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Interview with Esther Wilson 2008

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Liverpool playwright, Esther Wilson, is unquestionably a writer who can firmly claim to be on the road to success. Her first major play, a contribution to the critically acclaimed Unprotected in 2006, based around drug addiction and prostitution, saw Wilson’s work propelled into the theatrical spotlight. Now with Ten Tiny Toes, her new play about to open at The Everyman in Liverpool on a four-week run, the writer tackles the dilemmas faced by the families of those soldiers fighting in Iraq as they wait for news back home. ‘Thankfully I don’t have anybody involved in the conflict but, if I did, I could see myself glued to the TV and the Internet 24/7,’ Wilson said.  ‘One of the awful things about this current situation, especially with the 24 hour access to news, is that there really isn’t any respite from perpetual anxiety; the sheer terror for those who do have children or siblings serving out there at the moment, the outright fear they have to go through on a daily basis, must be almost indescribable. Suzanne Bell, the Literary Manager at the Everyman, and I, sent letters to various organisations explaining what we were doing and requesting people to contact us. The response was overwhelming. Through that line of enquiry we connected with the Military Families Against The War organisation who very kindly invited us along to a peace camp they were part of in September 2006. At the last Labour party conference with Tony Blair as leader, there was a huge anti-war demonstration and I was left totally speechless at some of the stories the families told us – stories that I hadn’t heard before – and some of these have formed the basis of Ten Tiny Toes. I hope the play raises people’s consciousness about what is actually happening. I hope people are moved enough to want to ask questions of those in positions of power. I hope that the incidents of death and injury caused by lack of basic equipment is a cause for political debate and change and I hope that people are moved by the human stories which speak volumes about the real cost of this war. I am also aware that I am merely telling a story, but my hopes are precisely that … my hopes.’


Esther is quick to praise The Everyman in helping establish her as a writer. ‘Suzanne has been tremendously supportive of both me and my work. It took us a while to get there but we’ve managed to develop a good, strong working dialogue so we can by-pass the niceties and cut to the chase. For example when she says something like “What’s this all about, Esther? Isn’t this just you whining?” I know now where she’s coming from and I think it’s good to have that level of honesty in any creative process; an outside eye that can see potential in a first draft because, as a writer, it’s hard sometimes to be objective when you’ve been living with it for months on end.’

Esther Wilson was once an actress who turned to teaching drama and writing pieces for her students to perform. Growing more confident in her writing ability, she first caught the eye of The Everyman in 2002 having entered and won the 6 Writers For Liverpool Competition the theatre ran in conjunction with the BBC and, also, My Eyes … Your Smile, a play Wilson wrote for the theatre’s annual Everyword Festival of 2003.
Wilson also penned the highly acclaimed Hiding Leonard Cohen for BBC Radio 4, which won the writer Mental Health Society Award for Best Radio Drama in 2004, before collaborating with three other playwrights on Unprotected in 2005.

A verbatim play based on the hundreds of interviews with sex workers, residents, politicians, the police and clients, as a means of raising debate, Unprotected was said to have taken theatre to levels that topped journalism and deservedly won the Amnesty International Award for Freedom of Speech at The Edinburgh Festival in 2006.  Did Wilson feel at the time of writing it that it would be so warmly received? ‘I did actually. Everyone involved knew we were onto something special because we’d never heard such stories about drug addiction and prostitution before. Personally, I’d watched dramas about the subject matter but the stories these people were telling me were raw, painful and authentic. I was shocked and moved by them constantly. I’ve always been confident in my artistic ability and I’ve had some brilliant teachers but, every single time I sit down with a blank screen and the germ of an idea, I evoke that devil who perches on my shoulder and whispers “You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?”  right into my ear. I value my son’s honesty at such times and especially when they say things like “Get over yourself” or “You’re only writing a story, for God’s sake. Get it written and stop moaning” which sort of puts things into perspective because, at the end of the day that’s all I’m doing, telling a story.’

Thanks in no small part to her stage and radio success, Esther Wilson’s work has been noticed by some of writing’s more prestigious luminaries, not least of which is Jimmy McGovern, who’s next series of The Street will feature an episode written by Wilson. ‘I pitched an idea for the last series and got very close to getting a commission. As a consequence I was invited to pitch ideas for Series 3. I pitched quite a few but they wanted to go with my original idea, so they did. Thankfully nothing is wasted and so I intend to develop one of the ‘discarded’ pitches in future, so it was quite a handy exercise for me really.

The differences between writing for the stage and radio, and writing for TV, are huge. The first draft of my episode of The Street was, basically, a 134-page stage play but everyone involved in the series was really generous and helpful with notes so I felt entirely supported to move onto the next draft with a little more confidence. Of course the icing on the cake is I’ve got one of the best screenwriting teachers in the country, Jimmy McGovern, as a mentor so I’m really very fortunate and I’m well aware of that.’
So has the city being European Capital of Culture in 2008 helped her or other new writers to become established? ‘I think there is a lot of charged energy directed towards the city at this time and that can create all sorts of exciting tensions. I’m really made up to have been given one of the 08 commissions with Zho Visual Theatre to work on The Quiet Little Englishman – a multi-media project about an Oscar winning bloke from Liverpool who went to America and became the world’s first sound engineer – but to be honest if we hadn’t been selected we’d have made the project happen anyway because it’s a cracking story that we passionately believe in. It would have been made on a tighter budget, obviously, but that would have presented its own artistic challenges so who knows how it would have turned out? Every project has its own dynamics which effects its outcome, so who knows? Any cultural festival that is part of the ‘mainstream’ always has that ‘counter-culture’ vibe going on and some of the most interesting ‘edgy’ stuff comes from the underground fringe effort, I think. The important thing for me is if one has a deep desire to create something then it will happen. Some of the most exciting stuff I’ve been involved with has worked precisely because we didn’t have any money, we had to be inventive because there was no option and, as a result, out of that, some beautiful things were brought into being.’
Ten Tiny Toes. The Street. The Quiet Little Englishman. What’s next for Esther Wilson? ‘I’m about to start work on The Quiet LittleEnglishman and I’ve got a mini series in development with BBC Radio 4.  I’ve also got a couple of other TV projects in the pipeline, so things are really busy at the moment but things, also, are very exciting.’ 

Ten Tiny Toes runs at Everyman Theatre, Hope Street, Liverpool, from June 13 – July 5.  Tickets 0151 709 4776 or

Read Chris High's review of Ten Tiny Toes

Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

If you would like to comment on this interview with Esther Wilson, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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