Between the Lines

'To be honest you need to be so hungry': Debbie Isitt's been there
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The Independent Culture
When I was 16 I was sacked five times in one year. I cut people off on the switchboard. I shook when I served the boss's tea. I worked in a catalogue shop and was too embarrassed to ask how the credit card machine worked. Instead of swiping cards, I just looked at them and handed them back. The customers knew. They came back to the tune of pounds 10,000. So, because I couldn't make a living in the real world, I went to drama school. But when I began auditioning, I found I was crap at that, too. So I set up my own company, Snarling Beasties, and it was about that time that I read Steven Berkoff's play East. I was on a bus in Birmingham and as I read I knew what every line meant, and what was behind every line. It was very strange: I believed I'd written it and it made me think that perhaps I could write.

East is full of hate and anger, emotions I knew so well from that year I'd worked. It captured that sense that no one's telling you the rules, that society's conspiring against you. At 16, I believed that. Sometimes I still do. We did East to acclaim in Edinburgh, but then I saw Berkoff in Decadence in the West End and found he didn't perform his work as I'd imagined. It was devoid of the emotional richness I'd found in the writing. So I never became a Berkoff devotee. I tried to write a play along the same lines, Gangsters, but it was pretty awful. From that time I've always been keen to fuse the more experimental, expressionistic aspects of his writing with the naturalistic, Stanislavsky method of acting you learn in drama school. I've thought about doing East again, 10 years on. But to be honest you need to be so hungry. I watched the video of us recently. We were so thin. Hungry in every sense. Today I feel too much of a fat cat.

n Debbie Isitt wrote 'Nasty Neighbours', this year's BT Biennial play performed at over 100 venues nationwide. Details: 0850 775780

Interview by Adrian Turpin