Interview: Denise Gough

The current hot ticket in town is to People, Places and Things, by Headlong at The Dorfman Theatre (NT). I was lucky enough to catch it last Tuesday - it’s an incredibly powerful piece and I was blown away by every aspect of it. Two days later, I got to meet Denise Gough, who gives a breathtaking performance as Emma, the central character. We follow Emma’s story from the moment she checks in to a treatment centre in an attempt to overcome her addiction to drugs and alcohol, then through her recovery and relapses, it’s hard going, but well worth an evening of your time. In real life, I discovered, Denise is indomitable, head-strong, and brilliant to chat to; we caught up in The Covent Garden Hotel to discuss a vast number of things, including addiction, life, acting careers and women in theatre:

AT: Firstly, could you tell us a little about your journey in to acting and theatre, and how you got to here?

DG: I always wanted to be an actress. I did drama classes after school with a really brilliant teacher, and was in the musical society - Fiddler on the Roof. I never wanted to be in movies or on TV or anything, I got on stage and was like - this makes sense. I came to London when I was about fifteen or sixteen, I was working in pubs and stuff. I started doing drama classes in an abandoned night club in Camberwell and the teacher of that turned out to be a teacher at ALRA and suggested I audition, so I borrowed some money and auditioned, and I got a full scholarship and that’s where I started. Thank God for the scholarship, because nine grand to train a year, as an actor is ridiculous, also because they say you shouldn’t work at the same time, but really, who can do that? It’s awful. So I worked in a bar at the same time, in Camberwell. And then I met my agent in my third year, and I just fell in love with her - she was late to the audition - she was wearing a red coat and was so apologetic she’d kept us waiting, but I thought she was amazing. It turned out she was with ICM at the time, and she started representing me. She asked me what I wanted to do, and I told her that I wanted to be a theatre actor, at which point I shaved my head, to prove I was serious about acting. I’d realised in drama school it was very easy to be the long, blonde haired [actress] - in the second term I got the same parts as in the first term, so I though f**k that, and shaved my head, then they realised I didn’t really care what I looked like, and that meant I got really interesting parts. I consistently got theatre work, but because it’s theatre you don’t earn very much, so I also had to work in bars and restaurants, even when I got to the West End, I finished there and went back to a restaurant in Shoreditch. Now finally after fifteen years, I’ve got my first job at The National, I used to walk home every night from rehearsals crying, I just couldn’t believe it.

AT: Has it been everything you expected it to be?

DG: More, more more, more. I’ve worked with some lovely directors, but Jeremy Herrin on this - the kindness and the love and the care that he’s taken in creating this piece of work. I don’t really see it as a play any more, I see it as a comment on something so important. And he looked after me so well -

AT: I think that really translates when you see it-

DG: Yes, and everyone else he’s cast. It's amazing - every single person, there are other people on that stage and I look at them and I can feel that they are completely inhabiting those people that they are - that allows me to continue. Sometimes you do a play and once the reviews are out, everybody sits back. Nobody’s sitting back on this.

AT: Emma is obviously a phenomenal role, and it’s rare to see a female role like that, especially on such a huge London stage and written in the way she’s written - this play passes the Bechdel test, in the sense it’s about her story - not once do men or relationships come up, really -

DG: It’s amazing, isn’t it?

AT: Yes. In terms of the quality of roles you’ve played in the past, how does this compare?

DG: Well, I’ve been really lucky - and this might sound odd and a bit mad, but I believe these women seek out the actors to play them - I know that sounds a bit weird. For example, I auditioned to play Nora in a Doll’s House and I would have loved to have played Nora, if I was creating my career, that’s what I would have done, but Nora didn’t want me - Nora wanted Hattie Morahan. But then, after that, Abbie, from Desire under the Elms wanted me to play her. I have been found by interesting women.

AT: That makes sense - it’s a mutual agreement between you and the character?

DG: Yes, and it takes the pressure off, because you don’t have to compete with other actresses, you don’t have to think about somebody being better - it’s about all of the elements being right. And I’m so grateful that this time, Emma wanted me. I had a profound moment on stage the other night, I was on stage with Nathaniel who plays Mark, and I realised that my storyline does not depend on him, and it meant we could play, because you're not having to grab on to the male storyline to make your woman live. She lives anyway.

AT: And it was written by a man -

DG: Yes, Duncan [Macmillan] wrote this fantastic woman, he is a proper feminist. We don’t just need more female writers, we need more male writers to write amazing women. Just because you’re a man, it doesn’t mean you can’t write a great woman. They’re great to play. I love playing Emma, though she plays me really. She rips through my body, then spits me out at the end and I love every second of it.

AT: Moving on, it’s not a light storyline, with the theme of addiction, it must have been challenging for you as a company to address that, but what have you experienced in terms of audience response?

DG: It’s been amazing. On press night, we had the people from the treatment centre that have been helping us, they came to see the show and at the end when my character makes the decision to do something [about her situation], one of them shouted from the audience ‘Good Girl.’ I just burst in to tears on stage, because for me there’s not a review in the world that can match what that means. That means we’re telling the truth for them. Addiction is a life threatening illness, but because of the behaviour it inspires in people, it isolates the sufferer. With any other terminal illness, the impulse is to look after that person, but addiction pushes people away and that’s really, really sad. So you get a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t tell anyone this but - my brother’s an alcoholic, or my mum’s an alcoholic.’ And they keep it from people, because they feel ashamed - addiction is seeped in shame, which is how it thrives, because addiction thrives on isolation. It’s awful.

AT: Do you think it’s tapped in to a new audience?

DG: I think so. I think there’s a lot of people coming from recovery, from various treatment centres and so on. And that’s amazing.

AT: So the show is about addiction, but there’s the side story which is all about Emma’s acting career, which is really relatable to anyone working in the arts, you look at her and think ‘yes, I know how you feel’. You yourself considered giving up acting a year ago -

DG: Not even, six months ago -

AT: What stopped you?

DG: Well, I really don’t know anything else - I didn’t go to school past fifteen. I’m not saying I can’t do anything else, I could, but the reason I was going to have to give up was financial, not that I wasn’t getting the jobs, I can handle that. I can handle the rejection. I don’t like some of the things we're allowed to be told in rejection, you’re either too scary or not conventional enough. That’s all nonsense to me. I was really sad I was going to have to give up, because I couldn’t afford it. You have to be like a ninja to continue being an actress in to your thirties, I had to dig deep in to where I get my esteem from. It was a great year for me, it took me to the point of wanting to give up, and then, my agent said ‘You can’t. Hang on’, but I was getting tired. Then little things came up, workshops, play readings, a bit of radio, a part on New Tricks which paid my rent. Then this came along and I was like - Oh my God!

AT: That’s inspiring. This week, someone told me at twenty-nine that I’m getting older, not getting anywhere fast with an arts career, that I should stop and start taking my life more seriously. Which I know I can’t do -

DG: Good.

AT: I can’t. It’s easy to see people that are successful and think ‘that will never be me’ - what’s your advice to anyone about to give up -

DG: Be careful who you share your fears around your work with. If you need reassuring, go to the right person, the one that will reassure you. Because sometimes you want to kick the s**t out of yourself, and you’ll go to the wrong person - the person that will help you do that. Also, hang out with kids. They’ll love you. I did that a lot and it really helped me. Oh and have therapy!

If you can get to see People, Places and Things before it closes on November the 5th, then beg, steal or borrow a ticket! It’s well worth it.

Tickets: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/people-places-and-things

(C) Amie Taylor (@AmieAmieTay / @lgbtqarts)

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