“To get the commission you have to pitch something called ‘I had sex with my granddad’ or ‘I have a 3ft long willy’ and that’s how you get the money. But there is an ethical dimension to it. You have to have a title that makes people go, “Oh, fucking hell!” but once you’ve got the audience listening you start off with the shock factor, but over the course of the 90 minutes you get them to really like the character and to think, ‘Hang on, that person that I thought was a skanky benefits user is actually someone I could really relate to, and they’re making the best of a bad situation’.”
Playwright Lucy Bell is discussing her former career working as a documentary maker for the BBC. She changed tracks to co-found the theatre company Documental Theatre with Cally Hayes, a psychiatric nurse, in 2014. As the company name suggests, her previous work both brought Documental into life and remains a heavy influence on how it works.
“There’s a massive ethical dimension to documentaries, and on a global scale they change attitudes to issues. But in the making of them you are a complete con-artist, because you approach people who are very vulnerable and you sort of befriend them and get them to tell you their story.”
Bell provides the example of one never-aired documentary where, “we were literally going into the labour room,” and another where a menopausal woman ended up mortified by the image of herself on screen. In the latter instance the official practices of a private screening and feedback time for participants were followed, but this didn’t stop Bell feeling, “kind of bruised by the fact that she was a really nice, vulnerable lady that I’d got to know and then she ended up being really upset by the experience.”
Documental, on the other hand, provides the opportunity to do things in a more careful and human-focused way. “It’s got ethical benefits in that you’re not cold-calling people. If you go through the organisations that support them, then those organisations are being the gatekeepers and putting parameters around what you can ask. And you know that after you see them you can check in with their caseworkers or support workers to check that they were all right and all that.”
The need to be non-exploitative is particularly high given that Documental have so far worked on stories specifically about people in troubled circumstances. Their first production was a piece called Friction, written by Hayes, about postnatal depression and especially the effect this has on couples, including the father’s experience. Following this came Score by Bell, a low-key but poignant play about two women with heroine addiction who have their children removed by Social Services. Their most recent show, which has been performed in Plymouth and at the Bike Shed in Exeter, is Pulling Out. Playing at the Camden People’s Theatre on 14th and 15th September, Pulling Out looks at the experience of young fathers, including how low expectations from those around them and a lack of support make it particularly difficult for young men to stay involved with their children.
Above all “the unifying idea is that it’s theatre inspired by lived experience.” Specially, “having a personal encounter with people who have lived through things, more than just Googling or going to experts (although you do a lot of that as well).” These face-to-face encounters also “bring a bit of a different dimension because if you’ve met people then you feel a bit of an obligation to them in terms of portrayal that you might not have if you were floating above it.”
More than that, it also provides an alternative or additional audience to those who would attend a performance in a traditional theatre space. For instance Score was performed for a group of women residents from an outreach house. The next day Bell joined their group-work session to ask them about it. One woman “thought that the whole thing was a stunt organised by her therapist to sort of reflect her life back at her and it was all an elaborate mind game. And it was only two thirds of the way through that she thought, ‘Oh hang on, maybe it’s just a play!'” Likewise, negative feedback is just as useful. Another woman who came to a performance was, “really angry, she was saying that ‘you’re making out like it’s a positive thing have your children taken away from you and it’s not a positive, it’s really painful’.” Her response led to the reworking of a scene in Score – where one woman sings to an empty car seat – to emphasise the pain experienced by mothers in that situation.
These performances also help the company by encouraging them to breach subjects they otherwise wouldn’t. With Score, “We kind of knew that sex work was a big part of the story but we felt really ill-equipped to talk about. But the house manager was like, ‘You absolutely should because even if you don’t know much about it, if sensitive women theatre makers can’t cover the subject then you’re just leaving it to the sensationalist guy theatre makers’ – so you’ve almost got a moral responsibility.”
Pulling Out might not seem like it’s addressing a subject quite as big or dramatic as heroin addition. Indeed, some people might find providing sympathy for often errant fathers difficult. But that’s also part of the point. Young fathers are more likely than their older peers to come from impoverished and difficult backgrounds, along with facing an incredible amount of stigma and negative stereotypes. Pulling Out has been created out of interviews with young fathers, along with extensive research via organisations such as the Fatherhood Institute and the Following Young Fathers project at Leeds University.
Research findings on the Fatherhood Institute website debunk many of the myths surrounding these young men. For instance, in contradiction to the Daily Mail image of one randy guy impregnating the whole neighbourhood, “the single most powerful predictor of adolescent fatherhood is being in a long-term relationship with the mother.” Similarly, they also note that rather than relishing the opportunity to run a the first sign of a big belly, “Young fathers who are not engaged with their children [are] mainly anguished by that fact” and that studies discovered, “only a small percentage show no joy about becoming fathers and having no intention of supporting their partner and children.”
Bringing the play to London is partly the result of a plan to allow the Young Dads Collective to watch it, as the performances in the West Country were too far away for them to travel. Although based on interviews, the script of Pulling Out is entirely fictional. Watching it in Exeter, I was struck by the realism and humour of a lot of a dialogue. The lyricism of an individual’s voice and the way they tell their story is particularly interesting to Bell, and appears to facilitate much of the creativity behind Documental productions. A side shoot of Pulling Out is a series of podcasts created by her based on individual interviews with young fathers.
We end by talking about two young men who arrived at her house the night before to discuss their situation. Bother are denied access to their children and Bell admits, “I was half thinking, are they just going to be really pushing this political agenda?” However, instead:
“He ended up telling me this really poetic story about how he hadn’t seen his children for seven years. Then he was in a garden centre and his daughter walked past and looked and him. And he didn’t know what to do; even though he’d been fighting to have access for years and years, he didn’t even speak to her, he just felt so, ‘What do I do? Do I go up to her? I might get in trouble for that’. So he said, ‘I just sort of sat there like an idiot and I didn’t do anything”¦ and then she was gone.'”¦ And I thought, you know, there’s potentially a whole play in just that scenario.”
Pulling Out is on at the CPT on 14th and 15th September 2016. Click here for more information.