Directing and Writing a Fringe First Award-winning Show

Double Fringe First Award-winning director and writer, Emily Jenkins, tells us how she came to excel in both crafts, the impact of the awards on her career, and the challenges of creating a multi-roling show.

By Natasha Raymond

I spent a lot of my life waiting for other people to say, ‘Yes,’ and I came to the conclusion then that you’ve just got to take your craft into your own hands.
Emily Jenkins

Hi Emily! What first drew you to directing?

I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. I loved to read when I was a kid, I was also very lucky that my parents took me to the theatre from a very early age so it was a world I knew and understood. I saw amazing productions at the National and the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] from before I could really talk. It was always a magical world for me.

I love directing because I’m not brave enough to be an actor. Being an actor, there’s a kind of emotional vulnerability that you have to allow, and you have to allow people in in order to contact a character. I love directing because it’s about bringing incredibly talented people together to help tell the story in the most effective way possible.

I’m a big fan of making productions which don’t have naturalistic set or props. I feel that part of the joy and part of the challenge for me is using physicality, language, actors, light and sound to create a world, and create a mood, and create a feeling. I think when you make something that has the effect you want, it’s like casting a spell over the audience. For that hour or two and a half hours, they’re completely engaging their imaginative senses in a story.

How did you get into scriptwriting?

Entirely accidentally! When I graduated from the postgraduate course at Mountview as a director, [I] spent a couple of years working on the fringe circuit, a lot of assistant directing, and I was struggling to make myself known as a director. I’d done a lot of new writing nights, directing mostly, but every now and then I’d written a 10 minute script. I basically was like, ‘F*** it! I’ll try take something to the Fringe!’ and didn’t have anything I could take to the Fringe, so I thought ‘F*** it, I’ll write something!’

I wrote Rainbow and took it to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012. I directed the play, I wrote the play, I produced it, and in the last week it won a Fringe First Award, which was amazing! But I’d gone up to promote myself as a director and came out as a writer so it’s not on purpose at all.

I like writing plays, [but] I’m a director. I don’t see why you can’t do both and have two different crafts. The dream is for other people to direct my plays, and for me to direct other people’s.

I spent a lot of my life waiting for other people to say, ‘Yes,’ and I came to the conclusion then that you’ve just got to take your craft into your own hands, and go, ‘D’you know what? I believe in what I’m making, and I want to make art, and I’m not going to wait for other people to give me that opportunity. I’m going to create it for myself.’

As both a director and a writer, do you think one craft gives you an advantage in the other?

Not at all, actually. They’re two very different brains. Writing is very emotional, for me anyway, because I don’t plan a play. I kind of word vomit until it forms into an idea, and then it forms into characters and it forms into a structure. I have to work and work and work, and write and write and write, and rewrite and rewrite. It’s quite cathartic, but also extremely painful for me, and it takes a long time.

As a director, it’s much more about focusing on something outside of yourself and trying to create an atmosphere and a room where everyone is on the same page and everyone is working towards the same goal. Shaping and interpreting something else and that is, for me, far more enjoyable.

I do enjoy writing. I’m very proud when I produce something that I like. Basically, it’s storytelling, isn’t it? It’s different crafts that both tell a story. But I have to put on very different hats for each one. One is an interpretive process, and the other is a kind of craft in the storytelling process.

What impact did winning the Fringe First Award for Rainbow have on your career?

It had an extraordinarily positive impact on my writing career, which, before then, I hadn’t planned to have. I immediately got signed with a really great writing agent, I was on attachment at Traverse as part of the Traverse 50, I worked with Plaines Plough. But it was a lot of pressure, because it was my first play I’d ever written that won the award, I had serious second album syndrome, because I didn’t know how to write a play.

As far as I was concerned, the first one was entirely fluke. I hadn’t studied it as a craft, I’d obviously read a lot of plays, I did an English degree, I’d directed a lot of plays, so I have a feeling for it, but I’d never had any lessons. The next few years was really me learning how to do the craft I’d suddenly been successful in, because I didn’t have any clue.

I’m really grateful to Joyce at The Scotsman for noticing small work, because we were [showing] in ZOO Southside. We weren’t a well-known company, we weren’t a well-known anything, but for them to still pick up the play and say, ‘This has value,’ I think that’s what’s really amazing about the Fringe First Award. [It’s] going, ‘We value you as much as we value these big theatres.’

The Fringe can be a very cruel, exhausting beast, and if you are constantly tilting at windmills, it won’t be an enjoyable experience.
Emily Jenkins

How does it feel to have won another Fringe First Award for Bobby & Amy?

I am so bloody chuffed! [I] haven’t been here for seven years, and I only brought [Bobby & Amy] up here because no one would have it. I sent it around hundreds of theatres, and a lot of people said London audiences or theatre-going audiences weren’t interested in a rural tale, or a story about poverty in rural areas, or something that happened 20 years ago. And I just found that very difficult to believe and very frustrating, and so I got sick of waiting for people.

This is the amazing thing about the Fringe. You can do something yourself; you can bring work up that you believe in. [Whether] you’ve got millions of pounds for a budget, or whether you come up with a fiver, you’re able to show your work.

I was terrified about coming back again, because when you’ve won one on the first play you’ve ever written, there’s quite a lot of pressure. On a personal note, I was terrified that the first one was a fluke or an accident. That’s what I’ve had, the fear in the back of my brain; it was an accident, that they didn’t really mean to give me one first time and they got some plays mixed up. So it’s really nice to feel [like], ‘Oh thank god, I can really do this!’

What drew you to explore the topic of foot and mouth disease?

Nostalgia for a shifting town, and a nostalgia for the '90s, and dip daps and Pog swaps and Tamagotchis, and a nostalgia for friendship and that freedom of rolling in the fields.

I remember [foot and mouth disease] was around when I was trying to do my Duke of Edinburgh Award, and so one of the things you have to do is the trek, right. And suddenly I couldn’t get my Duke of Edinburgh award because the fields were taped up. I think only 2,000 animals were found to have [foot and mouth], but 6.5 million were killed. It’s terrifying. And the government at the time didn’t know how to deal with the countryside at all, so they just shut it down.

So that’s where it came from: this feeling that there had been this trauma that no one spoke about, and this shutting down and isolation of a world I remember as a child [that] suddenly had disappeared. And so the play explores that, and the mental health and social implications of it.

I think it’s so important to write voices that haven’t spoken. I can’t presume to have been deeply affected by the trauma, and as much as it is set where I grew up, this is not my story. But I’ve tried to honour the people whose story it is, and I desperately hope that that’s what I’ve done. It’s about giving that voice, not adopting that voice.

Can you tell us about your casting process for Bobby & Amy?

We had some incredible actors audition. A lot of people read the play when we sent out the casting and were keen to audition, even though we were just a small show. First, they had a 15 minute interview, and then I did a six hour workshop with 12 different actors where I paired different people up and we worked on different scenes.

Kimberley Jarvis and Will Howard were just heads and shoulders above the rest of them. Their dexterity, their wit, their emotional intelligence, their physical stamina, and also, we knew we were coming up to the Fringe, [so] we wanted actors who were good human beings. We’ve been so lucky to find two actors who, I think, are at the top of their game and some of the strongest talent we have in the country at this time.

This play was written to really be a vehicle for two actors, I couldn’t have asked for two better actors to play Bobby and Amy. [They’ve] just made the show so fun to work on.

Did you always intend to have two performers portraying an entire cast of characters?

Yes. So again, the play that I wrote came from the fact that I directed a couple of plays which do multi-roling. And I remember as well, as a kid, seeing Stones in His Pockets, which is an incredible play. I like working on pieces that really show off actors. So yes, it was always written, one hundred percent, to be multi-roling.

It takes a lot of work, because obviously what you want to do is make sure the conversation is realistic and naturalistic, and it makes sense as far as the story and structure is concerned. But you have to block the whole thing in your head. I have to know how and when each character is changing, and whether they’re staying in that character or whether they’re moving.

So it’s a much bigger challenge for me when I was writing it, because I had to have two actors in my head, and every character I wrote, I had to know how they would get into that character and out again. Which, again, is a really fun puzzle. It’s extremely limiting, but it’s also extremely freeing, because you can hold a character in the space, you don’t actually need a human being to be there. Three girls, played by a boy and a girl simultaneously!

Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to bring a show to the Fringe for the first time?

I suppose [staying] true to yourself is a really important thing. If you’re bringing a show to the Fringe, you’re coming up here for a reason. It might be to have a great time with your mates [or] to promote your career, in which case, embrace that.

I think it’s very hard when you’re at the Fringe not to pay attention to whether you’re a sold-out show or what the critics are saying or how much you’re having to flyer, so you have to really believe in what you’re making and be doing it for yourself. Because the Fringe can be a very cruel, exhausting beast, and if you are constantly tilting at windmills, it won’t be an enjoyable experience.

Also, bring a raincoat, because umbrellas turn inside out. Be nice to everyone, particularly your venue. They are the people looking after you, they’re the people who are going to recommend your show to other people. And it’s okay not to go out every night [if] you are here to make work, and you are here to advance your career.

My other tip: don’t eat out all the time, do a weekly shop, and make yourself a packed lunch, because everyone coming up here, unless you’re one of the big theatres and you’re actually getting paid properly, is basically doing it on their own expense. [As] much as it’s great to have fun, save money where you can.

Thank you Emily for the intriguing insight! Find out more about Emily’s current projects and don’t forget to check out our other Edinburgh Fringe blogs and videos.

Image credit: Cam Harle