1969 at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow, three women are murdered by an Old Testament-quoting serial killer, nicknamed Bible John. He has never been caught.
Hi Caitlin & Lizzie thanks for talking to TNC, how's everything going?
Caitlin: Very well, thanks! The show is coming together slowly but surely.
Lizzie: We can’t wait to get it in front of an audience.
Are you all set for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe?
Caitlin: Almost! We still have a lot of work to do, but I think that’s a good thing - if we were ready months in advance, there’s a danger the show can become a bit over-rehearsed and stale by the time anybody gets to see it.
Caitlin being Scottish, it must make you so proud to bring Bible John to the Fringe?
Caitlin: Absolutely. As an Edinburgh native, it always makes me a bit sad that Scottish artists don’t have a bigger presence at the Festival, so I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to perform this show in my home city. Added to that, the Bible John case happened at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow, and it’s one of Scotland’s biggest unsolved cases, so to bring the show to a Scottish audience, who will very likely know the case, is really exciting.
How does it feel to have Bible John going to the Pleasance this Summer?
Lizzie: We’re so thrilled. I first went up to the Edinburgh Fringe three years ago and every year I always find myself so drawn to the Pleasance Courtyard and Pleasance Dome. They create such a buzziness, friendliness and sense of community. It’s great to be able to call that a home this year! And also, the line-up looks incredible so we’re just feeling very lucky to be on the same timetable as all these artists we admire.
When did you first discover the story behind Bible John?
Lizzie: I hadn’t actually heard of it until Caitlin started telling me about the case over coffee. I couldn’t believe it.
Caitlin: I think I’ve always been vaguely aware of it, as it’s such a huge case in Scotland, and when I was growing up it was in the news quite regularly, because there were a couple of new leads and suspects.
At what point did you realize you wanted to turn this into a play?
Caitlin: I first had the idea to write a play that was based around the current cultural fascination with true crime. I was listening to a lot of podcasts about male murderers and their female victims, and I found it interesting that there were so few accounts where it was the other way around. I knew I wanted a real case to act as a centrepiece for the play, and when Lizzie and I started talking about taking the play to Edinburgh, I knew it had to be a Scottish case.
I’ve wanted to work with Lizzie for a while, so I told her the idea, and we haven’t really stopped working on it since then.
"In this industry, you hear no a lot of the time, so it’s encouraging to believe that not every opportunity is for you..."
Can you tell me a little bit about Bible John, what can we expect?
Caitlin: Bible John centres around the real case of three women - Patricia Docker, Jemima McDonald, and Helen Puttock - who were murdered in the late 60s by an Old Testament-quoting serial killer, later nicknamed Bible John. In 2019, four women discover a podcast about the case and become fixated on solving it, confronting uncomfortable truths along the way about gender, violence, victimhood and collusion. It’s riotous, angry, and hopefully empowering.
What is it about true crime that you, and I guess a wider audience, find so fascinating?
Caitlin: Having spoken to a lot of women in our research for the show, I think there are many reasons. At its heart, an account of true crime is just a really good story: there’s intrigue, jeopardy, high stakes and hopefully a satisfactory ending where the culprit is caught. Also, you can’t get away from the fact that these are real cases that happened to real people. It feels really beyond comprehension that humans can act in such an immoral way. There’s also an element to lots of podcasts I listen to about paying tribute to the victims and focusing on them and the injustice of what happened to them rather than glorifying the killer. But lots of women we’ve spoken to use true crime podcasts to educate themselves about the type of things that could happen to them, helping them come up with prevention strategies and ways of making themselves safer.
What have been the biggest challenges bringing this production to life?
Caitlin: Lizzie and I have been quite ambitious artistically with what we want to do with this show - we want to incorporate movement into the piece and include video and sound design, so marrying all those elements have proved quite tricky, and the process isn’t as straightforward as it would be with a more traditional play, but it’s a lovely challenge to have.
What was it about Caitlin’s play that interested you as a director?
Lizzie: What first drew me to the project was absolutely working with Caitlin. Having seen her two other plays Harry and Thick Skin more than once… and bought the playtexts…, I’ve just been such a fan of her as an actor and playwright as well as the company Poor Michelle she co-founded. Caitlin’s got such an exciting voice that tackles such big, provocative questions with care, intricacy and buckets of humour with these fantastic female characters driving the plot. Her plays sit with me for ages. I can’t wait for Bible John to be shown to an audience. She’s also pinpointed such a current discussion happening in entertainment; the amount of Netflix shows/documentaries, true crime podcasts, series like Killing Eve, films like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile the new Ted Bundy film starring Zac Efron – there’s such an audience.
Since that first coffee where she told me about Bible John and now with the discussions with the cast in rehearsal about bigger questions surrounding true crime, I haven’t stopped thinking about it and I find it often sneaks into a lot of my conversations.
Bible John is supported by The Charlie Hartill Special Reserve how important are funds like this in allowing you to create the type of theatre you want to make?
Caitlin: Quite honestly, without the hugely generous support of The Pleasance, we wouldn’t be able to go to Edinburgh at all. I have been creating fringe theatre on a shoestring budget for several years, so it can be done, but it’s harder to take risks, and you can’t be particularly ambitious in terms of scale. You also have to ask people to work for free, or next to no money, which always makes things feel a bit unprofessional. The fund has allowed us to think bigger, pay our creative team, and worry less about the more expensive aspects of the Fringe, namely making sure people know about the show, and ensuring we have somewhere to live that doesn’t cost more than an actual mortgage.
Have you always had a passion for theatre?
Caitlin: I didn’t really start doing drama seriously until I was a teenager, and I started writing at university. I think I’ve always loved stories, though - it just took me a while to find my preferred way of telling them.
Lizzie: I’ve always loved theatre because of its presence, aliveness, and magic which separates it from any other art form. But similarly, I didn’t realize I wanted to direct until uni. I used to want to act. My Mum still loves to remind me that I used to walk around supermarkets aged 5 dressed as Snow White claiming to be 32. Tragically, none of the other shoppers bought it.
How much has your approach to theatre changed since you started?
Caitlin: It’s really changed. I used to mainly watch quite traditional plays, because I just wasn’t aware of, or exposed to, much else. Now I watch a lot of performance art and plays that are quite inventive alongside the more traditional stuff. I think you have to watch as wide an array of work as possible, especially when you’re starting out, to understand your taste and what you’d like to replicate in your own work. In writing, too, it takes a while to establish what stories you’re interested in telling, and the unique way that you want to tell them.
Lizzie: Very similarly to Caitlin, my approach has changed massively. I grew up in Germany and spent a lot of my time desperate to come to London to see the big musicals on the West End. Ironically, now I spend a lot of my time desperate to see what’s happening in Germany!
I went to Queen Mary University who have the most incredible professors, a lot of whom are theatre-makers, practitioners and performance artists themselves. They completely reframed the way I now consider what theatre and performance are, how I think about it and how it can be challenged and experimented with. I do still love a good musical though.
Once a play is running do you find it hard to not keep tweaking it?
Caitlin: I am writing and performing in the piece, so I know that constantly being given script changes is hugely frustrating, and I try not to do it unless I think something is really not working! Ultimately, I think it’s near-impossible to be completely happy with a piece of work, so at some point, you have to draw a line under it and accept that it’s the best you can do, and just enjoy the experience of it.
Lizzie: I think there’s a necessity of tweaking the performance every night as the audience are never the same. There may be moments that always land, but even those aren’t a guarantee and they can’t always be relied on as a guarantee! My favourite theatre is theatre that sees actors committed to the telling of the story but who, in one way or another, see and connect with you as the audience on an exciting wavelength.
What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?
Caitlin: My mum always says ‘what’s for you won’t go by you’ and I’ve always stood by that. In this industry, you hear no a lot of the time, so it’s encouraging to believe that not every opportunity is for you, and it makes the ones you do get feel all the more special, especially if you’ve worked hard for a few years before you get them.
Lizzie: When changing at Kings Cross, follow directions to the Hammersmith and City line because it'll get you to your change or exit quicker irrespective of the line you actually need.
Otherwise, be brave and bold!
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow theatre maker?
Caitlin: Make your own work. It is the only way that I’ve progressed in an industry that often feels a little like a closed shop, and it means you can collaborate with the people around you, finding your feet together. I’ve always found it to be a really empowering and joyful process. Find people whose opinion you respect and value, and cherish them - don’t be led astray by advice or feedback from people whose judgment you don’t entirely trust. If you have a gut feeling that their critique of your work is wrong, then it probably is.
Lizzie: Absolutely, I’d echo that all the way. I’d say also to read a lot the Bush Theatre and Royal Court has a free library of plays you can sit and read – also when you go over to your friend’s house, ask if you can borrow any and go see art. Go to art galleries. It’s so expensive to go to the theatre; joining schemes if you’re under 25 like Entry Pass and keeping your eyes peeled for Almeida For Free, for example, otherwise websites like ‘Audience Club’ make it more manageable.
I guess one final thing is to tell fellow artists whose work you like that you liked it. Who knows – maybe you’ll meet a new friend or collaborator.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this show?
Caitlin: I hope people will be empowered and agitated by the show. I hope they’ll think about their relationship with true crime, and the genre more generally. Something we’ve found in research is that many women are relatively secretive about their true crime obsession, and they’d never bring it up in conversation with someone unless they know it’s something they share. I’d love to break that taboo a bit and inspire women to talk about their fascination without any sense of shame.
Lizzie: Please come find us after the show if you come to see it as well – we’d love to have discussions about all things theatre and true crime. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by the play, find us at @poormichelle_ on Twitter, we’d love to chat.