By Yasmin Haji-Hassan
Sitting in Starbucks armed with coffee and a pen, I await the arrival of Elisabeth Gray, a woman of immense talent. An actress, a playwright, a graduate from Oxford University and all this at the age 24. I knew I was meeting someone with a vast intellect and who has the potential to have a long and successful career. As I greet Elisabeth and show her to her seat, what I do not expect is her wit and the genuine lack of pretentiousness in her manner. Born and raised in the American state of North Carolina, Elisabeth is clearly proud of her southern roots, citing Tennessee Williams as one of her inspirations. Fresh from rehearsals for her play I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath at the Oxford Playhouse, Elisabeth takes some time from her busy schedule to talk to Bluestocking.
So what brings a young woman from the deep south of America all the way to other side of the world? Two words: Joseph Fiennes. An actor famous for his role in the film Shakespeare in Love and, more importantly, someone the 15 year old Elisabeth greatly admired… enough to cross the globe and visit Oxford to see him perform on stage. Taking this as a sign, Elisabeth went on to study an English Literature and Language degree. Her secretarial role in the Oxford University Drama Society enabled her to cultivate a unique style at one of the world’s foremost creative centres. Following a string of successful productions, she was snapped up by leading talent and literary agency ICM, and taken under the wing of none other than Thelma Holt, for shows in Boston and LA. Caught in a flurry of jobs and interviews, travelling between England and America, Elisabeth finds herself in a constant state of flux, living in both countries.
The transition from University to the reality of professional acting did have its challenges. The acting profession is known for its cut throat competition. With a wry smile, Elisabeth goes on to tell me how ‘women often want to hear that it is men who limit our success, but the sad reality is that it is often women who put each other down.’ Working in Los Angeles, she was struck by the body centric approach to casting. ‘It was definitely a big shock to the system. Having come from Oxford where I was free to explore my creativity, it was hard to adjust to LA where one is judged by their body, not their mind.’ But what has drawn Elisabeth to the field of stage acting, as opposed to film? She cites Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep, both of whom had extensive stage careers before entering the realm of cinema. Elisabeth is also filled with the ambition to truly conquer the stage. She has received glowing reviews, and has won the Juliet Bernard Prize for Most Promising Actress, being hailed as ‘the next Meryl Streep… with a bizarre touch of Katharine Hepburn.’
Indeed, it is this desire to explore all aspects of theatre which has driven her to write plays, as well as acting in them. Her showcase piece is I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, which has been phenomenally successful on both sides of the Atlantic. The play examines the last ten seconds of Esther Green’s life, as she slowly dies from exposure to the fumes of her gas oven. Elisabeth tells me of her fascination with the period between the dying stages and death. In particular, the notion that life flashes before your eyes and every moment can cover decades of life, is one which acts as a basis for the play. Where conventional dramatic depictions of Plath’s biography climax at the end of the play with her death, I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath is more complex in its portrayal of time. The play is centred on the distorted memories of Esther (who represents Plath), as she struggles with her perception of reality. ‘What I wanted to do was look at the female brain, how we make sense of the world and put together our ideas.’ Despite its morbid subject matter, there is an edgy humour to the play which is crafted brilliantly by Elisabeth. In the tradition of southern playwrights like Tennessee Williams, she uses comedy to make the audience feel both secure and insecure. ‘I like to get them laughing and then punch them in the gut!’
Elisabeth has always been attracted powerful female roles. She compares forming a connection to a character to the experience of getting to know a person, and finding which elements between the both of you intersect. Each new role affects her differently, and she has learnt to take away a new experience. Ultimately, ‘you are what you play’. With Esther Green, she feels more patient and tolerant. Whilst playing Abigail in the production of The Crucible, Elisabeth admits that she found herself becoming more obsessive and hysterical even in her day to day life. ‘As an actress, I am always living these crucial moments of a character’s life, and it does have an impact on me.’ Always on the move, Elisabeth has many new projects in this upcoming year. She will be playing the character of Madeia in Chop Suey Barbie Trick, which is based on a paranoid schizophrenic who cuts his daughter in half. Elisabeth shows an interest in mental illness and the notion of grappling with multiple voices inside one’s brain.
Finally I ask Elisabeth if she had the opportunity, who she would write an article on for Bluestocking. One of them would be the early 20th century poet and actress Edna St Vincent Millay, the first woman to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize, and a woman with admirable creative spirit. Others include poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Violet Coward, lesser known figures who have explored the conception of a female identity. ‘Women today are confused about their desires to pursue a career instead of a family, or vice versa. For me, the point of women’s rights is just that; the right to choose your path without being belittled’.