ED2015 Interviews ED2015 Theatre ED2015 Week3 Edition

Emma Hall: With 621 opinions, you have to choose

By | Published on Tuesday 25 August 2015

Emma Hall

Emma Hall promises 621 opinions in her impactful and thought-provoking one-woman show ‘We May Have To Choose’. Inspired by her Facebook newsfeed, or more to the point, how frustrated the constant stream of over-simplified opinions made her feel, the show sets out to make the audience think, consider and debate.
It certainly had a big impact on our reviewer, and after she gave the show top marks we decided we had to sit down with Emma to find out more about the show, why she wrote it, and how she is finding performing solo for the first time.

CC: So tell us the premise for ‘We May Have To Choose’.
EH: The show is a one-woman stream of consciousness-type ride through my own personal worldview. It’s an attempt to define and situate myself within what feels like an overloaded, unhealthy, morally-confusing planet. I wrote it in response to the incessant opinion-sharing of social media, where everyone is an expert and knowledge is shared in bite-sized overly-simplified ways. I wanted to know what would happen if I put that newsfeed format in front of a live audience.

CC: Your blurb promises 621 opinions. Are there really 621 opinions expressed? Could we count them?
EH: You could! I counted them myself to get to 621. Though to be honest, I think there might be a few more than that. It begs the question of course – what is an opinion? I’ve taken a pretty broad definition, I see it as a particular idea about anything in the world, which includes statements of undeniable fact (“men are not rats”) as well as things that might be more contentious (“poverty breeds ebola”).

CC: We really felt you were challenging your audience’s ideas and views with the show. Is that your intention? To change opinions, or at least instigate debate?
EH: It is my main aim, yes, to encourage people to critically examine their own views, and how they are constructed. One person who saw my show said to me afterwards that she doesn’t watch the news, or read the papers, and that she follows the world only through social media. When I asked her why, she said “because I don’t want my opinions to be changed”. That made me a little sad, to think that it is so easy now to feel connected, but only in an increasingly curated online space, so you may never come into contact with ideas or perspectives that you disagree with. I want people to be exposed to a series of provocations that encourage them to actively position themselves against me, or alongside me, on a range of issues that they might otherwise avoid.

CC: Tell us a bit more about your work in theatre to date.
EH: This is the first show I’ve written, my first solo show, and my first time in Edinburgh. So I am still learning a lot! But I’ve been a professional actor for three years now and work mainly in independent theatre in Melbourne. Before training, I made theatre with friends in Adelaide and Canberra. I love working in a live environment, I love learning about how to tailor work for the group of individuals who are in the room that night. My favourite moments are when you can feel that we are all holding our breath at the same time. Plus I’m a sucker for fear, and the never-ending threat of failure!

CC: What motivated writing ‘We May Have To Choose’?
EH: Facebook. I was just so absolutely fed up by Facebook and my newsfeed of other people’s opinions. Plus, in my day job, I’m a civil servant, so by law it can be tricky for me to express my personal political opinions.

That, and a fundraiser I organised in late 2013 for the Philippine Typhoon Yolanda, or Haiyan. For that event I wrote to my all time favourite theatre legends Forced Entertainment to request permission to perform one of their pieces. In response, Artistic Director Tim Etchells kindly donated his work ‘Sight Is The Sense’ for me to read at the event. That too is a free-associating list of declarations – which has been described as a “badly organised taxonomy” of the world – and it gave me the idea for the form of ‘We May Have to Choose’, and really opened up my thinking about what a work of theatre could be.

Another big influence for my piece was another Forced Entertainment work called ‘Tomorrow’s Parties’, which I’m so excited to see will be at Edinburgh Fringe next week at Summerhall. It’s an absolute dream for me to see that live, as it’s not toured to Australia.

CC: How does writing and then performing a monologue compare to working with other actors on a production?
EH: My next show is most definitely going to be a group show! There are some great things about performing solo – it appeals to the megalomaniac in me – and I like getting to call the shots and play directly with the audience. Sometimes, when things are going well, performing a monologue can make you feel incredibly powerful and vulnerable at the same time. But it’s also a much more unpredictable experience. And if the ball gets dropped, you only have yourself to blame! And that can be very stressful at times.
Though this production has been a pretty collaborative experience, because my director Prue Clark played a huge role in the whole process – dramaturging the writing and honing the shape of the piece in performance. Plus my stage manager and tour director Olivia Monticciolo, who is also an actor, is watching me like a hawk each show, to make sure the performance stays on track. And the designer Amy Lever-Davidson and sound designer SS.Sebastian also played key roles in creating the mood of the piece. I couldn’t do this alone, and I don’t know how others do it.

CC: You have an academic background in political science. Do you think theatre or comedy can get an audience to think in a way political speeches or journalism cannot?
EH: I definitely think art is one of the most powerful mediums for politics. Too often people switch off from journalism or media soundbites, and even if they think they are listening, they aren’t really engaging in the debate. Art, if done well, can activate people imaginatively and emotionally.

In many ways, all art is political, because it presents a particular point of view or relationship to the world. But it also opens up conversations in intimate spaces that might otherwise never happen. A great example of this is Bryony Kimmings’ beautiful work ‘Fake It Till You Make It’. A friend of mine took her boyfriend to that show, and it gave them the impetus to talk about his depression in a constructive and genuine way, for the first time in their ten year relationship.

I am no Bryony Kimmings, but I hope to make work that can give audiences similar opportunities to talk to each other. I don’t think I’ll ever make work that doesn’t have a political edge to it.

CC: You performed the show at the Adelaide Fringe to much acclaim. Has the show evolved at all since then?
EH: It’s changed a bit. I’ve reworked some of the opinions to make them more relatable to a British audience. In Australia I tell people what I think of our former prime ministers – and I reckon you guys probably couldn’t care less about that! It’s also needed to be redrafted in some areas, where I might have changed my perspective on a particular issue due to a life experience or something being presented to me that I hadn’t previously thought of. Everything I say has to be something I really do believe.
It’s also continuing to evolve in performance. The Edinburgh Fringe is such a fantastic opportunity to perform the work to a wide range of people. Though Melbourne is a big city it is a pretty small arts scene, and I hardly ever have the luxury of performing to a room of people who don’t know me personally. I’ve used the Fringe as an opportunity to really build confidence and experiment. I don’t want to stop!

CC: How have you found performing the show at the Edinburgh Fringe? How have audiences responded?
EH: Oh the audiences have all been really supportive and special, but so different day to day. I did a short run at the incredible Forest Fringe in a large space with a very theatre-literate audience, and they responded to the form of the work and could see who I was influenced by. The Free Festival crowd, in contrast, have been really mixed. I’ve had hecklers, people falling asleep, people checking their phone, late arrivals, early leavers, people who see loads of theatre and people who think they’re walking into a stand-up comedy show.

Some people are weeping by the end, while others think the piece is hilarious. It is a really personal experience for people and really reflects where they might be at at any particular point in their life or even their day. Some people have seen it more than once and hear different things each time. That was the idea of the piece – if you are preoccupied with something in particular in your life right now, chances are you’ll be more likely to think the piece has that theme to it.

CC: And finally, what’s next, for both you and the show?
EH: When I get back to Melbourne I take this straight to the Melbourne Fringe, which will be the first time I’ve shown it to my home crowd.

Then I’m working with theatre company Man With A Plan, of which I’m a founding member, on a new devised work ‘Gin Sister’ about women and alcohol. ‘Gin Sister’ will premiere in late November at the inaugural Poppyseed Festival, which is an honour and very exciting. For now I’m doing as much research as possible to prepare – Guinness and whisky are two particular areas I’m exploring while in Edinburgh! I’m joking! A little.

I’m also hoping to be able to bring ‘We May Have To Choose’ back to the UK next year for a regional tour. It’s a piece that will continue to evolve and be updated as the world evolves, but it’s a continually fascinating show to perform.

‘We May Have To Choose’ was performed as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival at Edinburgh Festival 2015.

LINKS: emmamaryhall.com