Emily studied Theology at Cambridge University and trained in directing at The Central School of Speech and Drama. Prior to her appointment at Trestle, she has been artistic director of TAG Theatre Company, a young people’s touring theatre based in Glasgow, and associate director at Unicorn Theatre, the UK’s leading theatre for children and young people. In 1996 she was awarded the Channel 4 bursary for young directors at Nottingham Playhouse and Roundabout.
Past productions include Alice in Wonderland and Pinnochio for Unicorn Theatre in 2002, and for Trestle, Diane Samuel’s Beyond Midnight in 2005, Trestle’s first unmasked production Little India in 2007, and Lola, a collaboration with Barcelona-based dance company Increpacion Danza in 2008.
Since her appointment in 2004, as Trestle Theatre’s artistic director Emily Gray has been tasked with bringing a new dynamism and direction for the company. “I took over from last remaining founder member, and in a way I started Trestle’s new era. Whereas before it had been a touring company, we now also have an arts base, and a very large participatory programme as well.”
Trestle’s theatrical roots are in mask work, and they built up a reputation as masters of this art form, but as part of their new direction, Trestle have let the masks slide off, and as part of their search to find a true voice, are experimenting with new, exciting physical and vocal techniques that are based on Polish methods. Gray is adamant that Trestle are keeping faith with their old ideals, but incorporating new ones to enhance their work:
“There are certain continuities in that the work is very visual, that’s what it’s always been with Trestle. We still work with masks in our participatory work but not in our actual productions. Taking off the masks was really about us finding different forms to work with. So recently we’ve been looking at the vocal work of Polish contemporary theatre. But of course there are some things that are the same – like the sense of our audience taking in something visual rather than an ‘academic work’-led experience.”
Trestle have used the example of Polish theatre companies, like Teatr Piesn Kozla (Song of the Goat), a group acclaimed as “the most exciting and innovative of the new avant-garde theatre movement” by the RSC, and collaborated with some of their former members, to develop a new dimension in their storytelling. Their interaction with the local Polish community as well as Polish practitioners helped them find their voice in The Glass Mountain:
“When we took of the masks it was a question of how do we use our voices, and the Polish companies have done some extraordinary work with voices, for example they use singing in their work, they use the voice as a rhythmic instrument, and use all sorts of levels in their vocal work... So The Glass Mountain’s ‘polish’ elements are in our use of song and its musicality.
“The idea for The Glass Mountain itself came from work in Sheffield, with our local Polish community, and inviting people into the building to take part in sessions, and after we heard a story that one woman shared with us, the writer, the composer and I all felt that it would provide us with a great place to start exploring from.”
Trestle’s production of The Glass Mountain interweaves the Polish fable of Olek, a baker with fantastic dreams, and contemporary stories of migration. Emily Gray believes that its appeal as a story, both for Trestle and for an audience, lies in its striking visual elements, but also the message the story holds:
The whole image of the glass mountain is something that returns throughout the fairytale; we all have a glass mountain, we all have ambitions we want to reach, and sometimes we achieve them, but often it’s a hard climb to get there. So that metaphor of one’s own struggle is strong in the piece...
So it becomes about journeys we make, choices we make, why we make certain decisions to travel to somewhere else. And that could be the journey from Poland to England, although it could be anything else. It’s so universal...”
The majority of Trestle’s cast for The Glass Mountain have links with Poland in some way, whether they are Polish and have trained in London, or English and trained in Poland. According to Emily, “It’s a two-way flow, but everybody in the company has worked either inside the Polish companies, or has been part of those companies. We’ve also worked with a Bulgarian designer (Katherina Radeva) and a Czech actress (Lenka Rozehnalova) who actually lives in Norway, so it’s an international feel that we’re bringing into the writing process. Stories from across Europe are being drawn in.”
Gray articulates a couple of differences between how Polish practitioners approach theatre to how we would in England, “and of course time is the big one. Whereas two or three years will go into a piece over there, here we’re lucky if we get five weeks, it’s such a different set up. Then the work over there depends on a lot on an ensemble working together for months and months but we don’t have that luxury, which is why it’s been a very interesting and challenging process for us.
In terms of how we can learn some of these Polish techniques, and take them on, and without diminishing their power how can we use them in the context of a British process... how we can create our own physical storytelling. As while we’ve really been inspired by these techniques, we’re not going to be replicating them, we’re going to be using them in our own way, with our own vocal language to tell the story.”
It is set to be a true commingling of Western and Eastern theatre that brings together crucial elements of both, in a way that has the potential to bring communities together:
“While we have some very intense moments in The Glass Mountain that are fairly emotional, which we’ve drawn from a Polish sensibility, we also have some lighter moments of humour which relates much more to our way of going about theatre... We’re hoping that it shouldn’t alienate a British audience, as the predominant language is English, but there are some Polish phrases in there, and some Polish songs, because there are so many Polish people here as we know. So to open this up to a British audience is a big ambition of ours.”
- Emily Gray was speaking to Vicky Ellis
The Glass Mountain has begun its national tour which continues through October and into November, which is visiting The Tobacco Factory in Bristol, The Hat Factory in Luton, Pocklington Arts Centre, Unity Theatre in Liverpool, Salisbury Arts Centre, Sundial Theatre in Cirencester, The Courtyard in Hereford, Merlin Theatre in Frome, Rondo Theatre in Bath, Theatre Royal Wakefield, Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Jersey Arts Centre, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester. For more info visit www.trestle.org.uk