Interview: Emma Packer, “There’s a lot of pressure on society for women to be perfect”

Interview: Emma Packer, “There’s a lot of pressure on society for women to be perfect”

After a successful run at the Camden People’s Theatre in 2016, CTRL+ALT+DELETE by Emma Packer returns as part of FIRST Festival of Solo Performance 2017 at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Exploring the myth that mothers are all-loving and protective of their children, which serves to isolate us from the truth and the harsh realities of life, the show suggests that maybe things aren’t as they first appear.

I caught up with writer and performer Emma Packer to discuss the show as it returns to London in its new form:


How is the show going – are you ready for the performances on 27 – 28 April?

I’m really excited. I did the show in rhyme for Edinburgh Fringe. But I wanted to explore the characters more and the subject matter didn’t quite suit it being in rhyme – it is quite harrowing. I changed the script after some helpful reviews, although one review was upset that I didn’t have any technology in my show, because it was called CTRL+ALT+DELETE and didn’t have a computer in it! I’ve evolved the show a bit more from there and last year performed it at Camden People’s Theatre.


Where did the inspiration come from?

I had this character, Amy Jones, that I used to perform through stand-up character comedy. But she always had a political voice; as a person, I have a political interest. I wanted to explore a subject matter that very rarely gets explored, which is this controlling and abusive relationship between her and her mum – I had this backstory in mind when I first created her. I also wanted to raise awareness – on TV, control and abuse is very one-sided, about the men who break up families. Whether it’s women affecting men in relationships or whether the women abusive to children, there are other angles there too.


Do you think that the media paints this topic as one-sided?

 Yes, I do. Not just in media, I’ve found that a lot of women don’t want to be honest about it. Whether it’s happened to them or whether they’ve seen it, maybe because of the pressure of society, which I talk about in the play, this Hollywood ideal is to form the most amazing mother-daughter relationships. There’s a lot of pressure on society for women to be perfect and therefore as a result they don’t want to talk. 




There isn’t a lot of tech in the play. Was there a conscious decision to leave this out?

I think the show is very wordy. The writing is very different for the mother and for Amy – Amy is very poetic and profound, the mother makes you laugh but you don’t want to like her as well. I think you find this of a lot of bullies, they can be quite charismatic and get everyone on side but fundamentally they’re cowards. I want the words to speak for themselves; at Tristan Bates Theatre you have this blank canvas, so hopefully the words and my performance are enough to entertain people.

I would like a TV company to pick it up and I could really see it developed into a TV drama. I would also love to see it at Soho Theatre – I think it would fit in very well with their programming.


Have you performed in Tristan Bates or at Edinburgh Fringe Festival before?

Yes, I’ve done a couple of things years ago. They had this 24-hour theatre festival so I remember doing a show at 11 o’ clock at night, which was quite amusing. I also did one of my character comedy shows there as well, so I’m really excited to be back in the space. I met with Matthew Keeler last year about the show because I knew that FIRST festival was something I wanted to be in and he’s been great through the whole process, which makes everything easier.

Edinburgh was great, back in 2015. It was in rhyme, but it went down well and Edinburgh is a great platform. The one thing about Edinburgh that I love is how many talented people go up there – writers and actors, so it was so inspirational to go and see amazing one person shows, like Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef, or Fleabag, which made me realise the level they’re setting and how I needed to be up there. If you ever think you’ve made it in Edinburgh, think again. Getting longlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award was amazing, they got in touch and said, “We’ve heard about the themes of your show” and I was honoured.

Now it would be incredible for people to come and see because there’s so much more depth to it. What I’ve done is try to generalise it – I’d like to see this play be published and you can date things if you make them too specific. Fundamentally the play is all about honesty in society and within us, so I made it more generic about whether it’s you or I or people in power, we all need to be honest. 


They often say that theatre and performance is meant to hold up a mirror to society. Do you think your performance has that reflective quality?

I do. For instance, the granddad, who’s a pivotal part in Amy’s life and who inspired her to be interested in politics, he makes a speech when she’s nine about honesty and integrity. His closing line is a George Orwell quote,

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

It basically feeds in to alternative facts and related to Orwell’s duality of holding two contradictory beliefs yet believing both of them. So, because of that I think it very much mirrors what is happening now. Orwell’s quote is from years ago, but it’s still so current.


Sometimes there’s a sense that nothing’s really changed. Do you think that someone might look at your play in decades’ time and draw a parallel to wonder we’ve actually moved on at all?

That would be amazing if somebody did. I think the whole point of this piece is to make people go away and think, not just about the politics in it, but about themselves, about fundamentally being better people. Unfortunately, we can’t change this manipulative, controlling society that is getting progressively worse and more right wing but what we can do is control ourselves and make sure we are fundamentally honest and nice to each other. 


Do you prefer comedy or drama writing?

The pieces I’ve written that are more serious are being received better. I’m in the process of writing a new play that deals with paedophilia, I’m finding my voice more in this genre. I find comedy much harder to write, but I think there is still some comedy in it. The new play is called Calypto, and it’s inspired by the arrests that were happening in France of the Muslim women on the beaches. People assume they have the right to tell people what they can and cannot wear – I thought about it and realised that we all have a cover; does anyone ever meet someone that’s completely themselves? Everyone is still protective of themselves.

Then I watched the latest Louis Theroux documentary on Jimmy Saville, the idea of a victim turned a villain because of what’s happened to them surfaced. The mask that she puts is of drugs and alcohol but it’s about a woman that has suffered endless abuse as a child. I also really want to explore why we’re so fascinated about what we see on the surface.


CTRL+ALT+DELETE plays the Tristan Bates Theatre as part of  FIRST  Festival of Solo Performance 2017 from 27 – 28 April. For more information and to book tickets, please see the website. Photos courtesy of David Packer.