Tonight looks set to be a very big night for playwright Ella Hickson. Because, what started as a small-scale project at Edinburgh University’s Bedlam Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe opens in New York for a three-week run a Performance Space 22 as part of the Under The Radar and Coil festivals. What makes it even more special is that Eight is 23 year old Hickson’s debut work which she also directed, marking the arrival of a precocious new talent. When Eight won the Carol Tambor Award, founded to support developing talent and put them on a world platform, it gave credence to a shoestring production by someone who’d never even meant to be a playwright.
“I cried like a girl,” Hickson says now. “When Carol Tambor booked to see the show, I had no idea what that meant. Then we all went out for dinner, and we still didn’t think we’d win. But the day of the announcement my Dad rang me three minutes beforehand to say it was already up on the internet. Even then, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was true or not.”
But it was, and, during a brief two night run of charity previews at the Bedlam in November last year, it was easy to see why Hickson’s play deserved to win not just the Carol Tambor award, but a National Student Drama Festival award as well. Because Eight is a remarkable work on any level. As the title suggests, eight separate monologues are played out in turn, superficially at least resembling Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series. Here, however, Hickson moves down a couple of generations with a strikingly prescient set of portraits of people holding on for dear life. These range from a jolly hockey-sticks hooker who tends to casualties of the (last) recession to an art world suicide, taking in a body-building squaddie turned mortuary attendant, and a teenage boy’s rites of passage in France en route.
The second set of pieces are equally dynamic, featuring as they do a single mother’s re-awakening to the magic of Christmas, a woman’s descent into hedonism to remind herself alive and a damaged young woman’s religious delusions. Most pertinent of all for New York audiences is Hickson’s portrait of a survivor of the 7/7 bombings in London. She chooses an American ex-pat working in high finance who, following the blast, runs as far away from the American dream as he can get.
“We’ve had to change a few cultural references,” says Hickson, “because some things just won’t translate. But that’s okay, because we’ve been developing it gradually each time we do it. When we first did it, there was no way we could have seen the recession coming, so the play’s already become quite interesting historically. The world is changing so fast that the play is already meaning different things at different times.”
Hickson wrote Eight last summer after seeing the film, Rogue Trader, and thought it would be a good idea to look at her own generation in terms of discovering who they were. She was working for the Edinburgh Film Festival and writing poetry, and when a Fringe slot became free at the Bedlam, decided to go for it. Hickson pulled Eight together in a frantic six weeks, writing the scripts around actors cast from the pool of student performers based around the Bedlam.
“There’s nothing worse than watching a 19 year old playing someone thirty years older than them,” she says now. “We had an hour a day rehearsing each monologue, and everyone really went for it. People cared, and the actors somehow felt that the stakes were high, and that we might be onto something good.”
Much of that must surely have been down to the quality of Hickson’s writing. Writing monologues is one if the trickiest arts, and can too often end up as pieces of none-dramatic prose. Eight, however, possessed a maturity and above all an empathy with the characters which can’t be taught. Even then, according to Hickson, “The reaction we ended up getting was a slow-burning thing. It didn’t happen straight away.”
Nor, it seems, did Hickson’s love affair with the stage. She says she’s been “obsessed with theatre” since she was very young. Aged sixteen, she produced shows in Edinburgh, by which time she was “culturally obsessed. I tried acting briefly, but hated it. I knew I wanted to be part of that world, but I wasn’t sure in what way or how to get there. I thought I wasn’t good enough to be creative, and that I’d end up getting lost in the corporate mist.”
Hickson grew up in London, and studied History of Art and English at Edinburgh University before graduating last year. Given the success of Eight, it seems unlikely that Hickson will be swallowed up by the mist she acknowledges is there. Especially, it seems, in the current climate, which brings us back to Eight.
“I’m a strong believer in my generation,” Hicks says with an assurance reflected in her writing. “We’ve graduated into a credit crunch which was the previous generation’s fault, and because of the tough times ahead we’ve got to be incredibly responsible.”
These are wise words, but are such level-headed sentiments compatible with the insecurities involved in becoming a playwright? In Hickson’s view, it seems it is imperative that she carries on writing for the stage.
“Theatre,” she says, “is one of the only things left which hasn’t been co-opted by the establishment. It’s a place where you’re still free to say things and look at how we live now. There are a million ways of talking to each other, but the theatre is one of the only ways we can do it immediately.”
Since Eight’s premiere, Hickson has kept herself busy. In-between taking the show to the Pleasance in London and preparing for the New York run, he’s “bashed out” a radio play and is working on a new piece for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She’s also dipped a toe into the murky world of arts journalism, has meetings set up with potential agents, and has joined the Traverse Theatre’s Young Writers group. It’s the latter connection, one suspects, that Hickson is relishing the most.
“What I’ve written up to now,” she says, “has been very much from the hip, and it turned out quite good, but I need to hone my craft now. I’m still a bit green in that respect. I need to meet some bigger and better minds than my own. To garner too much confidence at his stage would be a dangerous thing, I think. I’ve had a bit of luck with Eight, because it was quite zeitgeisty, and was in the right place at the right time. But I’m pretty sure it’s not always going to be that way.”
In the long-term, while Hickson’s humility and caution are to be admired, she’s nevertheless undoubtedly ambitious.
“I want to write a few more plays,” she muses, “and I see a book somewhere along the line, but only once I’m secure career-wise. Other than that, it’s just about world domination, really.”
Eight, Performance Space 122, New York, Tonight-January 25th
The Herald, January 6th 2009