Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Emma Burnell: Triggered

By | Published on Friday 10 June 2022

Coming up at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre this week is a short run of ‘Triggered’, a play that tells the story of a local dispute within the Labour Party, and explores what happens when personal ambition and the desire to do good come together. 

Emma Burnell, writer and director of the show, has only fairly recently turned to playwriting during the course of a very eclectic career in the political space as a campaigner, public policy professional, writer, commentator and more. So I have for some time been interested in her work, both politically and creatively. 

I wanted to find out more about the play, as well as about Emma herself, so I arranged a chat ahead of opening night. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the plot of ‘Triggered’? What story does the play tell? 
EB: ‘Triggered’ is about the fictional deselection of a Labour MP. We follow the process and the people involved. For them it is a really pivotal moment, in their lives and in their politics. But from the outside, the process can all look a bit weird and baffling. I wanted to try and bring that to life without patronising or spoon-feeding my audience. 

CM: What themes does the play explore? 
EB: The play looks at the human side of politics. No one in the play is a baddie or a goodie. It’s perfectly possible to take anyone’s side and understand why they do what they do. It’s about the desperate but unavoidable clash of well-motivated, but differently motivated, people. 

CM: What was the inspiration for it? What made you want to write a play on this subject and these themes? 
EB: I was actually dared to on Twitter by a follower and then by James Graham. Once the writer of the magnificent ‘This House’ dares you to do something, you do it! 

But also, I see a lot of political theatre and it often strikes me as quite contradictory – both the superb and the less good. Often there is a sense that politics would be better if it were done with less venom and more cooperation – which I agree with.

But then – at the same time – the politicians are often portrayed as venal and quite two dimensionally evil. As if that kind of politics isn’t possible because of the kinds of people who currently go into politics. 

I wanted to write a play that challenged that view of people in politics. With a few exceptions, they are mostly people with a very real sense of public service and duty. I think they have good motivations even if I disagree with their philosophy of change. 

CM: It’s obviously set in a political space, but is it actually political? Does it have a message? 
EB: I have tried really hard not to push a particular viewpoint, so I very much hope that there isn’t a really overtly political message. I don’t want to smack anyone over the head. 

It’s set in the Labour Party – which I have been involved with for years – and it’s dedicated to my dad who is a very dedicated Labour activist. But I hope it can be enjoyed by all who want to see that human side of politics. 

I took advice on the play from people from both sides of the splits in the party during the Corbyn years, so I could try to ensure that it was as balanced as could be within that Labour framework.

I hasten to add that if I haven’t achieved that – that’s on me, not the people who kindly gave me their time and advice. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast? 
EB: The cast are all wonderful. They all bring something really different to the process – they have their own styles and finding a way to bring that all together in service of the audience is both a challenge and a source of great joy! 

They range in age and how much they follow politics too. So they are quite often able to tell me when I have slipped into terrible jargon.

CM: What made you decide to direct it yourself? Did you always plan to do that? 
EB: This time yes! I ended up directing my last play when I hadn’t planned to. So I had written all these impossible things that I expected an experienced director to sort out. When I ended up directing it I was cursing myself over that. But it was a really good learning experience. 

CM: You seem to have quite a range of skills, and there seems to be lots of different elements to the work you do – can you tell us a bit about your career thus far? 
EB: I have a mad career don’t I? Basically, I have worked in and around politics and campaigning for 20 years. But about ten years ago I had a big life change that really woke me up. I decided that I didn’t want to be scared to try things ever again.

So, I started doing a tonne of different things. I tried stand-up. I travelled. I learned dancing – I was awful by the way! I took up theatre criticism. I did an MA in Journalism. And I set up my own business to bring as many of the strands of my life together as possible. 

CM: When did you start writing plays and what inspired you to do so? 
EB: I had been reviewing for a really long time and I had a sudden idea for what I thought would be a TV show while I was at the Broadstairs Folk Festival a few years ago. But the idea was too big and I couldn’t get it down on the page at all. 

Eventually, I did a couple of excellent writing courses at Central and these helped me find the shape of my first play ‘No Cure For Love’. After a lot of re-writing, we put that on last year. It was a long way off perfect, but I am pretty proud of it for a first go. The songs are pretty great – we actually recorded them into an EP which is being mixed right now.

What makes me laugh is that the first play was about a world I know nothing about at all. But the themes of the play are very autobiographical. It’s a two-hander and they are both, essentially, me. They are the argument I have with myself about love and romance etc all the time.

With ‘Triggered’, this is a world I know completely – yet none of the characters are me at all. It’s a very different kind of writing. And another learning curve.

CM: How does writing plays compare to your other writing work, such as journalism?
EB: With the kind of opinion journalism I usually do, I have to write very quickly. It’s about seeing something in the morning, thinking about an unusual or illuminating take on it, and then pitching and writing that in a day.

With a play your first draft is – almost inevitably – terrible. The skill is in redrafting and rewriting and honing, honing, honing. That’s a very different process. 

CM: Is there any one element of what you do that you like best or would like to focus on more? 
EB: I am really pleased to say no. I really love my ‘pick n mix’ life and each element adds something to it. For a while I was getting depressed that I couldn’t land a ‘proper’ journalism job. But I get it – I don’t exactly fit the mould!

Meanwhile, I discovered that I love the flexibility of my client work and helping others to really achieve their own goals. I love the creativity of theatrical work and would love to see that part flourish further in the future.

And I love ranting about politics, feminism and sex – there is an article on my website I had to title ‘Dad don’t read this one’ – when I feel I have something to say. So I am going to stop trying to fit in and keep trying to stand out!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
EB: An EGOT? More realistically, I would love to take either ‘Triggered’ further or take my next project for a longer run at a bigger theatre. Though that would be a wrench, as I adore the Lion & Unicorn. But you have to keep challenging yourself right? I am also experimenting with new mediums. 

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this? 
EB: Artistically, I have a great idea for a series of radio shorts based on my time as a volunteer for Crisis At Christmas. I am also turning something I started as a play into a short story as it vastly suits that medium better. 

However, having just come back from Rome, I have been having some interesting thoughts about the story of Medusa. So that may well form the basis of my next play. Watch this space! 

‘Triggered’ is on at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre from 20-22 Jun. Find out more about the play on the venue website here.  

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