Russell Bailey: So, what's Funeral Flowers about?
Emma Dennis-Edwards: Funeral Flowers is the coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Angelique, an aspiring florist. Angelique is growing up in Tottenham in the care system as her mum is in prison; she gets involved with her boyfriend’s gang, which leads to disastrous results which play out throughout the production.
RB: The piece began life as a 10 minute short for the Royal Court. What journey has it gone on to reach Alchymy Festival?
EDE: It’s been quite a journey: after its 10-minute version at the Royal Court’s Tottenham Festival in 2016, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. For me, it felt complete, like that’s where it existed - as a short play. When the opportunity came for me to take the show to Edinburgh, I started to expand on it, thinking about the characters that I’d created in the first 10 minutes and exploring their journeys.
After the success of the Edinburgh run in 2018, we had a few offers to bring the show to London, and in 2019 it was part of Chris Sonnex’s first season at The Bunker, then, following a sold-out run, the show went on to be performed at the Freeword Centre and Bernie Grant Arts Centre. This year, the show was at Roundhouse and Hackney Empire Studios, and now the Alchymy Festival, before hitting some regional venues and prisons later on in the year. I think one of the big journeys its gone on is how it’s been performed… from a shipping container in Tottenham, to a flat in Edinburgh, to theatrical spaces; from an immersive theatrical production, to the thrust version we have now. It’s been incredible and I’m grateful to all the artists who have collaborated on the various stages of the journey.
RB: Funeral Flowers deals with some heavy themes but is also a funny and hopeful piece. How do you find the balance between comedy and tragedy in your writing?
EDE: I think it’s just human: we are always straddling life between comedy and tragedy, which is what I try to capture in my writing. I also think there’s something fun about teenagers navigating the world, which adds to the lightness of the production.
It’s interesting because at Hackney Empire, we did schools and college performances and the majority of the young people were from somewhat similar backgrounds to Angelique and they didn’t find her funny at all! They took her so seriously, which made the playing of it quite different; the atmosphere was so charged particularly at the more tragic parts of the story.
RB: You wrote and acted in Funeral Flowers. Do you have a preference between the two?
EDE: I don’t, I love both. But I will say Funeral Flowers is a lot more fun to act in than it was to write! I write quite slowly, and it was hard to write, especially the darker parts of the story. The draft that I perform now is at least draft 10-11, so it took a while to get the play to where it is now. Playing all the different characters is so fun, and being with an audience and seeing them react is really amazing. I love the collaborative nature of acting but I also enjoy the solitary nature of writing.
RB: How did it feel to win a Fringe First award for this play?
EDE: A complete an utter surprise. I don’t read reviews so although aware the show was selling well I didn’t think much of it. I actually found out about the award just before I was about to do a show; the Head of Theatre at the Pleasance messaged me to congratulate me and I was like “congrats for what?”, then the producers had to tell me that we’d got a Fringe First and that I’d also been nominated for the Filipa Bragança award for best female solo performance ,which I went on to win. It was quite a surreal experience as I didn’t even think anyone was going to come and watch the show, let alone for it to do so well. I’m still incredibly grateful that it’s got such recognition, both critically and with audiences.
RB: It feels almost a shame for this play to only show for one day as part of a festival. Why do you think it is so hard for productions to find space in regional theatre? It feels like we're always years behind the London theatre scene.
EDE: This is a hard one, and I’m honestly not sure what the answer is, but I have to say it’s been incredibly hard convincing venues outside of London to take the show. I don’t know whether it’s an issue with funding or maybe fears about getting an audience for Funeral Flowers, but it really hasn’t been easy and I’m very grateful for the regional partners and prisons that have come onboard. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the backing of a big building, so it’s meant that there’s a bigger financial risk for the venues. I don’t know, all I know is that I would love for as many people as possible to see the show up and down the country - and as long as people book us we’ll keep doing it!
RB: What's next for you?
EDE: I’m developing television projects with some amazing productions companies and I also work on some brilliant existing BBC Continuing Drama series, so I’m feeling very lucky to be able to do that, as well as a lead role in a film that’s being shot in Bristol - it’s going to be a busy 2020!
RB: If there's one piece of advice you could give someone at the start of a theatre career, what would it be?
EDE: Find your own tribe; people who stimulate you creatively, people who support your work and people who are supportive of you when you’re not working. Everyone says this, but also be mindful of comparing yourself to your people - in fact don’t do it all, and pay and file your taxes on time!