Phoebe Waller-Bridge on bringing Fleabag from stage to screen and back again
On May 17, Amazon will begin streaming the second season of Fleabag, the critically acclaimed show from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, nearly three years after the first season debuted.
But Fleabag is also getting a different sort of resurrection this spring. The television series is based on the one-woman show that Waller-Bridge performed in 2013 at the Edinburgh Fringe festival (where she won the Fringe First Award). Now, Waller-Bridge is bringing the stage play to New York for a limited five-week engagement at the SoHo Playhouse, which officially opens this Thursday.
Waller-Bridge, who’s also the creator of the acclaimed BBC America show Killing Eve, spoke to Entertainment Weekly about Fleabag season 2 (featuring newly minted Oscar winner Olivia Colman), Fleabag on stage, and her consistent ability to make audiences fall in love and then break their hearts.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Has the show changed or evolved at all since it originally premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: It hasn’t at all! I’ve been a real purist about it. It’s the exact same, with the occasional joke that got tweaked along the run at Edinburgh, there have been no changes from the original script. It’s the original Fleabag.
The play was the genesis of her, so even though it’s season 2 it’s still her two years after the play version of her anyway. So I kind of retrospectively wouldn’t want to change anything because they were really her foundations and they were the formative experiences she’s had. I’m always tempted to embellish a joke sometimes, but my director has always been like, “No, it was better the first time. Stop it.” Because you can just tweak and tweak when you’re allowed to, but actually it feels much stronger, and the integrity of it feels stronger, when I’m just taking the original piece. The only thing I’m worried about is there being a couple of British idioms that a New York audience might not [get] — just literally some colloquial words we have. I’m going to check to see how those land in previews.
People love pretending to be sophisticated so maybe you’ll be okay.
These are not sophisticated idioms though! [Laughs] Like, even the most sophisticated New Yorkers shouldn’t know what these are, if they had any pride.
Want to do a quick test on me? What are some of the most British words in the show?
I don’t know! There are a couple of British geography jokes that aren’t going to work. There’s a joke about a bap? Do you know what a bap is?
Like…. a bread roll?
Oh good! Okay, cool. And then there’s a couple of really filthy ones that you’re going to have to just wait for and come and see.
Did you always plan on making a second season of the Fleabag television show?
No! Oh my god, on the contrary, I was completely determined not to. But then the character never quite left me. I thought the series ended with a proper ending, a catharsis, and a resolution almost — so, I was like, no, and I was really smug about the artistic integrity of that. And then I just thought, god, I have this amazing character who I love and who I could write forever, and I’ll just wait and see what happens if I leave her alone for a bit. And then I just started thinking about what the next step of her life would actually be, and the reality of that, and some people do have to wake up after a perfect cathartic end to their story and get on to the next day. And that’s kind of what happened with her. So that was my justification. And so then she goes looking for meaning in her life a bit more in this one and she sort of gets involved with the church a bit.
Speaking of resolutions, the first season of Crashing ended with a big cliffhanger. Are we going to get any more of that? Please?
No, we’re not, unfortunately! I know! I would have loved to make some more of that, but it just didn’t get picked up again.
Even though it ends on a cliffhanger, it still feels like there was resolution though. Did you have an idea for where you wanted the characters to go next?
I’m pretty instinctive about it. I have an instinct. I feel like I know what would have happened to Sam and Fred, I feel like I knew where that was going. But the giant love triangle, I sort of feel like — I don’t know! I’d have to really, I think I did at the time, work out a few storylines just in case, but I certainly know that it wouldn’t have been pretty for the first few eps between the three of them.
The stage version of Fleabag is a one-woman show, just you alone on the stage. From a physical point of view, how do you prepare to be on stage performing for that long?
It’s funny, because I don’t really exert myself that much in the show. I’m mainly sitting down and then there are a couple of really exciting moments when I stand up — not to give any spoilers. But it’s actually — vocally it’s very important to be strong and clear, and feel like there’s a muscularity but I also want it to feel really natural, so I think just doing the run recently, doing the lines and talking nonstop for an hour does kind of take a very specific kind of energy. I think it’s more of a focus. It’s knowing there’s an end to this story and having to encourage the audience to stay with you; there’s the trust that there will be a satisfying end.
I don’t know how I prepare. I think I do a lot of jumping around and shouting for the warmup, and then there’s the massive rush I get the moment I’m onstage and I’m looking in the eyes of the audience, and that’s the amazing thing about a one-person show, is you can connect for real with your audience members with no fourth-wall, or in Fleabag anyway. And so, if we laugh, we laugh together, and there are moments where the audience should sort of feel betrayed by Fleabag and that energy should change between us the whole time. So it should feel like an ever changing energy in the room. I feed off the audience a lot. They give me a lot.
How do you find living in New York?
Oh my god, I love it so much. I feel like it’s like a second home. I’ve always just loved the city so much. It gives me so much, just the moment I come out of the airport I feel sort of vitalized. I don’t know, there’s just something about it. And the people are just so upfront and cool and everyone is moving at such a great pace. It really gives me something.
I think some people are surprised to learn that you’re also the creator of the show Killing Eve. Between Killing Eve, and Fleabag and Crashing, what do you think is the connective tissue in your work?
I can’t write drama without comedy and I can’t write comedy without drama, so I think that will always be something that I play with. In Fleabag, it was a drama that was disguised as a comedy. And in Killing Eve I feel like it was very much a drama that had these little comedic surprises in it. And I feel as an audience member, all I ever want is a little bit of the element of surprise I want to not know where I’m going and yet to feel in safe hands and I feel like being able to flip those tones is the most effective way to keep an audience excited and surprised.
You’re such a prolific writer in so many different genres. When you sit down to a blank page, how do you decide what you want to create?
I guess the moment I become obsessed with a person, like a character, I honestly think, “What would be cool?” Like, “Would this be cool? Would I want to watch this?” Like with Killing Eve, when these books were first brought to me, I thought, “What a cool opportunity.” I don’t mean cool, like sunglasses-cool, I mean like, fun and energizing and feels like it’s something on-the-edge, that I haven’t seen or done before. And then the moment characters come out, I just want to follow them to the end of the Earth. And when I first read those novellas for Killing Eve, the potential of having those two characters in people’s living rooms every week, and having these people inspire people and make them laugh and make them think about themselves, even though they’re such extreme characters to make them feel really grounded, it’s the thing that really drives me.
And with “Fleabag” as well, I just really wanted to sit there and write a character that was going to make people laugh and then just decimate them at the end. And I just thought, if I could make people laugh for 55 minutes and then the final five minutes, just break their hearts, that would be, that would just be sort of cool. Really as simple as that.