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From Doctor Who to Yerma: Billie Piper Thinks Inside the Box

Piper brings her award-winning performance to the Park Avenue Armory.

Billie Piper as "Her" in the Young Vic production of Yerma.
(© Johan Persson)

Billie Piper doesn't seem fazed by reviews like "a generation's greatest performance" and "utterly devastating and shatteringly good." Nor does she seem overwhelmed by the knowledge that in the span of a single season, she was the recipient of not one but a history-making six UK theater awards, including the Olivier, all for the same role. What she does seem taken aback by, upon the New York transfer of the Young Vic's Yerma to the Park Avenue Armory, is the size of her dressing room.

We sit in her dressing room suite at the Armory, where Simon Stone's acclaimed adaptation of the 1934 Federico García Lorca play is being presented through April 21, admiring how palatial it is. Wood paneling, two sofas, a twin bed for naps. The walls seem to go on forever. Piper, British-born and making her New York stage debut, is visibly awed and perhaps intimidated by how cavernous — and solitary — it is. But not by the play.

"It's hard to do on matinee days, but it's always hard on matinee days, no matter what play you're doing," Piper says nonchalantly. "The fact that it's such a quick play means that you're at the end before you know it." Having had two separate runs, both sold out, at the Young Vic, gives her a bit of perspective. "The second time around, I became way more mindful of taking care of myself. It's kind of like having your second child. You know where you need to take it easy and when to get sleep, whereas the first time is sort of like reckless abandon."

Piper's analogy to childbirth is fitting, given that in Yerma, Piper plays Her, a journalist and blogger driven mad by her obsession with her own infertility who documents the brutal reality of her trauma online. "Billie brings her entire soul to the part," adapter and director Stone says. "She lets herself fall into the character without a safety net, and we are given access to the most private moments of a woman's life. You know you shouldn't be watching, but you can't help it because she has such charisma even when she's breaking your heart."

This essence of voyeurism, and the removal of privacy, is key to the concept that Stone and scenic designer Lizzie Clachan have created. Yerma takes place entirely inside a glass box that the audience peers into as they watch Her go through the wringer.

Yerma at the Park Avenue Armory takes place entirely inside a glass box.
(© Stephanie Berger)

Inside the box, though, there's a layer of privacy that Piper has never experienced before. "It's a total game-changer," she says with excitement. "You don't know what's going on outside, and you don't care as much. You're not acting for an audience, you're acting for another actor, and it feels more real. Your performance is less technical, and that means you can be really emotionally invested."

Emotional investment is important to her life and career choices. Before she became an actor, Piper was a pop singer known simply as Billie. Despite a string of No. 1 UK singles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as two studio albums, she chose to walk away from the music industry in 2003.

"I didn't ever feel like a singer," she says. "I don't write music and I don't play music; I just am a massive fan of music. You need to be puritanical about being in the music industry because it's pretty brutal. I just felt like a charlatan. And I missed acting. So I just gave it up."

Almost immediately thereafter, she booked the role that made her a household name to sci-fi fans in her home country and abroad: Rose Tyler, companion to the Ninth and Tenth Doctors of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant on Doctor Who. Her time on the show was relatively brief — two full seasons and scattered appearances thereafter (the most recent being 2013) — but the ever-present and ever-growing fan base still manages to surprise her. "It's huge here. I didn't realize that," she explains. A stack of fan mail sits off to the side in her dressing room.

Rather than let herself get typecast as the "feisty female sidekick," in an industry where substantial roles for women are rare — "TV is getting better, Hollywood is getting worse," she notes — Piper deliberately made a choice that her next role would be "horribly different." For four seasons, 2007-11, she played the high-end London escort Belle in the series Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

At the same time, Piper found herself onstage, making her West End debut in a 2007 revival of Christopher Hampton's Treats. In the ensuing years, theater, especially theater with distinctly contemporary themes, has become a regular part of her acting diet. She received her first Olivier nomination for her work in the pharmaceutical drama The Effect (written by Call Girl creator Lucy Prebble) in 2012 and made a splash in Richard Bean's up-to-the-minute, News International phone-hacking satire Great Britain in 2014.

Billie Piper and Oliver Chris in the National Theatre's 2014 production of Great Britain by Richard Bean.
(© Johan Persson)

But all bets are off when it comes to Yerma. Piper loves untraditional theater, and this production is as untraditional as it gets. In fact, the cast didn't even really rehearse much of the show before arriving in New York City. "We read lines to make sure they're there in our memory, but we were not physically allowed to get up and block it, because it wouldn't feel real. I'm sitting here now thinking I haven't walked through this play in seven months, and we're just gonna walk onstage and see what happens."

When you become the only actor in history to win all six UK Best Actress Awards, you naturally have to regroup for your next gig, and Yerma is definitely another turning point in Billie Piper's career. Bringing the production to New York is a dream that she's "been willing in my mind since I was a kid." But there are no nerves. "I feel like I've sat more comfortably with this part than any part before." With very contemporary discussions of relationships and the choices women must make, "It's stuff that I talk to my girlfriends about, so I feel like I'm in a situation with my friends, which makes it easier to do. It's exhausting, but it's so fun."

Billie Piper in Yerma at the Park Avenue Armory.
(© Stephanie Berger)
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