True Crime As Entertainment: In Conversation with Playwright Caitlin McEwan
As humans, we have a very real, very raw fascination with chilling stories. In the evening, we settle down to watch police based dramas as prime-time TV. We scroll down our phones looking for clickbait headlines and hoping for details. At work, we sit at our desks listening to true crime podcasts. Assailants and their victims become celebritised in our popular culture obsessed with stories, often using them as propaganda and exploiting their trauma. But what is the root to our fascination?
One of the most famous unsolved serial murder cases in Scottish criminal history is those of Bible John. In 1969 at The Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, three women were murdered by an Old Testament-quoting serial killer. He has never been caught. Playwright, Caitlin McEwan, has brought the story to the stage in Bible John - partly a retelling of one of the country's darkest crimes and partly a deep dive interrogative investigation behind the ethics of true crime as entertainment. The intelligent and dynamic show focuses on four temp workers who discover that they share an obsession with true crime podcasts and in particular, that by an American journalist investigating the Bible John murders. As their relationship develops and obsession takes hold, they immerse themselves into the world of 1960s Glasgow in a bid to understand and solve the case.
“The idea to do a play about the roots of women’s true crime fascination came first, but I wanted a real case to base it on, and it made sense to use Bible John, especially since our first performances were in Edinburgh at the Fringe.” Caitlin starts. Being from Edinburgh and having friends and family from Glasgow, she explains it has quite a big cultural footprint and felt close to home.
For Caitlin, it was important to get to the root of morbid fascination. In interviewing women up and down the country, with a range of ages and life experiences, different theories came to light. “I think that serial killers feel inhuman in the sense that most people can’t imagine doing what they do, so there’s a psychological interest – what is different about these people that makes them commit these horrible acts?
“But also for women, and particularly younger women, there was an element of self-protection in these stories – if they understand the worst thing that could happen to them, and the many ways in which it could happen, they can figure out ways to prevent it happening to them. That’s quite a depressing reason, but it was one that came up time and again.”
The consumers of true crime are overwhelmingly female and the cases they are interested in are those with male assailants, as the BBC reports that the audience of the All Killa No Filla podcast about serial killers is 80-85 per cent female. They suggest the reasons for that include fear and wanting to be educated and aware of potential dangerous situations, having compassion for victims, as well as having a fascination with motives and wanting to solve a complex puzzle.
“About three-quarters of the way into the play, a character has a monologue about the fact that serial killers are almost always men, and why that is.” Caitlin says before explaining that during this speech in an Edinburgh performance, a man was apparently so angry that he heckled, and thus proved their point. “The play posits how depressing it is that women are so often victims of these crimes, and how there’s little to rectify that. Case in point, in Glasgow when the Bible John murders were happening, men who had been investigated by police were given cards saying ‘I AM NOT BIBLE JOHN’, but I can’t find any evidence to suggest there was equal provision to keep women safe.”
Referring to the 2019 controversial casting of Zac Efron as infamous killer, Ted Bundy, Caitlin discussed how not sensationalising the crime or deifying the male murdered was hugely important in making the show. “I think with podcasts, although they’re factual, you can get swept up in the storytelling and forget that these are real people. The show digs into that disconnect between fiction and reality that happens when you fall down the rabbit hole of a true crime case, but it’s difficult, because it’s a play, a form of entertainment, criticising the use of true crime as entertainment.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions in the rehearsal room about whether you can criticise something on stage without showing or discussing it. What’s important for us is that we end on a moment of remembrance for the three women who lost their lives, and the fact that amidst this obsession over what we know about their killer, we know very little about them.”
Caitlin’s previous work includes Harry (Kings Head, Underbelly Cowgate) and Thick Skin – for which she won the Samuel French New Play Award 2017 (New Diorama Theatre, Paines Plough Roundabout) before being longlisted for the Old Vic 12 and shortlisted for the Adopt A Playwright Award in 2018. To bring Bible John to the stage, she is working with THESE GIRLS, a new writing theatre company that is mainly focused on telling complicated, multi-dimensional stories about womxn and the challenges they face.
Since its run at the Pleasance, Islington last year, the show has evolved. “I’ve rewritten a large portion of the script, to focus more on the four women and the way their grip on reality slips as they fall increasingly further down the rabbit hole of the case until it consumes them entirely.” Having never written ‘documentary’ theatre previously, Caitlin says it helped to set the play in an imaginary office and have the protagonists be fictional “everywomen” that the ensemble cast can personally develop.
The actual audio of a podcast is used quite sparingly in the show, though the team recorded a ‘final episode’ of the fictional Bible John podcast using the vocal talents of Taylor Glenn from Drunk Women Solving Crime, which the audience watch the women listen to in real time. However, the show focuses on the immersion into the story and features a section choreographed by Laurie Ogden, where the women fall into The Barrowland Ballroom and perform an unsettling movement sequence to visualise the 1960s danceroom where the murders took place. “What I was most interested in dramatising was the online discourse from listeners that pops up in response to a really popular podcast.” Caitlin explains, referring to the first season of Serial. “Reddit users were compiling huge documents of evidence, transcripts and even cell phone tower maps. So I think I wanted to bring the online true crime community to a stage, but instead of strangers talking on the internet, it’s four women in an office, who form an increasingly strong bond over the course of the play.”
THESE GIRLS fearless first production, Bible John, plays at the Vaults Festival this February. In the eerie tunnels of the vaults, they'll be joined by a selection of big voices asking tricky questions in exciting new works.
Bible John plays at The Vault Festival - Forge, London
12th February 2020 - 16th February 2020
Writer: Caitlin McEwan; Director: Lizzie Manwaring; Lighting & Video Designer: Rachel Sampley; Sound Designer: Rachael Murray; Movement Director: Laurie Ogden