I recently wrote a piece for Wired on a show called Hacked, an artistic response to the phone hacking scandal, which featured a series of short plays all based on one or more voicemail messages contributed by anonymous (except for the one person named in my article and this interview) volunteers.
In the article I included two quotes from the co-curator of the project, and director of the opening play, Derek Bond, that were part of a much longer and very interesting interview. So, for fear of it festering on my hard drive forever more and never being used, I thought I’d put it up here.
Towards the end of the interview, we discussed Hacked in relation to another of Bond’s project, PLAYlist. Adopting pretty much the same format, this recurring show (now a fixture at the Latitude festival, as well as regular runs at Theatre 503) sees writers creating short plays based on songs. The only rule is that the play can’t be longer than the song that inspired it.
AM: How did this project come about and become what it is?
DB: Well, Telegraph theatre critic Dominic Cavendish has been involved in a couple of projects here. He did a thing called Decade a couple of years ago where we asked ten writers to all write a play, one for each year of the last decade, performed on New Year’s Eve 2010, and also Coalition, [where] we paired up other writers from other disciplines and had these sort of unlikely collaborations, and that was sort of examining what the coalition government was all about.
Then he suggested doing something about the phone hacking scandal, and so the artistic directors here, Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson, got in touch with myself and Lisa Cagnacci, who’s the programming director here, and we had a meeting and talked about ideas to do with phone hacking.
I think a lot of people are going to perhaps want to do something phone hacking related that is sort of a verbatim piece that talks about the courtroom drama of what’s been happening with that, the legal ins about outs of it, because it’s an interest scandal, but we want to look at the human story behind it and actually what effects it. What it’s about really is an invasion of privacy and we wanted to look at the sort of emotional feeling behind it. And also what actually is on people’s voicemails.
How would you feel if someone was listening to your voicemail? What sort of idea would they get about you? What would they learn from you? And would they have to fill in the gaps? The big thing we said to all of the writers was, “Don’t feel like you have to stick to the god’s honest truth, use your imagination and don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
AM: How long did it take to put the whole thing together?
DB: Well, Dominic came to us with the idea at the height of the scandal in July and we knew we had this slot that we wanted to do it in at the end of September/beginning of October. There was a worry that actually the story would have gone off the boil by then, [that] by the end of September it would be old news and no one would care about the hacking scandal, but it seems, you know, it’s the gift that keeps on giving to the media, it keeps on coming out and new revelations are coming out. There’s more revelations even just this week, which made the whole event seem very prescient.
Coming up with the idea was the work of an afternoon at a meeting sort of talking about it and thinking about it then refining it, then we commissioned the writers – we got the first drafts about two weeks ago in some cases – and then got directors on board straight away and most of the plays were rehearsed within a week. Because they’re all around ten minutes it’s been something that’s been relatively easy to put together. It’s a great way for us to get involved with a number of writers but also a number of directors who each take charge of their own play and they cast the actors of their choice, which means that you get a multitude of actors all involved who perhaps I’ve never seen or worked with before, but would definitely work with again.
AM: As well as directing one of the plays, what’s your involvement?
DB: So, I directed one of the plays and my involvement along with Lisa Cagnacci, who’s the other curator of the project, we commissioned the writers, chose which writers were going to be involved, and we got the directors involved as well, selected them and paired the writers up with the directors.
We also work on scripts before they actually end up in rehearsal, so we worked with some of the writers and suggested ideas and changes that they might want to make to the scripts before they finally started work with their own director, and obviously changes happen in rehearsal as well all the time, so it’s sort of really about overseeing the whole project and putting it all together and making sure the directors have got the support they need, and making sure the evening feels like a whole, rather than just six episodic, unrelated plays.
AM: You were about to tell me about Chris Beanland’s voicemail just now.
DB: Well, Chris’ voicemails were really interesting because, the other thing, I did all the recordings which meant that I’m one of the only people who’ve listened to all of the voicemails, and then having seen the scripts and then having seen the productions, er, because we’ve kept the voicemails secret, the directors haven’t heard them, and the actors haven’t heard them, only the writers heard them, and the writers and directors don’t know what the voicemails actually contained, or who left the voicemails
AM: So the recordings that were played in the theatre aren’t actually the original voicemails?
DB: A lot of them are recorded verbatim, any voicemails that you heard are actors who’ve recorded as they were heard, so those are the only ones. But having had that overview, it’s really interesting having seen, you know, what the writers have come up with and then what the directors have done.
There’s a very interesting couple of coincidences. In the play that was called Showmance by Anna Jordan about two people who’d met while working on a play and the re-meeting a year later on after their romance had sort of fizzled out, the director chose to cast a Northern Irish actress. And I happened to actually know that the person who owned the voicemail that sparked the play is also a Northern Irish actress, so it’s a very interesting coincidence that that’s all come about – a Northern Irish actress who’s inspired it, and you know, the director happened to cash a Northern Irish woman in the central role.
Also, in the play that was inspired by Chris Beanland’s voicemails, the writer originally wrote the character as named Christopher and I had to get in touch with him and say “I’m really sorry, but you’re gonna have to change the name”, because I guess it must have been left on a message and the writer, Ben Ellis, had no idea that Christopher was the name of the person whose voicemails he’d been listening to because we’d bleep out the names in the messages.
But Chris’ voicemails were very interesting because of course he’s a freelance journalist so he gets a lot of phonecalls from various people asking him to do things. So one of his messages was from somebody in an accounts department at a newspaper apologising for not paying him time, another phonecall was from a PR agency asking him to come to a particular event, another phonecall was from a PR agency asking him to go to another country for an event, another phonecall, you know, another PR agency, a commissioning editor, and then eventually some from his family as well.
What you get when you’re listening to a voicemail is you get little glimpses into people’s life, the different aspects of people’s lives, without actually any context for that, and any kind of understanding of where those pieces belong, and how they fit into someone’s life.
AM: So, it wasn’t based on one message?
DB: No, we told the writers to take inspiration from either one message or all the messages as a whole, in their wider context or to fill in the gaps. The play that I directed by Matt Hartley was inspired just by one message which was a message [from] somebody’s lawyer leaving a message about a house exchange that was going through and it seemed very innocuous. And that’s what Matt’s plays all about, how those things can be misinterpreted when taken out of context, because context is all.
AM: Without naming names, obviously, who are the people whose voicemails were used?
DB: Well, they come from a range of backgrounds. We advertised on Twitter and on Facebook and on the Theatre 503 website about, you know, saying we were doing this project, would people like to volunteer, and we had volunteers from all over.
Some people were from the theatre community, cos I guess those are the people that follow our feed, other people were from the journalism community, again I guess those are the people that follow the feed and were interested in the stories as well, and we also invited some people to get involved as well. So, there are some prominent journalists in there whose voicemails we’ve used and also people who work in bars, people who aren’t connected to any of those industries at all, either the theatre or the press, just ordinary everyday normal humans.
And I think that’s the interesting thing about it, it could be anybody’s voicemail. When we first talked about the project, we thought, you know, will anybody let us listen to their voicemails? And I thought, clearly I wouldn’t mind someone listening to my voicemails, and I just, I, er, then I listened to what was on my voicemail and was talking about that and, yeah, you kind of go, oh wait a minute, would I be comfortable with someone listening to this?
AM: Because there is the one play where everyone’s broadcasting everything in public…
DB: Yeah, it’s sort about the division, the dividing lines between what’s public and what’s private. I think that’s the point there. Because of course what the whole hacking scandal’s about is it’s taking something very private and something personal, somebody’s voicemail, and it’s shown it all to the world. And what we were doing is exactly the same, taking something that’s very private and then we’re showing it to a paying audience in a theatre.
Part of what I think about what’s interesting about the project is how it makes you feel sitting in the audience watching something that’s been inspired by a private message. It sort of makes you complicit in that, and I think in all of the hacking scandal, we as the public are complicit in that, because the reason why these newspapers did this is because they sold papers, and it’s just an interesting way to examine that and sort of ask the audience to examine that as well.
We’re all interested in people’s private lives, that’s why tabloid newspapers sell, that’s why gossip magazines sell, and I think what the Hacked project as a theatre piece does very well is ask everyone to examine that, that sort of voyeuristic interest in other people’s lives, as humans.
AM: Are you planning to do any more with this project? It’s only running for a week.
DB: Yeah, there’s been more interest in this project than we’ve had in almost any project we’ve done at 503. I think that’s largely because the media’s always interested in things that are about the media. The media is very very fond of itself. It’s why it’s been such a big news story and I think it’s why the theatre project has had so much interest as well.
There’s been pieces in the Guardian, in the Independent, I did an interview with Dutch television last week, it’s been covered by ABC in Australia, the Australian version of the BBC, French television came and did a piece on it. It’s had more international interest than anything that’s ever happened at 503, other than The Mountaintop, I think. And I think a lot of that is because the media is very interested in itself, which is understandable.
There’s been interest in other countries about perhaps doing something with the text that’s come out of it with these plays, potentially restaging it in other countries, which we’re looking into. In terms of the idea as a project, I mean as long as the hacking scandal is still in the news it’s still relevant. If it’s still there in six months time, potentially we could get six new writers to do exactly the same and repeat the same format, with six new writers listening to six new volunteers voicemails. But I think as long as it’s in the popular conscious it’s still an interesting format.
I think also what’s good about the format is that it doesn’t rely on necessarily on it being on the news. I think it’s interesting anyway, listening to somebody’s voicemails and using that as inspiration for a play. I think it would be an interesting project at any time with or without the hacking scandal. The hacking scandal makes it feel particularly prescient.
AM: There are similarities between this and PLAYlist, is that because you’re involved? You said it’s not your original idea but is it your format? You’ve just kind of applied the PLAYlist format to this?
DB: That’s right, I mean [in] PLAYlist obviously we ask writers to write plays inspired by songs and in that sense it’s similar, but we do a lot of things at 503 where we provide a stimulus to writers and ask them to write something shared off that and they tend to be multiple writer projects.
We do a thing called Rapid Write Response, which is where, when we have a show that’s running in the theatre for four weeks, we ask writers to come and watch it at the beginning of the run and then write a response play inspired by the themes or the characters, just a short play, and then we perform all those plays in one evening the last week of the play’s run on a set format plan. It’s a fascinating and a great way to get writers new and less experienced writers working alongside more experienced writers and expose them to an audience and see how they get on. We’ve always felt that writers should be developed on the stage at 503 and we wanted to put writers onto the stage and see how their work actually works in front of an audience.
But yeah, the idea of putting in an inspiration to a writer is similar to what we did with PLAYlist, the idea of using recordings as well and asking writers to sort of take an inspiration from an audio thing, yeah, it is a similar idea to PLAYlist and sort of how we came up with the idea was talking about formats we had like PLAYlist.
The big thing I should say about the format is it came out of a discussion about how we wanted the format to be the thing that reflected on the news story of phone hacking and we wanted to free up writers to write plays about whatever they wanted, to write plays about just human beings living their lives and tell a story. We felt if we asked the writers to write plays about the phone hacking scandal we’d end up with a lot of very tedious plays about Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch and newspaper problems and everything would be set inside an office and it would be very boring.
Doing it this way just meant it opened it up and the possibilities were endless, it doesn’t limit the writer’s creativity, it frees it.
Read my article on Hacked for Wired here.