“Hot Mess” Writer Talk Actually Quite Neat

On March 5, students had the opportunity to sit with Ella Hickson, the critically acclaimed writer of “Hot Mess” and “Eight” to get an inside look into the life of a successful playwright. The talk was sponsored by the Office for the Arts as a part of its Learning from Performers series and featured a moderated discussion between Hickson and Joshua R. McTaggart ’13, a Crimson arts editor who directed the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s rendition “Hot Mess” at Harvard. The talk focused specifically on Hickson’s success at a very young age and provided a forum the Harvard community to discuss the theater industry with an accomplished professional.

Three years ago, Hickson sprung into the theater world with her debut play “Eight,” a series of eight monologues that went on to win the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award. According to Tom S. Lee, Program Director of the Learning from Performers series, said the OFA chose to invite Hickson because some students can relate to her aspirations. “I was impressed by the fact that she has established her career in the theater in a relatively short amount of time, and thought that would resonate with students who are considering entering the field after college,” he says.

Hickson began by speaking about the beginning of her career and her background writing fictional pieces for her university newspaper, a pursuit which lead to the production of “Eight” and an all-expense-paid trip to New York City to receive the Carol Tambor award. She also spoke about her initial struggles when moving to the United States and having the pressure of writing a follow-up play after the success of her first play. “Ella was twenty-three when ‘Eight’ was going up, and she came New York and had a show on an off-Broadway venue,” said McTaggart, “And then ‘Eight’ was published.”

Hickson soon became anxious due to this level of international professional achievement and lack of real experience. “I think it’s a kind of cultural illness of our age. We’re so fixated on youth, and so fixated with talent in youth. It creates a real anxiety when you’re given all your opportunity at a time when you have no experience,” she said. This anxiety, Hickson noted, lead her to write “Precious Little Talent,” her first attempt at a play rather than a performance based on monologues.

The event also took a turn from a moderated talk between McTaggart and Hickson to a show featuring two monologues from “Eight.” The monologues were performed by Daniel J. Giles ’13 and Kathleen S. O’Bierne ’15. The first focused on a man’s reflections on his boyfriend’s recent death by hanging; the second, on a woman contemplating whether or not to tell her boyfriend that she is having an affair. These monologues provided a keen insight not only into the depth of Hickson’s writing, but also into the emotional battles that contemporary Americans must fight on a daily basis. “I felt empowered performing this particular monologue, which is about a woman who is talking about cheating on her long time boyfriend in order to gain some sort of recognition in this relationship where she feels invisible,” said O’Bierne about “Astrid,” the monologue that she performed. “I loved the frankness of [Hickson’s] writing and her refusal to apologize for her generation.”

The monologue performances marked the first time in years that Hickson had seen her work in “Eight” acted out. “When ‘Eight’ first happened, from the first performance to the last performance, I think I saw it 68 times,” she said. Hickson then took a hiatus from viewing her work in “Eight,” but after watching the performances during the event she noted appreciation in the chance to re-watch her own work. “It’s lovely. It feels like an old friend,” she said.

Hickson and McTaggart also compared “Eight” to “Hot Mess,” noting the potential for the audience to emotionally relate to both works in different ways. There is an element of subtlety in achieving specificity of message and emotion in plays like “Hot Mess” and “Precious Little Talent” subtely but specifically address the idea of message and emotion in the story formed throughout the performance. “I think that as a rule the more specific you can be, the more universal the truth you can gain from that specificity. You can hone that specificity in action, in dramatic dialogue. You can get that specificity that a monologue pinpoints through an interaction between characters,” Hickson said. “You don’t have to say to the audience that this is exactly what you’re thinking.”

The discussion between Hickson and McTaggart and monologues that accompanied the talk highlighted Hickson’s unique ability to translate her own thoughts into something that is relevant in contemporary society. “All of us can relate to what the young characters of ‘Hot Mess’ are going through—coming of age, figuring out one’s place in the world, trying to connect with others, exploring love and sexuality,” said Lee. “To evoke these states of mind without sentiment or melodrama: that’s a rare gift.”

—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at jihyunro@college.harvard.edu.

On March 5, students had the opportunity to sit with Ella Hickson, the critically acclaimed writer of “Hot Mess” and “Eight” to get an inside look into the life of a successful playwright. The talk was sponsored by the Office for the Arts as a part of its Learning from Performers series and featured a moderated discussion between Hickson and Joshua R. McTaggart ’13, a Crimson arts editor who directed the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s rendition “Hot Mess” at Harvard. The talk focused specifically on Hickson’s success at a very young age and provided a forum the Harvard community to discuss the theater industry with an accomplished professional.

Three years ago, Hickson sprung into the theater world with her debut play “Eight,” a series of eight monologues that went on to win the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award. According to Tom S. Lee, Program Director of the Learning from Performers series, said the OFA chose to invite Hickson because some students can relate to her aspirations. “I was impressed by the fact that she has established her career in the theater in a relatively short amount of time, and thought that would resonate with students who are considering entering the field after college,” he says.

Hickson began by speaking about the beginning of her career and her background writing fictional pieces for her university newspaper, a pursuit which led to the production of “Eight” and an all-expense-paid trip to New York City to receive the Carol Tambor award. She also spoke about her initial struggles when moving to the United States and having the pressure of writing a follow-up play after the success of her first play. “Ella was twenty-three when ‘Eight’ was going up, and she came to New York and had a show in an off-Broadway venue,” said McTaggart, “And then ‘Eight’ was published.”

Hickson soon became anxious due to this level of international professional achievement and lack of real experience. “I think it’s a kind of cultural illness of our age. We’re so fixated on youth, and so fixated with talent in youth. It creates a real anxiety when you’re given all your opportunity at a time when you have no experience,” she said. This anxiety, Hickson noted, led her to write “Precious Little Talent,” her first attempt at a play rather than a performance based on monologues.

The event also took a turn from a moderated talk between McTaggart and Hickson to a show featuring two monologues from “Eight.” The monologues were performed by Daniel J. Giles ’13 and Kathleen S. O’Bierne ’15. The first focused on a man’s reflections on his boyfriend’s recent death by hanging; the second, on a woman contemplating whether or not to tell her boyfriend that she is having an affair. These monologues provided a keen insight not only into the depth of Hickson’s writing, but also into the emotional battles that contemporary Americans must fight on a daily basis. “I felt empowered performing this particular monologue, which is about a woman who is talking about cheating on her long time boyfriend in order to gain some sort of recognition in this relationship where she feels invisible,” said O’Bierne about “Astrid,” the monologue that she performed. “I loved the frankness of [Hickson’s] writing and her refusal to apologize for her generation.”

The monologue performances marked the first time in years that Hickson had seen her work in “Eight” acted out. “When ‘Eight’ first happened, from the first performance to the last performance, I think I saw it 68 times,” she said. Hickson then took a hiatus from viewing her work in “Eight,” but after watching the performances during the event she noted appreciation in the chance to re-watch her own work. “It’s lovely. It feels like an old friend,” she said.

Hickson and McTaggart also compared “Eight” to “Hot Mess,” noting the potential for the audience to emotionally relate to both works in different ways. There is an element of subtlety in achieving specificity of message and emotion in plays like “Hot Mess” and “Precious Little Talent.” Both of the works still manage to specifically address the idea of message and emotion in the story formed throughout the performance. “I think that as a rule the more specific you can be, the more universal the truth you can gain from that specificity. You can hone that specificity in action, in dramatic dialogue. You can get that specificity that a monologue pinpoints through an interaction between characters,” Hickson said. “You don’t have to say to the audience that this is exactly what you’re thinking.”

The discussion between Hickson and McTaggart and monologues that accompanied the talk highlighted Hickson’s unique ability to translate her own thoughts into something that is relevant in contemporary society. “All of us can relate to what the young characters of ‘Hot Mess’ are going through—coming of age, figuring out one’s place in the world, trying to connect with others, exploring love and sexuality,” said Lee. “To evoke these states of mind without sentiment or melodrama: that’s a rare gift.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

CORRECTIONS: March 20, 2012

An earlier version of this article said that the talk by playwright Ella Hickson was sponsored by the Office of Fine Arts. In fact, the office is called the Office for the Arts. In addition, the article stated that Hickson won the Edinburgh Fringe competition. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is actually a three-week entertainment event, not a competition. Daniel J. Giles was named in the article as a member of the Class of 2014; in fact he is a member of the Class of 2013.

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