Interviewing Playwrights: Emily Garside

In this latest blog series, our Artistic Development Manager, Jane Ryan will be introducing us to some of today’s most exciting playwrights! Jane will be chatting to various writers about themselves, their inspiration, and their latest projects. In this post, she sits down with Emily Garside to find out more about her work…

“I believe theatre is and has been vital. As a Queer woman, I’m mindful of the history of theatre for my community- as both a refuge and as a medium for raising voices.”    

Tell me a bit about yourself…

Emily: I grew up in Cardiff despite people always saying ‘you don’t sound Welsh’ when they meet me. I’ve since lived in Nottingham, Montreal and London but found myself back ‘home’ post Masters and haven’t quite left yet. 

My undergrad degree was in History with American Studies, just because I seemed to be good at History, and I could do a year abroad! That year abroad in Montreal changed my life in many ways, not least because I fell into drama again after falling out of love with it in school. I took acting classes (I was terrible) and picked up drama modules in Uni. And I took my first creative writing/ playwrighting class. From there I came back, did an MA at RADA, and continued dabbling in writing before taking a detour into academia. I did my PhD and then came out the other end something of a ‘failed academic’ and went back to attempting to work in and write for theatre. 

My PhD probably was one of the most defining periods of my life- mainly because it was so hard, and if I can survive that, I can survive anything. My elevator pitch version of what it’s on is ‘Plays about the AIDS crisis’. 

Do you class yourself as a writer, an artist, a performer?

A writer broadly speaking. Under that umbrella I am an academic, a critic, journalist and playwright. People often like to say you can’t be all three. And increasingly I feel conflicted about remaining a critic, but also, I learned so much about the ‘craft’ of playwrighting in writing about it. And I consider myself an ‘informed voice’ through dabbing across all mediums. And so long as I’m not going to be head critic at the Guardian, I don’t see it as too much of a conflict. Writing about theatre brings me as much joy as writing for it. In my ‘academic’ work where I can really delve into the details of a thing, analyse it and consider its impact that’s just as important to me as the creative stuff. But equally I value- and think we should as an industry value all those elements equally. And not dismiss someone because they do one thing to say they can’t do another. 

Tell me about your previous production, Don’t Send Flowers

‘Don’t Send Flowers’ has jokingly become referred to as the ‘cake and cancer’ play. I personally prefer ‘cake or death’ for the Eddie Izzard reference. 

I submitted my play to an open call from Cardiff theatre company Clock Tower and it was selected for their ‘5th season’ a celebration of 5 years producing new work. I worked with the team over about a year redrafting the piece, and with our Director Ashley Cummings incorporating some movement sequences- which is his speciality- into the piece. Which made it a very different piece in some ways, but also brought out elements that were already there in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Which is exactly why I love writing for theatre- you never know when you put the words on the page exactly how it’s going to turn out when everyone else works their magic. 

The play follows three people who are in therapy for different- yet similar- reasons. Grace is in therapy because her father is dying, Louis is in therapy because his brother is dying, and John is in therapy because he’s dying. Traditional therapy doesn’t feel like it’s helping and instead they strike up this odd friendship across the three of them. But as such things do they get complicated. It’s really a play about grief in its different stages- both for yourself and others. And specifically about younger people facing death- both their own and those around them. 

What made you want to write?

I don’t remember wanting to write, I just remember always writing. Initially it was stories, in novel form, later more academic writing and journalistic stuff. I don’t consciously remember thinking I’d write plays but somewhere it morphed into something I wanted to do and did. 

In terms of the ‘why’ and ‘why theatre’, it’s to tell human stories. I’ll never be a ‘concept driven’ writer, and my career will probably suffer for being ‘terribly kitchen sink drama’ (which isn’t the insult people seem to think it is) but I just want to tell stories about people. I do have a certain penchant for the morbid and dark humour side of things so I also see theatre as a space you can say the things that you can’t in everyday life. 

Do you have a day job? Have you had any jobs not relating the theatre – and what has been the worst?!

Oh, this could be a long one (best get a cup of tea). I’ve had every ‘day job’ going and then some!! I’ve done the more ‘predictable’ ones like retail and Front of House at theatres. And honestly, I think everyone should do customer service jobs so that they learn to treat people working in those better. For theatre makers also getting a FOH job also allows you to interact with the people actually coming to theatres. I’ve also been a teacher in secondary schools and in Universities, as well as a mix of generic admin jobs. 

As for the worst. It’s a tie. Between the job I refer to as ‘Murder Admin’ where the local council sent me as a temp to do the admin on their Domestic Homicide cases. No preparation, no support just me and all the details of these horrible murders against women. A close second is Receptionist at a private hospital- which went against all my principles- where all the other women were terribly glamorous older ladies with rich husbands. And at which nurses threw urine samples at us on the desks. And a Doctor demanded I carry the post to his desk (three steps away).  

My current day job is marketing for a historic house/charity. It’s still creative and arts-adjacent which makes a nice change! 

What play do you wish you had written?

On one hand I’d love to give a high-brow answer, but in all honesty, I wish I’d written War Horse. Partly for the commercial success, but to write something that is so embedded in a lot of young people’s theatrical experience now. That or Les Mis, again to have done something that resonates with and is part of people’s lives appeals to me more than being the most highly ‘critically regarded. 

That said, maybe I wish I’d written Angels in America because I wouldn’t have spent a decade of my life researching it and I could finally give it the edits we all want Kushner to implement but he’ll never allow. 

Do you believe theatre is important? 

I believe theatre is and has been vital. As a Queer woman, I’m mindful of the history of theatre for my community- as both a refuge and as a medium for raising voices. As a theatre historian also, I can’t say theatre isn’t important knowing the political and social power theatre has had over the decades. Is it still as important? Possibly not. And while as someone who loves the medium dearly that might make me sad, I think it’s also part of the natural ebb and flow of culture. Theatre will survive and continue to be important, but perhaps it will change. 

And I think other mediums have power. As a writer and consumer I adore TV. I think some of the best writing- and the writing that has inspired me over the years- has been on TV. And I think we need to lose our snobbery over that. And our snobbery that theatre is somehow ‘better’ than other mediums. It’s the right medium for some stories, not others. 

Where do you write and what inspires you?

I joke that I should thank the ‘Skanky Starbucks’ near my house in my play notes. I do a lot of work there, and it’s filled with miserable teenagers and personal trainers…it’s really quite terrible but weirdly I get a lot of work done! Now I’m in a 9-5 again most of the week most of my work is done in my home office (ie the spare room). 

What inspires me is stories I love. I watch a LOT of TV and I’m not as ashamed of that as some snobs would have us think! I honestly think TV has some of the best storytelling in writing. 

In theatre, I’m a musical theatre kid at heart. As much as I can see beautiful important, wonderfully crafted plays, nothing makes my heart soar like a musical. 

Related to that, I write musically and to music. I have shameful, shameful playlists. And I can tell you what any given scene ‘sounds’ like, what any character’s song is. I drive myself to the point of insanity listening to one song on a loop some days just to get something written. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years time? It can be anything.

I’d like to have written my Angels in America book (which is the book of my PhD). I’d like to have written more books about theatre that bridge the academic and the popular. 

Creatively, if I was dreaming I’d say I wanted to be ‘Like Russell T Davies’ (even though he’s a one of a kind) I’d like to write for Television, but the kind of quality television that makes people stop and think and talk. 

If I’m still writing plays, I’d like to think I’m still writing the stories that matter to me. Giving my best domestic drama, which isn’t trendy, but it’s what I know. 

Oh and I’d like to have a dog. If only for someone to talk to when I write who has to listen. 

Don’t Send Flowers was performed by Clock Tower at The Gate Cardiff in September 2019, watch this space for news of future productions. You can find out more about Emily and her work here. 


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