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Emily Carding in ‘Quintessence’ at Brighton Fringe (Photo by Peter Williams)

Quintessence: an exploration of humanity

ONE NIGHT ONLY! Already named by The Stage as ‘one of the UK’s leading Shakespearian actors’, actor Emily Carding is now exploring their connection with the bard via their own play, ‘Quintessence’. With humanity wiped out, an AI is given the task of re-creating a thriving humanity – when the time is right – based on the works of Shakespeare. Humanity must thrive…but at what cost? HOT’s Zelly Restorick interviewed Emily Carding about their latest work, their connection with theatre, AI and humanity – and how it feels to be back on stage again.

This fabulous trailer offers us a glimpse into Emily Carding’s magnificent stage presence and delivery of their own – and Shakespeare’s – words, exploring the many faces and facades of humanity.

A few years ago, Emily Carding performed the lead role in Theatre Nation’s production of ‘Hamlet’ in Hastings. I promoted the performance for Hastings Online Times – and whilst researching, watched Emily’s deeply soul-searching delivery of the “to be or not to be” speech. When I saw that Emily’s ‘Quintessence’ was part of the Hastings Fringe Festival, I immediately wanted to interview them.

I asked Emily about the title, Quintessence. “The title refers both to the line “What is this quintessence of dust” from Hamlet and also the fifth alchemical element – or Aether/Spirit.”

What exactly is the quintessence of humanity?

I’ll let Emily set the scene for their play: “A combination of cataclysmic events results in the extinction of the human race, leaving behind an AI being programmed to recreate humanity when the time is right, with the complete works of Shakespeare as a guide to the human spirit. Humanity must thrive… but at what cost?”

This original sci-fi storytelling show was originally commissioned by London Science Museum as part of their 2018 Frankenstein Festival under the title ‘Humanity 2.0’ and performed in full body paint in collaboration with the extraordinary Victoria Gugenheim. Now re-conceived under the writer’s preferred title, ‘Quintessence’, this exciting new writing explores themes such as the evolution of artificial intelligence, existential threat and how we define human nature itself.

Emily Carding in ‘Quintessence’ at Brighton Fringe (Photo by Pete Williams)

Is being a human not enough?

Emily and I talked about how science fiction later becomes science fact… and how with AI, this isn’t science fiction anymore.

AI is a fast growing industry and field of study, exploration and research. Along with trans-humanism – simultaneously speedily evolving. Evolving to what? And where? And why? Aren’t humans beautiful enough as they are? Aren’t we enough? Not for some people, it seems, working on AI at this very moment as you read these words. Longing for a robot friend maybe? Someone to finally ‘get’ them?

Like with everything, none of us – including the computers and AI – can 100% accurately anticipate the outcomes, the consequences and repercussions – on humanity, on the wider world beyond humanity’s delusion of dominion. Where will our human curiosity and desire for knowledge lead us?

I wonder if everyone is sticking with the rules of robots? The 3 Laws? (I doubt that very much. As unlikely as telling humans that by law they can’t clone their own species. That’s simply laying down a challenge for some humans.)

Emily Carding by ‘Quintessence’ at Brighton Fringe (Photo by Peter Williams)

Fiction based on science

Emily talked about science fiction in relation to ‘Quintessence’ and their own explorations and research: “Science fiction is simply fiction that’s based on science. If it wasn’t based on real science, it would be fantasy. So that’s the dividing line between those genres. So it’s science fiction in that these actual circumstances haven’t happened yet. But, yes, it’s based on actual science and I got to consult with expert scientists in various fields during the writing of it…

“So I was able to consult with an existential threat expert, who was the person who explained to me that you couldn’t just have a nuclear bomb or one thing happening to annihilate humanity. It would have to be a combination of catastrophic global events that would wipe everybody out, otherwise there would always be survivors. So even if was an end of civilisation, you would still have some survivors. If everybody had to go, it would have to be a combination of nuclear war, climate change, disease, and so on.

“There’s a line there about a virus, which now I kind of go… aargh! One line in there… I was like, “Oh, should that stay?” I’ll just say it really fast. And people were asking me: “When did you write that? Did you change it to update it for now?” And I’m like, “No, I wrote it in 2018… and I’m sorry…”.

Emily Carding – a passionate explorer of Shakespeare’s words – in ‘Hamlet, (an experience)’

A unique introduction to Shakespeare

“Quintessence provides a unique introduction to Shakespeare,” explained Emily, “through the featured themed extracts, presents a modern take (and twist) on the Frankenstein story and encourages discussion on various topics including the ethics of AI, genetic manipulation, cloning and the dangers of climate change. It asks many questions and leaves the audience to seek for the answers within themselves.”

How does the AI deal with all the multifarious conflicting essences of humanity offered in Shakespeare’s works? “The AI takes a very logical approach to it all,” says Emily. “Shakespeare shows all the shades and colours of the human condition and that isn’t always compatible with the AI’s mission: ‘Humanity Must Thrive’.

Emily Carding in ‘Quintessence’ at Brighton Fringe (Photo: Peter Williams)

Humanity is its own worst enemy

“Indeed, humanity is our own worst enemy. How would an AI with advanced technology address that? Also in something of an opposite approach to that which people expect of artificial life, they see the absolute logic is living in balance and harmony with Nature and almost worship it, whilst at the same time using it and changing it according to their will.

“It’s a play which explores some philosophical themes and leaves the audience with questions rather than answers, with a few good twists and turns and even the occasional chuckle.

Emily Carding in ‘Quintessence’ at Brighton Fringe (Photo by Peter Williams)

A glorious new breed of humans

“‘Quintessence’ is immersive in the sense that you are being directly addressed at a gathering where we are celebrating this glorious new era that we have created and you’re this glorious new breed of humans – and you get to hear about all of the history of past humans and how we’ve got to here. You’ll hear the conclusions that the AI has come to about humanity, how they went about recreating humanity…

“It’s kind of sci-fi with a little tinge of horror in there – and a lot of excerpts from Shakespeare. This AI being has a performance mode, which is almost like downloaded clips of performances that it plays back through itself. So you get all these different bits of Shakespeare to illustrate the point. And, yeah, people seem to enjoy it, so it would be wonderful to see folk in Hastings there.”

Emily Carding In Theatre Nation’s ‘Hamlet’ (Photo by Peter Mould)

A whirlwind, absolutely fated thing

I asked Emily what drew them to acting? Was it always a deep ambition? “I come from a working class background, and we didn’t have drama at my school. So I can’t say where it came from. It was always something I wanted to do, but it wasn’t something that I necessarily was able to do or had the facility to pursue; and there wasn’t even drama club or anything like that.

“It wasn’t until I went to A-Level college that I got to do any drama at all; and it was really a fated thing. A chance meeting in a corridor between myself, my art teacher and my theatre lecturer  led to an interview at Bretton Hall and got a place to start just a few days later. So it was a whirlwind, absolutely fated thing.

“I think I felt very insecure at that stage because all the other people at drama school were much more experienced than me. I went on and did bits and bobs of stuff after that, but nothing massively impressive …. Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Worked as a scarer at the London Dungeon. But then I found myself accidentally pregnant, so I actually left the stage for a very long time. When my daughter was about 11, I thought: “Well, she can deal with me being away a bit.

“I did a post-grad at Exeter University specifically in ‘Staging Shakespeare’ – and from then on, it’s been non-stop.”

Emily Carding in ‘Caliban’s Codex’ (Photo from recent filmed version, filmed by David Thomas)

Emily mentioned in the flow of conversation that they “had missed the theatre so horribly I couldn’t even bear going to the theatre… it was painful”. I’ve gone through a period of a few years where I’ve been feverishly making work and being in other people’s work – and I now find that I’m weaving the writing and the magical path together with the theatre and that they’re now sort of coming together in balance, which is interesting. That was a long answer!”

What was it exactly they had missed? Had they missed the stage during the pandemic? “It’s such an intangible thing,” replied Emily. “If you ask me now what it is that I would miss, I can definitely answer you. What it was then, it seems so far away. Because we’ve just had the pandemic, I’ve been performing online a lot and I’m just coming back to performance now. What I miss about it when I’m not able to perform is the connection – and just the magic of that moment, that ephemeral moment that is given and then lost. And the absolute connection with an audience, with a space, but also with aspects of yourself that you don’t normally get to access.

Emily Carding (Photo Natasha Merchant)

“Looking back to when I had a break from the stage in the past, there were whole aspects of my personality or my self-expression that I wasn’t accessing – that I didn’t have access to – and I perhaps didn’t realise that that was what I was longing for or missing. But I’m fortunate enough to have that now.”

And how does it feel now for Emily – to be back on the stage after such a long time away from direct performance on a stage, connecting with an audience in the real world?

“It’s so great. It’s just wonderful”, smiles Emily. “And it’s the little things as well, you know… like being in front of an audience and being able to actually see them is great. I kept very busy over lockdown, doing online things, but getting back in front of an actual audience and sharing a space with them has been extraordinary. Sitting around with folk afterwards and just chatting, just being in the space and going to different places, doing Brighton Fringe at a fairly small venue has been a nice way to ease into it.

Emily Carding (Photo: Natasha Merchant)

“I’m super excited to get to As You Like It and be performing for hundreds of people. And working in person with people as well, it will be lovely to be with a cast again. I feel inexpressibly grateful, really. So, so grateful.

“And I’m grateful for the lessons that I’ve learned over the last year or so and I’m grateful, touch wood, that it’s not been such a tough time for me as it has been for many others, although it’s had its challenges… but in many ways it’s been an extraordinary time in which I’ve made a lot of connections around the world. I think it’s changed us all, and in many ways I think it’s a shame if it hasn’t, but some of us may be nursing more wounds than others.

“I feel like I’ve come out better for it, but I’m very aware – and I think we all need to be very aware and very compassionate towards those who are suffering because of what’s happening. But also we’re learning how to be….this is rambling on now, but I think we’re all just learning again how to be social creatures and how to be amongst people again, and maybe we’re being that little bit more honest with each other now that we have that shared experience. When somebody says: “How are you?” and you go, “Well, actually….”.

“I’ve seen a few examples of people making strange choices and strange decisions… whereas previously I might have been a bit annoyed or judgemental, I’m now, like, “That’s OK’, because we’re all renegotiating the world. But short answer… I’m really super, super grateful and excited.”

Emily Carding in ‘Richard III (Photo by Olly Mc)

I asked Emily, who identifies as gender fluid, if they felt they are an unusual person in the acting sphere? A pioneer? Their performance felt mesmerising for me personally. “I try to be original,” replies Emily. “I hate to be unoriginal. I try to be original and avoid unoriginality. A pioneer? Um, it’s not a word I’ve used to describe myself… I think that would come across as a bit arrogant if I did.

“I just do the work that I have to do. There’s a quote from Bowie that I try to live by, which is: “never play to the gallery,” meaning – don’t think about what it is that’s going to please other people; just make the work that you’ve got to make.

“I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with many brilliant minds in making really innovative theatre, which has less to do with gender and more to do with the dynamics of audience relationships. I think it’s through exploring these roles (Richard III and Hamlet) that I’ve sort of become aware of my own gender identity as being fluid. These are aspects of myself that I wasn’t free to explore before… so it’s almost like these things feed into each other, the exploration of the self through the exploration of other roles.

“With Richard III, people would come to the show and just have an experience of the character. The gender had nothing to do with it. It’s just that I happened to be the best person for that job, gender aside. So I think, yeah, in my work I try to carve out a path and show people how it can be.”

Poster for ‘Quintessence’ designed by Jennifer le Roux (Photo by Peter Mould)

I asked Emily about their connections with Hastings and St Leonards, where they’ve lived for the past few years. Emily explained their path from Ewhurst Green near Bodium to Cornwall to Dartmoor – and then asking themself: “Where would I really love to be? Where would be good for work, and where do I have some friends already?”

“I had such fond memories of whenever I’d come down to Hastings, and I used to do Kung Fu classes down here with Sifu Neil Gould, who still runs them down here. And I know quite a few people in the area, and I just felt really, really strongly that I wanted to come back. And I’ve been here now, in St Leonards, for four and a half years.

“I’ve met lots of local creatives here, been part of that community, which has been nice. I feel like we’re somewhat lacking a hub for theatre-making, but we are a hub in terms of the group of people who all know each other and work together, and then we make things and we take them off to other places. It’s such a nurturing place to be, such a creative and inspiring place to be, but it’s also a great place – when you’re touring around – a wonderful place to come back to and restore yourself and rest and heal.”

Emily Carding in ‘Quintessence’ at Brighton Fringe (Photo: Peter Williams)

We can create worlds in which we know ourselves better

What keeps Emily going? What are their aims and motivations? Here’s Emily’s artist statement: “Whilst I wear many hats, the work I create in all media has one motivating factor in common: the exploration and advancement of the human spirit.

I believe we are all connected- with each other, with the world, with everything within and beyond this world, and there is no better art to explore and strengthen that connection than theatre. With the simplest of arrangements – an actor, a space, an audience – we can create worlds in which to know ourselves better.”

*****

‘As You Like It’

Emily is also currently rehearsing for ‘As You Like It’, playing Jaques, Oliver and Le Beau in Open Bar Theatre’s outdoor touring production of ‘As You Like It’ this Summer! Dates across the South-East and London from July 26- September 16.

 

 

 

 

Quintessence: written by and performed by award-winning actor, Emily Carding, known for Brite Theater’s solo Shakespeare adaptations, ‘Richard III (a one woman show)’ and ‘Hamlet (an experience)’ as well as the lead role in Blue Devil Theatre’s ‘Apparatus’, this production combines science, imagination, and current events in a way that will leave you questioning who is the real monster?

14 July 2021 : Starts at 9pm

The Stables Theatre: Hastings : Booking is by telephone only: 01424-423221.

Tickets are £10 / 8.50

Links to Emily Carding and their work:

Emily Carding: website

Emily Carding’s latest book: The Magic of Shakespeare

Shakespeare in the Garden: ‘As You Like It’

One Woman Richard

Emily’s IMDb website page

Emily’s Spotlight website page

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Posted 18:50 Friday, Jul 9, 2021 In: Performance

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