Jonathan Ellman


Do you often go to the theater?


It's quite strange that ever since I began my master's in European Theatre and then more recently when I began teaching theatre in China, I've probably been less often than I used to before.  My master's was in Edinburgh, so of course in the summer I was able to go to the festival and see plenty of plays.  But during the rest of the year, there was a lot less theatre than in London, where there are dozens to choose from each month.  Now I live in China and I occasionally go to watch Chinese Opera, when I can find a Chinese friend to help me understand.  There are also occasional tours by English language theatre companies, that's always a nice event.  But it's one of the things I miss most about my country.


What play would you never write?


There are so many plays I would never write, either because I can only dream of having the talent to or because I just don't like them.  Theatre is dominated by idealists but the flip side of idealism is vanity.  Trying to understand why the writer wrote a piece is something I find unavoidable.  Having said that I should perhaps be polite and not name the play/writer, but, as Oscar Wilde said, good causes are the root of all bad art.  I think if people make their cause too obvious the result is a cliched and unoriginal play.  Writers can express how they feel about an issue but not what they think.  Writing about what you think of a problem and what you think the solution is, is likely to produce a dull play.


Tell us about your first play. What motivated you to write it?


My first play, I wrote about 15 years ago.  It was about a Scottish/Asian boy who loved playing cricket and was becoming good enough to play internationally but would most likely play for England if he succeeded.  My motivation was the contradictions of identities in the UK.  This was perhaps in the early days of what has since been called 'identity politics' and it's interesting and a bit disappointing to see where that has gone since then.


Did you learn to write plays?


I've been to workshops and read a few books on playwriting.  I think they're helpful in that they motivate you and they have made me aware of structure.  But in the end you just have to get on with writing by yourself.


What are you working on now?


I'm working on a new version of Faust.


Can you recall the brightest episode from your childhood?


My long term memory is very good so I remember a lot from my childhood.  Perhaps this is a typical facet of a writer, to be able to recall memories for inspiration and also to have difficulty letting go of things so you think about them too much.  My short term memory is not so good, I forget little things daily and write memos to myself all the time.  Choosing just one bright episode from my childhood, well, I'll go for a family holiday on the Isle of White.  I was 5 years old and several families with about 6 to 8 kids came along and we stayed in caravans.  There was sea, sand, lots of games and adventures.  One night I woke up in the caravan and saw the stars outside, they were so bright I was mesmerised.  I still wonder if there had been some kind of optical illusion, maybe with water on the window magnifying the brightness.  But the stars looked like little round buttons of light against the darkness.


Tell us about the plays and playwrights you like.


I wish I had seen more modern writing recently to recommend.  But it's been mostly well known plays that I've watched for the last few years.  Recently I assisted with bringing a mime to a theatre here in Guangzhou.  It was called Finding Joy and really was a brilliant piece of theatre.  When I was asked to help find a British mime for a mime festival here, I wasn't hugely excited or hopeful of finding a great play.  But I did.  Finding Joy is the story of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease and her grandson who becomes her carer.  It sounds too sad and the mime could well put people off, but it shouldn't.  The director did a lot of research about Alzheimer's and the characters are superbly created.  The Alzheimer's aspect of the play was clearly the original motivation but, as with my answer to question 3, there is no attempt to solve the problem, just  a story and characters created around it, which is probably why it works so well.


What do you think of Shakespeare?


Of course I love Shakespeare.  I've had the privilege of teaching a few of his plays in China.  The cliche about a teacher learning more from his students than he teaches them has had some truth here.  There are so many ways of understanding and interpreting Shakespeare's plays, that hearing a class of students give their opinions has really improved my own understanding.


What problems do you face with the modern English playwright?


Modern English playwrights are almost obliged to write about issues, in particular of identity, otherwise they will not receive funding.  This is symptomatic of a much wider political and social problem.  We focus on the particular rather than searching for what unifies people.  It's a tragedy.


Are there topics in the UK that are not taken up in drama?


From what I can see, the agenda of identity politics forms a large part of what receives funding.  Other plays do get through and are produced.  There was a play called The Heretic by Richard Been a few years ago.  It was about an academic who didn't follow the official line about global warming.  But these plays are rare.  Richard Been has had a few big plays recently, including one now at the National Theatre called Young Marx.  I hope to see it when I return to London but I may have to watch it on NTLive, the filmed version at a cinema.


What do you think about Russia?


This is too big a question.  I know a little about the history, I've taught students from Russia, I've seen Chekov and read Dostoyevsky, I like borscht, I know there's a lot of snow there, I know Putin is popular because he is seen as standing up strongly to the West, the USA, I know there is a big wealth gap, the language is beautiful and it seems the people are pretty tough.


Are there any social lifts for playwrights in the UK?


Social lifts - I assume you mean funding and opportunities.  There are a few but how they are distributed is a problem.  In China (and maybe Russia?), if the government doesn't like a play, they ban it.  In the UK, and I think the EU too, the government's Arts Council will fund so much that they do like, that what they don't like has little chance of getting through.  It's a subtle kind of censorship by drowning.


Tell us about your creative plans.


I have recently finish a very aggressive and surreal play about a dysfunctional couple in London.  I will be returning to the UK soon and will see if there is a way to stage it.  I'm also planning to write a version of Faust over the next few months.


How do you write a play? Tell us about how it happens.


As I'm not an experienced playwright, I still feel this is something I should develop before I can really say that I have my technique.  But having a theme and structuring it is what I've been attempting recently.


Have you ever written a play to order?


I've only devised a short film to order for a course I took about 7 or 8 years ago.  It was a helpful experience.  I stayed up late worrying that I couldn't think of anything and wondering if I was kidding myself about being able to create stories.  Then an idea came to me and I wrote it down in a few minutes.  It was a relief but perhaps that kind of pressure is necessary.  I also devised a short film about auditioning for a part in a Shakespeare play for my students in China.

Have you ever worked on a play together with a director or a theater?

I directed Strindberg's 'The Father' in Edinburgh.  It was a very satisfying experience.  Apart from that, I've been consultant on a few student productions in China.


Is the contemporary play in demand in the UK? 


There is a demand for contemporary plays.  'New Writing' is now a genre and theatres take pride in promoting it.  How big the audiences are I'm not sure.  When you make the effort to go the theatre and watch plays, you feel that they are popular as you meet likeminded people.  But away from that scene, few people seem very interested in theatre, except big productions and musicals.


Tell us about your daily life. 


I'm lucky that my work is varied.  I teach some theatre courses and workshops at a university; I also work with a junior school and one or two educational organisations using film and theatre to teach English and I run my own theatre and language courses for adults in Guangzhou.  I occasionally also go to Beijing to teach my own courses.  But a lot of my work is teaching business English, which I also enjoy and it gives me financial stability.


Tell a few words about your play, which will be seen in Russia.


My play, After the Crash, reflects how I see the theatre as a miniature world that human beings are capable of creating.  It is a world within the real world, which itself is a world created through our perception.  Our perception changes and is often faulty.  There is also the idea in classical theatre of ‘Man’ as a miniature world, a reflection of the cosmos.  The idea of world’s within world’s fascinates me. 

After the Crash occurs within a digital world created by humans.  It is a world within the ‘real world’, which plays out on a stage, which again is a world within the real world.  The characters have a sense of the real world, from where they believe they originated; this reflects the idea that there is a world above our world that we can at times sense but its intangibility requires us to have faith in order to believe it exists.  The interaction of the characters reflects the desire for faith in another world with a connection to ours but the rational awareness that this is more a hope than a belief. 

Yet, the world on the stage is a world made by humans.  Therefore, we have agency to some degree.  And, amongst the confusion, there is hope and empathy that our agency can create relevance. 


How are you represented on the network? (links)


I don't have a high digital profile but a few of my films can be seen here -