Preview coverage from Omnibus, Clapham:
Interview: Alison Skilbeck, Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London
A one-woman play about the extraordinary life of Eleanor Roosevelt arrives at the Clapham Omnibus on April 7. Will Gadsby Peet talks to writer and performer, Alison Skilbeck
In October 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President, takes a dangerous trip to wartime London to visit US troops, and see how the British – most importantly the women – are coping.
Nominated for a Best Female Performance Offie Award (Off West End Theatre Awards) for her performance as Mrs Roosevelt, and granted special permission by the Roosevelt Estate to use Eleanor’s writings, Alison Skilbeck’s one-woman show explores the public, and hidden life of one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th century.
How’s the latest run of Mrs Roosevelt been going?
Tremendously! I’ve been touring with this show on and off since 2013, and I always love the experience.
It’s wonderful because we tend to only play to small, theatres of around 60 to 80 people. The close intimate atmosphere is incredible in achieving the best possible story telling dynamic between audience and performance.
It’s a dynamic I relish as a performer, and we often have a talk after the show about topics and themes explored in the play. Last spring we held some paneled discussions with people like Helena Kennedy and Edward Mortimer after the show, and the response was terrific.
Well, I have another one-woman show, Are There More of You? and one of my friends suggested I write another about someone famous. I thought it was a great idea, and decided early on it would have to be someone I really admired.
To my shame I didn’t know much about Eleanor Roosevelt at the time, but the more research I did, the more I decided I wanted to make this absolutely extraordinary person the focus of the show. Having discovered she made a trip to wartime London, I travelled to the FDR Library in America to look at her diary from that period. This gave me a great focus from which to build the framework of the play around, allowing me to tell this huge, decade-spanning story.
The narrative scope is vast; the audience is introduced to Mrs Roosevelt on her deathbed in the 60s as she reminisces over her life, with a particular focus on her trip to London. I was really happy with the narrative device; it allowed me to focus on Eleanor’s earlier life as well as the trip to London and her humanitarian work afterwards, right up until her death with the cold war and Cuban missile crisis looming.
Having written it, I had to get permission from Eleanor’s literary executor, her granddaughter. Fortunately she liked the play and gave me permission to use the information in the diary and here we are!
Has it been a bit strange dealing with a director cutting and trimming your own work?
It has been absolutely fine, actually. I’ve always admired Lucy Skilbeck (absolutely no relation) hugely as a director, and was really happy to have her on board for this show. Trimming your own work is one of the hardest things to do in this business, but it’s absolutely vital for your audience you don’t over-egg the pudding.
Typed up, the diary of Eleanor’s trip to London runs to over 80 pages, and some of it is quite boring (chuckles). It’s really important you strike that balance between information and overkill. You need a great director you can trust, so I was really lucky to have Lucy there saying your going to hate me but…
Do you think Eleanor Roosevelt would enjoy this play?
I really do hope so. I must say politically and socially we need people like her now, more than ever. I think she might wonder if the world has gone mad to see Donald Trump rising as he is.
Strangely enough I actually had Eleanor’s goddaughter come up to me after a recent performance at the Kings Head. She’d last seen her when she was 10 years old and she said that watching the performance had been like seeing Eleanor brought back to life, which was obviously a lovely thing to hear.
I do feel a certain responsibility, going on stage to talk about this remarkable woman and her achievements in human rights, so I really do hope it does her legacy justice.
Preview coverage from The Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford: