Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
I’m Emma, I’m an actress and originally from the Midlands. I do a mixture of stage and TV as well as work as an education practitioner for both the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe. I’m currently playing Malvolio in the RSC’s First Encounters production of Twelfth Night. It’s a 90-minute abridged version of Shakespeare’s play aimed at young and first time audiences that we are performing in schools and theatres up and down the country until 12 November 2022
What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?
The absolute glory of my job is that there is no typical day. I could be filming, rehearsing, working in a school or performing on stage. But to give you a typical day whilst I’m on this Twelfth Night tour with the RSC: there are eight actors in the company performing Twelfth Night plus our Associate Director and we are all staying in a big house. This morning, I got up very early to make sure that I had time to go for a run and then talk to my son. After that, we made some eggs to eat and then a taxi picked us up to take us to the school where we are performing the show today. Our team of brilliant Stage Managers were already at the school setting up and the Creative Associate who has been working with the host school was already working with a group of children who are playing the role of the sailors at the start of the show. The cast were introduced to the ‘sailors’ and we did a run through with the children so they could get used to working with us in person. We then had a little bit of time to get used to the space ourselves before performing the show to a brilliant audience of school children in the area. We then had a bit of a break and will shortly try and get something healthy to eat before we do our evening performance. The day will end pretty much how it started – a taxi will pick us up post-performance and take us back to our accommodation for some sleep!
What’s great about your job?
The best thing about this tour is watching the children that are in the show having that amazing experience for the first time. Seeing their enjoyment and excitement is like the feeling we get on a first night but the children only get to experience it once or twice before we’re off to the next venue and a new set of young performers. I also love watching the reactions of the children in the audience. Seeing them have a ‘lightbulb moment’ with Shakespeare and knowing that this is the first time many of them will have seen Shakespeare or live theatre is extremely rewarding. For some of those children, this will have ignited a lifelong love of theatre, Shakespeare or the RSC and for others, it will have taken away any preconceptions they might have had about Shakespeare not being for them.
What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?
Sometimes it can be very tempting to fill up on rubbish food when you’re away from home and working long and strange hours. But you quite quickly learn that it’s not a good idea and will leave you feeling less than optimal. I see my job as a huge privilege but like most things in life worth doing, it is not without its challenges.
What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?
Unusually I didn’t go to drama school so I followed a different path into acting. When I was in my late teens, I used to go to France each summer and work as a holiday rep. One year, I met a lovely family there and the Dad worked as a carpenter on Blue Peter. I kept in touch with the family and then, when I arrived in London, he took me into the BBC’s Television Centre and I ended up getting a job in the bar there. One day I decided to take a bit of a risk and marched down the corridor and introduced myself to one of the casting directors. In a true ‘sliding doors’ moment, that casting director had just got off the phone to someone who was casting for a pilot episode for a new comedy series. He offered me my first role in what went on to become the phenomenon that was The Office. It was a case of right place, right time but goes to show that you can play an active role in making things happen.
And yes, I have worked outside the arts. I’m a keen runner so in fact, still work as a running guide for a company called Secret London runs where we take out groups of people to discover different aspects of the city – all whilst running!
What are the highlights of your career to date?
I am extremely proud of The Office. I was on set all day, every day and watching all those incredibly talented people was both a privilege and a brilliant learning opportunity. Other than that, I am hugely proud of the work we do with young people both at the RSC and The Globe to make Shakespeare more accessible. Once you get inside Shakespeare it is glorious but there are still too many barriers that prevent people from doing so. I will never tire of the joy when a child has a real breakthrough with Shakespeare. Seeing a young person really begin to grasp the nuance of language and discover that they have permission to experiment with language and make words up if nothing exists, is hugely rewarding.
Why do you think Shakespeare has such an enduring legacy?
Shakespeare deals with all the big themes: love, war, death, power, corruption. Human nature hasn’t really altered that much since he was writing so these are all things that we still talk about and that still occupy us today. There’s also an element that as a nation, we’ve decided that Shakespeare is important. We’ve done so for justifiably good reasons but his legacy is a thing we’ve traditionally celebrated and exported so it’s become embedded in our culture. There are elements of his work, for example, that are important to our understanding of other more contemporary work. So if you watch West Side Story for example you will get a lot from it but if you’re familiar with Romeo & Juliet and understand it within that context, you’ll have an even richer experience. Today, aspects of Shakespeare’s work can be controversial, resonating differently with our modern sensibilities than they would have done so in the past. It raises important questions around racism, sexism and British cultural colonialism, for example, and we need to be sensitive and alert to how we should be having those difficult conversations.
Why is RSC touring Twelfth Night into schools as well as theatres?
Shakespeare is the only compulsory writer on the English curriculum so everyone at school in England will have to study his work at some point. But we know that reading a play like a book and seeing it brought to life in performance in front of you are two very different things. The RSC’s First Encounters productions are very much about giving young people who have never seen live theatre, Shakespeare or the RSC’s work, a fun and inspiring introduction to Shakespeare. Not everyone can travel to Stratford-upon-Avon so by bringing our show into schools all over the country, we can make sure that more young people get the chance to see the work in action and in an environment that they feel comfortable in.
What are some of the considerations that go into making Shakespeare accessible to an audience as young as seven?
For younger and first-time audiences, our priority is to make the plot as clear as possible. As actors we have to be very clear about our character’s feelings, what motivates them and what their thought processes are. If we fully embrace and clarify those things for ourselves, then we can make that clear to our audiences. There is also some brilliant editing that has gone on to cut the play’s running time down to 90 minutes. That means that the really critical language and imagery is our focus and we do cut some of the overly complex images Shakespeare uses. We also make a judgement about what is age-appropriate thematically and linguistically and make choices about things we don’t want to focus on for this particular production.
Is this your first national tour? What are some of the logistical challenges of it? And what are the bits you love?
No! I’ve been on tour since the start of this year with various projects. There’s an art to it and having done it so much, I’m getting quite good at it now. Challenges include balancing family and making time for them. I have a son so I will often get up extremely early so that I can make time to do things with him or talk to him before I start work. It’s also vital when you are on the road that you look after yourself so that you aren’t ill. Making sure you eat well, sleep and rest are really critical. In terms of the bits I love – the camaraderie of being on tour with a group of like-minded, brilliantly talented people who all want to achieve the same thing is unbeatable.
How has your background, upbringing and education had an impact on your artistic career?
I was very lucky to go to a school that applied for grant maintained status specialising in the arts so was encouraged from a young age to explore and enjoy my creative side. The school was based in inner city Leicester so had a very varied intake from right at the heart of the city’s urban centre to some of the surrounding rural villages. There were also some extraordinary teachers that valued creativity and inspired us to learn. I was also lucky that the Haymarket theatre had just opened. I had a neighbour who worked in the box office, saw me ‘performing’ in the garden one day and suggested I join their youth theatre. My sister and I both signed up and it clearly had a profound impact on both of us as both me and my sister are now actors!
Did you have any role models or inspirations growing up?
I have always been inspired by my father. My Dad was a man who against all the odds, hung on to what he believed and his politics. Where we lived there was a prevailing culture of conservatism but my Dad absolutely stuck to his guns and never wavered from his own politics. What was particularly impressive though was how he did that but always managed to stay friends with people, even those who held vastly different opinions and ideals from him. I have always had enormous respect for him and found it hugely inspirational.
Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?
I worked with one Director who was great but during the rehearsal process it became very clear that I’d been badly cast. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, just one of those things but it was an awful feeling and by the time you’re into rehearsals, it’s really too late. I dealt with it by engaging in a lot of self-talk to remind myself that with hard work I could absolutely give enough to not let the other cast members down. It was the first time I’d had an experience like that so it took quite a lot of soul searching to understand that I may not be right for every single part. I’ve learnt since that it’s something all actors have to grapple with at some point but being able to accept that giving a version of a part might not be to the level you would want it to be is really important. Once you understand that, you can make clearer choices. Over the past few years that insight has meant I’ve ended up working on a number of incredible projects. Projects where because of my upbringing, past experiences, the work I do as an education practitioner, or a combination of all or some of those things, I’ve brought a very unique perspective and set of skills to roles that not everyone could have done.
Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?
Yes there have been some huge changes. For example, the last two Shakespeare parts I’ve played have traditionally only been played by men. There are also a lot more people in my profession and in TV and theatre making generally that don’t look like me. There has been a shift but we still have a long way to go until we see real equality and diversity.
You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?
I’ve thought about this a lot and concluded that 16 year old me would be so proud of me! I think that given the experiences I had when trying to break into the industry I would probably tell myself not to worry, to trust myself and that when it’s right it’ll come and you don’t need to push it.
Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?
I’d say there is definitely some luck involved – being in the right place at the right time. But that being in some places makes a positive outcome more likely. If I hadn’t taken that bar job in Television Centre, that conversation with the casting agent would never have happened and the trajectory of my career would probably have been very different. So my advice would be to start somewhere and that by being somewhere connected to the industry you will learn so much. Being front of house in a theatre for example is a brilliant way to start – you get to watch all the plays and observe all the time. Just get involved, stay curious and ask questions. The worst thing that could happen is that they might say no. But they might say yes or six months later they might remember you and then say yes!
Emma is performing in the RSC’s First Encounters production of Twelfth Night. On tour nationwide until 12November 2022 https://www.rsc.org.uk/first-encounters-twelfth-night
Want to read how the director approached the editing process to keep the play to 90 minutes? Read our interview with Robin Belfield here.
Interested in acting? Trinity College Drama qualifications might be for you! Find out more here.