When Ella Hickson named her second play Precious Little Talent, she ran the risk of spoon-feeding disapproving critics with disparaging taglines. It was a potentially dangerous move for someone who was still very much starting out in the business of playwriting. But Hickson is not one to make such moves lightly: she maintains that “as a writer you must never stop asking yourself questions”. In answering mine, she reflected on both her own work and theatre more broadly with remarkable insight and clarity.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the critics were not inclined to decry Hickson’s own ‘precious little talent’ following her second, self-produced venture. Rather, they unanimously identified her as one of the emerging “female playwrights set to take the West End by storm” (Guardian, 2009), alongside the likes of Polly Stenham, Lucy Prebble and Laura Wade. In recent years, the papers have been keen to stress an unprecedented boom in young women writing for theatre, and Hickson has become something of a ‘buzz-name’ for journalists looking to hammer home their hypotheses. So what does she make of it all? “I think it’s largely media-led. Those kinds of canonical groupings are usually retrospectively established because they make good articles. I know as many young male writers out there – Nick Payne and Joel Horwood, for example; they’re two of my contemporaries. So the fact that the media has focused more on women, honing in on female writing and suggesting it’s something new, is probably evidence of us being much more backwards than we think we are. The fact that we’re making a big fuss over female playwrights is, perhaps, the more interesting thing in many ways.” When I ask if she feels any responsibility as a woman writer – to which Sarah Kane once famously replied “I have no responsibility because I don’t believe there’s such a thing” – Hickson muses, “I think, as a playwright, you look at human experience, and yes, sometimes that is biographical, and your gender does come into it, but I certainly don’t classify myself singularly as a female writer”.
So if the arts pages were wrong to pigeonhole her, at least they got one thing right: Hickson’s heading for big things. Her debut play, Eight, won a Fringe First Award in 2008 and went on to tour to New York and the West End. And Precious Little Talent, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009, is fast following in Eight’s footsteps, with a run at London’s Trafalgar Studios opening this April. With this – her second London transfer – Hickson has finally had to submit to the big smoke, leaving behind her flat in Edinburgh (where she went to University) for a pad in the capital city (“Traitor!”, she laughs). She reflects on staying in Scotland and on using the Fringe Festival as a platform for her work: “the thing about my trajectory is that I self-produced in a way that other writers don’t. Before this year, I was the only person to direct my shows. It meant I wrote specifically contemporary plays because I knew – unlike writers working within larger establishments in London, for example – that my work was going to go into rehearsal within a week of its written completion, and then get up onto a stage within a month or so. That enables you to be quite furiously contemporary in a way that you can’t be if you’re working somewhere like the Royal Court, where your play might not be produced within the next six months, or the next year, or sometimes even two years. Staying in Edinburgh, I could write plays that could be produced quickly, which meant I picked my topics very differently and my reason for writing was also quite different – the urgency of what I had to say needed to be heard then.” But London-living is offering Hickson a whole host of new challenges and writing opportunities (one of which is her role as this year’s Pearson Playwright for the Lyric Hammersmith), and she ventures, “The industry aspect of it can be both involving and distracting. Sometimes it’s harder in London to remember that the work is the most significant thing – that it’s got to be your priority – and that the industry isn’t as important. I miss Edinburgh for that.”
But, as Hickson talks to me from a table in the British Library, where she’s hard at work on Precious Little Talent rewrites, it seems clear to me that she’s managed to keep a firm hold on her priorities. “I’m writing a different ending”, she tells me. “I want it to feel as contemporary as it did the first time round.” Indeed, in 2009, the play came in the midst of a recession and hot on the heels of Obama’s election victory, which felt particularly fitting for Hickson’s subject matter – the unlikely relationship between cynical English girl, Joey, and enthusiastic, young New Yorker, Sam. “Obviously there’s an argument that the best plays transcend time and should be universal in their themes and their effects, but I personally feel that I want to say something for now. Precious Little Talent is about trying to identify a generation, to ask who are we, what do we believe, and, if we want to talk to each other, how do we do that?” And it’s not the only one of her plays to take twenty-somethings as their protagonists: both Eight (2008) and Hot Mess (2010) have also centred around young men and women struggling to identify a cause or a belief in something that might unite and empower their generation.
So why theatre, I ask. Why turn to playwriting as a means of exploring these themes? “I’ve started writing essays recently for myself, more than anything else, to work out what it is I want to say. I suppose my academic background taught me to make an argument in that way. But I think drama is closer to the truth than objective essays. We’re not balanced creatures. We don’t make fair arguments, and we certainly don’t live balanced lives, with our prejudices, our impulses, and our bigotry. So drama enables a translation of an argument into something that is personal and agenda-ed, and subjective, which makes for a bad essay! But I believe that those personal, subjective truths are the ones that affect us most in our daily world.” She thinks for a moment, before continuing: “My absolute guiding aim as a writer is to be able to make somebody feel that their feeling is being felt by someone else, too. I want to be able to drop a feeling or a thought into a character’s body, and for the audience to feel what they feel, and therefore not feel alone. That’s why I write.” And it’s this that really touches the core of Hickson’s work thus far: in Eight, in particular, she reveals a real knack for putting those difficult, seemingly inexplicable feelings into words through deeply personal monologue-based theatre. In Hot Mess, she experiments with a more lyrical, poetic style in telling the tale of twins, Polo and Twitch, one of whom cannot love while the other can do nothing but. Her development as a writer is therefore a distinct and compelling one. About her shifting styles, she remarks, “In all honesty, when I was starting out, the different forms were to do with a lack of structural awareness. I mean, the decision for Eight to be made up entirely of monologues was because I didn’t know how to write a play. As I try different things, I’m experimenting with a view to educating myself in the capacities of theatre.”
And what has her experimentation taught her – any pearls of theatrical wisdom for young, aspiring playwrights? She laughs: “I still very much consider myself a young, aspiring playwright! What kind of advice do I have for myself?! Well, firstly, constantly interrogate your own truths and never start believing you’re right. And secondly, craft will save you. There will be days when your confidence is totally shot, and you don’t think you can do it, and you don’t want to do it, and on those days, the tricks of the trade – the prosaic nuts and bolts of how to put a piece of writing together – will be the net that catches you when your impulse and your soul aren’t helping you out. So learn your craft!”
With that, she’s off – back to the Precious Little Talent rewrite. If her astute and pertinent answers are anything to go by (and I think they are), then her second, updated version of the show is going to be just as engaging and relevant as the first – if not more so. Endless re-runs of the classics are all very well, but if you’re after something that speaks to you, right here, right now, then I’d implore you to get a ticket for Precious Little Talent this spring – it’s bound to be a sell-out.
Precious Little Talent, written by Ella Hickson and directed by James Dacre, runs at the Trafalgar Studio 2 from 5 – 30 April. The cast features Ian Gelder, Olivia Hallinan and Anthony Welsh and tickets are available from here.