Laura Johnston unpacks Hitchcock’s leading ladies for the Sydney Fringe

Alfred Hitchcock’s films are renowned for their female protagonists, put in peril by a master of the suspense genre. But what did the actresses who played these women really think about the man behind the lens? Laura Johnston wants audiences to find out, as she takes them on a one-woman-led journey into the minds of such legends as Doris Day, Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren. I asked Johnston about the creative process behind Hitchcock’s Birds…

What inspired you to create this show?

It kind of came about by accident, really. I was writing another show that included Grace Kelly. She did quite a lot of Hitchcock films but I really didn’t know much about Hitchcock the director and his movies. So, while researching Hitchcock, I stumbled across an interview with Tippi Hedren, and she was talking about her experience working with Hitchcock, and how harrowing it was. It was such a different experience to what Grace Kelly had and so I started researching all the women who’d worked with Hitchcock. All these stories started pouring out, and I found it all really fascinating. It kind of developed into a show itself, just by researching and becoming quite obsessed with these women; I was kind of becoming a bit of a detective.

It was probably about 10 months in the making.

The show uses verbatim interviews with the actresses – what was the research process like?

I had many late nights just watching video interviews with these women, and listening to radio interviews. Then I’d go into libraries and read biographies of these women. I also read books from other actors and crew who had observed what was happening on set. What I found was that the director Hitchcock and the man Hitchcock were very different people.

This show is really about the women reflecting on their time working with Hitchcock. It spans many decades, because Hitchcock was around for so long and had such a wonderful career. Of course, he developed and changed over that time. Post Grace he kind of went almost a little bit senile. That changed when Tippi came into the picture. He became really, really obsessive with her, because he felt he needed to ‘replace his Grace’. It is a play about the man but it’s really about the women and how they dealt with Hitchcock.

You also use song to tell the various stories – what prompted that decision?

Hitchcock liked to use music to help with the suspense in his movies, and to tell the story. Only some of these women actually sing, but it’s when words aren’t enough that they need to use music to express their emotions. It’s their true voice coming through.

There’s also background music in the show, which is actually taken from the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s his voice, his shadow behind the girls, his cheekiness coming out.

Were you a Hitchcock fan before you started this work?

Before this process I had never seen a Hitchcock film. I’m not very good at scary movies, so watching some of them was actually quite hard! Often I’d find myself watching a Hitchcock film late at night and I’d think, “Why am I doing this to myself?! This was a terrible idea!”

But the more you research about his career the more you realise how amazing he was. And I do love that golden age of film – it’s such a wonderful era.

Do you have a favourite Hitchcock film now?

Without being too clichéd, I’d say it’s The Birds. There’s something about how it was all created, and the role that Tippi plays. She’s not playing a girlfriend, or a wife. She’s playing a really interesting, cheeky character that’s just thrown into the crazy hysteria of this town. And it’s an interesting concept – to think that birds could take over!

In this work you play a number of actresses: Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Tippi Hedren. How do you go about recreating such famous women? Do you have a process that you follow?

That was probably the first real question I posed to myself about staging this work. How am I going to play these women? I made the conscious decision to make it my own take on these women, but to still use their voices. It’s not a re-enactment – I’m never going to achieve that. It’s more my version of them, and their voice.

This is where having verbatim sources is great, because I could go back to them and really unpack what they were actually trying to say. For example, with Janet Leigh in this show, she’s mainly talking about the very famous shower scene in Psycho. And through a lot of the interviews she can’t say the word ‘boobs’. She really struggles to talk about what she had to wear (or not wear) in that scene. It’s quite funny, really. So if ever I was finding it difficult to capture one of the women’s characters, I’d go back to the source material and take my cues from those kinds of things.

Do you have a favourite ‘bird’?

It’s hard, because they’re all really wonderful. I mean that, they’re all fabulous women. I do have a soft spot for Doris Day. I think she’s absolutely gorgeous and really fun to play because she has so much energy and light and joy about what she does; she almost gets carried away by it, and then she pulls herself back at times because she thinks maybe she’s gone too far.

Alright then, let’s do a little Character Assassination of Doris Day… Describe her in three words:

Energetic, light and joyful.

What is your favourite line to deliver as Doris and why?

It’s the opening line of her radio interview: “Well thank-you, that’s exactly why I’m here – I’d like to talk to you!”

I’m not sure if you found this out during your research, but did Doris have a favourite flavour of ice cream?

I didn’t find that out! But I reckon it would be honeycomb crunch.

If you could give her one piece of advice, what would it be?

That she can do whatever genre she likes. The world is her oyster, she can do it all.

Do you think she struggled with that and felt like she had to be a certain kind of actress?

I think she did. She wanted to expand and be as versatile as she could. She just wanted to try lots of different things, but because she was the singing actress she definitely got pigeon-holed as that. That’s what’s so wonderful about Hitch, in that he offered her this dramatic role. I think she really felt a lot of pressure to prove herself. Which I don’t think she needed to at all because she is brilliant in the film.

Finally, if you saw Doris in real life, would you kiss her, kill her or cross the street?

I’d run up and give her a big kiss and a hug!

lineLaura Johnston’s one-woman show, Hitchcock’s Birds, can be seen as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival, playing at the Erskineville Town Hall from 27th – 30th September. Go here for tickets: sydneyfringe.com

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