Actress Emma Dennis-Edwards is taking her debut play to the big stage.
Having won a Fringe First last year, Emma Dennis-Edwards transports her powerful production of Funeral Flowers from the intimate setting of an Edinburgh flat to London’s Bunker Theatre from 15th April – 4th May.
I’m Emma Dennis-Edwards, I’m an actor and writer. I’m an East-London scallywag; born and raised in Hackney by way of Trinidad and Jamaica.
Tell us about Funeral Flowers…
Funeral Flowers is the story of Angelique, a seventeen-year-old who dreams of being a florist. It’s a coming of age story, but Angelique is having a trickier time growing up than most. She is a looked after child, living with foster carer Sam as her mum is in prison. Isolated, Angelique turns to her boyfriend Mickey who is part of a gang. When Mickey finds himself in debt to the head of his gang (Rampage) he wants Angelique to help him by performing sexual favours on Rampage to get himself out of trouble. Funeral Flowers is about Angelique finding a way to survive through a difficult and traumatic adolescence and follow her dreams.
You were inspired by Gina Moffat who developed her floristry business whilst in prison. There’s an ongoing discussion about prison rehabilitation, whether enough is being done to help people after prison, does Funeral Flowers touch on any of that at all, and based on what you learned from Gina what are your thoughts?
Gina is truly inspiring and often during our conversations I spent a lot of time working out what it was about her specifically that has allowed her to really turn her life around and become such a success. From my experiences of having incarcerated relatives, I think the real work towards rehabilitation happens when people leave prison. If I’m honest I don’t think enough is being done.
When J Hus was released after serving his sentence, he was on stage with Drake and people looked at him sideways, which I think was really short-sighted. If you can’t see a future for yourself, if you can’t get work or move on from your past there’s nothing to stop you from going back to that place. Perhaps continuing his career and being given another chance by his label, fans and family will help him in his rehabilitation. I hope so.
I’m also aware that there are others who do not have those same opportunities. So what is there for them? How do we as a society help to rehabilitate offenders? People have this really weird dissonance, like rehabilitating people is better for all of us… repeat criminal offenders are not good for anyone. There are people doing some great work in that field, but they are under-supported and underpaid and their work is not valued. I think we all need to be better.
Being a florist isn’t a typical career for many, let alone a young black woman … though a career in the creative arts is more common, it’s still a stretch to believe that one will be successful in the arts. What or who inspired you to get into this world?
I think that’s very true, one of the things Gina spoke about was when she decided she was interested in floristry; one of the reasons she chose it is because she didn’t see any black florists. I can relate to that. I think it’s easier to follow a career path when you see people who look like you doing it. I don’t come from an acting background, my parents don’t work in the arts and neither do any of my family so I had no real exposure to that World. I went to The BRIT School which really encouraged me to consider acting as a career, I’m really lucky that I had the full support of my parents. They’ve always inspired me to follow my passions and there has never been the “get a real job” conversation, they have been very much behind me which is lovely.
You’ve written this piece and you perform the multiple characters, how did you develop the idea and shape the different characters?
Well, it very much started off with Angelique’s voice being the singular voice of the story, but as the play developed I found the other characters making their way into my brain and I wanted to include their voices and perspectives. London is such a hub of different people and cultures it didn’t seem right to tell this story without seeing the characters that shape Angelique. From her carer, a queer woman named ‘Sam‘, to her posh floristry teacher, to her mum, I felt the audience needed to see those parts of her journey.
What’s it been like watching Funeral Flowers develop from a short to a bigger production, how did you have to adjust it along its journey and make it bigger for a bigger stage?
It’s been really wonderful, it feels like the show is constantly evolving. In Edinburgh, we performed the show in a flat with the audience moving from room to room so it’s going to feel very different doing it in a theatre space. It’s exciting and really fun to work out different ways the show can be performed. I want it to be as adaptable as possible, a show that can go anywhere. I think as artists we have to be adaptable and I love the challenge.
You’re working with Rachel Nwokoro, was it a personal choice to have a black woman director or luck of the draw? What is it like having someone direct your thoughts and words and how do you balance getting your vision across whilst adhering to Rachel’s rules of direction?
The first version of Funeral Flowers at the Tottenham festival was directed by two wonderful white men. However, when the show was produced in Edinburgh it was important to me that we have a woman directing the show; this was in part to address the gender parity within theatre but also the play explores sexual violence in quite an explicit way. I actually approached the original directors to enquire about Black and WOC female identifying directors and Rachel was on both their lists. She was not actually available to do Funeral Flowers but she read the script, and here we are today! Rachel is a really special artist with a big brain and she has definitely elevated the show in ways that I couldn’t imagine. I would say that we very much have a shared vision about the play and the characters so it’s not so much adhering to rules, rather it’s a collaboration in terms of us finding the best way to tell this story.
Does this mean you will be doing more playwriting? What’s next for you?
Funeral Flowers is the first thing I’ve written and acted in. I’ve written for other people before and I’m currently developing some projects for screen which is really exciting. I’ve written a show for the Young Vic’s Neighbourhood Theatre Company called ‘An American Dream 2.0′which will be on at the end of May. I’m also adapting Funeral Flowers into a novel which has been really fun.
What’s your pre-performance ritual?
Nothing really that interesting. I hate Yoga and stuff like that. So I do some stretching, drink lots of water and do a vocal warm-up. I like to have music on for that; actually, I do think I have a ritual. For every show I do I create a playlist so I play the playlist and do a warm-up that’s fun. That’s it really.
Three things you’re looking forward to this summer?
Garage nation festival (it’s my Christmas), Sunshine; I’m going to book a solo holiday, I’ve never been on one it’s time.
Funeral Flowers runs at the Bunker Theatre until May 4th, 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.