Interview: Two views from those working on new NUTS show "Taking Care of Baby"

We talk to directors Tilda Bilsberry-Grass and Martha Watson, and lead actor Morven Renfrew about their thoughts and approaches towards the show.

Ruby Taylor
14th March 2022
Image credit: Tilda Billsberry-Grass

Tilda and Martha

Why did you decide to do Taking Care of Baby? 

TILDA: We chose it basically based on the themes originally, and then once we read the script we we were like there’s lots of things we can do with this.  

MARTHA: It’s nice as well because we very much like the more naturalistic side of acting, so especially during auditions it was very much we wanted as natural as possible. I always find natural acting on a stage quite difficult, but I just loved the idea that it was very real.  

This is what we love about it. As we read it more and more often and as we go over it, we’re noticing little bits we can pick out. 

Image credit: Tilda Bilsberry-Grass

Could you give a plot summary of the show?  

TILDA: It focuses on a mother, or a woman, who’s been accused of murdering her two children on separate occasions. They’ve both died accidentally, and since the second one died they are now accusing her of murder. In the wider context, it looks more at truth. You look at this story through interviews. An anonymous interviewer speaks to the mother, and a psychiatrist who has diagnosed her with a disorder that justifies her. She pleads her innocence, the doctor says she’s guilty, but she’s mentally ill so this is why it’s explainable. It really looks at the mother-daughter relationship as well between I guess Donna and her dead children, and her and her mum. The overall thing we want to get across is the nature of truth, and you don’t know who to believe. Everyone’s saying these different things. I think that’s why the natural acting is so important, because whoever’s on stage we want the audience to believe them even though they’re saying a different thing to whoever’s just been on before them. 

The overall thing we want to get across is the nature of truth, and you don’t know who to believe.

Tilda Billsberry-Grass

How has your background as actors influenced your approach to directing? 

TILDA: I want to direct TV And film as a career so I think I have always approached being a part of production as thinking about if I was director. I do really enjoy acting. I’m really enjoying the process because it’s really collaborative.  

MARTHA: I think I’ve struggled a bit in shows before about not being sure about your character, and if you and the director are on the same page. I think me and Tilda went into this knowing we know what we want, but we were still going to hear what they know. Obviously, we were coming into this for the first time, we want as much input from everyone else as we can get because at the end of the day, these are the people we’re going to be working with. If they don’t like our ideas, they’re not going to do the job like we want them to do. 

How have you found collaborating as directors on the play? 

MARTHA: In the auditions obviously there’s two of us, and we just had very similar notes. And I think it works quite nicely because our ideas seem to be the same.  

It’s comforting because obviously we’ve never directed before, so it’s kind of all of our ideas being validated a little bit. Having another perspective, and someone who knows the show so well, is just really nice. [To TILDA] It’s really nice having you there Tilda! 

TILDA: I think because we came to the project at the same time, like we found it for the first time and read it within a day of each other, just a lot of our ideas alligned with each other. It’s only recently as we’re getting to the really nitpicky stages where there’s more things that we disagree on, but even that it’s like three or four things per rehearsal, like in terms of the way that someone says something. 

MARTHA: We’re not competitive. It’s really nice. 

Image credit: Tilda Billsberry-Grass

Obviously, this is quite a dark show. Have you had to think about looking after yourselves and the cast and crew whilst working with such heavy topics? 

TILDA: Obviously, we’ve had to think about trigger warnings because there are lots of heavy topics.  

MARTHA: I’d like to think we’ve created quite a safe space for people. Especially with this kind of show, it’s very important the cast is quite solid and relying on each other. We’ve definitely prioritised people getting to know each other, so the play isn’t just surrounded by the darkness. You have the light and the fun and the socializing as well. I’d like to think we’ve created a safe space for people that if they did have issues they could talk to us or at least someone in the cast and crew that they have issues with the themes, because they can be quite dark and quite hard. 

How are you planning on doing costume and set? 

TILDA: With costume, in one of the first rehearsals we asked them to go off into a room with everybody separately and have this collaborative discussion about what their character was wearing. Keely has been leading, and she made this fantastic PowerPoint of mood boards for different characters, which was really cool. They are quite simplistic costumes because they are just regular people. It’s nothing flashy.  

MARTHA: They have to make sure that the actors are involved. If it’s not something the actor would wear, if it’s not something that would suit the actor, it’s going to look really weird.  

We wanted to get as many people involved as possible to help us get the best show.

Martha Watson

At the end of the day, we do the directing, and these people from backstage know so much more about things like staging and tech and sound and costume, and all the props. They know it so much more than us. It’s very collaborative. We wanted to get as many people involved as possible to help us get the best show. A divided cast and crew is never going to work. 

Morven

How would you describe your character, Donna?

Donna I think throughout the play is very all over the place. She's obviously gone through a lot of traumatic events, and she's trying to resolve them in her head with what happened, but at the same time she doesn't really want to re-hash all of the feelings that went alongside those events. So I think she deflects a lot with humour and talking about other things. And she is quite a funny person but she's also deeply deeply troubled. I think it's very unnerving to watch her go through all those emotions in such a short space of time.

Morven during rehearsals. Image credit: Tilda Billsberry-Grass

How have you managed to work with Donna as a very dark character?

I think for me as an actor the main thing I focus on is the way the character's feeling, and even though it's quite tricky I like to kind of force myself to feel the emotions that they're feeling when they're speaking the lines or re-hashing events, rather than imagining "Okay Morven, you've just murdered your two children." I can't imagine what that's like, and that's very unrealistic. That's specific to the character, so instead I'm thinking about releasing emotions of frustration or panic, or whatever I'm feeling in that moment.

With the style in which Kelly has written the play, it's very easy to make it very natural because it's in a verbatim style, so you can add your own bits in and make it your own.

Have you had to think about looking after yourself more with this play because it is so dark?

I think sometimes in rehearsal it's been really hard to draw the line between using my own personal emotions I might be feeling in that moment and not. Because it is very exhausting, especially because we have such a rigorous rehearsal schedule.

It has been a really lovely environment to do it in. Everyone's so supportive. We still have a lot of fun in rehearsals.

Why were you drawn to acting in Taking Care of Baby in particular?

I really loved the naturalistic style. I think I love plays that are essentially quite dark, and dealing with very serious topics, but also ones that have comedic moments in. I think that Kelly has really well-balanced the play in that regard. It does have moments of light and dark. Also, I felt that all the characters are really naturalistic and vivid, and it was just quite easy to get into the verbatim style of speaking.

How are you interpreting the character of Donna?

I think with acting it's important to remember the characters you're portraying are people. People don't tend to want to show emotions that they're feeling, so I think the biggest thing I wanted to focus on was the tug between telling people what she was feeling and sharing her burden, but also disguising that and focusing on all the things she does to disguise her emotions.

I think with acting it's important to remember the characters you're portraying are people. People don't tend to want to show emotions that they're feeling

Morven Renfrew

How has workshopping helped you develop your character?

I think experimenting with thinking different ways is a really important process. You know, that's why there is a director, and an actor and a this and a that in theatre, so you can come in with your interpretation and can be challenged to make sure it is the right one.

I think workshopping has been a really important part of that.

How are you feeling about the show being in just a few days?

I'm honestly really excited. I'm nervous, obviously, and I will get very very nervous on the days. But I feel quite confident in the cast. I think everyone's worked really hard, so if you work had and you put the time in, it very rarely - touch wood - goes wrong. So, I'm hoping it will be fine.

Poster for Taking Care of Baby. Image credit: @takingcareofbaby_ncl on Instagram

Why should everyone come and see Taking Care of Baby?

I would say Dennis Kelly is one of the great playwrights of our current modern generation. This play is really interesting and will leave you coming away thinking about it more, because it has lots of questions about our current society that it raises.

Also, it is just very entertaining. There's lots of comedic moments, the characters are all very multi-dimensional and naturalistic. It's very easy to get absorbed in the world of the play.

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AUTHOR: Ruby Taylor
Sub-editor for Arts. First year English Literature and Creative Writing student.

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