Emily Tomlins is one of the many talented young artists who make Melbourne their home and she is excited that a mainstream company such as the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) is offering support to independents like her through their NEON program, now in its third year. Jan Chandler managed to speak with Emily, co-founder of Elbow Room Theatre, just before she went into rehearsal for the premiere of their latest work We Get It.
Emily grew up in Brisbane and has always loved theatre. Whilst at primary school her mother would always be there to ferry her from school to classes or performances and to make sure she was well fed; Emily particularly remembers the potatoes wrapped in foil her mother used to bring her. Her father took a little longer to recognise how important theatre was to his daughter, but when he did he was there to support her, helping to paint sets during her student theatre days. 'I've been very lucky. I've never been forced to find a backup' although Emily does admit that there have been times when she thought it might well have been a good idea.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts with honours in drama from the University of Queensland, Emily went on to study fine arts and acting at the Queensland University of Technology. Whilst working as an actor in mainstream theatre as well as within the independent sector she discovered that independent theatre was where she really wanted to be. The independent scene gave her the opportunity to tell her own stories and to talk about the things that were really important to her, things that too often did not find their way onto the mainstream stages. The down side was that opportunities were limited and it was difficult to obtain support and to attract audiences. She and her partner, writer Marcel Dorney, wanted the freedom to explore, to innovate and even to fail and be able to try again. They decided that the Melbourne arts scene offered them more than Brisbane did at that time, eight years ago, and made the move. Once here they re-connected with Angus Grant, another Brisbane expatriate, and together they formed Elbow Room Theatre.
Since 2008 Elbow Room has come to be recognised for their distinctive combination of intellectual curiosity and performative wit. Their work has received audience, peer and critical acclaim with sell out seasons and performances at Adelaide and Melbourne Fringe Festivals and The Brisbane Festival. In 2012 they won a Green Room Award for Best Director and Best Ensemble. This year their new work We Get It is part of MTC's NEON Festival of Independent Theatre.
Elbow Room love to collaborate and this is what they are doing with We Get It. A couple of months ago they called everyone together for a creative workshop. Ideas were tossed around and those that 'stuck' were taken away to be refined during the writing process. Marcel does most of the writing, but for this show they are also working with Rachel Perks whose show Angry Sex was part of last year's Melbourne Fringe Festival. Emily also does some writing and they have consultants they are working with in both Melbourne and Brisbane: 'there are so many amazing creative brains in Melbourne and afar [and] we want to join forces with them'. Even during the rehearsal period there is still some development occurring. The current work talks about women: about being female performers, about the representation of women on stage and in the media. 'We have a diverse group of people [so] it's important that all of their experiences form the basis of this work.'
A work on the theme of women has been something that Elbow Room have been wanting to create for some time. When they were invited to be part of this year's NEON they leaped at the chance knowing that it would mean they were able to present their work in a mainstage forum, to a wider group of people than usual, and still retain full creative control. They do get marketing support, some financial support, and a venue. They are also aware that MTC staff are there to support them in any way should they ask, but that the main aim is to allow Independent Companies to make work in their own distinctive way. A throw away comment about this year's program, suggesting that 2015 is the year of the women, only added to Emily's determination to create a work about women's place in theatre and the wider world, with a focus on those things that no one really wants to talk about: 'until we stop seeing a program like that … then it's always important to talk about it'. We Get It in no way aims to answer the questions it raises, but rather to start a conversation or to continue the questioning. 'The more we talk, share ideas, acknowledge each others existence the better … [I] hope we change something or start a change in somebody's thoughts, or the way they feel they can express themselves, just a shift would be great'.
The issues may be serious but Elbow Room has no intention of taking themselves too seriously. They see comedy as a good way of talking about things that can often be hard to talk about and as a way of keeping the audience alert and engaged. They want to encourage their audiences to think, but they also want them to have fun. We 'want people to come on the ride with us and have a really good night … we want to make [We Get It] entertaining, exciting, riveting, challenging and a moving experience'.
For Emily theatre offers an ideal setting for talking about serious contemporary issues because, as she says, it is live and immediate and forces you to acknowledge that you are in a room with other people. 'At the theatre you are breathing the same air as the people on stage and the person next to you' and given today's 'connected' world, 'theatre is that place where we still have to acknowledge that we're all there together. And ... comedy plays a part in that.'
And what keeps Emily going? She laughs and says that it's certainly not the pay cheque. It's the people and the opportunity to keep on talking, as well as that 'kind of crazy feeling' of doing something live, of engaging with a group of people, performers and audience' which is over in a flash. 'There's something in that for me that I think is the key to it all … it's magic.'
When NEON is over there will be plenty to keep them all busy. Elbow Room are re-mounting a show from last year, a sci-fi love story called The Motion of Light and Water, for a season at Theatre Works and then, later this year, taking it to Brisbane to be performed as part of La Boite's Independent season. Emily herself will be performing in Kindness a show that is part of Flight: A Festival of New Writing which runs from 30 July until 23 August at Theatre Works in St Kilda.
We Get It by Elbow Room plays 9 – 19 July 2015 as part of MTC's NEON Festival. Further details»