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Debbie Chazen On ... Girls With Experience

Debbie Chazen is an actress whose credits include Cinderella at the Old Vic, Crooked at the Bush and the Sheffield Crucible production of The Cherry Orchard. On screen, she is familiar to many for her leading roles in BBC sit-coms Tittytittybangbang and The Smoking Room. She stars in The Girlfriend Experience at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs from 23 September - 11 October 2008 (previews from 18 September).

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Working on The Girlfriend Experience is such an interesting process. The creator, Alecky Blythe, went to a brothel in Bournemouth and recorded hours and hours of the ladies talking about their work and their lives. She then edited it into a play but it was never written down - instead we’re listening to it on personal headphones and then repeating what they say. Because of this process you hear a different element each time you listen. It changes your approach completely as an actor. Usually, you’re always striving to be realistic and find ‘motivation’, but here you have your character’s actual voice, you’re replicating it word for word. If they cough, you cough, if they splutter, you splutter. It does leave less room for interpretation but at the same time there’s an undercurrent to everything, and oftentimes we’re trying to work out if what they’re saying is true.

Myself and Beatie Edney performed it as part of the Rough Cuts season at the Court last year, and it went down a storm. Alecky has since been back to the brothel, and more scenes have been added. It’s very unwittingly funny at points – for example the girls will be talking about really old-fashioned notions of love whilst wielding a large vibrator! We’re actually two weeks into rehearsals at the moment and we’re due to meet them for the first time tomorrow – quite nerve-wracking really, even though I feel like I know them so well already.

‘The girlfriend experience’ is a reference to a service they offer to their clients which is all about talking, cuddling, kissing, being affectionate – not just ‘wham-bam-thankyou-mam’. In this sense it’s pretty subversive of the stereotypes about prostitution we have, and certainly I’ve had to put aside many of my own preconceptions whilst working on the play. We’re not out to shock, we’re not out to titillate, our aim is just to tell these women’s stories, and open up to the audience a world most of them will never have experienced themselves.

I suppose I have become known as ‘the funny one’, thanks largely to my television work. In my heart though I’ll always be Lady Macbeth or Martha from Who’s Afraid of Viginia Woolf?! I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had both a steady and a very varied career. Since I left drama school I’ve got to do a broad range of work, and I hope this continues. I would like to write and direct one day, but who knows what will happen next. I told Alecky the other day that the verbatim process we’ve used on The Girlfriend Experience is the only way I ever want to work - although I realise that could limit my casting options severely!

The Girlfriend Experience is at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs from 23 September - 11 October 2008 (previews from 18 September).


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