On autism and writing the self: an interview with Ella Carmen Greenhill

Her works were staged in unusual places: in museums, hotels and in people’s homes via Skype – and she keeps on moving people by speaking about subjects that are important to her.  Ella Carmen Greenhill’s play Plastic Figurines opens in New Diorama Theatre today – and we talked to her about her influences, lessons she learnt while travelling, and her route to playwriting.

ella carmen greenhill interview - plastic figurines

When Ella was a girl, she never went to the theatre – but her mum used to buy her play scripts, and she loved reading them. However, she didn’t think of herself as a playwright – always keen on writing, she saw herself as a novelist at first, and the attraction to theatre came in her college years, when she considered acting, too.

“I still have a very old, stained copy of A Taste of Honey my Mum got me from Oxfam,” she says. “Then, in college, I went to see Robert le Page’s Polygraph at Nottingham Playhouse and I was blown away. After that, I thought that maybe I wanted to act but I soon found myself preferring to write scenes rather than be in them. After my drama degree, a friend pushed me into applying for the Everyman and Playhouse Young Writers Group. I was shocked when they offered me a place, I didn’t think I stood a chance,” she explains.

That’s how her passion for words written for the stage was born – and since then, she produced many critically acclaimed works. Associated with Liverpool Everyman Theatre, Playhouse Theatre and Paines Plough, she was also a writer in residence in Battersea’s Theatre 503 and a part of the Royal Court studio writers group. She had also the opportunity to learn from theatres abroad – travelling a lot, and observing different cultures has also influenced her writing – but she thinks that a great story speaks volumes anywhere in the world.

The poetry and rhythm in my writing particularly were revealed to me when it had to be translated into another language that might not fit with that rhythm.

“When I worked in Madrid, I worked really closely with my translator which was great as I felt like I learnt so much about the way I write. The poetry and rhythm in my writing particularly were revealed to me when it had to be translated into another language that might not fit with that rhythm,” she describes her experiences. “The company I worked with, Pop Up Theatrics, are very exciting. Based in New York they take their work all over the place and perform in unusual places. My work was performed in museums, hotels and in people’s homes via Skype. Working with them taught me a lot about what theatre can be and it doesn’t just have to be sitting in a seat in an auditorium – although that’s great too.”

Her play Plastic Figurines opens today in New Diorama Theatre for four weeks – and it is strongly based on her own experiences.

“My brother is on the autistic spectrum so it’s a subject close to my heart. Some of the lines are taken right out of his mouth but most are from talking to other people and listening to their experiences,” she explains. “It’s also based on my experiences when my Mum was ill and passed away. When I was writing, it was nice to remember little things about my Mum and incorporate them into Rose and Michael’s mother. The snake-skin trousers, for example, I remember my Mum wearing them,” she adds.

The play fights many misconceptions about autism – which also required a lot of research, many conversations, and a variety of different experiences of the people whose loved ones were on the autistic spectrum. Her goal was to show the challenges connected to living with a different perspective of the world dictated by the condition – but also showcase that it can be beautiful.

“A great piece I read said ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. I think that’s so true and it really gave me the freedom to show my own experience through the play. Not every person with ASD is Rainman. They don’t have special powers! Often people with ASD just see the world differently,” she says.

It became important to remind myself that it is a story – based on my experiences, yes, but at the end of the day it’s fiction.

Wasn’t it difficult to draw the line between real life and fiction while writing about the events so important to her? Ella admits that at the beginning it wasn’t easy; at the beginning, she would become massively preoccupied with the fact that the story is very personal to her.

“It became important to remind myself that it is a story,” she declares. “Based on my experiences, yes, but at the end of the day it’s fiction.”

For an author, it’s also a bit scary to think that that boundary between fiction and real life will become undistinguishable for the audience. Ella confesses that she does worry about people over-interpreting the stories she writes – but is also able to distance herself from that fear.

“I can’t let that cripple me, otherwise I’d never write a thing. It’s all fiction at the end of the day. I’m telling a story and I hope the people close to me can see that,” she states. And she thinks that every character she creates has a bit of her in them – like Voldemort and his Horcruxes, she explains with a comparison to Harry Potter saga.

“Even, maybe especially, the horrible ones,” Ella says. “But that’s the job of the writer, to disguise that and create new and unique characters.”

Besides being a Harry Potter fan, she looks up to authors like Dennis Kelly, Sally Wainwright, Dr. Seuss and Robert McGough. And there are a few books that are particularly important to her: Oh the Places You’ll Go keeps her strong when life gets tough, and Ella Minnow Pea inspires her by playing with language.

“I have a very battered copy of Watership Down that my Mum nicked from a holiday cottage in St Ives. She started reading it to me on holiday and we meant to send it back when we finished it but we forgot. When she was ill in hospital I read it to her. It’s my favourite book of all time,” she says.

When she looks for inspiration, her approach changes with the pieces she writes – and as much as she enjoys researching, she also needs to feel excited about it.

“I often start with one thing and go off on a tangent and the play becomes about something seemingly unconnected,” she reveals. “I’m slow at getting started and then I just completely immerse myself in the world of the play. I love huge bits of paper to map out my world and my characters. I’m easily distracted so I can’t work in coffee shops; generally, I sit in PJs on my bed or in my study. I’m not a morning person, so I tend to start work around midday but will often work past midnight – although that needs to change now that I have a little one. I like to hand write monologues for my characters too. I’m a very visual person so I enjoy colour coding for characters and interweaving stories,” Ella says about her creative process.

The theatregoers can see Plastic Figurines in London right now – but the list of her works, appreciated by critics and audiences alike, include Made in Britain and Beethoven’s Always Right. Currently, she keeps herself busy with her family life and writing for a popular TV show.

“For the past year, I’ve been writing for Coronation Street which I’m loving. I’m also developing a series with a company in the US but that’s very early days,” she reveals. “I’ve just had a baby and I’d love to write something about that but actually it will probably evolve into something totally different.”

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!