Interview and Q&A with American actress and author Sacha Wilson
Bury The Hatchet – The Hope Theatre
Returning from a tour in the US, Bury the Hatchet is true crime podcast meets bluegrass musical; a fun feminist reimagining of the Lizzie Borden story.
People’s Choice Award Winners – VAULT Festival 2018
Q&A with Sacha Wilson
Sasha Wilson is an American actress and author of the award-winning play, Bury The Hatchet, which is currently being staged in London at The Hope Theatre until August 11, 2018. The innovative play presents the case of teenaged murder suspect Lizzie Borden, who was accused of brutally murdering her father and step-mother in Falls River, Massachusetts, in 1892. Borden was eventually acquitted of the crime and lived to old age.
I was intrigued to find out more abut the play and what inspired Sacha to create a stage play about these gruesome murders, which are still remembered through the rhyme:“Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty one!”. Sacha kindly answered these questions for me.
What inspired you to write a story about Lizzie Borden?
I grew up an hour from where she lived and that rhyme and her story were always on the periphery of my imagination, but I didn’t know any of the details. Last year, I was going through a slight bout of homesickness and I wanted to write a show that was about where I was from. I knew whatever it was would include music and everything clicked into place for me. As an avid fan of true crime podcasts and fierce history nerd, Lizzie immediately sprang to mind. But what I wanted was to get to know the woman behind the mythology and that is what the show tries to achieve.
What was most important to you when you set about bringing this story to life? I personally loved your take on modern media but what was important to you when reimagining this story for the theatre?
My biggest concern was that we’re taking real people’s lives and presenting them for entertainment, so in my mind I felt a duty to be thorough and fair. Most importantly, to try to bring the facts to life in a compelling way rather than relying on the outlandish rumours that cloud her life as other adaptations have done. So, I tried to use as much primary source material for dialogue in the show as I could. In bits of I have adapted or trimmed so that it makes more sense dramatically, but I wanted to use as much of what we know she said and did. But there is so very much we don’t know and to tell a story those gaps need to be bridged. I have imagined some pieces of the story, such as the argument over the killing of the pigeons, for example. We know that Lizzie found her pigeons dead well after they were killed and we know she had an argument with her father about it. That’s when I did a bit of theatrical imagining because it’s just more compelling to have those two things happen at the same time. Another thing that I felt I had to be very mindful of, is that we simply don’t know what motivated her to commit the crime, if indeed it even was her. So I present a number of different scenarios. One possibility that people have reacted two was the question of her sexuality. I don’t know that she was lesbian and I don’t try to say she is definitively, as other scholarship has tried to prove. I simply did a thought experiment and I could much more quickly believe that her stepmother discovers a budding romantic liaison with the maid and then rejects Lizzie which causes her to lash out.
Everything we know about Lizzie is that she was mercurial and petulant. I don’t see Lizzie as the kind of cold and calculating woman that methodically would have stewed over how she didn’t like that her father was spending money on Abby and decide to murder her. It seems infinitely more far-fetched. I have done a great deal of research but at the end of the day, we will never really know. So rather than coming down and only showing one version of events, I try to lay out a number of possibilities (pigeons, her sexuality, greed for daddy’s money, wanting out of that stifling home situation) and the audience can decide what they find the most compelling. Because in many ways the play isn’t just about Lizzie – it’s how we respond to what we see in the media or hear on the radio or read on twitter about some horrible crime. We immediately build an opinion on what that person must be like because these kinds of cases get us to react emotionally rather than logically. And the moods of the crowd are always liable to swing. But that, I suppose, was my greatest concern while writing this play: the inability to get it “right” because everyone involved is dead and so we will never know, so instead being clear about what is true and what is a hypothesis.
Bury the Hatchet normally means to settle your differences with an adversary although I appreciate hatchets were buried with chief of tribes when they came to a peace agreement. Can you explain more about why you chose this title?
I think ‘settling differences with an adversary’ is a great analogy because I’m trying to get the audience to face their presumptions about Lizzie – based off the mythology that has built up around her – and see her as a complex woman. So, that in the end, it’s not History vs. Lizzie Borden, the ‘evil, lesbian, money-hungry axe murderess’ but instead an audience that is sympathetic to how titillated they are by the violence, still managing to acknowledge the detailed and human aspects of the case. She has been misunderstood and maligned for over 125 years and I wanted to change that with this play and finally see the woman behind the myth.