Lucy Jane Atkinson interview: “Is this a film? Is this a play? Where is that line?”

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When I was taught to write interviews as I studied journalism, I was told to add some colour
to the opening. Talk about the room you’re in, the clothes your interviewee is wearing (I
don’t do this on principle as it’s only ever colourful about women) or your journey to get
there.
But of course, when I ‘meet’ director Lucy Jane Atkinson, we’re in different rooms. I can’t
really see her clothes as I am looking at a head and shoulders frame through Zoom and my
journey was one from my bedroom to the living room.
However, even in this most stilted of mediums, it is a pleasure to meet Lucy. She’s fun and
bright and enthusiastic about theatre in general and a great promoter of her own work (I
mean this as a compliment – there’s nothing worse than doing a promotional interview with
someone displaying false diffidence).
Lucy is here to promote Testament, a project she first worked on with writer Tristan Bernays
at the Vaults in 2017 which has been given new lease of life in 2021 as a filmed production.
Originally slated to be performed live at an off-Broadway theatre, this was looking like it
might become another victim of the pandemic that has seen off so much theatre.
However, last September Atkinson flew to New York, quarantined, had Covid tests and then
rehearsed for two weeks in Central Park. “The first time I was in a building with any of the
cast or company was when we got to the shooting location.” They would work all day in a
field behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art until their “intense and traumatic play” was
interrupted by a group of eight year olds playing tag. “Then they’d leave and we’d keep
rehearsing scenes about swearing at God.”
The footage of the project was shot over three days in a church in Queens. Atkinson and
their editor Béla Baptiste then spent 50 hours on Zoom editing it to the final product.
Testament is set in Brooklyn (and was in the 2017 London-based version) and tells biblical
stories through both a modern lens and the eyes of those who were minor players in the
stories. When I asked why America, Lucy explained that Bernays is particularly fascinated by
American culture, but also that for her the drama comes from grappling with the fact that
America is still a very puritanical country in many ways “It’s a country that was set up by
people [for whom] Oliver Cromwell wasn’t extreme enough”.
“So much of Western culture and the way we understand the world is now through an
American lens… and the most widely read text in the world is the Bible” It was putting these
two together that opened up new opportunities “to explore our own origin story and
mythos.”

Lucy Jane Atkinson, Director, Assistant Director, London, UK
Lucy Jane Atkinson


Having directed the play before – and with this being in a new medium – I asked Atkinson if
her relationship with the material had changed. She explains that when she first directed it
in 2017, Bernays had just come off the award winning Teddy and her key cast members
were also better known than her. So while confident in her abilities she had to be very
conscious at all times to be “doing a good job.”

“In doing it again, I felt a lot more free because I knew the piece so well already, I’d done it
already, I knew how it worked. So then I could really focus on helping the actors really
truthfully access it without putting any of my insecurity or ego into it.”
All the insecurity, it turns out, didn’t go away, but instead manifested in Atkinson’s
relationship with an unfamiliar medium. “So many of the conversations were about “Is this a
film? Is this a play? Where is that line?” My job was to make that decision. We ended up
with something much more filmic than any of us thought we would.”
It is filmic. And all the better for it. All of Lucy’s talent in drawing the best from performers is
here, but she adds the camera as an extra player. It subtly takes part in the action marking
the difference between scenes and adding depth to the narrative.
When discussing the theatre scene more widely, Atkinson reflected a thought I hear a lot
from the fringe world. “I’m craving safety for myself and I’m craving risks from theatre.”
when I reflect that, sadly, we seem to be the other way around she agrees “Yeah – fucking
ten million Hamlets going on. Who still pays money to see Hamlet?”
Her next project is an online revival of her 2019 production Vespertilio filmed at the Kings
Head which will be out in April. She is also working on a folk musical, Centralia, in
collaboration with musician Harry Harris, based on the true story of a town that has been on
fire since 1962.
I asked Atkinson how she came to new works. As a successful and established director did
she get to pick and choose? While she agreed that she was able to do so, she said “I tend to
pick and choose by writer rather than by actual text… I think people know me and my work
well enough by now that the things that I am sent and the people who get in touch already
know whether I’m suited or not.”
As the interview wound up I asked Lucy what the dream would be. In that very female
fashion of ensuring an audience knows we are grateful for what we’ve got before we ask for
more, she couched this with “I love my life, I love my career and I feel deeply, deeply
fulfilled by being a new writing director.” She then added I also recognise that because I
work on new writing rather than established texts, my work is great if people aren’t coming
to see my work. My job… is to facilitate the purest, truest iteration of the writer’s vision. My
work doesn’t get spoken about because I’ve done a really good job.”
In not taking the established path of assisting, adaptation etc. Atkinson feels that sometimes
she has to start each piece over from the bottom again. “the big dream would be to keep
being able to do the work I love to do, but be given stages and funding and time to do that
at a larger scale.”
Given that the past few shows she’s done have all won awards and got transfers, this
doesn’t seem like an unrealistic dream.

Lucy Jane Atkinson is right, theatre should take more risks. But I can’t see that any theatre
opting to support her talent, talent spotting and vision would be taking much of a gamble at
all.

Testament is online here until 24th April 2021 and tickets cost £9. You can find out more about Lucy Jane Atkinson and her work here.

Emma Burnell has her first play coming out in August and is currently fundraising to pay for it. If you have enjoyed this interview or her other writing for View From the Cheap Seats, please consider giving her a donation.

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