Award-winning playwright Alecky Blythe, pioneer of the verbatim technique in which real people’s words are faithfully delivered on stage by actors, has received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Warwick.
Blythe, who has brought sieges, sex work, riots and murder to the stage through her own theatre company, was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters at the University’s 2018 Winter Graduations.
Reflecting on the honour, she said: “It’s already had a really positive impact on my work. When the news came through I was struggling with a few projects I was working on, and just having that boost - Warwick really rates you and is giving you this honour - helped me to deal with the challenges I was having.”
For Blythe, the award was particularly special as she took her first degree at Warwick and remembers her undergraduate years with great fondness. “One of the fabulous things about Warwick is the fact that it is all on campus, so all your energy goes into this place. It’s preparing you for the real world because of all those activities you get involved in outside the lectures.”
She feels her student years were an important opportunity to find her real self, and would like to encourage other new undergraduates to do the same: “It took a while for me to be me, to have that ownership. You’re working out who you are and although you sort of want to be in with the crowd, it doesn’t matter – it’s actually about being the individual you. I’d encourage people to walk their own walk, then that’s how people get to know you, because you know your true self.”
Alecky credits her involvement with student societies as one of the things which gave her the confidence to set up Recorded Delivery, her own theatre company, in 2003. “I only ever wanted to be a performer, an actor. I was involved with WUDS, the drama society, and later I set up my own one with a friend. Forward-wind to 10 years later when I was struggling to find acting work. I decided to set up my own theatre company, and the fact that I’d done it here gave me a sense of ‘we’ve sort of done this a little bit before.’”
Blythe was inspired to work with the verbatim technique after taking part in Mark Wing Davey’s workshop, Drama Without Paper. She was finding good parts difficult to come by, and decided to create one for herself: “I made a show for myself to perform in, with no greater plans than to try and get a part in The Bill, and that would be that.”
Come Out Eli, Alecky’s debut show, premiered at the Arcola and won the Time Out Award for Best Production on the Fringe. London Road, her play about the murders of Ipswich sex workers, won Best Musical at the Critics' Circle Awards. She continues to develop new stories and explore the verbatim technique, in which recordings of real speech are delivered onstage by actors hearing the recorded words through headphones.
Alecky continued: “It was never my intention to craft a career, but I got into verbatim at a time when it was taking off. I enjoyed this way of making my own work, it felt very satisfying, and I discovered I could do it and people wanted to come and see it. When you’ve been out in the cold for a long time – I had about seven years of not really working - once you then find something that you can do, you hang onto it quite tightly.”
It is not, however, a quick method of writing. Explaining how she found her themes, Alecky said: “It might be an event-driven piece – I see something on the news, I have to drop everything and go, and hope to find my characters to take me through that story. Other times I’m interested in a subject, and then I try to find people working in that world. There’s different ways of trying to find those stories. Sometimes they don’t come along for a very long time!”
Her writing is “about people - people responding to an event, people trying to muddle through and get on and deal with something in their midst, and so there’s politics there, but that’s not necessarily my intention when I go out looking for a story.
“And when I start off I don’t necessarily have an agenda, you do have to go in with a sense of wonder and open-ness, I’m going down lots of different paths, cast the net quite wide. I wish there was a quicker way to make them! But I do tend to have to go from A to B to Z to get to C.”
Asked what she would say to the students graduating alongside her, Alecky said: “Really stick to what you want to do – but be open to unexpected paths that you didn’t think you were going to have to take to get there.
“I never wanted to be anything other than a performer and an actor. In making my own work, I was just sticking to what I wanted to do, and through doing that I discovered something else that I could do, and maybe I could do it better, and maybe it would be more rewarding.
“With each play I try to put myself in the mindset of the first play that I ever wrote, because I was just following my instincts and I wasn’t scared, thinking ‘what are the critics going to say, I’ve got to maintain this reputation now.’
“It’s just like – just go for it! That’s a wonderful place to be.”
1 February 2018
Image: Alecky Blythe after recieving her Honorary Doctorate at the University of Warwick Winter Graduation 2018. High-res available on request.