Elliott Daley: actor, opera writer, poet, playwright, teacher, director, and man of many talents discusses life before and after studying at Queen Mary. Elliott details his journey into freelancing and why it saved him from falling victim to hierarchies.
You studied English and Drama at Queen Mary, was this something you always wanted to do or was it something you stumbled on closer to the time?
It was a bit of both in a way, because my mum was a theatre actress. I would be in school as a little kid, and we’d go on a trip to the theatre. I’d get to tap the person next to me and say, ‘That’s my mum!’. It was incredible for me. I have always loved to perform and be a part of the arts.
I had difficulty reading and writing as a child, until I went to a special reading recovery class. That’s when it just clicked. I remember I was in class, after years of not really getting it, the teacher asked us ‘Can anybody spell ‘is’?’. I remember thinking this was my time. My hand flew up, and I was thinking ‘Sound it out. Sound it out’. I said ‘I’ and I continued smiling so confidently and then said ‘z’. I remember the whole class burst out laughing. It didn’t knock my confidence though. It just made me more determined to understand it. I promised myself I would write a book when I finally understood. I just knew that now that I’ve got this, a book must come out of this experience. This was around when I was eight.
By the time I was ready for university, I thought ‘Yes, English and Drama’ even though I wasn’t too sure how I would use the English. I thought I’d study something that I do enjoy as I love language, the use of words, and the mastery of words.
So yes, it was a bit of both. There was a passion for me to write and perform, but jumping into university was a mixture of refining my talents and joys as well as meeting new people and having fun.
You said so yourself, ‘a big part of university is to go out and meet new friends and have fun’. However, the university experience now, during COVID, is very different in terms of making friends and going out to have fun. What would your advice be to the students experiencing this new university lifestyle?
Well, with bubbles it’s obviously difficult to meet new people. It really is about individual situations. Consent is a big thing. If you live in dorms, then obviously you don’t need to worry about going back home to any elderly family members. In this case, then you may feel as though you’re young and healthy, and therefore not in an ‘at-risk’ group. Then follow government guidelines, form a bubble and go have a drink, and have a laugh while the pubs are still open. It’s really difficult to imagine because when I was at university, hugs were a massive part of my experience after a night out.
Just remember to stay healthy to lessen the effects COVID may have on you. And as long as you are NOT putting anyone else at risk, you’re free to make those choices.
What made you realise that coming to Queen Mary University was the best choice?
Queen Mary is absolutely wicked! I really like the atmosphere at Queen Mary. There’s a nice vibe and I like the energy. I had a chat with some of the staff members and they seem really good. They have really good sports clubs and academics too. So I thought ‘Yes, Queen Mary, here we go!’.
Looking back, would you change your university choice?
No, not at all. For me, a large part of it all was definitely the friends I made. I made friends for life, and I’m really glad I did that. I had a really good time on the course especially because the university has amazing academics. So no, I wouldn’t have gone to a different university. I had an offer from Oxford University too. So I had visited Oxford and Kings’ College, but the vibe at Queen Mary was just amazing, and I’m happy with the choice I made. I’ve even done some teaching at Queen Mary and would love to still be involved with the institutions. But I wouldn’t want to change anything about my academic experience as I loved it.
If you hadn’t studied English and Drama, what would you have done?
I would have done Law. I like Law. I used to do a lot of magistrates and mock trials. As a Black male, I’ve almost been arrested for coming out of my own home at ten in the morning, because the police thought I might be a burglar. Yes, my own home at ten o’clock in the morning. I then also almost got arrested for coming home in the evening around five o’clock because the police officer said he didn’t recognise me. I told him ‘but you don’t live here, I don’t recognise you!’.
Knowing some things about the law, which I try to keep up to date with, has really helped me move around. Once when I was 14, I was walking down the street whilst texting. Next thing I knew, I was being dragged to the side by the police for walking too slow while texting.
So yes, I would have done Law. Although I didn’t do it, I really appreciate the power it gives me over my own destiny. The reason I didn’t was because I remember going to a Law lecture and seeing huge books, and the monotone voice of lecturers made me realise I wouldn’t enjoy it. So how could I? Luckily deciding to study English and Drama was something I could get behind. I’m massively happy with the choice I made. I’m a writer, spoken word artist, I write plays, graphic novels, poetry, opera, and to study English and Drama at Queen Mary was definitely crucial for my journey.
Your profession has been so playful, what is the best thing about this?
It’s different things at different times. For example, when I was performing at the Olympics, I got to write my own poetry and perform this every day at the Olympics and Paralympics, on behalf of Coca Cola. Inside the building we had, I was hosting shows with gymnasts, dancers and rappers. Performatively, that was one of the highlights of my career.
I have also had the opportunity to write an opera for young people to perform, which I had never done before. The energy in this to not only perform opera but introduce opera to unusual audiences, allowed me to get involved. I have had an incredible time doing that.
I wasn’t happy to sign my life up to a system of hierarchies where I would go from job to job, where there will always be a boss to whom I could never be equal.
Why did you choose to be a freelancer? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Firstly, my personality. I wasn’t happy to sign my life up to a system of hierarchies where I would go from job to job, where there will always be a boss to whom I could never be equal. I would always live in fear of the boss. It made no sense to me. I want to be my own boss. I want to experience new places and new things. I like to go to places and be by myself, be myself, and have fun. I’ve worked in many places around London: V&A, The Lyric, The BRIT School. Furthermore, I got to teach in Europe, perform at the Olympics and taught in Africa.
The variety of work I have done means I can give everything to a project, and then once that project has ended, I get to fall into a new project and learn so much all over again. Freelancing saved me from hierarchies in organisations. I was able to continually enrich myself and my craft because I’m learning from different places, rather than being stuck in one place and not liking the boss. I want to be myself around everyone because I’m free. As a freelancer, it’s the freedom that I wanted and that I thrive on.
On the negatives, it’s the possibility of not finding work. Fortunately for myself, I’ve built a good rapport with all the institutions that I worked with previously, so I can always go back to them. Also, when I’m not working, I spend time on my craft like when I wrote my own book. Nobody asked me to do that but having done that I’m now a published author. That brings so much more credibility to what I do. It can be difficult if you can’t find work, but just make sure you are constantly working on what you do best. As I said, I’ve been able to work all over the world and it might be risky, but who better to take risks for, than yourself?
Did you apply a lot of your degree content to what you do now? Do you think it would have been possible without a degree?
I believe it would be possible without a degree. I definitely do. When I first left university, one of the first things I did was go to Spain to see my mum and I taught basketball there for a while. That wasn’t related to my degree. Then I got the opportunity to teach, and I absolutely loved it and I would never turn back. This would definitely be possible without the degree, but the degree just gives me a sense of credibility. I do attribute most of what I do now to what I did after university, but to have that degree just helps with everything. However, even if you don’t have a degree, as long as you passionately work towards your goal, you can do it.
What do you want readers to know about your book, Winter Solstice?
My book is an assassination attempt on Santa Claus. The Process of writing it was an amazing journey, I had so much fun. However, it was born from both my pain and passion. We’ve all heard of Mrs. Claus, but where is she? Christmas is very sexist. Santa Claus is supposed to give to all children, but growing up I never saw him around children like me. So, Christmas is racist too. At the end of the year, it’s about buying all the stocks so that next year the stores can fill the shelves with something else. That makes it very obviously capitalist too.
I created the Humbug Assassins to go into the Empire Noel to take out the holy Father Christmas because I felt that rather than just sitting with this pain, I will create a book. My book is not for children. It is an assassination attempt in which people are taken out constantly. There’s humour, there’s energy, and there’s family. That’s what Christmas is supposed to be about. But my character’s family life was attacked by the regime, headed by Christopher Nicholas Claus. He forms the Humbug Assassins and heads to the empire Noel to take out Father Christmas because Christmas has become an attack on the people in the real world.
It’s been just over a year since the publishing of your book Winter Solstice, how has it been received? Do you have any plans for book two?
Oh yeah definitely! Book two is already written! I’m on the last chapter of book three! The reception has been really, really good. There are five-star reviews showing the fact that people have connected to it and enjoyed it. That’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be able to create something that could last within the Christmas myth. I wanted to give something to everyone. If you love Santa, then you will want to find out why I wanted to kill him. If you hate Santa, then you will like that I’m doing something different than the usual perception of Santa. So, the reception has been absolutely amazing. Like I said, book two is written but I’m just getting the funds so I can pay my amazing artist to draw it out.
When writing your novel, did you come across any obstacles? If so, how did you overcome them?
Yeah, definitely I mean the first obstacle was when I first had the idea. When I had the idea, I knew I had to follow it through, to make it happen. When this idea came to me, in my head there was a very gothic, mean-looking Santa with a cigar sitting in a gothic slate, with muscular mean-looking reindeer in their armour, and elves pointing guns at humans who were on their knees in the snow, holding up piles of cash. Originally, I just wanted someone to draw that. From then the whole world started to fall out of it and it became a story. I thought ‘I’m doing this’ and I was so heavily motivated to see it through.
There were definitely times, considering nobody was waiting for my book, that I stopped writing for a length of time or thought about not continuing. Luckily, I had people around me that would keep me going. My godson is one of the people who said he wouldn’t read it until it was actually a book. So that’s one reason I had to get my book written. To know that I was creating something that people could enjoy really motivated me. It was hard at times and sometimes I took a couple of days off, but I’ve learnt a lot from writing. I learnt to have a plan for what I write because you could end up just writing into oblivion without one. And when I do take a couple of days off, I can come back knowing that I am writing exactly what I want to be writing, as best as I can.
Grab a copy of Elliott’s book, Winter Solstice, here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Winter-Solstice-I-Precipice-Dream/dp/1528923340