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A group of actors on a stage perform a play. wearing early twentieth century clothing. ;

Alumni Voices: 'I started at King's thinking I'd find a proper non-theatrical vocation…'

A new stage adaptation of the much-loved children’s novel, 'The Secret Garden', is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this summer. King’s alum and playwright Holly Robinson (English Literature, 2018) is one of the creatives behind this. We spoke to Holly about her student days, her career and the other King’s connections involved in this new play…

Three young women are smiling watching a play rehearsal from the side. They all have scripts of the play in front of them.

Playwright Holly in rehearsals for The Secret Garden

What attracted you to study at King’s?

A mix of studying in London, the connection to my beloved Virginia Woolf and how cutting-edge the modules seemed.

What’s your favourite memory of your time at King’s?

I had a hard time at KCL. It feels important to highlight that you can have a difficult experience at university, survive it and that time can still have been worthwhile. For example, I learnt so much and I met my best friend, Mary. My memories of living with her are my most precious.

What’s the key skill or lesson you learnt at King’s?

I arrived at King’s as a loud and proud feminist. But that feminism was challenged and changed by my time at the KCL Feminist Society and other political groups. I learnt from brilliant fellow students like Shanice Octavia McBean, Emma Allwood, Hareem Ghani and Travis Alabanza. I learnt the meaning of solidarity.

Your adaptation of The Secret Garden is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Was the plan always to be a playwright?

I started King’s thinking I’d find a proper non-theatrical vocation. But I was going to the theatre every week, picking theatre modules at every opportunity and I directed two student plays. I even wrote my dissertation on the work of theatre director Katie Mitchell. There was no hope for me really!

Can you tell us about your playwrighting career?

I wrote my first play, soft animals, on a course in 2018-19 under the tutelage of dramaturg Adam Brace. In a stroke of luck, soft animals went on at Soho Theatre in 2019. That was the beginning of everything. Just as I was getting going on a number of projects, the pandemic hit. It was tough, but it also gave me time to become a better writer for which I learnt to be grateful.

How did you end up getting this adaptation staged?

The Secret Garden is a shared ur-text of Anna Himali Howard’s, the co-writer and director, and mine. For us, it’s a foundational text from which a lot of our artistic and political philosophies and tastes were formed. We’d obsessed about how you translate Frances Hodgson Burnett’s quite radical intentions around colonialism and disability into a more modern sensibility while keeping the period setting. The opportunity came to pitch our version to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. After two years of development and numerous drafts, the outgoing Artistic Director, Tim Sheader, programmed the show into his final season.

Are you pleased with how your words are coming alive on the stage?

It’s easier than usual because (most of!) the words are Hodgson Burnett’s! And they’re extraordinarily beautiful. I’ve loved shaping the adaptation with Anna. She’s been incredibly generous at letting me outstay my welcome in rehearsals. The cast of 12 are bringing so much unexpected colour, humour and depth to every moment. I can’t wait for audiences to share in it.

A young woman stands in the middle of a stage during a play rehearsal. She has a play script in her hand.

King’s alum Hannah Khalique Brown takes the lead role in The Secret Garden

There’s also another king’s alum involved in the production…

Hannah Khalique Brown (English Literature, 2020) plays Mary Lennox and she’s sensational. Her imagination is so vivid. She can make you see an entire garden with a glance. Her Mary is horrid and heart-breaking. And so different to Hannah herself, who, despite her enormous talent, is completely ensemble-minded. She’s such a star. I truly believe audiences will tell their grandkids they saw Hannah Khalique-Brown in her first on-stage lead.

You’ve also had academic support from King’s…

Dr Priyanka Basu has been such a generous collaborator, sharing her knowledge as a translator, a historian, a dialect coach and an expert on Indian dance. She’s also got a background in theatre and she brought a brilliant dramaturgical eye to that academic work. We’re incredibly lucky to have her onboard.

What’s next for you? Do you have any new scripts under way?

There are always new scripts under way! I’m developing a TV show about nannying, working on a film version of soft animals, reworking a play I wrote in 2022, and Anna and I are thinking about our next adaptation. We’d love to get our hands on an EM Forster!

Finally, what advice would you give to those wanting to make it as playwrights?

1. Experience as much theatre as you can, either live or by reading plays.

2. Get a day job that sustains you.

3. Make community with other writers, read each other’s work and hear each other’s gripes. Community is the only antidote to the loneliness of writing – and it’s fun!

The Secret Garden is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and ends on 20 July. You can find more details here.

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