Author Interview: Emily Holyoake
Aurora Metro is publishing Emily’s play, ADA, intertwining the history of Ada Lovelace with a contemporary story about the potential of artificial intelligence.
Tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you born? What job do you do now? Before?
I’m from Derby originally and recently moved back, but I went to uni in Exeter and lived there for about 8/9 years, all in all. I miss a lot of things about the South West but the East Midlands feels like a great place to be for theatre at the moment and the arts more broadly. I work a couple of days a week at a Nottingham-based visual arts organisation called Primary, and spend the rest of my time staring out of the window (‘writing’).
How did you get into theatre?
Through singing, originally – I was more confident singing than acting, so my first proper role was as the Narrator in Joseph for our end of year play. When I got to secondary school I joined the Drama Club because all my friends were in it, and generally ended up playing men because I was tall. I took Drama at GCSE because I was rubbish at all the other options, and it turned out I really enjoyed it as a subject (and not just because the drama studio had sofas). Then I did Drama A Level by myself (it was a really small school), which meant I had to take the writing side of it seriously for the first time, and that A Level script went on to be the first play of mine that got performed in a professional theatre. By the time I got to uni I knew I wanted to be a playwright, although I’m not sure when I decided, and me and my best mate (who directed pretty much everything I wrote) spent a lot of time at Exeter pitching my scripts to the uni theatre societies, getting turned down by the uni theatre societies, and putting the plays on anyway.
What is the name of your latest play and what inspired it?
The play is called ADA and it’s a re-telling of the life and legacy of Ada Lovelace, who was a mathematician, the daughter of Lord Byron, and often gets described as ‘the first computer programmer’. It was inspired by a conversation with Adam McCready (Poetical Machines), and it was his determination to tell her story that got the script to where it is now. Adam put the work through a brilliant research and development process and got some amazing collaborators involved, including directors Giles Croft, Kate Chapman, and Julia Locascio, and composers/tech geniuses Haiku Salut. In 2017, we spent a week workshopping it at Nottingham Playhouse with a really warm and generous group of actors, and we experimented with the sound technology/design ideas which went on to form a crucial part of the script – the play takes place in a fully interactive space, where the performers trigger sounds and music by touching the set and each other. Then Julia spent the next year gently, wisely, and firmly pushing me and the script into something ready for performance. So it was inspired by Ada herself of course, but also by all of the amazing creatives who influenced and shaped the work.
What’s the first hook that gets a new play started for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?
It’s tricky to describe this process because things feel like they happen simultaneously. A scenario or an idea starts bothering me, then a character sort of appears alongside whilst I’m thinking about it and the actual story comes from them. I always find the actual business of plotting very difficult. The easy bit for me is listening to the characters and writing down their voices.
I’m a huge fan of science-fiction and I nick all my best ideas from that genre. I grew up watching Star Trek with my mum and reading my dad’s obscure sci-fi novels, then Doctor Who came back when I was fourteen, and I was just hooked on all of it. And I like the challenge of trying to write a story for stage that mostly happens online, or in space, or in the daydream of a robot.
Tell us about your lead characters?
Generally, I’m always keen to centre women and girls within my geeky, tech-y stories because it still feels like there’s a balance to be redressed. I also like to play around with giving humanity to non-human characters like robots and holograms, to do some thinking around what feels important about being human.
I’d say that in ADA both Ada and Ginny feel like lead characters, and I think they’re similar in that they’re often the subjects of other peoples’ opinions, speculation, and ideas. They both have strong maternal figures, both represent a clash of mathematics with the arts, and both find their circumstances frustrating and limiting. But Ada has a strong sense of self and high hopes, whereas Ginny is a blank slate until she’s pushed into unlocking her potential. Plus Ada’s human and Ginny’s a robot, so there’s that.
What else have you written? Is this play a departure from your other work?
I’ve written a play set onboard a stranded spaceship (STASIS), three plays examining different aspects of online fan communities (RL, APRIL, and REAL PERSON FICTION), and at uni I wrote some very unauthorised adaptations, including a ridiculously ambitious staging of an anime (complete with swordfights). For me, the thing that links all of my work is that it’s always character-driven, and there’s often something about the world they’re in which feels fictional or unreal.
The biggest departure from this in ADA is that Ada Lovelace was a real person! This is the first time I’ve had a go at historical work. But paralleling her history with the story of a robot that looks human, and composes music, and seems to manipulate time and space – that bit’s pretty much peak Holyoake.
Why a play? Rather than fiction.
Because I love theatre, I love watching and reading new plays, and I especially love the magic of being in a rehearsal room. Because theatre is something you do, and something you do with other people. And also because I find dialogue pretty easy but I’m totally rubbish at prose.
How do you write? Do you have a special place or routine?
I have a study at home, so I write there – usually I need to feel like I’m totally alone to get anything good done. Recently I’ve been trying to sit straight at my desk first thing, in my pjs, while my brain’s still fresh. And I try to do that first bit of writing for the day in a notebook, so I’m not tempted by the internet. As soon as I get on Twitter my focus just shatters, so I try to get the work done before I start engaging with the outside world.
I’ve also started setting myself daily word-count targets, which has really helped with my productivity and my attitude to writing. Writer’s guilt is real and unproductive, so it’s good for me to know when I’m ‘allowed’ to stop, when I’ve done my work for the day. Then I can leave my desk and actually live my life, which generally helps me, y’know, find things to write about.
What were you like at school? Were you good at English?
My History teacher once told my parents that I was doing well, but that I didn’t always seem to be ‘all there’ in lessons, so I clearly developed those crucial writer skills of staring out of a window and daydreaming whilst I was still at school.
I’ve always loved English. My mum’s a private English tutor so we’re always talking about what she’s doing with her students. My English teachers were brilliant at school, really opinionated and determined to get us having discussions.
But it was my Drama teacher who really made a mark. He had a great laugh. That should be a prerequisite for Drama teachers – great, well-timed laughs that make the class corpse during their assessments. So Drama lessons and the after school drama club rehearsals were always the highlight of my week.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the YA genre and I’d love to see more of it in theatre, so I’m working on a play about a teenage girl who has just started a new school, had a massive bust-up with her old best friend, and who also has trichotillomania (which means she pulls out her own hair). I’ve been working on it for a while and I’m hoping to get it on its feet soon.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Kiss Me Quickstep, which is a play by Amanda Whittington, and I’m re-reading Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. After that, it’ll probably something from the gloriously eclectic sci-fi collection of my village library.
What is your favourite play of all time?
I’m not sure if I have a favourite play, because that feels just too hard to narrow down… but my favourite moment in a play, ever, has to be the opening of Lucy Prebble’s The Sugar Syndrome. It starts with the sound of a dial-up modem, which is genuinely one of my favourite sounds in the whole world anyway, and I love it in the play because it so perfectly and unflinchingly places the story in a specific time, in a specific moment in internet history.
Who are some current playwrights you follow and think should get more attention?
Isley Lynn should always get more attention because she writes from the heart and from the gut, and she is fierce when she comes to tackling the stuff everyone else is frightened to talk about. Jane Upton warms me to the depths of my Midlands soul and has this open, honest, poetic voice that is totally and solely hers. Amanda Whittington writes complete, flawed, and wonderful humans, and I wish I had her sense of how to carve out the story that the characters need to tell, and her ability to write a completely satisfying ending.
What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Find a director you love and trust to guide you through those first few plays, who will tell you honestly that she thinks the scene with the cake is a bit silly but will find a way to stage all of your swordfights.
Be protective about who you share your work with and where you get your feedback, and be honest with yourself about what you’ll need at each stage of the process. If it’s wobbly and new, send it to someone who’ll be careful with it and be gentle with you. If it’s on the third draft and needs a good licking into shape, send it to someone who will shake it up and challenge you.
Do you have a website or social media platforms where readers can find more information about you and your books?