Baby Reindeer's Richard Gadd: 'The second you perform on autopilot, you're shortchanging the audience'
Thousands of shows make their way up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe each year, with some shows breaking out from the festival to become global phenomenons like Fleabag and Six. Making it into the mainstream may not be easy, but Richard Gadd's Baby Reindeer is set to be a West End hit, as the play transfers to the Ambassadors next month.
Richard Gadd writes and stars in his one-man play that's based on a period of his life that saw him stalked by a stranger. What was once a terrible time has been used for a piece of inspiring theatre, with the actor and comedian receiving his first Olivier nomination for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre.
Ahead of his West End run at the Ambassadors, we spoke to Richard Gadd about the process of adapting a personal story into a piece of theatre, whether stand-up comedy and theatre are different and being vulnerable.
Baby Reindeer tickets are available now.
Baby Reindeer is based on events that happened to you, but what made you want to share your story with an audience?
I think that our societies, cultures and social media have expanded way beyond the police’s capabilities. When I was getting stalked, I couldn’t believe how draconian the police processes and technology and systems were. I couldn’t transfer the voice mails that I was getting pestered because their email inboxes were only 15 megabytes. There was a duty of care to almost let the world know that, not only is stalking easier to do in this day and age but the systems aren’t always in place to protect. It took ages to get the situation dealt with that by the time it was dealt with, I had severe stress and the damage was done.
Since doing the show, and I’m definitely not responsible for this, but there has been a reassessment of stalking laws and it’s easier to get situations dealt with. But, when I was going through it, it was near enough impossible. The time in which it took and the stalking would always evolve quicker than the police could deal with it. It was such a messy, complicated period of time. I got out of it more or less unscathed from a physical point of view.
Do you get nervous about sharing a story that puts you in such a vulnerable position?
Being vulnerable is hard and it’s even harder when you have to do it eight times in six days. There’s sometimes on a Monday night where you wish you could relax and sometimes we’re not in the mood as human beings to be vulnerable.
I always have a philosophy with my shows. The second you start to do a show on autopilot, you’re shortchanging the audience and you should probably stop doing it. It’s not easy, but with this show, it’s not just a stalking story. It goes into detail about my bad behaviour and things that have happened to me in the past. It’s a smorgasbord of the last decade of my life.
How was the process of taking your story and adapting it for the stage?
I always had a strong idea of how I wanted certain aspects to be. I think of my shows with starts and ends, but with this show in particular, I had a strong idea of how I wanted it to start. I was always known for being a guy with mad comedy and stunts but the more I thought about Baby Reindeer, the only way you can tell a stalker story and do justice to the complexities is to almost tell it chronologically. I never wanted to do it as a comedy show. If I'm trying to add laughs, there’d be a near enough impossible writing task and you're cheapening something that’s deadly serious.
Various people worked on the show and others were brought on. Baby Reindeer’s the first show I’ve done like this, but I was competing with other writing and acting jobs I was doing at the time. It was a real on and off labour of love for three years, mutating in all kinds of ways. It’s the process of the process. I’m really looking forward to my Ambassadors run, we’re going from in the round to end on so we’re trying to figure that out. I’m really excited and it’s going to evolve extremely well.
Is there a difference in writing for yourself against writing for characters?
It was different because what Baby Reindeer has is a constant introspective analysis. It’s a serious show, there’s about five jokes in the whole thing. When writing comedy, I’d write to a grotesque version of me. With Baby Reindeer, the process was writing, rewriting and trying to be more honest with myself in every rewrite. I found the show getting better the more honest I was - I had to admit I was a dick in a lot of ways, which isn’t easy to do.
You wanted to make Baby Reindeer a piece of theatre rather than stand-up comedy, but does that impact your performance style?
It wasn’t too much of a leap, but when I think back to my last shows, I didn’t talk that much in them. I had to get used to talking and holding the audience’s attention. Comedy works on momentum and I had to shake myself out of that. With rehearsing, I had to stop feeling the need to just put my foot down and go. I wasn’t too scared of doing the acting side of things, it was more the pace that I was worried about.
Baby Reindeer won an Edinburgh Fringe First Award, how did it feel to get accoladed last year?
It was great. I shut myself off in Edinburgh but there was growing insecurity; a want in me that was going through the vessel and by the end of the festival, I'd given in to wanting one. Baby Reindeer won the award on the last day, so when it did happen, I was so chuffed. I let my lack of sleep and the adrenaline get the better of me.
And now it's been nominated for an Olivier Award, were you shocked to hear the news?
Yeah, absolutely. I got all wobbly-kneed and teary-eyed. Francesca, the producer phoned me and it sounded like she’d been crying. I thought the Ambassadors run had been cancelled or something else has happened. She said, we’d been Olivier nominated and it blew my mind. I didn’t think we’d be in this year’s round, so I wasn’t expecting it at all. It took me a couple of days to get to sleep. I'd heard rumours that judges were coming down to the show, but I didn’t think it was going to move this quick, it’s been quite a journey.
How have audiences responded to Baby Reindeer?
I used to be obsessed with looking at reviews and retweeting, but now I think that’s dangerous. I shut myself off from them, so I don’t really know, but I assume on the whole it’s been positive; the Olivier Award and reviews going up on the posters. It’s been really well-received. I think people should be challenged by Baby Reindeer.
Are there any lessons audiences can learn?
I never want to impose what I believe an audience should be feeling, but there’s a lot to be learned. The main lesson is don’t toy with people’s emotions should be the personal thing. From a social perspective, there should be outrage in how the system can treat and how stalking needs to be dealt with quickly.