Playwright, Elinor Cook interview: “If the dudes are pitching great plays — then those of us who aren’t the white men need go in there and nail those commissions.”
Elinor Cook is not some no-frills interviewee. My time with the feisty young playwright involved her batting my base level questions politely, while occasionally pouring herself a glass of water.
Not having arrived today with any sort of agenda, we simply had a chat. She tells me that yesterday she had an ‘impromptu Mexican dinner’ with the Lady From The Sea cast and Kwame Kwei-Armah to celebrate his recent appointment as Artistic Director of the Young Vic. ‘FYI’ she had pan-seared tuna tacos and a beer… And a margarita. “Two drinks — Mexican appropriate,” she says, laughing.
Her new version of The Lady From The Sea, directed by Kwei-Armah opens at the Donmar tonight. Ibsen’s play encompasses those familiar Ibsen themes: obligation, accountability, the role of women and how the past impinges on the future. How has she found adapting such a classic text? “I’ve found it a complete joy,” says Cook. “I’ve loved it and I definitely want to do more of this sort of thing because there is something about having the map in place. It’s gone through a couple of permutations in terms of the setting of it. The first draft was all set contemporary, in time of the second draft we had a conversation and decided it would be more helpful to make it post-colonial and that mirroring Ellida’s own restless and need to be independent herself.”
Cook is revelling the opportunity to work with the new Artistic Director of the Young Vic. “He has this ability to facilitate an incredibly open rehearsal room,” she says, smiling. “He’s able to make people trust him and each other. There’s a beautiful lightness and airiness with the work and with what is happening on stage and it’s all there because of his attention to detail. He’s really big on psychology and emotion and my God you can really see that. It’s just extraordinary. He’s incredibly generous and honest.”
Every Playwright has a unique approach to writing. Where does she work best? “I work in the library – I go to the Wellcome Collection Library, which I’d highly recommend as a place to work,” she says. “I try and do a full work day because I need the structure and just to have other people around. It’s nice to feel that you are part of something.”
We talk about the lack of female writers on our biggest stages. “You can’t ignore that conversation because everyone’s having it”, she shrugs when I suggest that the scenario is not exactly ideal. “It does anger me, but I’m reluctant to go: ‘The reason it’s taken me 10 years is because I am a woman.’ However, I am conscious of the fact that I am white, privileged and straight. I think it’s more about how you get into those rooms in the first place.”
Not, she hastens to add, that she’s had it easy. “As someone who’s had every opportunity, but struggled so much with confidence for a long time and that feeling that I didn’t know how to hold my own in the room the way my male counterparts did. I wrestled with the feeling that at any second I’d be chucked out because I had nothing of interest to say.”
How can we ensure a real shift toward gender equality? “It starts before the theatres are making those decisions,” she says.
“If the dudes are pitching great plays — then those of us who aren’t the white men need to make sure that we are enabled to go in there and nail those commissions. There are so many reasons why I would struggle to pitch something and if I find it hard then how hard would those who hadn’t had those privileges and opportunities to get on?”
Does she feel obliged to write about politics, I ask. “The whole gesture of playwriting is political in itself,” she states. “With a play like Out of Love, I wanted to write something very human, getting to the complexity of the relationship between two women. I wanted to excavate something that I hoped would touch people on a human level. If you succeed with something like that then you are asking the audience for their imagination and empathy. In this increasingly fractured world, where the divisions are widening, if we are not able to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes then we are kind of doomed.”
She continues: “A political play doesn’t have to be one set in the House of Commons, it can be perceived to be a smaller beast. My play Image of An Unknown Woman is my most overtly political play because it directly critiques a repressive regime and questions democracy. But I’d argue that Pilgrims or Out of Love, which are smaller in scale are political in a different way.”
Cook talks of the lucky opportunities that have come her way and in particular the pace at which she has progressed. “There’s something about being the age I am now and my career taking off that feels really right. I’m not sure I would have been prepared for the opportunities had I been younger… I was so crippled with a lack of self-confidence and self-consciousness… It was challenging.”
And now, following a storming debut at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Out of Love is on tour as part of Paines Plough’s pop-up space, the Roundabout. The play is a comic exploration of female friendship spanning 30 years. What are the challenges of writing for such a unique performance space? “When you are writing for Roundabout the work has to have a universality to it – it has to have something that is going to resonate in Poole and in Stoke and in Darlington or Edinburgh,” she says. “There is something about that space; being in the round and with no props. It demands a particular kind of playwriting, it has to be very front-footed. It has to be very clear about what it is from very early on.”
She looks to Tamara Harvey, Amelia Sears and Charlotte Gwinner, particularly at the start of her career, for inspiration. “I’ve had really great relationships with directors. The first skill of a director if they read a draft and are able to help you as the writer really get to the nub of what you have to say.”
Today, she is honest about her commitments beyond The Lady From The Sea. “I’m at that glorious stage where I don’t know what the next project is,” she says, with a glint in her eye.
“I am looking forward to being able to see where my brain takes me and where the world takes me. I’d love to do more adapting and having written two very intimate plays with Pilgrims and Out Of Love, I’d love to go back to a bigger Image Of An Unknown Young Woman size cast and with international heft. But what that actually is I don’t know and that’s really exciting!”
The Lady From The Sea is at the Donmar, London, until 2 December. Box office: 0844 871 7624.
Out Of Love is currently on a UK Tour as part of Paines Plough’s pop-up theatre Roundabout.