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Interview: Debs Newbold

Following her captivating performance of Macbeth, contemporary storyteller, Debs Newbold spoke to Sienna James about her influences and why improvisation plays a huge part in her work.

Q: Have you always wanted to be a performer and storyteller? What did you want to be when you were a teenager?

A: At fourteen I joined a Youth Theatre and that’s when I realised my life was going to be as a performer. I really enjoyed performing but I loved science as well at school too and right up to A-Levels I did both. But when I was fourteen actually, I started to have that inkling so I joined my local Youth Theatre and I’ve never really stopped since then to be honest.

Q: I saw your performance of Romeo and Juliet last year, and this year you have performed Macbeth. Which is your favourite Shakespearian play to perform, and why?

A: That’s a really difficult question! Well, it really depends on where I am actually, because the space I perform in really influences the way you perform the story, and for the audience too. I would say that at the moment it is Macbeth because I haven’t done it as much as the two. But I recently performed Romeo and Juliette in Denmark and I remember thinking in the middle of it – normally I haven’t got time to think – but I remember thinking: I’m really loving this! So yeah a difficult question but at the moment I think I’d have to say Macbeth.

Q: What happens when you’re not getting a good reaction from the audience? How do you change your script and improvise?

A: Brilliant question. In storytelling you don’t have a script but you do have a really strong structure and when I’m storytelling Shakespeare I know there are bits of text that I’m going to put in from the script. So those bits of text become islands that you can hop between. And between that, it’s improvised. But I imagine the story so strongly when I’m putting it together  that everything is very clear to me. Everything picture is like a film frame. And so although I don’t use the same words, I use the same images. So with improvisation it means you can change things depending on the audience. Some performances of Macbeth can feel so dark that I throw in a silly thing. Like today, when the teacher’s phone went off, it’s okay when a phone goes off because it happens doesn’t it. So in order to lighten the mood or just acknowledge that it’s okay, I weave it into the story but in a silly way. And yeah, you can always feel the audience’s response. I try to have the house lights on so I can see them a little bit, and so they become the collaborators and performers really because what they feed to you, you then give back to them.

Q: If somebody wanted a similar career to what you’re doing, what route would you advise them to take?

A: It’s tricky, because there’s no one route to take. All the paths to a job like this are quite wiggly I think. I’m sure there are some people who are really strategic as they know exactly what they want to do when they’re sixteen. They try and set the steps out in front of themselves. I certainly wasn’t one of those people – I knew when I was fourteen I wanted to be a performer but I didn’t know what form that would take. Whether an actor, in film, a stand-up comedian, and so my advice would be try everything that you can to get in front of an audience and challenge yourself. So that could be doing open mic at a live event or a poetry cafe, it could be joining your local Youth Theatre. I think that was one of the main things that changed my life really. Not just because it made me a performer but because it made me a confident teenager too, which I really wasn’t until then. So seeking out your local Youth Theatre would definitely be something to do. Also writing skits or using your phone record, you know, you can make yourself your own audience. Just make yourself open to opportunities. Listen, never stop listening, go to the theatre if you can. Listen to conversation and be true to yourself.  

Q: I see you have your own play Lost In Blue that you’ve been performing. How does that compare to performing a Shakespeare play?

A: Well it’s quite similar. Again I see it like a film in my head so it’s just putting it in the audience’s head. But for a start there’s no set script at all for Lost in Blue and also it’s my story so I suppose there’s a connection that’s slightly different, although Shakespeare can really get into your bones you know. Also in Lost In Blue I use a bit of technology called a loop-station which becomes a sort of playmate on stage. That makes things a bit different too. It’s harder actually, Lost In Blue I think, maybe it’s because it’s not as in my bones as Shakespeare because I’ve been working with Shakespeare for so many years. I do love it. I do love Lost In Blue. It’s a great story – I hope you get to hear it. 

Sienna James