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Johnian magazine issue 52, spring 2024

Emma Howlett: one to watch

Written by Emma Howlett (2019)

4 min read

Emma Howlett (2019) is a writer and director who has staged plays across the UK and in Europe. She is Artistic Director of TheatreGoose, which she founded in 2018 while still a student. Here she talks about her path into the industry and discusses some of her recent work.

Most directors and writers root something of their career in their early years, and I can undeniably trace a clear line from my childhood years in ballet classes, youth theatre and school Shakespeare productions to my professional work as a director and writer today.

I found directing sooner than writing, but when I went to university to study Ancient and Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, I was convinced that I would become either an actor or something like a human rights barrister. I was swept into the University’s theatre scene, and in my first year was cast in third-year company Gruffdog Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which toured the UK and ran for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe. During those months I learnt an enormous amount about running an emerging theatre company, and for the first time considered that I might direct one myself.

Smartly dressed cast members standing spaced apart on stage. Numbers are projected on a screen behind them.
Emma’s production of Enron at the Oxford Playhouse in 2020. Image credit: Olivia White

I continued acting until I graduated, but directing became a new focus. In my second year, I established my company TheatreGoose, and staged two productions in Balliol’s black-box studio, before a significant scale-up to direct Lucy Prebble’s Enron at the Oxford Playhouse with an ensemble cast of twelve and three life-sized velociraptor puppets. There was something particularly special about that
production, and it marked a certainty that I wanted to direct professionally. It remains some of my proudest work.

I applied for my MPhil at St John’s partly to complete academic research which I knew would make me a better director – exploring the connection between the reception of Greek Tragedy and contemporary social discourse – but also to keep directing in theatres and with larger budgets than I would have upon leaving university. Robert Icke, another Cambridge alumnus and distinguished British director, gave me the sage advice to direct a Shakespeare, a Greek and a musical during my MPhil year instead of going to drama school to train in directing. While I directed a sold-out ensemble production of My Fair Lady at
the ADC Theatre in Lent term, my plans to direct Macbeth in the College gardens were foiled when
the pandemic saw our Easter term cut short.

A woman with plaits raises her hands in the air. One of her feet is lifted off the ground. Household furniture is behind her.
Charlotte Horner as Eliza Doolittle in Emma’s production of My Fair Lady at the ADC Theatre. Image credit: Olivia White

My first professional job was assisting Olivier-award-winning director Polly Findlay on Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen for the Theatre Royal Bath in 2020–21. Remarkably, she offered me the job during our first meeting following a cold email I had sent her, and she later elevated my credit to director on this production as it toured the country when I was just 22. I will arguably always owe my career to Polly, who has been the best and most formative example of generous, inspiring and visionary leadership and artistry I could have asked for at such an early stage of my career.

I began to write while at Cambridge, but I wrote TheatreGoose’s professional debut show two years after graduating. The play, Her Green Hell, is inspired by the true survival story of Juliane Koepcke and stars fellow Cambridge alumnus Sophie Kean, whom I had cast in My Fair Lady. It opened at VAULT Festival in 2023 and transferred to Summerhall at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was longlisted for the BBC Popcorn New Writing Award and attracted the attention of the artistic team of the Theatre Royal Plymouth, where it will be further developed in May ahead of a national tour.

A woman is saated on the floor with one leg outstretched. She is dressed entirely in black and three aeroplane seats are behind her
Sophie Kean as Juliane in Emma’s Her Green Hell in 2023. Image credit: Giulia Ferrando

Most recently, I made my European directorial debut for The Bridge Theatre, Brussels, where in November 2023 I directed a new production of George Brant’s Grounded, starring Letty Thomas. My close collaborators from TheatreGoose – set designer Ellie Wintour, lighting designer Ed Saunders and composer and sound designer Sarah Spencer – joined me, and we built something between a skate park and a nightclub in a bespoke theatre in the heart of Brussels. The Bridge gave us an incredible opportunity to take bold creative risks and to make theatre for an entirely new audience.

A woman in a boiler suit strides down something that looks like a skatepark structure.
Letty Thomas in Grounded at The Bridge Theatre, Brussels, 2023
A woman in a boilersuit stands half way up a skating ramp
Image credit: Giulia Ferrando

Alongside my own productions, I try to assist on large or touring productions each year, and I’m currently Assistant Director on Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Lindsay Posner and starring Dominic West, Kate Fleetwood and Callum Scott Howells, which will transfer to the West End later this year.

A fantastic director called Emily Burns once told me that the best thing I could do to prepare for a career in theatre was to read every play in the Oxford Dictionary of Plays. There are 1000 plays on the list and, while I’m only just past my first hundred, I have a document of 70,000 words of my synopses and commentaries that will prove its weight in gold when I’m unexpectedly asked my opinion of an obscure Italian Renaissance play at some point in the future.

In a career where the path is always unpredictable and surprising, my most concrete 10-year plan is to finish all 1000 plays on the list.

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Emma is a professional playwright and director who has staged plays across the UK and in Europe. She is Artistic Director of TheatreGoose, a company she founded while still at university.

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