Twenty-year-old whiz kid Louis Emmitt-Stern has made the most of his lockdown in London and Gibraltar by directing and acting in a small but mighty production with colleague and long-time friend Christina Linares, and… writing, writing, writing. Playwriting, actually.
The pair has just wrapped up Lungs, the October 2019 version of Duncan Macmillan’s radical play whose premiere they attended in London, were mesmerised by, and so decided they just had to bring it to Gibraltar. “We saw it, we enjoyed it, we gasped at it. But mostly we were in tears. A good play doesn’t make just the characters on stage learn and grow, but the audience too. Presenting heavy topics in a light-hearted way helps the memory imprint and will have its emotion, if not its plot, resonate with the spectator for a long time.”
They add: “It was election time in the UK and Gibraltar that month, and in Gibraltar both environment and abortion were high on manifestos, so this play felt topical. When it was first written in 2011, it was ahead of the times, and its revised version raises topical issues which are here to stay in the forthcoming future,” the young actors say. “Also, it well portrays our own voice in the local drama scene, a first step to establish a new generation of performers.”
“We saw it, we enjoyed it, we gasped at it.”
The challenges of staging it in Gibraltar in post-lockdown times were brilliantly met by a minimalistic set designed by John Evans, with the twenty-strong audience arranged in a squared U-shape around the performing area, marked by two solar panels, on the backdrop of the Charles Hunt room’s longer wall.
“Social distancing policies allowed only for limited capacity per night, so we offered four consecutive shows to cater for our target audience,” the cast says, “but we are planning to bring this back in a larger theatre, as soon as health and safety regulations permit it.”
The passage of time within the play is marked not by intermissions, set or costume changes, lighting, curtains or props, but clues in the dialogue itself, as the two actors own the stripped-back stage for the entire duration, and rely on cues within the script, sometimes as subtle as proposing to have cake for dinner and in the next line commenting on how yummy it was, for example.
Christina – who debuted at just twelve playing the child victim in Christian Santos’s original We’ll Never Know, against Davina Barbara as the abusive mother, and most recently was involved in the Women’s Day avant-garde project at the Magazine Studio just days before lockdown was declared – is currently on a sabbatical in preparation to her embarking a university career in political sciences.
She describes her time off busy despite the lockdown, and this role challenging but rewarding: “My character is a fast thinker and seems to follow at least two trains of thought at once, so she interrupts her speech, jumps to unrelated topics crossing her mind, but her lines are so raw and yet so masterfully written that the audience will have no trouble in following her, and will find the dialogue authentic, hyper-realistic, as if they were a fly on the wall in the intimacy of this couple throughout their years together.”
Lungs is about an extreme eco-friendly couple deciding whether their having a baby is impacting the environment, and how severely, and their living with the consequences of this decision for the rest of their life together, inevitably impacting if not the environment, surely their relationship.
Louis is partial to thought-provoking topics posed in hypothetical scenarios. In his own writing, he likes to dissect the taboos of our society and the prospective ones, with sardonic humour and desecrating insight, without passing judgement and without asking the audience to – just reminding you that so-and-so is indeed happening, and it is human nature, and you cannot sweep it under the carpet.
Louis lengthened the script of, and directed it in the UK with a new cast of professional British actors, his shocking black comedy about the nitty-gritty of the porn industry and the downfalls of a new partner’s baggage from previous marriage, All the Blue Areas – world-premiered two years ago in Gibraltar with rave reviews.
Now he is working on some new amoral brain-picking material about traditional and futuristic elephants in the room, in two short plays we hope to see staged in Gibraltar soon, after they experimentally did in the UK, and two full-length plays in the pipeline, I F***ed You in My Spaceship, exploring (pre-, during, and post-) romantic relationships in a commitment-shy and free-choice world; and Sleep Factory, ninety minutes in real time, about a widow(er, not decided yet) longing for intimacy after the loss of a long-time partner.
“The common thread in my work is loneliness.”
“I was one of the few lucky students selected nationwide for an eight-month writers’ programme at the National Theatre, led by Killing Eve screenwriter Elinor Cook, which opened my eyes on the technique and art of playwriting. This prompted me to review my previous work and produce new one,” he says. “Most importantly, it made me realise how the common thread in my work so far is loneliness, and the infinite ways it can be explored.”
His twenty-minute piece Breeding was selected out of over four hundred entries to be showcased in a professional production in London. Fast/Food is another short play that Louis wrote about a not-so-distant future. It is about the human side of being a grown-up ‘designer baby’ resenting the choices his parents made for him (don’t we all? Louis asks) and questioning how much of his lifestyle as an athlete with a successful love life is down to his own achievements, and how much is predetermined instead.
Louis theatrical credo as an actor is: “Learning your lines is not the talent. It is the job”, i.e. the talent lies in becoming the character that concocts those lines. And his tip for good playwriting is, quoting William Goldman’s mantra: “Always come in late and leave early”, i.e. don’t present the action chronologically from beginning to end, but leave to the audience to carry out some of the guesswork, to piece together the jigsaw and fill in the blanks.