Emma Burnell is a playwright and political journalist. Her first Play No Cure For Love was staged in 2021. Her second play Triggered had two short runs in 2022 and was awarded an Off West End Short Run Commendation. This is the first time she will act in one of her shows. Emma first appeared on the stage at 15 in a youth opera called A Safe Place where she caught the theatre bug. But it wasn’t until middle age – and five years of reviewing theatre for a range of sites – that she found the courage to write her first play.
What first attracted you to the theatre?
I have always loved the theatre and have been a regular theatre goer my whole life. I remember my grandparents taking me to the panto and my first Shakespeare when I was 11. I also wanted to be an actress as a kid, but life sort of got in the way.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine set up a theatre reviews website and asked me to write for it. I loved having the chance to see so much theatre, but also to get the chance to think deeply about what I think does and doesn’t work theatrically. It reignited a love of theatre and led me to take courses at Central to become a theatre maker myself.
The chance to study with people I really admire such as Director Shani Erez and writer Tristan Bernays was so exciting and just made me more determined than ever to make theatre a big part of my life.
If you could pick any one person or theatre company to work with on your next project, who/which would it be?
I have been incredibly lucky to have worked really closely with David Brady from the Lion and Unicorn Theatre and Proforca Theatre Company. He’s been a mentor, a sounding board and an all-round mensch. And I can’t imagine my life in theatre not having him entwined in it as much as possible.
As a producer, through Third Act Productions, I have also vowed to work with a wonderful range of fantastic older female theatre makers. The first of these was the brilliant Shenagh Cameron whose writing is both personal and powerful. We ran a workshop for her brilliant new play Turpentine and Tobacco and I am really excited to see what she does with it next.
What is your opinion of Off West End theatre, in general?
In general, I think the scene is flourishing under some very difficult circumstances. I definitely see people taking more risks and doing more interesting things in Off West End theatre than in the bigger venues which are (understandably) tending to fall back on reliable seat fillers.
However, one thing that really struck me when reviewing was a lack of representation of older people – and particularly older women. All of my plays have been about older people – possibly because I am on the cusp of 50 myself. I find these stories – for me – a bit richer and deeper and I think the lack of them is something that can and should be replicated so that everyone has the chance to see themselves represented on the stage.
What was the most inspiring performance you have ever seen? Why?
I have become the most enormous fan of the work of Katie Arnstein. Her It’s a Girl! trilogy of work was an incredibly empowered piece of writing and performance. I have a vague rule for the shape of pieces I particularly like which is to make me laugh in the first two thirds and cry at the end. Obviously, this isn’t always the case, but Katie’s shows have done just that on such a deep level. I am continually inspired by her.
And a performance that has stuck with me my whole life was Michael Gambon in Presidents Day which I saw when I was about 15. It was so deep and layered and interestingly subtle in a part that was hard to build and understand. I have never forgotten the impact that had on me.
What piece of work are you the most proud of?
That’s a really hard question. There are elements of both my previous plays I am really proud of. I love the songs in No Cure For Love, for example.
But the response to Triggered from both the political and theatrical communities made me really proud that I had created something that spoke to the political obsessives (something I am myself) but also opened the geeky world of Labour Party processes to a wider understanding in an accessible and entertaining way.
What makes a really good character?
They have to be human. Evil characters have to have something about them that is either likeable or vulnerable. Good characters have to be flawed or they become deeply uninteresting.
One of the reasons I like to write older characters is they have the life experience to draw on that can make them equal parts brittle and vulnerable. They’ve been through all the joys and disappointments and can make you understand both.
Are there any actors/actresses you would like to write a play for?
Not sure my casting budget could take it, but I would love to work with Kathy Burke. I think she’s such an interesting person and a much more subtle actor than I think she is often given credit for.
What play do you wish you’d written?
One play that has impressed me so much in the last few years is Monster by Abigail Hood. It’s such a powerful and empathetic piece. It never shies away from the darker elements of the characters, but at the same time makes them fully rounded and sympathetic – despite their monstrousness. It’s such a clever, interesting and well-rounded piece of writing.
Can you tell our readers about what you’re doing now/next?
Mostly equal parts panicking and learning lines for my next show Venom. I’m playing a modern version of Medusa – a woman who wrote a song in the 90s about relationships that has become something of a feminist anthem, and the backlash she faced as a result.
She decides to come back to try to tell her own story. But little does she know that there is a person out there who would consider it a heroic act to end her life.
The play takes all the core elements of the story of Medusa, with which we are all familiar, and questions why they have been shaped into the narrative of Monster and Hero we are used to.
I’m excited about performing for the first time since my teens, but also incredibly nervous. I’m not convinced my menopausal brain can retain quite this much information. But we’ll soon find out!
Venom is on at the Golden Goose Theatre from 14 – 18 November and tickets can be found here.