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INTERVIEW: EM Williams on playing Puck in new digital Dream now on at the RSC

Dream, the RSC’s new virtual and interactive interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is now coming live to a screen near you. Before it opened EM Williams, who plays Puck, told the Herald what to expect.

How exciting to have some sort of live theatre back – how’s it going and what stage are you at?

It’s been an amazing week and things are really coming together now. We started rehearsals in January but the creators have been working on it for two or three years.

We are in the Guildhall in Portsmouth, which is a grand old building. You walk in through the marble gates and you go into this room and it’s got the highest tech in the world being worked on by a team of people. It’s utterly bizarre and kind of perfect.

Can you explain the technology in simple terms for idiots?

Nope! Honestly, it has taken us all a while, and then we’ll come in and there’ll be a new thing or a new gadget or a new layer. The actors get kitted out in motion capture suits, which are very tight-fitting Velcro suits. You know those jodhpurs you used to wear as a kid that went under the heel and ride up? There’s those at the bottom and your fingers are covered too, plus you have a dashing little hat.

The technical team has been working for years on graphics and ideas and the way the characters move, and creating that in a virtual world. So around the studio there are 47 cameras that are on X and Y axes and are 360 degrees so they can capture us at all angles, and we have light-reflective modules so all movement can then be calibrated.

We have a massive LED screen at the back which provides the backdrop but also the environment. There’s a grid system on the floor that coincides with the map of the world, which is like A to G on the X axis and one to seven on the Y axis. That means they can say, ‘There’s something you need to interact with at A7’ or ‘You can’t go there, that’s a bush’. Yeah, it’s a lot!

EM Williams (44772694)
EM Williams (44772694)

How did this role come about?

It was so refreshing because without auditions during the pandemic you are usually asked to send a self-tape, and it’s always white background, show your face, sing a song, do some lines.

But the RSC asked for a creative improvised response with movement. They were like, ‘Imagine you’re in a forest and there’s an animal whizzing past you and there’s a massive moon’.

I was staying at a friend’s house at the time and they had a lovely garden and it was a sunny day. So I was like, ‘Do you mind if I just hang off your rose trellis?’

Does Puck speak or is it all in movement and performance?

There are a few lines, yes – Puck speaks. There’s lots of really interesting dialogue directly from the text throughout. But if people come expecting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they are going to be disappointed.

It’s about that ember of the forest between the reality and the fantasy and the spiritual plane. The text and the world of Midsummer is the underlying current for the entire piece.

It’s almost like you catch scratches and glimpses of the human and fairy realm in different spaces. It’s really magical to look at – every time I walk into rehearsals there’s something new. My jaw can’t drop any more.

Is Puck a dream role for you?

Yes, since I was about 12. Everytime I see a new casting director they say how haven’t played Puck yet? And I’m like I know! I get it a lot. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a really long time.

Tell us about how you got started.

I went to a youth theatre, The Castle Theatre, Wellingborough - it was my home and solace when I was growing up. It made me go ‘oh wow this is a profession’. When you’re a kid there’s not many spaces where you are treated like adults. We learnt our lines, we did the shows, we had responsibilities, and we were expected not to mess up and I didn’t have that anywhere else, it became a second school to me.

I feel like every child should have the chance to go to youth theatre. It just teaches you empathy in a way that nowhere else does.

I bet you didn’t envision your first Puck being quite like this.

I think the reason why Midsummer’s is the play you first encounter as a young person is because there is something in every character that you can relate to. I kind of see it as a bit of a Netflix series. Things are always changing so fast. Like you might me more interested in Helena’s and Demetrius’ story more than Oberon’s and Titania’s – well you’ll get there in a minute. Just give it a couple of scenes!

I’m 30 now, and as a teenager I felt like Puck, and still do especially being non-binary. It’s a non gender-specific role and there’s this fizziness of adolescence about Puck. They’re kind of stuck in that fizzy can’t quite figure out boundaries place. That’s the most exciting place to be as an actor.

Rehearsing for Dream (44772890)
Rehearsing for Dream (44772890)

You mentioned being a non-binary– does that have an effect on the kinds of roles you’re offered and are you seeing a more positive acceptance lately?

Oh it’s been so great. I mean I only came out a couple of years ago because before then I thought I had to fit the mould. Even Spotlight our online CV profile you had to be an actor or an actress there was no other options. That changed in October last year, that’s how recent it is. I’ve got so many friends who haven’t been able to showcase their skills because there’s no platform for them. It’s a conversation - things are moving really slowly but they are moving. I am grateful for the move, but we’ve got a long way to go still.

There’s a little issue with trans issues and trans rights becoming buzzwords and becoming the flavour of the month because then tokenism creeps in, which I also feel can happen with race in the industry.

What is next for you after this, and would you like to work at the RSC in Stratford?

I’d love to come up to Stratford, saying no would not be an option! Coming from Northampton we all remember the first time we went to the RSC as kids. I saw The Merry Wives of Winsor with Judi Dench.

I actually just got an art council grant during lockdown to develop my solo piece which I am really excited about. I’ve not written it yet, but it’s about who gets the privilege of being considered average. It’s based on the [black, feminist and gay poet] Audre Lorde quote about the ‘mythical norm’: “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me’.”

Dream is online from 12th to 20th March. Find out more at www.rsc.org.uk

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