Can the phenomenon of true crime be translated to the stage?

Over the past few years the public interest in true crime stories has increased massively with cases such as that of Steven Avery brought back into view by the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, and Adnan Syed’s story explored through the podcast Serial. It seems that both Making and Murderer and Serial flipped some sort of switch on true crime in their respective mediums. A whole host of new true crime podcasts sprung up as a reaction to Serial itself; Undisclosed, in which Rabia Chaudry offers a far more in depth view of the case, follows Adnan’s current court hearings and counters some of the arguments made in Serial; Truth and Justice by Bob Ruff started off opening Serial and Undisclosed up for discussion with his listeners, in a sense creating a podcast about a podcast; and then there are many more podcasts delving into the mass of interesting, unsolved or wrongful conviction cases such as Generation Why and My Favourite Murder. While there were already a number of well-known true crime documentaries such as The West Memphis Three and The Jinx, Making a Murderer opened the genre up to a whole new audience and since it aired our screens have been flooded with more and more true crime documentaries and dramas. Most recently both The People vs OJ Simpson (a 10 part drama by the creators of American Horror Story) and the documentary OJ: Made in America (an incredibly interesting 9 hour documentary about OJ, the case and the political and social landscape that surrounded it and the outcome), have been hugely popular.

So, can we translate true crime to the stage in the same gripping, compelling way?

We’ve been thinking about this project for a while, about whether we can really translate the true crime we’ve come to know, love and obsess over onto the stage in a real, entertaining, thought provoking and worthwhile way. Both podcasts and Netflix documentaries have something in common; they’re easy to access, free or very cheap, and there’s already a mass of documentaries, podcasts and dramas of this subject just the click of a button or remote away. So there’s no question this would be something completely different to the true crime we’ve gotten used to; the audience will need to make an effort, sit next to someone, maybe even someone they don’t know! Used to watching true crime documentaries in my pyjamas and listening to podcasts on my tube journey to work myself, I can’t quite imagine watching those same stories played out on stage, surrounded by other people with their own thoughts and reactions to the subject.

So no, we probably can’t translate the genre to the stage in the same way as we’re all used to. But then, who wants to be the same?

Our plan is to experiment with true crime and find out which aspects included in podcasts, documentaries and dramas we can bring to the stage, which parts won’t work on stage, and anything we can add to the subject that can’t be found in podcast or documentary form. In our first session Tom said ‘as theatre maker’s there’s something we can offer that people doing podcasts, and documentaries can’t,’ and I think that figuring out exactly what that currently elusive something is, and focusing in on it, is going to be at the centre of our research and development process.  We’ve already started thinking of ways we can make the project accessible to as many people as possible – this blog is another way in which anyone who’s interested in true crime, theatre or finding out who put Bella in the Wych Elm can keep up to date, make suggestions and share ideas about the case and what really happened nearly 80 years ago.

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So why Bella?

After settling on this project as the next step for Pregnant Fish we had to pick a case to work on.

This was easier said than done. As anyone who’s ever listened to My Favorite Murder, Case File or Generation Why will know, there are so many interesting crimes you can spend hours reading about one that links to another and another and so on until it’s 3 in the morning and you have to force yourself to stop as you have work the next day.

Pretty early on, the potential ethical implications of what we were planning to do started surfacing. We questioned whether we should look at cases in England and at first the idea seemed sensible – a possible wrongful conviction case in Canterbury really intrigued me because I spent 3 years at University in the town-sized-city and recognised the places mentioned in the crime. But then it started feeling a little close to home. The cases were often recent, with the family of the accused and the murdered still alive. In Rabia Chaudry’s book Adnan Story: The search for truth and justice after Serial, she gave us an insight into what Adnan’s family went through, and what they still go through now, and I can’t even imagine what the explosion of Serial must have been like for Hay’s family. Not that I’m saying this project will turn into anything like the international sensation Serial was (although you never know right?), but these sort of things still needed to be considered.

But then, is hurting or inconveniencing the families involved ultimately worth it? In the case of Adnan I’d say yes; he’s finally been given the chance at a new trial which is something that never would have happened without Serial and the public interest that followed. Similarly the Tara Grinsted case which had been cold for 12 years, was effectively reopened by a Podcast called Up and Vanished and there are now two men awaiting trial for the crime of her murder. These cases with huge outcomes tend to have something in common, an investigator with a real connection either to the person (as with Rabia and Adnan) or the place (Payne Lyndsey, creator of Up and Vanished, comes from the same town as Tara), or it’s a case that was brought to them personally for some reason or other (Sarah Koenig with Serial).

Our process was different and has started off with research in an attempt to figure out not only which case to focus on, but how we want to portray it, and why it might be better on stage than in any other format. We’re also fascinated by how so many people have turned into armchair detectives and want to consider their stories too, and the very real effect ‘ordinary people’ are having on the justice system. Although we’re still waiting to see whether anything will come of it, I definitely believe Brandon Dassey’s conviction was overturned in large part due to the success of Making a Murderer, the public interest in Dassey’s  case and the widespread belief that his confession was completely coerced and untrue. We’ve already started using our own detective skills to dig into Bella’s case, and  we want to find out more not only about who she really was but about the armchair detective phenomenon itself and what it means for the future of true crime.

While many podcasts relay crimes in a fairly straightforward way, giving the events a narrative and the listener as much information as possible, we’re trying to do something quite different (and we don’t have a concrete idea of what the outcome will be yet). We may end up re-enacting timelines, acting as either murderer or victim, discussing motives, narratives and events; always having to keep in mind that these people are real and had real lives of their own.

We took a look at a number of cases, thinking about what reportedly happened, anything that particularly interested us about the case, and whether there were any ethical problems with us re-creating the events and people on stage. For example, one of many we discussed was the case of Davonte Sandford, a 14 year old boy arrested in America apparently just because he was outside around the time a crime was committed nearby. Although the case is interesting and there’s definitely a story there that needs to be told, we weren’t convinced that as a predominantly white, British cast we were the right people to tell that story with a real in depth understanding of Davonte’s situation and the circumstances that led to his arrest.

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The most crucial thing to find is not only a case with a story that we feel needs to be told, but one we can bring to the stage with integrity, doing justice to all those involved. We ended up choosing a case which was put forward at the very start of our research process:

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?

This case has been a mystery since 1943. In brief; four boys discovered a human skull inside a wych-elm tree in Hagley Wood (Worcestershire, England). As they had been trespassing on an estate owned by Lord Cobham the boys went home without telling anyone about their discovery. But the youngest boy soon felt uneasy about what he had seen and told his parents who subsequently reported it to the police. On checking the trunk of the tree the police found an almost complete skeleton, and a hand was found some distance away. It is believed the woman was murdered in 1941 but her remains have never been identified.

At the time the body was discovered no one had any idea who the woman was, but a few years later graffiti started to appear linking the unknown woman with a name, an identity, a suggestion that at least someone knew who she was. The supposed first instance was on Upper Dean Street in Birmingham when graffiti saying ‘Who put Bella down the Wych Elm- Hagley Wood’ appeared in 1943 sparking ideas about who this woman, Bella, was (we think  anyway- there have been differing reports on which graffiti first appeared and where). Since the 1970’s the Hagley Obelisk has sporadically been defaced with similar graffiti and it has also sprung up in other places since the 1940’s.

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There have been a number of ideas about who Bella was; some argue she was a sex worker, others that she was a German spy, and there was also a statement in 1953 made by Una Mossop, telling police that her husband (or cousin depending on what you read), Jack Mossop had confessed that he and a Dutchman called van Ralt had put the woman in the tree.

Each of the theories involves a number of different players and conflicting statements from them, so who was Bella really?

The truth is, we don’t know yet. The first step will be to look into all the theories that have surfaced over the years, investigating the key players in each of them and trying to figure out which account makes the most sense. Next it will be a trip to Hagley Woods and the area where Bella was found to search for anything which might help us learn more about the case or develop our piece further.

If you’d like to learn more about the case and the theories surrounding it take a look at these articles:

The Line Up – Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

The Unredacted – Who put Bella in the wych-elm?

Or listen to these podcasts:

Case File – Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Stuff you missed in History Class – The Hagley Woods Murder

(Alternatively just Google ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm and a crazy amount of stuff will come up).

Happy investigating, make sure to let us know what you find out! Thanks – Leah

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