Play-Bells Ring! In Conversation with playwright Ellen McNally

Written by Ruth Mcgivern


‘Those Yet to Come’ is the most recent collaboration from emerging playwright Ellen McNally and Newcastle-based playhouse, Live Theatre. Earlier this year, in a unique bid to show ardent support for a sector so brutally neglected, the Live Theatre sent out an open call for finished, 10-minute scripts, all to be ‘rehearsed, performed and recorded behind closed doors’. With over 300 scripts submitted, Ellen was one of the nine successful applicants debuting her first-ever play ‘Off Peak’ in September. Now as Christmas creeps in, Ellen is back with a new creation gladly spreading Geordie Christmas cheer.


Photo by the Live Theatre - https://www.live.org.uk/

In the same week that a Tier 2 London opened the doors to its sorely missed West End, Newcastle’s Live Theatre celebrated the upload of ‘Five Plays of Christmas’, where five brand new festive plays are currently available for free online. Sparking a discussion on the future of performance, I was lucky enough to interview Northern writer Ellen McNally, to discuss her delightful new piece and how it interacts with the value of regional representation, accessibility within the arts and the challenges of discussing mental health.


In the opening scene of ‘Those Yet to Come’, the audience is transported to Christmas Eve 2020, where characters The Ghost of Christmas Past and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be playfully bicker about their stage entrances. In true live theatre fashion, the props and backdrops are purposefully limited, forcing the dialogue to take centre stage. Here, the writing holds a dash of regional magic, where the North East dialect and its distinctive tone is showcased in all its glory. Ellen, who was raised in County Durham, proudly flaunts elements of the Newcastle experience as ‘Those Yet to Come’ is dripping with geordieisms and local references. When discussing writing within the familiarity of her own vernacular, Ellen testified the importance of local representation within the arts: ‘there’s language that is often deemed as poetic and it’s usually Southern, whereas Northern writing is always funny or used as a vehicle for humour’.


Photo of playwright Ellen McNally

Although Ellen uses playful wit in her own writing to capture the reality of friendly, Northern interactions, she believes that the Geordie accent shouldn’t be pigeonholed for the sake of comedy: ‘It shouldn’t be constrained to just present the funny Northern character in the corner who is only there to have a laugh’. Referencing another of the five plays ‘The Whale Washed up on Christmas Eve’ by Sarah Tarbit, Ellen notes the accent can be ‘stunning, challenging and just as beautiful and poetic’ continuing, ‘there’s loads of (artistic) opportunities out there but they're restricted to The South with most stuff you see on the telly being London-based or London-centric, so when you do hear a Geordie voice on the telly, you’re like GET IN!’


Possessing all the necessary qualities of a feel-good Christmas tale, Ellen manages to teasingly twist a well-known story to match the overall mood of 2020. In just ten minutes, the tables are turned for one of Scrooge’s most famous ghosts, as it is his turn to receive a once-in-a-spiritual-lifetime opportunity to learn an important lesson. A witty and intertextual composition, I was utterly charmed by the concept of a sequel to ‘A Christmas Carol’ where a bleak Dickensian setting has been exchanged for Newcastle’s festive cityscape, all whilst offering an opportunity for the audience to reflect on their own experience of self-doubt in a year that has provided a wealth of anxiety.


Despite the comic relief, Ellen’s writing remains aware of 2020’s stormy atmosphere and shines a spotlight on the subject of opening up about mental health as we meet an apathetic ‘Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be’. Struggling with his own self-worth, he is failing to see value in his paranormal profession and can’t seem to picture himself beyond the way he feels in that moment. A common but distressing symptom of depression that Ellen felt was significant to portray. Ellen commented: ‘I thought it was important to incorporate by putting little subject matters within the arts to open up a conversation or just to make light of it because sometimes that’s the best you can do’.


Photo by the Live Theatre - https://www.live.org.uk/

‘I think there’s a lot of pride in the North, just like in other areas where it can be really hard to open up and be vulnerable. The North East has had its mental health services absolutely decimated, and there is a huge link with mental health and poverty. Mental health is its own sort of pandemic where you have to focus on yourself and other people and that pressure is huge and overwhelming’.


In the opening dialogue, we are reminded of the often ironically unmindful suggestion of practicing mindfulness or going for a run when someone admits to feeling down as one of her characters suggests in an attempt to help. ‘I don’t think it’s a malicious attitude to have, it has good intentions, especially with blokes there’s this idea of you know ‘get on with it get outside you’ll be fine… but that same attitude of go for a run or practice mindfulness is limited - what if you don’t have a phone? any money? What if you're disabled? There are so many different factors that can play into someone’s options of recovery and issues that we don’t really address.’


Although the Sheffield-based writer wasn’t able to be physically involved with the production process, Ellen showed high praise for the collaborative art form musing ‘the distance forces the process to become less insular, and I became less precious about controlling my work’. With such a unique partnership between playhouse and playwrights in such a trying time for the arts, I asked Ellen whether she believes projects like this could spawn the future of theatre and live performance. ‘Having shows put online, especially for free, is far more accessible and it can influence others to get involved or inspire them to write, which is what Theatre should be for… Sometimes people can’t afford the expense and with no other alternative, Theatre is always seen as something bourgeois or distant’.


Photo by the Live Theatre - https://www.live.org.uk/

This year has seen a plethora of efforts to increase audience participation and accessibility. We have seen the National Theatre at Home publishing live performances and various other productions to the internet, establishing a free online programme of theatre. In this instance, the Live Theatre has gone above and beyond regular restrictions, providing fourteen free original plays, all accompanied with closed captioning.


Ellen McNally believes the theatres will be open someday soon but remarks we shouldn’t abandon the gallant efforts which have allowed everyone (not just regular West End Visitors) the pleasure of the theatre in their very own living room Grand Circle.


Ellen, who has only recently rekindled her love for writing by creating content for blogs such as Words for Music, confirmed her opinion that projects like this keep the arts alive. With so many exciting opportunities happening within the North East, Ellen encourages all aspiring authors to write within their roots and emphasises the importance of getting involved with your local art scene. Her final piece of advice? Don’t be afraid to write for fun!


Photo of playwright Ellen McNally

If you would like to show your support for the independent arts, you can watch all ‘Five Plays of Christmas’ on YouTube by clicking here.


Wishing you a very Cherry Christmas and a Happy New Year!




Credits:


Words: Ruth McGivern / @ruth.mcgivern

Images: Live Theare / @livetheatrenewcastle

Editor: Amber Patterson and Charlotte Hampshaw


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