comedic than my other work. I really wanted to have fun writing this play and for it to make me laugh. It isn’t doom and gloom and Michael is a very witty, intelligent character who was a joy to write. My previous work has been much darker in tone and subject matter so I like that this was a change, something that I could really get stuck into but still have fun with. Plastic Figurines is the play that is closest to my heart and so in some ways I have felt the most vulnerable writing it but I think that’s really important; feeling scared and putting yourself out there can really pay off creatively.

 What do you hope audiences will get from watching the play?

An insight into a world they don’t know maybe, or for others a warm familiarity. I want people to walk out at the end and feel compelled to talk to each other. I love Rose and Michael and I hope the audience will too; I hope they will care what happens to them even after they leave the theatre – does that sound mad?

 How did you get into writing?

I applied for the Young Writers Programme at Liverpool Everyman and it just went from there. I realised that writing was something I needed to do, otherwise I sort of go crazy.

 How does it feel to see your work on the stage?

Terrifying! It’s amazing but I do get very nervous and hot. I tend to watch the audience. Years ago I had a reading of a play and someone in the audience gasped. That was such a great feeling because it wasn’t thought about, it was just an instinctive reaction, I love theatre for that.

 How involved are you in your plays?

I think it’s great to be in rehearsals early on, when everyone is discussing the play but then I do think it’s important to let go and leave. If you want to write and it be only yours then don’t write theatre. Theatre is collaborative and I think it’s really important that everyone feel that it is a little bit theirs. For me, it’s important to trust my director and to let the play go. I try hard not to be precious, I fight for what I love but some bits have to go.

Which playwrights inspired you?

Martin Crimp – Attempts on Her Life is still my favourite play. That seems so final but it’s up there anyway.

Robert le Page – Polygraph is the first play I saw and then read that just blew me away.

Dennis Kelly – I love that he can be weird and really heartbreaking at the same time.

Caryl Churchill, Duncan Macmillan, Vivienne Franzmann. There’s too many!

 

What do you hope Box of Tricks will bring to your play?

They’ve been with the play from the very beginning, from when it was just a paragraph of an idea, they know it so well. Adam is a great director and I really trust him to be respectful to the text as well as bringing his own brilliant stuff. It’s amazing to tour to so many venues, scary as well as there won’t be any time to settle and know an audience reaction, but really exciting.

 Plastic Figurines opens at Liverpool Playhouse Studio from the 8-11 April and then tours till 16 May. For tour details visit Plastic Figurines tour dates

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