Lucy Rivers is writer and star of the The Bloody Ballad, a new production from gaggle babble, with support from Theatre Iolo. It is a gory, music-filled high-energy romp, that draws heavily on the traditions of American Gothic. Gary Raymond met up with her before the tour leaves Wales for Bristol, London, and eventually a stint at the Edinburgh Festival.
Gary Raymond: Anybody who had never seen you in anything before on the stage in Wales or England could be forgiven for not believing you’re from Abergavenny when they see you in The Bloody Ballad. Yet you wrote it, wrote the music and lyrics, and take the lead role of Mary. How did you get from Wales to the American Gothic?
Lucy Rivers: I guess I’d always wanted to have my own company and create my own theatre and my own shows, and I finally reached that point about three years ago. I’d already worked on old stories and making them theatrical and telling them in a certain way, but I thought I wanted to do something darker than before, and for adults – although initially Bloody Ballad was going to be for young adults. Theatre Iolo have been our supporting company, although it’s not a Theatre Iolo production; they’ve been incredible – they had this emerging artists scheme in 2010 which I applied for, so I had a bit of money to develop this idea around this story of Abram Wood, although it’s quite different to that now. I remember thinking Mary is a great character – and the story is great – so I wrote some songs. The songs are the one thing that have kept constant throughout. So I wrote them first: ‘Lying on my Bed’ and ‘Pay for What You’ve Done’. We began to develop that in 2010, with Adele (Thomas, Director) and a different cast, and tried to tell the story and we experimented a lot with style. I’ve done a lot of actor-musician work and I’ve done a lot of composing for theatre, so I wanted to mash it all together. It didn’t start off as American Gothic, it started off as old stories; that’s what I wanted to do, and bring that up to date.
It seemed that thematically it fitted with the style of the dark Deep South tradition.
Lucy Rivers: It did. And it went that way. I’ve always been interested in that music. I’m a real fan of Woody Guthrie and I play fiddle and know a lot of bluegrass. I’m actually a bit of a folk-head, believe it or not. I love that tradition of telling stories through song. The music was going down that Americana feel anyway, so when we went on to the second-stage development all of these themes came up which suited an American setting. When we decided to follow that it opened up massively. Immediately, you’ve got iconic images; the dust bowl, snakes, gas stations, long highways, and it seemed to really fit these characters’ stories. It’s where Connor’s story began to develop, and it’s where films came in. A lot of people say it’s like watching a film.
The reference points are cinematic ones.
Lucy Rivers: I did want to play with those ideas and I wanted to scare people, and I wanted to create something tied to pop culture. I guess when people describe The Bloody Ballad they refer to cinema rather than theatre.
But it’s very much a theatrical experience.
Lucy Rivers: Well, I’m not really a playwright and I haven’t really done much playwriting. I’ve done lots of devising and I’ve been on the creative team of many productions before, but not really on the writing side; mainly music or as an actor, so this was the first time I was the one coming forward with the script. But I had an incredible team. My emphasis was that I don’t really like all the issue-based theatre, the gritty realism, and I didn’t want to be somebody trying to ‘say something’. I want people to feel something and for it to have a good story. But I don’t want to send people home with a message or have people feel I’m trying to tell them what to think. That’s something that can be done well, and it’s a real writers’ skill to be able to do that, but I don’t think I ever felt that confident in that way as a writer. My feeling was that I want this to be like a gig. Why do people go to see live music? They know they’re going to have a good time and get a bit drunk and let their hair down, and I did look at quite a lot at singers like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, and they’re all trying to send out this message, like Mary does at the end, that, y’know: this is my story. And they’re going down the route of drama to do it. Lots of singers take you on a journey during their show.
It is a very stylised show.
Lucy Rivers: I think it was really good to have that aesthetic. For instance, we had the microphone rule: it meant that Ollie and I improvised a lot of our scenes and I wrote around that. We had this great idea that you could only use one mic, so characters had to take the mic in turn to deliver their lines, and it came out of the idea of the gig, which means you’re always going back to the band playing. I guess a lot of this show has come out of things I’ve got frustrated with in my other jobs. So I’ve got frustrated with actor-musicians, where it’s a certain style of music, and everyone’s trying to do a weird combination of playing and acting. I wanted to be more explicit. This is great music played by great musicians and a really interesting story in with it. I wanted it to be ‘a band’. So what’s brilliant is that after a show often we get asked about when we’re gigging next. But we’re not really a band.
You’re good enough to be.
Lucy Rivers: I think we could be. My only worry would be the context of the songs.
It would be difficult to explain ‘The Things My Daddy Did (in A Minor)’ without the narrative construct surrounding it. But that’s one of the reasons why The Bloody Ballad is what it is, and that is pure theatre. What were your theatrical touchstones for its development?
Lucy Rivers: I suppose the obvious thing you’re thinking of is Rocky Horror.
Well, I thought Rocky Horror was one of the many reference points that The Bloody Ballad knocks on the door of but, wisely, decides not to go in.
Lucy Rivers: Well, my influences, the theatre companies I love, are people like Complicite, Knee High and Punch Drunk; so physical, visual, just very imaginative. But I didn’t want to think too much about one thing, and it was the songs that came first – and I wondered if I could tell this story just through the songs, but I realised I didn’t want to do that. I had the story, even though that changed a great deal through development, so then it became a question of can we break the story down into its component parts? So I guess it’s just a matter of this personal backlog of creative theatre that I have. And Adele, obviously, was very important as Director as she’s this total style queen; so things like the Badlands influence came from her. I didn’t see Badlands until we went into the second stage of early development, and that was very much Adele going: ‘this feels like this,’ and I said, ‘yes, it is very much like this,’ and I’d literally take out a line like, ‘little by little my heart was full of longing for him.’ And actually those sort of films massively helped the style of the writing. By taking the story to America, the writing becomes almost cliché. It’s not great writing.
But that’s great writing on its own terms. The show is what it is, and it needs to hold the hand of those clichés throughout. One of the reasons why it works so well is that it flirts with the clichés of the American Gothic tradition, but you never go fully down one well-trodden path. The right decision is always made, which shows the hand of the Director. What is it like working with Adele Thomas?
Lucy Rivers: I’ve worked with Adele quite a bit, and I think we balance each other out really well. And as far as creating the script, Dafydd James helped a lot as well; we’ve all worked together often over the years. Adele is a really brave director; if there’s the brave option she goes for that. And stylistically she’s all over the b-movie, all those references, and she’s just seen every film. She’s a mine of information. But also I really wanted to make sure it had the heart, and I didn’t want style to drown the content and vice versa, so we balanced each other and we worked really well together that way. She’s great at opening up improvisations, which helped me write it. And she’s an absolute, passionate energy in the room. But also I wanted to make sure everybody felt a sense of ownership over it, so Adele feels ownership, and all the actors feel ownership of their characters, and I think that just helps create a better show.
It can be a powerful atmosphere to have everyone that emotionally invested.
Lucy Rivers: Yes, and, for example, I didn’t tell Dan what to play on the guitar, because I can’t play the guitar like him, so I’ll give him a tune for an underscore and he’ll make it his own.
He really does make it feel like his spot, that corner of the stage, and that element of the show.
Lucy Rivers: Dan and Tom are so important to the feel of everything. Everyone brought a lot to it, and I’m very lucky to have that team. It certainly wasn’t the case of the director telling us what to do, and it’s still the case that we keep developing it. It’s changed slightly between Newport and Merthyr, for instance. So everyone has their input and that passion.
What did you find in the themes – themes of isolation and animalism of an underclass?
Lucy Rivers: It comes back to the original story, and comes down to what do I like about the story – and I like the characters, the no-nonsense protagonist, and she gets betrayed but she doesn’t cower, she goes and kills people, chases a guy through the woods and cuts his finger off, which is a great image. But I was interested in how she became this way and, of course, fairy tale won’t describe that. And I was talking to Daniel Morden (author of Dark Tales from the Woods), who’s a friend, and he said the only problem is that you have to suddenly give them a reason to do all this. And once you start going into questions of who is this character, you discover not only that these old stories have these archetypes but that is exactly the reason why they are so good to refer back to; not just for basic story structure, but character too. And it’s left to you to flesh that out. This idea of the loner, in Mary’s case, who is not like everyone else. She’s not like everyone else in the way she uses her wits. She may not have been the prettiest girl but she knows how to protect herself. I also love the idea of people not being who they seem. The story has lots of twists and turns. And then when we started developing The Bloody Ballad, there was Steinbeck and those small towns and the fifties seemed kind of right.
But it’s not that specific.
Lucy Rivers: Well, you can still go to places in Wales that are like that. It should feel universal.
Thematically it’s not necessarily American.
Lucy Rivers: Two people who have lost themselves and have had a terrible upbringing and they find each other – I loved all the parallels we found during development. That the mother should sing a song about her life that sounds a bit like the one that Mary sings about hers. The key thing is that you need to like Mary, and that’s where I kept wanting to not lose contact with the audience, and I kept bringing in these direct talks to the audience – it’s important that, as she’s doing some crazy things, she gets them onside. In Merthyr it was fab because there was a group of teenagers and when Mary is asking the audience, calling to the other women, ‘surely you can understand my predicament’, they’re calling, ‘Yeah’! They were really into it. That was just perfect, as she needs to be whipping the audience up into her own mania.
And music can help do that to an audience. And the fact that, unlike in a musical, for example (which I don’t think this strictly is), the music is directed at the audience as in a gig. You didn’t approach this as a musical, then?
Lucy Rivers: I don’t like a lot of musicals, but obviously that’s not because I don’t like music. And there are great musicals. I wouldn’t want to put off the musical crowd, but I don’t think this is a musical. It’s more like a gig and then theatre.
You’re going to get an interesting array of responses over time from audience members who come for different reasons. That must be exciting?
Lucy Rivers: Yes. This is not middle-of-road theatre. I think some people will love it and some will find it slightly distasteful, but I think that’s okay. I’ve heard some people have found the ‘daddy’ abuse story a little uncomfortable, partly because of the style that is put on top of it. Maybe it did deal with it a bit lightly. That’s partly because I didn’t want to make that the main theme, but it’s part of Mary’s story. I thought we had that moment, that moving moment when Mary gives a speech before the fire, but I don’t think people were taking it in. It was kind of the end to her story arch. So I’ve added a speech after the fire, to make it clear and reflect on her life a little bit more, because I was worried that it moves along at such a pace that people aren’t moved. I probably needed to deal with that better and I think we have now.
The Bloody Ballad is going to London and then to Edinburgh, so what happens with it after that?
Lucy Rivers: Well, we’re on tour now, in the way that most shows would do after Edinburgh. So maybe we might look at opportunities to take it abroad.
It has the style and the themes to do well anywhere. And it’s great to see the support of the Arts Council of Wales going into areas that are not Welsh-centric or obviously box-ticking. It seems to have been supported based upon the merits of the creative project.
Lucy Rivers: I think we shouldn’t be wrapped up in just doing Welsh issues. I’ve done a lot of theatre that feels like it’s box-ticking in Wales. But this is showcasing the great talent in Wales. From an administrative point of view, where I’ve been in charge of the money, I’ve been able to see where the money goes. And we’ve had movement directors and a fight director. And many companies don’t even think about bringing these people in.
I see many productions that don’t have the job titles that are listed in The Bloody Ballad’s programme.
Lucy Rivers: And yet those other productions most likely have bigger budgets. But it’s a matter of where you put your priorities. Unfortunately, I probably needed about three people just to help me on the admin side, so a lot of that money is probably going in to running companies generally, but I guess I put all the money into the creative side.
Which must have made for some headaches.
Lucy Rivers: But it was all worth it. And it’s been very freeing to make those decisions myself.
The Bloody Ballad is on tour now.
Banner photograph by Kirsten McTernan