It’s only two weeks until ‘We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders)’ hits Edinburgh for the first time- so we chatted to director Lucy Bird (pictured right) about who Paperback are, and the sensitive way she approaches the controversial topics of the play.
(Warning: this interview containers spoilers for moments in the play)
Tell us a little bit about Paperback – how was it was formed?
Paperback is spearheaded by five graduates from the University of Warwick, who came together around an idea called 'White Men in Hot Places', which was going to be an adaptation of texts including Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. George (Bobby's writer) pitched it to me while I was sat on the kitchen floor of our student house in Leamington Spa waiting for my fajitas to cook. That show never happened, but the fajitas were great.
Although we never made it, 'White Men in Hot Places' set the groundwork for Paperback’s mission: to question the stories we make and the stories we choose to remember. George and I realised that our interest in how famous novels, films and, TV shows ingrain ideas into our cultural consciousness. Quite often, these stories are either weighted with prejudice or are lazy in the assumptions they make about the world. We felt these ideas and stories need exposing and that we could use theatre to do that.
That’s what’s happening in We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders). This play looks at film and TV’s fascination with the “creepy kid”, who is repeatedly portrayed without exploration of what has caused this behaviour. For me, that’s endemic of our society’s whole relationship with children – we’re not really that interested in understanding them. So, Bobby tries to expose what’s behind the creation of the “creepy kid” on our screens.
(Image credits: BBC)- EastEnders' character Bobby Beale, the inspiration for We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders).
Do you think theatre should be a more controversial place?
What I like about theatre is that it’s a shared experience- for me, that means you can trust your audience to act as interpreters of what they’re watching. In some ways, that means you can be more “controversial” than you would be on screen or in text as you can explore an experience with them.
Should it be more controversial than it is now? I think it depends on what you’re trying to do with your work. There’s no point in being controversial for the sake of it but if something needs questioning then it should be. Theatre has a long history of disrupting accepted ideas and that’s great- let’s keep doing that!
For example, there’s a particular moment in Bobby, to do with female masturbation, which has caused a lot of debate amongst the cast and crew. I showed the script to a friend, who said we absolutely had to take it out. After talking it through, taking it out, and putting it back in, I thought back to how shocked my friend was- and for me that was the final nail in why it had to be there. It shouldn’t be a controversial topic but it is because no one talks about it- and that’s exactly why it should be a part of our story.
The play deals with some very dark themes, including child violence and mental health- so how do you, as a director, approach these with your cast?
We try to go about it in a sensitive but not overly reverent manner. Our aim inside and outside of rehearsals is to create a “safe space” for the cast and team members to talk about an issue if they want to, and to allow those discussions to take place with care.
At the same time, I’m keen that we try to understand the problems with Annie, the protagonist’s, mental health and its causes. However, I’m not a psychologist or therapist, so I’m constantly learning how to talk about these issues sensitively.
For us, the priority is telling Annie’s story with honesty and without judgement. Even though she’s just a character, you have to care about the people you’re creating – and it could well be that what Annie experiences in the play might be real for some teenagers. We’re trying to highlight some of the pressures that are on young people today – to grow up too fast – and the very real need to take their issues seriously.
Tara Embers as the protagonist, Annie
What’s been the biggest challenge in rehearsals so far?
There’s a lot of technical challenges for me, such as working out with the designer how to use sound to share Annie’s experience of disorientation and frustration.
Personally, a more fun (and slightly traumatic) one has been directing a scene where two of the actors have to make off-stage sex sounds. They were super professional about it, but I’ve known one of the actors since I started university so it like hearing your brother going at it – and I giggled a lot and made lots of inappropriate jokes, which definitely got in the way of directing what is otherwise a serious scene.
On a lighter note, what are you most looking forward to at the Fringe?
I’ve only been to the Fringe for the odd weekend before, so what I’m looking forward to this year is seeing so many different plays. Also doing all the essential things in Edinburgh – like climbing Arthur’s Seat, eating curry every day, hanging out in Zoo’s bar… it’s going to be a joyful month.
Finally, any advice for aspiring directors out there?
I’m just starting out myself, but the thing I would say is if you want to make it work, do it. Find a way. Find a room and some actors and put something on-even if you show it to two people because you’ll learn a lot from trying it out.
Also, a great piece of advice I was given at a workshop recently was ‘to look, to notice, to wonder’. I think sometimes approaching a show can be really daunting because you don’t know where to start. But this guy gave me the courage to just look at what’s going on, to take the time to notice things – thinks I like (or don’t), things about how the scene is working – and to wonder ‘what would happen if…?
"We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders)" runs at ZOO Southside Studio 12.40pm daily from 14 - 28 August
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