Actor/ Arts & Crafts Enthusiast
On a beautiful Thursday afternoon I sat down with the wonderful Emma Powell, after a hearty lunch of butternut squash stew and multiple cups of coffee, to discuss ‘The Sound of Music’, PMS and dancing down the street.
Ellie: In the interest of breaking away from the achievement driven familiarity of ‘what have you been up to?’ and ‘what do you do?’ I want to begin by asking you what do you love?
Emma: I love my friends and my family, I love performing, I love making people smile, I love getting dressed in the morning, I love being silly, I love playing, I love reading, I love music, I LOVE ‘The Archers’, I love knitting, I love making things, I love baking, I love drawing, I love food, I love drink. I love people. yup I love people.
Ellie: If you had to pick a couple of things that make your heart sing?
Emma: The Sound of Music (laughs). Makes my heart sing. I love The Sound of Music. Laughing. Making things. Being with friends.
Ellie: I’m going to hit you with a really, really hard question. What do you love about yourself?
Emma: (longest pause ever) Yeah that is a hard one isn’t it.
Ellie: I mean I can think of so many things about you, but that would be cheating.
Emma: I think – I think I love… It’s weird to say because I can think of things but then I think ‘You can’t say that out loud because that sounds terrible.’ Which is mad isn’t it? It’s so silly that I shouldn’t be able to say ‘actually these are the things I love about myself’. Well I’m going to say them.
Ellie: Please do.
Emma: I love that I’m kind and generous. I love that I will always try to make time for people and to listen to people. I love that I have really supportive and brilliant friends and family. I love that I can make people laugh. I love that I’m creative. And I think I love that I am passionate and feel really grateful that I have things I’m passionate about. And that that’s my job and I get to do something I love as my job. And actually I love that I’ve actually followed my dream and have been brave enough to say ‘yeah it might not work but this is what makes me happy and I’m going to give it a go’.
Ellie: All great things. You definitely don’t get friends and family as something you love about yourself. But nice try. Fantastic, thank you. I actually wonder whether a lot of us think the difficult part is to have the thought that we love ourselves, but I think a lot of us do love ourselves and then we immediately quash that thought, because go forbid we have any light in us.
Emma: Well it’s that fear that someone might think ‘but you weren’t kind that time’ or ‘you weren’t kind enough’ and actually no-one is perfect, it’s mad that we can’t be more excited about ourselves.
Ellie: I also think modesty has been held up as a very attractive quality and I think it’s an interesting dichotomy between men and women, that arrogance is attractive in men and not in women.
Emma: It’s a very fine line and either side of that line is really unattractive and it feels very difficult to walk that tightrope.
Ellie: So, now that we’ve covered what you love in your life and about yourself, what do you love about other women?
Emma: It’s funny because one of the first things I would say is confidence in other women. Which is hilarious having just realised how difficult it is to say what you love about yourself, but actually I think it’s wonderful when someone can say something great about themselves. I love it when women are strong and bold and courageous. I love women who don’t take themselves too seriously and don’t take life too seriously. I love women who aren’t afraid to learn new things and are comfortable in their body. Or comfortable saying they’re not comfortable. It’s difficult to answer without kind of saying ‘this is what a woman should be’. I think, perhaps from going to an all girls boarding school and being surrounded by strong female figures in my life, I’ve found I get on much better with women. Probably because I like talking about feelings. That’s not to say I couldn’t get that from a man, but there’s an understanding as women that you’re on the same level.
Ellie: Unashamedly being able to express emotion. Also I suppose if you’re both women it won’t be labelled as being feminine; sometimes we worry about falling into those stereotypes ourselves. Talking of falling into stereotypes, I wanted to talk now about negative assumptions about other women. I personally really struggle with the idea that so many industries thrive from encouraging competition and comparison between women and that we have been so conditioned to do so. What assumptions do you tend to make about other women?
Emma: It’s funny because actually the assumptions I make about other women have less to do with typical stereotypes about being a woman, more to do with their happiness and their success and how someone is doing. I think I fall into the trap, as I think a lot of people do, of seeing someone who, outwardly, seems to be doing really well or seeing someone in a show and thinking ‘they’re smashing it’ and actually it’s easy to forget there is a person behind that and their success does not mean they’re happy. It’s kind of terrible that I make those assumptions so readily as someone who has constant health problems that are not always visible, I find that really difficult. I have EDS, which is a connective tissue disorder and fibromyalgia, and I am, a lot of the time, in – well I have chronic pain, and it is really difficult to try and live my life seemingly surviving, but wake up in agony and have to get up and get out there. There are times when I’m on the tube and I’ve just dislocated a hip and I really need to sit down and I look fine. It’s really tricky to gauge how someone is doing from the outside. It’s mad that even though that is a daily thing for me I still will make assumptions about people, say ‘she’s wearing make up and she looks beautiful so she must be fine’. Part of the problem is that if you’re feeling vulnerable and in pain and unhappy, the last thing you want to do is let people know. So you put on a mask, a character; you put on a happy bubbly character. Especially as an actor.
Ellie: I think you’re right that because we are endlessly sold the narrative that every other woman has got their shit together, except for us, it is very difficult not to make assumptions that you’re falling behind and everyone else is okay except for you. Without communication we’re all sort of performing that we’re fine to each other and feeding each other’s panic.
Emma: And I then become frustrated because, like, right now, I’m sitting here with a broken wrist and suddenly if their is a visible problem people will stop and ask if you’re alright. It’s so frustrating to need something to show you’re not okay.
Ellie: Maybe we could make you a sign.
Emma: I actually have one of those badges TFL have started doing, badges that say please offer me a seat. I feel like an idiot though if I wear it, because I’m young and don’t look like I need help.
Ellie: It’s interesting, talking about struggling on the inside, not visibly: I’ve just come out of a week of horrendous PMS and as someone who has very severe symptoms, I really struggle to even get out of bed, and obviously, like all of us, you find a way to get on with your life around it. That week, or for me it’s about nine days, where I want to kill other people, and all of my darkest insecurities rear their head in such a frightening way, it’s such an unspoken thing, the mental health around PMS.
Emma: It is mad that it’s not talked about more, that we have a period every month and for some people it’s an inconvenience, but for a lot of women in is a real battle. The week before your period your body releases a hormone called relaxin which relaxes your collagen, and for me as someone who has a problem with my collagen being genetically shit to begin with, to relax it even more makes it even worse. It isn’t just the week of your period, it’s all this time before, it’s mad that that isn’t taken more seriously and talked about more.
Ellie: It’s not helped that it’s sold by advertising as only the period itself, a time where, with the right tampon, you want to go sailing and go clubbing till 5am with your gal pals. There is such a dearth of knowledge around the subject, so little information is directed to the general public about the headspace surrounding that time. The common misconception that it’s five days out of your month when it can be up to two and half weeks. That’s half your life. A dialogue needs to be started around PMS and periods, without fear of eye rolling; an increased mental health awareness without embarrassment.
Emma: Because it is embarrassing. It’s bleeding from your fanny.
Ellie: And on that note, as we put the world to rights, for you, which stigma surrounding women has gotta go?
Emma: Having just spoken about periods, I think that is something that is really important to be discussed more and understood better. By women and men. To have that more out in the open. And to see adverts out there now where it’s not just blue gel is great, but still this image of mother nature with her string of pearls delivering a gift wrapped in a gingham bow has has got to go. I think it’s difficult, as someone who identifies as gay, I actually think that probably, somehow, I feel a little bit shielded from a lot of the stigma and stereotypes surrounding women, I’m somehow in a different category. I don’t know if it’s that men aren’t threatened, I can’t speak for men, but I have found that men react differently because they don’t feel threatened, maybe? It’s a strange thing to share with straight men, that someone might say ‘she’s good looking’ and I might agree, it’s a strange thing. I have noticed the difference before coming out and after coming out, men talk differently about other women to me. That is something I’m starting to realise is quite interesting.
Ellie: That ties in nicely to, how do you find gender affects you at work?
Emma: I think on a very basic level there are fewer parts for women. I think thats fundamental. That’s something as well that I think is being noticed, which is great, there is a whole wealth of works that can be cross-gender cast – I don’t think it always works – but sometimes that’s great. I think fundamentally the theatre industry is geared towards men, but there are so many incredible women doing things to change that. I think as an actor gender will always play a part because it’s an industry where we are playing characters, portraying people and telling stories and a lot of the time there are implications about gender in the stories we’re telling. On a deeper level the play you’re putting on is often saying something about gender. I spent nine months as a sheep and gender was really irrelevant, which was lovely. But then in the same show I played a character that I only referred to as the farmer’s wife; I felt I had to refer to her in context to her husband.
Ellie: It’s funny how you begin to feel complicit. And just as you can feel complicit telling perhaps the wrong kind of narrative around gender, sometimes, you can play characters that really highlight attitudes, by going against the norm. I’ve played my share of “strong women”, and actually had quite a negative reaction, because you’re taking people out of their comfort zone and challenging how they feel. So in itself, you’re right, it can’t not affect you in your workplace. Do you ever feel it affects how you feel you have to behave?
Emma: I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work so far in companies that have been really supportive. I’ve worked on shows where I haven’t thought much about it, which is lovely. I don’t know whether that’s me or the situations, I think it’s never entered my mind that I have to temper myself or be a polite woman, I think I’m very fortunate in that. And it’s sad that at the back of my mind I feel ‘the day will come when I do’, it’s sad that I feel lucky, like I’ve got away with it so far and that it’s coming. It’s a real shame.
Ellie: Have you ever felt ashamed to be a woman?
Emma: Yeah. Without naming names, but I definitely struggled doing comedy as a woman. I really felt I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to do that and actually that is something I think I slightly regret, that I wasn’t bolder and braver, but I felt that wasn’t a world in which I could – I honestly didn’t feel as if I had the energy to make up for the fact that I was a woman constantly and it was too much effort to be a woman in the world to even bother trying to get into it. I respect women in comedy so much, because it is not easy and every woman I see who is making it, trying to make it, made it in comedy, I have so much respect for their courage and determination.
Ellie: It’s so interesting that you said you didn’t feel strong enough or bold enough, rather than saying you didn’t feel heard, putting it on other people.
Emma: Yes it’s funny that I put it on myself.
Ellie: I totally agree and for me that would tie in to a huge stigma I’d like to see change around women, how in situations like that women often take on the blame of a situation. Look at the whole ‘Me Too’ campaign: we take on the responsibility of ‘I wish I’d been brave enough to fight it’ rather than ‘it shouldn’t be there to fight’. It’s blaming ourselves for the cure rather than the prevention.
Ellie: What is one bit of advice you wish you had been given when you were younger?
Emma: You don’t fancy men. (laughs) That would have been helpful. There was a ‘From Our Own’ correspondent on Radio 4, an Egyptian woman talking about how she had been told to walk down the street and not smile, not laugh, and if there was a problem not do anything and she was asked the same question and she said she wished she could tell her niece to laugh and enjoy life and not be worried about the things around her and I think that’s really important. I think it’s tempting as a woman to try and prevent, to walk down the street with your keys in your hand, to be careful and not cause anything. But your not the cause of something. So I think to never stop yourself from living your life or being you because you’re scared or you’re trying to prevent something, because that’s so sad to think of the number of times people don’t dance down the street or be silly because they’re scared what might happen.
Ellie: Finally, what is one question you would like to see asked to women in theatre?
Emma: I’m hesitating because I want it to be really good… How do we make women feel safe in their workplace? Yup.
Ellie: Thank you.