Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Ella Carmen Greenhill: Plastic Figurines

By | Published on Thursday 22 September 2016


Coming up soon at the New Diorama is ‘Plastic Figurines’, a play focusing on a young woman and her autistic brother, which won much acclaim when it first toured in the spring of 2015. The talented playwright behind it is Ella Carmen Greenhill , who, you may remember, also wrote ‘Made In Britain’, which was staged at The Old Red Lion last year.
I spoke to Ella to find out more about the play, the TV screenwriting she’s currently engaged in, and what plans she has for the future.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the play is about? What story did you want to tell?
ECG: 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’s18th birthday Rose has to learn to cope on her own and ultimately to forgive herself. The play is really about guilt.

CM: The show explores autism as well as family relationships – what made you want to write something focusing on these themes?
ECG: My half brother is on the autistic spectrum, so it’s a subject close to my heart. Some of the lines are taken right out of his mouth but most is from talking to other people and listening to their experiences.

CM: How much of your own personal experience informed the show? To what extent are there autobiographical elements?
ECG: ‘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. I did a lot of research for the play and spoke to a lot of people about their experiences of being close to someone on the autistic spectrum; a great piece I read said “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. I think that’s so true, and it really gave me the freedom to show my own experience through the play.

CM: Is this the first time you’ve written something quite so personal to you in its themes? Was it hard to do?
ECG: I think the important thing is to distance myself a bit. 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.

CM: What were/are your aims for this? Is it purely narrative, entertainment…? Or did you want to make specific points about autism?
ECG: Both. Theatre is entertainment and I’m telling a story and I want the audience to enjoy their time in Rose and Michael’s world. But yes, I did want to raise awareness of autism and look at what it can be. Not everybody is Rain Man and I wanted to show a very real young man in Michael.

CM: To what extent have you been involved in this production? Do you hand over your scripts and step back, or do you stick around to see how things develop…?
ECG: 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.

CM: How did you begin your writing career? Was writing what you always wanted to do?
ECG: Growing up I never went to the theatre but my Mum used to buy me play scripts and I loved reading them. I still have a very old, stained copy of ‘A Taste of Honey’ my Mum got me from Oxfam. I always wanted to write but thought I might be a novelist. Then in college I went to see Robert le Page’s ‘Polygraph’ at Nottingham Playhouse and I was blown away. After that I thought maybe I wanted to act but I soon found myself preferring to write scenes rather than be in them. After my drama degree a friend pushed me into applying for the Everyman and Playhouse Young Writers Group. I was shocked when they offered me a place, I didn’t think I stood a chance.

CM: As well as having been been a writer-in-residence with Paines Plough and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, you’ve recently been writing for ‘Coronation Street’ – how does writing for the screen compare to writing plays?
ECG: I think my theatre experience has informed the way I write for ‘Corrie’, but I suppose the main difference is that with ‘Corrie’ I’m writing for characters that have existed for years. Not only that but ones that I’ve loved on TV for years. I’ve not had to ‘find’ their voices the same way you do a new character in a play, instead I’ve had to tune myself in to what others have created while still keeping my authorial voice. And God, I thought theatre was collaborative until I worked in TV! There are so many people involved in writing an episode of a soap but that’s the brilliance, you’re not on your own.

CM: Where do you see yourself going? What ambitions do you have for your career?
ECG: Ooh flippin heck! I want to always write theatre. That’s where my roots are and I love it. At the moment though I’m absolutely loving writing for ‘Coronation Street’. These are characters I’ve grown up with and now I get to write what they say! My biggest ambition is just to always enjoy what I do.

CM: What’s coming up for you in the near future?
ECG: Well ‘Corrie’ takes a lot of my time but I’m also in the early stages of developing a series with a company based in the US. It’s really exciting and they contacted me after reading ‘Plastic Figurines’. I’ve also just had a baby in August, so at the moment I’m enjoying all that he brings.

‘Plastic Figurines’ is on at New Diorama from 27 Sep-22 Oct, see this page here for details.