Developing a Fringe Show with Caitlin McEwan

Caitlin McEwan talks to Spotlight about how Bible John became a hit at the Fringe, including the process of developing the show, funding it, and working closely with the Pleasance. Take a read!

By Christina Carè

Hi Caitlin! I was told there was a bit of a ‘true crime trend’ this year at the Fringe, but your show Bible John was a bit more of a meta story on the nature of crime - what made you want to tell this story?

Yeah I guess it’s trying to look at the why behind true crime, because I guess there are loads of nefarious reasons as to why we find true crime really interesting and complex psychological reasons why women in particular find it really interesting. I think that was the thing I really dug into. I had a really morbid fascination and I found it a bit troubling and weird. I just wanted to dig into why and speak to more women about why. 

Well I definitely didn’t anticipate just how strongly I’d relate to that fascination - but it felt very familiar...

Right! And it’s not something I'd really considered, but it came up time and time again in my interviews. I think actually, for a lot of women, there is a real fear of being murdered. That even stems from being a child and - especially in the UK in the mid 90s - there were several abductions. I think [defence mechanisms] were really hammered home. If you grew up in that culture of fear, that has a knock on effect. If you turn on the TV and every series has dead women with men under the bed or a man under the bus seat - so weird! Women are scared that men will kill them. 

You tell the story using the real case of ‘Bible John’. Was this a big part of your cultural upbringing? Were you already very familiar with the case?

Yeah, for sure. I think it’s the biggest unsolved murder case in Scotland. There were lots of others that were solved with DNA. I think with the Bible John case, because it’s never been solved, [there are] still people in Scotland writing books about it - it’s very much in Scotland’s consciousness as a culture… it’s not something that you learn a lesson from, but it’s something that you’re aware of. 

What was the part of the story that peaked your interest first - was it the case itself, or this question of the way we view true crime? How did the story develop?

It was the true crime thing first of all. Last year I was just visiting and, as you do in Edinburgh, just doing a lot of walking around, listening to a lot of podcasts. I was listening to My Favourite Murder… I was listening to these stories and thinking: why am I so interested in them? Why am I listening to these stories of men killing these women? I was looking into the sociology and psychology behind gender and violence. 

[I also] had so many friends who were interested in true crime and didn't talk about it, but it was a complete fascination for them. All of that came first. Then I thought I needed a case to centre it around, and because I knew I wanted to bring it here, I thought Bible John is the perfect one. I also thought that, narratively, it was interesting to tell a story that has no answers. How do we leave an audience feeling like they’ve had a satisfactory theatrical experience without providing them with any kind of conclusion? 

Right, because the case isn’t solved. Was it important to you then to tell a Scottish story in particular?

Yeah, definitely. It is so exciting that the Fringe is so international. I saw a show last year, called Square Go...I love Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair, and it felt like characters I knew in my life - close to my own experience of my childhood. It’s interesting to hear very Scottish voices at the festival. If I see 10 or 15 shows, I’ll be lucky if one is by a Scottish artist. I think it’s really important for people who live here and are from Scotland to feel that this festival is for them. Unfortunately, I think there are things about the festival at large which kind of shuts people out… I just wanted to tell a story that Scottish people would know and relate to. 

It’s been interesting because you obviously have to balance that with people who don’t know anything about the case… as a Scottish writer who doesn’t live in Scotland, I never used to think I was interested in telling Scottish stories but I am, more and more so. [I want] to represent that. 

You mentioned the barriers there, not least of which is cost. You guys received the Charlie Hartill Award - that must have really been a huge help! What was the process like of getting the award? 

I think the Fringe is so hard. I did it a couple of years ago with another play that I had written at Underbelly… the unspoken agreement was that basically we wouldn’t get paid but we’d have enough money [to cover] the basics... This year I was working with different actors [and there] was no way I could ask them to do it for free. 

Me and the director Lizzy, we kind of had [the idea of] taking it to the Fringe next year and I thought in the meantime I’d apply for the Charlie Hartill… We got shortlisted and at that stage we had a really rough draft of the script and no actors attached. We had to call up the people I had in mind anyway and ask if they’d do 10 minutes of it. [We] did like 5 rehearsals of it and by some miracle we got the money. But there was no way we would have been able to take the show in the first place or to realise the show to the scale that we have - to be able to have a sound designer and a video designer was really important to our vision of the show but was something that we could never have afforded. And just the general cost of Edinburgh. 

How was it to work with the Pleasance? I’ve talked to others who have said that there’s a lot of support in terms of marketing and promotion - other aspects that might not be the most exciting or top priority part when you’re making theatre... 

I guess because I'm not a professional marketer, you think about [marketing] in really vague terms. Working with the Pleasance has been really helpful because they’d be like, “Well what do you want the poster to look like?” and I’d be like, “...Maybe headphones? Dancing? And like a sign?” And they’d say “That’s impossible, how about this?” [Their suggestions] would be really good, and I wouldn’t have gotten there without [their] help. They’ve been really good day to day too - we had a few technical problems to begin with, and they were really supportive all the way through that. They’ve been really helpful liaising with press and things… When we get reviews, they’re good at managing us too. It feels like we’ve been really supported. As an emerging company, it’s rare to be given such a big room too. It feels like we’ve really been [given a] platform. 

It is a big space! But you guys are definitely selling the tickets. Were you worried about that going into this experience? Did you try and change things for the Fringe audience, to make the show more appealing?

People say [the average Fringe attendee is] someone who is about 40 and an Edinburgh resident. It’s difficult because you make a show and you want it to be as successful as possible. Then I think there’s a whole section in the show when we go into the Barrowlands and it’s a bit conceptual… it’s a play about Bible John [but it’s also] about why men commit violence and why women enjoy reading about that. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t expect that… [It’s interesting to see] whether we lose people or people stay engaged. [Most people] have gotten on board with it, which is really exciting. We tried to create something closer to the theatre that we like to see. 

Have things ever gone unexpectedly? How did you deal with that? I heard you had a heckler… 

Yeah, the heckler was the first of their kind - I didn’t expect it. We’ve had technical issues - we had a show stop on the fourth day, and just at one point all the lights and projector went out. But you just have to carry on. It’s just the Fringe. It’s weird to be in such a big room, [you feel] very professional but things do go wrong all the time too. That’s just what happens when you have 10 minutes to get into a room and 10 minutes to get out… 

In terms of getting feedback, you mentioned reviews - how have you dealt with it? Is it on your mind?

It’s hard - they always say don’t read your reviews until after the Fringe is done… it’s hard to read a review of something that you’ve written because there can be things where you think “I agree with that critique” but also, I can’t change it now. As an actor too, you read a review and think you will change things but you have to go on performing the old thing for now. It’s a really brilliant challenge… 

It suggests you still have things you’d like to develop and do with your show…

Oh, for sure! And that’s the really brilliant thing about Edinburgh. It’s not a totally professional studio theatre... I feel like a lot of things are a work in progress. Some things have been developed for years and feel very polished and ready. I think there’s so much about our show that I really believe in [but] there’s still things that, when you get them in front of an audience, you think really work or don’t really work. I think it’s really exciting as a performer and as a writer to see how things change and how the show might grow. 

What do you think about the play being thought of as a ‘feminist play’?

It definitely is a feminist play, because it’s looking at an issue that’s adjacent to feminism. It deals in part with how gender conditioning might play a part in why men largely commit really violent acts against women, and why women live in that state and consume that - they listen to these stories and arm themselves. I think with anything I try to write, it’s [about] something really complicated that I don't have an answer to. [This play] is about the fetishising of serial killers to the detriment of the victims, but then also the play is called Bible John. So what action can you take if you’re always seeing this presentation of women and this presentation of men? 

Definitely more to explore. So, if someone had an idea now, and is thinking of doing Fringe next year, do you have any advice for what they should do?

Just start straight away, I think. If it’s something you keep mulling over and can’t stop thinking about, you just have to plough on and research as much as possible and create as much as possible. 

What I did that was really helpful was getting a director onboard really early to help develop the script… Sometimes if you are developing an idea on your own it’s easy to think “Oh, that’s not very good!” when it’s still really nascent. [If you] get someone else involved, you have to show them things. I told the director about why I wanted to make this show and she could remind me every time I was like, “Maybe it doesn't work!” Get people on board as much as possible. 

Edinburgh is a really tricky one, because if you aren’t funded by a venue… the main hurdle is financial. I think it’s about finding [someone] who can help you with that, while you focus on making the show really good. Ultimately, that’s the main thing you want: to make work that resonates with people and is told in a way you’re really proud of. It’s just a lot of work, but it’s exciting work. 

Is it worth doing?

For sure. It’s a really exposing and bruising place at times, but also a really wonderful and receptive place. [There are] people writing really interesting responses to your work, and it’s really rewarding to read those. There’s nothing better than when someone understands exactly what you’re trying to do and can communicate that to you. It’s so exciting!