How Not to Do a True Crime Play
In July of 2005, Tiffany Cole and her boyfriend Michael Jackson (not that MJ), as well as two of his friends, visited the home of her former neighbours in Jacksonville, Florida. The neighbours were an elderly couple, and had moved to the city from South Carolina in their twilight years. Before they left they sold their car to 25-year-old Tiffany. She was the step-daughter of one of their friends, and the couple enjoyed regular visits from her when she drove down to give them her monthly repayments. On this evening, however, Tiffany and Michael waited outside while his friends, Bruce Nixon and Allen Lyndell Wade, knocked on the door asking to use the phone. Once inside, they kidnapped the elderly couple by binding their wrists with duct tape and throwing them in the boot of their car. From there the group drove over 60 kms to a secluded area in South Georgia. Two days earlier, the group dug a shallow grave in anticipation of what they were about to do. The elderly couple were taken out of the boot and forced to hand over the PIN numbers to their bank accounts. After that, the couple were pushed into the grave and buried alive.
A few days later the couple’s daughter filed a missing persons report. Police noted that money was being drained from the couple’s accounts, and so froze all transactions. This inconvenienced the killers, who were enjoying the spoils of their crime- limousines, champagne, and stacks of cash. In an effort to get the police to reopen the accounts, Tiffany and Michael concocted a plan to call the Jacksonville Police pretending to be the elderly couple. This was their undoing, as police were suspicious immediately and reopened the accounts in order to track their lavish spending. This led police to a motel room in North Charleston, South Carolina, where the group was hiding out. All were arrested, and three of the four were sentenced to death.
At the time, Tiffany Cole was the only woman on death row in the state of Florida.
What fascinated me about this crime when I first heard of it (dramatised on the terrible Discovery Channel docu-series Deadly Women), apart from the needless brutality of the murder, is the normality of the criminals involved. A bunch of kids looking for money; what a boring cast. There’s no crazy characters or tortured souls. It’s an act of horror that comes from nowhere and makes no sense. I was appalled by how quickly their situation escalated, by the mindless violence, and wondered how a person could start as some innocent, boring young woman and end up on death row.
When I was in third year at the University of Wollongong, I had the idea to dramatise this crime. I have loved true crime ever since I was in early high school; now, it's experiencing something of a renaissance. Countless podcasts and documentaries have made true crime an acceptable fascination, and I no longer feel that deep sense that there was something wrong with me when I was 13 years old and liked reading about murder. There are millions of people all over the planet who share my curiosity. So, when my casual consumption of true crime television led me to the story of Tiffany Cole, I was struck by just how "stageable" it seemed. One room, a few characters, and a tight, suspenseful story jumped out at me. I wanted to write a short play focusing on two criminals, a couple, hiding in a hotel room after committing a robbery-gone-wrong.
I changed a lot of the details of the actual crime, including the setting, victim's identities, and the method of murder. At the time, it seemed like the most respectful thing to do. I didn’t have anyone’s permission to discuss these deaths, so I just didn’t. Ideally, it wouldn't be easy information to find with a Google search after the show. I wrote the first draft quickly, submitting it as a creative writing assessment and getting a good response from my tutor and classmates. When the opportunity came for short student plays to be staged in 2018, I submitted my script and got a spot as one of three shows featured in the season. It was my first time directing, and I was very excited. The cast that my co-director and I assembled were excellent, and they were completely on board with my idea.
Here’s the pitch that landed me the job-
Landline (working title) is a short work that examines criminality; how our emotions can translate into violent and terrible action, and the consequences of these actions. It centres on Mark and Jamie, a pair of Bonnie-and-Clyde types who have just committed a burglary gone wrong. After a series of misadventures that ends with a kidnapped old man dead in a hotel bathroom, the couple must attempt to control this fraught new reality, and their minds…
Very grim and very intellectual, I know. The finished product had a lot more lightness to it, even a few jokes, and also changed location from a hotel to a granny-flat. The central motif of the work was a landline phone, which would ring periodically throughout the show. The caller’s identity was never revealed. Was it the police? Maybe, but ultimately the repeated phone calls were more symbolic of the paranoia creeping into the minds of the characters. This was changed to a burner mobile phone after some logistical problems.
And thus Burner was born.
We had a showing with the other directors and producers at the halfway point in our rehearsals to get some feedback. I was nervous, but the actors were off-book and we were ready to have an audience. We even had enough time to practise the blood effects. At one point, the character Mark would go offstage and attempt to revive the hostage being kept in the bathtub- instead, he would accidentally beat him to death. We had a head of lettuce and red paint ready. When Mark left stage, he punched the lettuce as the stage manager smeared him with paint. It was a disturbing effect. After the performance, I sat down with the other directors and producers and received a pretty mixed response. I knew the work wasn’t perfect, but one piece of feedback that was common to a lot of responses left me a little baffled.
It wasn’t realistic. No one would be so stupid to call the police. The violence was gratuitous. The story didn’t make sense because people don’t behave like that.
I didn’t know what to say to this. It’s not an unfair criticism- the story is ridiculous, and the characters are stupid. But it felt hard to argue that the show wasn't intensely realistic. I was lost- were we supposed to change the details of the crime to make Jamie and Mark smarter? Should we change them into criminal masterminds, or truly evil murderers with no humanity? Doing that would, I felt, change the entire meaning of the play. This was a play about boring, normal idiots doing a crime. I discussed the problem with my co-director and cast, and we decided to push on as we intended. New lines were added to make the transitions between moments a little smoother, but the overall shape remained the same.
To add a sense of realism, we changed the ending slightly...
At the end of the work, Mark and Jamie call the police pretending to be the old man, just like in real life. Jamie then leaves to try using the ATM cards again, and Mark is left in the flat alone to play with his stolen things. Then, the lights go down, and red-and-blue flashing police lights and the sound of a siren fill the space. Text was then projected on the back wall-
this story was based on true events
Burner ran for three performances, and closed the night before my 21st birthday. I never really felt that the other directors or producers ever loved it, or even liked it, but it was what it was. I didn’t care that it didn’t work for them. I made something I would have wanted to see, and I made it with a cast and crew who seemed as invested and proud of it as I was. I just had the sense that Burner was a problem child in the season- it was a weird, disjointed, uncomfortable work that some people thought was poorly written and unrealistic, but I could live with that. I didn’t think much about its reception until a few weeks later.
Back at uni, our subject tutor was sick so another tutor was brought in to teach the class. He didn’t have much interest in teaching the subject matter at hand, so we had a group discussion about theatre we’d seen recently. He started the discussion by bringing up the student works that had recently been on, and made a point to mention one work in particular. The true crime play.
I braced myself.
He said that the work was in very poor taste, and believed it was wrong to write a play about someone’s actual death. He said the ethical problems were too big to overcome, and he didn’t enjoy it at all.
Most of the people in the room knew I was the one responsible for said true crime play. The tension was depressing. I outed myself as the culprit.
I didn’t bother defending the work- at that point, it felt like everyone who had seen it who wasn’t a friend of mine or related to me didn’t like it. I was sick of Burner and had accepted that it just wasn’t very good. I felt ashamed of it. When I was a kid just getting interested in true crime, I knew there was a lot of shame attached to it. I would become disgusted at myself for being interested in it. I didn't have podcasts and friends who could tell me it was okay to be intrigued by the darkest parts of humanity- I felt like it was borderline crazy, and definitely exploitative. I wasn't expecting to be shamed for my treatment of a real murder, but I wasn't very surprised when it happened.
But this sort of criticism annoyed the hell out of me.
Once again, people weren’t criticising the dialogue or the performances or the scenes. People were concerned with the big picture, the shape of the work, character motivations. And now, my audience was so far removed from the story because of its true nature that they weren’t willing to engage with it at all. Telling them the truth made my audience flee in horror. I felt like I couldn’t get anything right.
Tell them it’s real, they say it's unethical. Pretend it’s fake, they say it’s unrealistic.
Looking back, I am proud of parts of Burner. The actors were brilliant, the design team were amazing, and I still feel that the story was a dark, funny, horrifying drama with a lot of potential. But to be honest, Burner took a lot out of me. No matter how good we got it, or no matter how bad it could have been, it will always be judged differently. True crime will always be judged for the ethical questions it stirs, but I don’t think it should be outright dismissed because of it. Burner worked because of its context as a true story. To remove it from that context would not only weaken the dramatic structure and characterisation, but would also remove meaning from the work. And I think the message is an important one.
Criminals are normal, stupid, funny, boring people. Just like everyone else.
I want to see more true crime stories make it to the stage, but I still don’t know how to do it. I love the form because real stories about real suffering can serve to teach audiences real lessons. It is raw and unflinching, and doesn’t allow brutality and horror to be confined to the worlds of fiction. When something isn’t true, there is a lot of space to deny its meaning. Characters don’t make sense, actions don’t make sense, violence is gratuitous and unnecessary. And this can be used as evidence to dismiss a work outright. But reality doesn’t make sense.
Thinking back on Burner a few years later, I’m left with one frustrating problem-
Does drama have to make sense when it is based off a reality that is stranger than fiction?
Dramaturgs ask the questions, and theatre makers answer them. I think I’m a much better dramaturg than a playwright because my answer is pretty lacklustre.
I just don’t know.
If you can’t tell, this exercise in catharsis was brought on by the discourse surrounding a certain Netflix series. But what do you think about true crime in the theatre? Leave your own musings in the comments.
Pinkham, P 2008, ‘Female murderer Cole receives death sentence; she will join two of her three partners on state's death row’, The Florida Times Union, 7 March, viewed 11 May 2020, <https://www.questia.com/read/1G1-176413347/female-murderer-cole-receives-death-sentence-she>.
News4Jax.com 2011, ‘Jury finds Tiffany Cole guilty in double murder’, News4JAX, 20 Oct, viewed 11 May 2020, <https://www.news4jax.com/news/2007/10/20/jury-finds-tiffany-cole-guilty-in-double-murder/>.
Smith, G 2007, ‘‘Shockingly evil’’, The Post and Courier, 30 May, viewed 11 May 2020, <https://www.postandcourier.com/news/shockingly-evil/article_508fba1e-e979-58ab-abd0-c69da7f93141.html>.
Sutton, C 2018, ‘The brutal crimes of death row women”, The Daily Mercury, 16 Dec, viewed 11 May 2020, <https://www.dailymercury.com.au/news/the-terrible-crimes-committed-by-women-on-death-ro/3602672/>.
Police car photograph © Getty Images