Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Emily Head: The System

By | Published on Friday 20 August 2021

The growth of digitally delivered culture has been a facet of lockdown life this past year and a half, and that growth hasn’t significantly slowed in recent months, despite the fact that people are out seeing shows in person again.

It’s great to see, especially when it’s something as exciting as a one-off, single shot livestream, like this show. ‘The System’ is a psychological thriller written by and starring Emily Head, a performer most of you will probably be most used to seeing on your TV screens.

It sounds like it’s a very intriguing and compelling work, and I really wanted to find out more about it. I spoke to Emily ahead of the live broadcast this week.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the premise of ‘The System’? What story does it tell?
EH: ‘The System’ is a one-person play in which a group of characters are being interviewed about the murder of a man they all know. As the ten characters fill in the gaps left by the others, we’re able to piece together the story of who the man was, what happened to him, and the part he played in the murder suspects becoming who they are today.

CM: What themes have you explored through the play?
EH: A lot of the themes explored in the play, unfortunately, I can’t talk about without giving too much away. At its base level, however, the play explores the connections between the characters, and how the different experiences they had with the murder victim affect how they feel about his death.

Some of the themes that I can’t talk about could be triggering though, so if you’re worried you might be triggered by the content, there is a link you can follow on the ticket sales website that will lead to details of the potential triggers. This will contain spoilers.

CM: What inspired the play? And what made you want to write a thriller, specifically?
EH: I wanted to write a one-person play, in many ways, as a challenge for myself. Part of the challenge was finding a way in which a one-person play could be written, without relying on one character telling a story from their perspective. I wanted multiple characters to be able to speak for themselves, but I wanted there to be the opportunity for them to be stand-offish, for them to not want to be there – I wanted the story to unfold around them, whether they wanted it to or not.

So I started exploring the idea of having someone unseen and unheard interacting with them – one person who speaks to all of them. That soon led to the idea of setting it in an interrogation room.

The more I explored the idea, the more interesting I found it – playing around with how the characters react completely differently, in the same situation. It’s also a style of writing I enjoy watching as an audience member – trying to figure out what happened before the final reveal, so I had a lot of fun playing around with possible outcomes.

CM: Did you always intend to perform it yourself?
EH: I had always intended to perform the play myself, yes, and I wrote it with that in mind.

It’s certainly ambitious, ten roles in an hour, and I don’t think it would be fair to ask another actor to do something I’m not prepared to do myself. I set out to challenge myself as a writer, and as a performer, and I definitely think I’ve achieved that with this.

Eventually I would love to see someone else take it on – I would love to see what they do with my words, but for the time being I’m really enjoying bringing the characters I created to life.

CM: Does the fact that you are the writer have an impact on your relationship with the director?
EH: Yes, I think it probably does. It’s certainly helped that there are no open questions – we didn’t have to sit and work through the play trying to figure out what we thought the characters meant on certain lines or what the writer was thinking when they wrote it, because I knew exactly what I was trying to get across.

What Guy Unsworth – the director – is very good at, is being able to see it from an audience’s perspective. There were some things in the play that I thought were totally clear, and he’s pointed out how they may not be. There have been a few passages that I’ve rewritten because of the insightful questions he’s asked. Guy has been great at helping me heighten the personality traits of each character, that really make them who they are, which is especially important when the same actor is playing all of them.

There have been a few times in the rehearsal room too where certain lines weren’t working or, because it’s now on camera instead of being on stage, we were finding that certain lines weren’t necessary, and I’ve quite confidently been able to cut them, or rewrite them in the room. It’s a luxury that you don’t often get as an actor or, I would imagine, as a director – you never want to cut or rework someone else’s script.

CM: The show is going to be streamed live: but it sounds like that wasn’t always the plan? Has it made the preparation for this premiere different in any way? Has it made a difference to the rehearsal process?
EH: I originally wrote it with studio theatres in mind – small, intimate venues, with a small audience. The livestream came up as an idea over a year after I finished the third draft, so it definitely wasn’t my original intention.

I think it’s brought a completely different perspective to it though, and I think the filmed aspect of it will be really interesting. The rehearsal process has definitely changed with the addition of the camera – what looks good on film is sometimes completely different to what looks good on stage, so we’ve had to bear that in mind as we’ve gone along.

We’ve included the blocking of the camera operator – Ben Eeley – alongside my blocking, and made sure that we know where each other will be at all times. Because it’s one continuous steadicam shot, and there’s nothing to cut away to, we’ve had to be really precise about what moves are happening where.

CM: Lockdown has, of course, seen a huge burgeoning of culture delivered digitally. Do you think it’s here to stay?
EH: Absolutely. We’re able to bring live performance to audiences that perhaps haven’t been able to go to the theatre in recent years. Whether it’s because of their location, or because they’re physically unable to attend, or any other reason they may not have had access.

I think we’ve realised, or at least I have, over the past year, just how important live performance is. It’s so different from the sleekly edited pre-recorded shows, which I also love, but I have really missed being able to go to the theatre, and be a part of something that only happened that one night.

It feels really special to be watching something in real time, knowing that the performance you’re seeing could have been totally different if you saw it on a different night. The fact that we have the ability to recreate that experience for people to watch in their own homes is quite extraordinary.

CM: Can we talk a bit about the past now? Did you always want to be a performer? What steps did you take to make a career as an actor?
EH: As a child, I was adamant I was going to be an actor. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to do anything else. I was putting on plays in my parent’s living room from the age of about three.

I think my dad being in the industry made me aware, very early on, that it was something people made careers out of. My godmother told me recently that, at four, I told her a “secret” – I was going to be an actor. Her response was “darling, that’s a secret to no one”. It really was my first love, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to make a career out of it.

At sixteen I went to The BRIT School and studied theatre for two years. It was the most creatively open and fulfilling place I could have been in at that time, and I’d recommend it to anyone considering studying theatre for A-level.

Straight out of BRIT I got my role in ‘The Inbetweeners’, which really started my career in television. I’ve been blessed with some great roles, in some great TV shows, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to work both in television, and in theatre, throughout my career. They’re totally different from one another and I have a great love for both.

CM: What would you say your career highlights have been so far?
EH: This is definitely one of them. Having so many creative and talented people working to put together something I wrote has been a dream come true.

Of course ‘The Inbetweeners Movie’ also has to be up there. Especially when I think of how much it grew from the first series. We had no idea at the beginning that we would end up making a feature film, nor that it would be shown in cinemas around the world. It was such an incredible experience, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.

The whole experience of working on ‘The Inbetweeners’ was a real learning curve for me too. I worked on it for four years and learnt so much during that time. I think you can learn a lot from the people you work with, and it definitely helped shape part of who I am as a performer.

CM: People will know you for your acting, rather than writing. Is writing a new thing or something you’ve always wanted to do? Will you continue to explore this?
EH: I’ve always loved writing and I’ve written a few things over the years – some of which will probably stay in a folder on my laptop forever – but most recently my dad and I finished writing a film together. We’re in the process of pitching it at the moment, so hopefully something will come of that next.

I don’t know what my next writing project will be yet, but I have a few ideas swimming around. I just really enjoy the process: of having an idea, putting it down on paper and watching it unfold. Sometimes it will go off on a different path than I had originally planned, but I like that creative freedom, to just start writing and see what happens.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
EH: I always say, I’d just like to keep working. I think it’s important to have ambition, but I’ve never wanted to set a particular goal to work towards, because I don’t want to get to a stage in my life where I look back at my career and am disappointed that I didn’t reach a particular aim that I’d had, instead of looking back and being proud of everything I did achieve.

Also, some of the best things I’ve done have come along totally by surprise, and I might have missed them if I’d been too focused on moving towards a specific goal. I am totally open to any and all opportunities, and more than anything I just want to continue working on projects that I enjoy, with people that I admire and respect.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
EH: A rest! The past few months have been quite intense getting the play ready for the livestream deadline, so once it’s happened, I think I’ll definitely just chill for a bit. It won’t take long before I’ll be ready to pursue the next project, but I definitely want to take a minute and enjoy the sense of achievement I’ll have having completed an hour long, single shot, livestream.

‘The System’ will be livestreamed from the New Wolsey Theatre on 27 Aug via Original Theatre Online. See this page here to book your tickets.

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