Alison Skilbeck: Mrs Roosevelt Flies To London
It’s an established fact that Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong character, so it’s no wonder actress and writer Alison Skilbeck was attracted to the idea of penning a one woman show about her; and as well as playing the late First Lady herself, she also gets to bring life to a host of other interesting historical figures.
When I heard that ‘Mrs Roosevelt Flies To London’ was making its way to the King’s Head Theatre this month, I hastened some questions over to Alison, to find out more about the play, and the work that’s gone into it.
CM: What made you want to write a play about Eleanor Roosevelt?
AS: I’d already written a one-person show that was total fiction, and I wanted to write about someone famous, but someone with whom I could identify, for her stance, ideas, struggle – you name it. And the more I read about Eleanor Roosevelt, the more I fell in love. And the more I feel we could do with her now.
CM: When you were writing it, did you always intend to perform it yourself?
AS: Oh yes. I had to identify with her. I love the challenge of getting under the skin of a part, and embodying many different people on stage, turning on a sixpence to switch; in the play I play all the other roles as well – Mrs and Mrs Churchill, the King and Queen, FDR, many wartime Brits – about 27 in all. I love too the feeling of being the story-teller.
CM: Can you tell us what happens in the show? Does it have a linear narrative or is it more of a portrait?
AS: It’s both, in a way. It is book-ended by Old Eleanor, dying in ‘62 at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis, which she did. The ‘spine’ of the show is her diary of the ’42 trip, and I use moments in that journey to trigger flashbacks to important events and people in her life: childhood, school, betrayal in her marriage, the New Deal etc… the 1962 device enables me to cover FDR’s death in ’45, and her work after the war at the UN – crucially as chair of the commission that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
CM: How did you research the piece? Is everything in it based on fact?
AS: Yes, it’s all based on fact. I practically lived in the British Library, reading biographies and autobiographies. Then, finding that she’d made a trip to wartime London, and that there was a diary, I made the trip to the FDR Library, in Hyde Park, New York. I got a copy of the diary, and then, after I sent a draft script to her, permission to use ER’s writings from her grand-daughter, the literary executor.
CM: Have you tried to resemble Eleanor herself in the play, to imitate her, or just give a sense of her?
AS: Great question. Both, in so far as I can. I’m tall ( 5’8’’) but she was taller (5’ 11”)… but alone on the stage you can be any height by where you ‘place’ other people. In ’42 she was 58 and quite bulky up top, so I do have some padding. I do the hair, and wear the much-reported hat with feathers. But I do not do the big teeth, or the chinlessness! To those that loved her, she had an amazing smile, and such focus and attention to all, so I try to give a sense of her enthusiasm, her passion, her amazing energy, through her body language, and of course, voice. People said she sounded almost totally English, but I give her a period posh American ‘edge’, and heighten that in her microphone speeches.
CM: How is it being directed in a piece which you yourself have written? Does it make the relationship different from if you were acting in something written by someone else?
AS: The director, Lucy Skilbeck ( no relation!) was on board from the start, even before I wrote it. I’d admired her work, and knew I could trust her when she said, as she did, ‘I don’t think we need this’ or ‘I think we can change this narrative to dialogue’. I was able to treat the script in a more objective way, take it on the chin, and have a good laugh when she said – so I knew what was coming – “You’re going to hate me…”
CM: This isn’t the first solo show you’ve created is it? Do you enjoy, or even prefer, being on stage alone?
AS: My first, ‘Are There More Of you?’ is a sort of linked ‘Talking Heads’: four women, wildly different, linked only by a postcode. It gave me a chance to play roles I’d never normally be cast in. It is lonely, but as soon as you have that direct rapport with the audience, it’s a wonderful challenge and a great feeling. But I love working with other actors, and look forward to it, soon again I hope!
CM: Where will the show go from here? Are there further plans to tour it?
AS: I am hoping it might get to the US. Quite a few Americans have seen it, particularly when I toured Ireland last May, and have been very enthusiastic. We’re also hoping for a UK tour. Fingers crossed.
CM: What’s next for you? Any other projects in the pipeline?
I’m superstitious about saying before things really happen, but I have a great agent, and there are things on the horizon.
I have other writing ideas mulling away there too, and I also love my freelance work at RADA, where I teach and direct young actors, and also train non-actors in communication skills for RADA in Business. Keeps me out of trouble!
Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London is on at King’s Head Theatre until 9 May. See this page here for more info and tickets.