Richard O'Brien is the author of several plays and four books of poetry. His new verse drama, Free For All, is part of a research project at the University of Birmingham. His friend – and Broadway Baby features writer – Tom Moyser spoke to him about prosody, politics and posture.
There was a time when it was completely uncontroversial for a play to be in verse
Tell us about Free For All.
Free For All is a modern verse play. It's a comedy set at a free school's open day. Different parents are coming through to try and get their children in. It's about the lengths that people will go to for their children. The play moves from a naturalistic social satire style to something much weirder. And a socialist ghost from the 1960s turns up about twenty minutes in and starts wreaking havoc on the interactive whiteboard.
It's not your only play at the Fringe this year is it?
I've got a kids show, which I wrote when I was in Sixth Form. My school, Bourne Grammar School, have brought up a children's show every year and this year they've ended up bringing up my show again, Far Far Away. The school rang up and said 'We need a script, can we use yours?'.
When we saw it this afternoon, was it the first time where you saw something you had written but where you hadn't been involved in the production?
I did a few shows as an undergrad that I passed onto other directors; but it's probably the furthest distance I've been from the work. Actually, I think it's better for it. There were things that they've added in and quite a lot of the new material, I thought, is some of the funniest in the show.
Were you pleased with the script when you heard it back?
There were lots of moments that I was very happy with and lots of moments were... I know now why I wouldn't write them. I didn't think they were terrible but I know the filters that would go through my mind before I would put them into a script.
So, onto Free For All. The genesis of the play is really to do with your PhD isn't it?
Yeah, I'm looking at verse drama as a form through history and how it's developed since Shakespeare up to the present day. My over-arching argument is that there was a time when it was completely uncontroversial for a play to be in verse. Then there was some kind of gradual decline of that medium. I think it's probably due in large part to a reaction against the prominence Shakespeare came to have and the ways different people tried to respond to that. It often meant they were writing verse plays that were less flexible, less interesting. Actually, verse is really flexible and interesting, as you can tell if you watch any of the Renaissance plays. I'm interested in the possibilities it has for theatre, that people today who are writing in prose are denying themselves the chance to use.
Were there any specific things when you were writing it, where the verse took you somewhere you weren't expecting or didn't want to go?
One thing to be on guard with when writing verse is the way certain words slip in because they fill up lines. I just found the word 'well' kept creeping in because it's a one-syllable word that can go anywhere, basically. The sections in rhyme are more likely to go somewhere you weren't planning because searching for a rhyme gives you a channel of thought that wouldn't have opened if you were just thinking in the abstract.
What different kinds of verse are there in the play?
I tried to make the verse do part of the storytelling - differentiation of character, stuff like that. The bulk is in iambic pentameter, which is kind of the bedrock of it. There's a character in the play who's a very put-upon teenager who's got loads of extra-curricular activities. All her lines rhyme and she's in a four-beat line to convey more of the pressure on her. Her lines are more tightly locked down by the rhyme and the fact she's got less space to express herself. Then there's a character who's a French teacher who always goes on too long – and I've given her a slightly longer, six-beat line, which is what most French verse plays are written in.
I didn't notice that one; but I am interested – as I know you are as part of your research – in whether audiences notice these changes, and if so, what they notice.
Yeah, that's one of the things we're trying to work out through doing the play. At the end of each performance we're asking people to do a survey on our website so I'll probably have more of an answer to that in a few months. From the first preview we did in Stratford-upon-Avon, we had a long Q+A afterwards and people were saying that even if they weren't aware of the verse throughout, they noticed a certain kind of atmosphere. I think people do notice rhyme, that draws the attention and sets things apart.
I was thinking the other day, watching The Simpsons on TV, you know how the credits are basically the same? The couch gag and the jazz solo will be different. I think it's the same when people are listening to verse. If there's a norm set down, you're pretty much expecting that everything's going to be in that norm. But if there's a couple of moments that are different you might not notice exactly why, but you'll notice they are different.
It also leads to a lot of declaration. There are a lot of people pronouncing their ideas to an audience that is real within the world of the play. Did that come out of the topic of the play or the verse?
A lot of the famous speeches in Shakespeare's verse plays are big, political orations. That is a difficult thing to build into a prose play. The trend has been towards characters who are inarticulate or struggling with what they want to say. I thought verse would give a springboard for people to talk about ideas in some depth without it feeling alien because it was already in a context that wasn't entirely real.
Did you feel a responsibility writing about politics – and the school system in particular – in a way that did it justice?
I think one of the most important things in writing the play – and you'll know because you were there - was a staged reading I did with a group of friends. A lot of the feedback was about slight errors or biases, in the representation of the school system especially. When I redrafted and reworked the play, a lot of that was putting emphasis in different areas and researching more of the ideology around free schools. Previously the play was leaning more towards condemning them than I think it does now.
And Torbin Krill, who's the school's head, when we originally read the script there wasn't much sympathy for him and I think now we see the motivation he has for founding the school. Do you feel you've discovered something about these issues by writing the play?
I think I've been surprised at how much I've grown to like, and empathise with, that character. The character who's kind of the counterweight, Kerri, despite her proclamations of equality, comes off as slightly cold in her interactions with individuals. And, partly because of the way Torbin's played, he comes across as warmer and more caring, focusing on people one by one. It's partly through the way it's been played by Chris Silvestri. Torbin has taken over the heart of the play.
Could you explain a little bit about the KickStarter funding?
Some of the funding for the play came form the Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. The KickStarter was mainly to pay for the cost of accommodation, for a cast and crew of eleven. I wrote a lot of poems commissioned by funders. Anyone who paid for one of the higher awards got a sonnet - I asked them to give me a topic for it.
What topics were you given?
Well, as you'll be aware, I got one about problems with posture.
Yes, specifically, I asked for one about your own bad posture.
Yes, you did. [O'Brien pauses and loudly exhales with his mouth closed]
What else did you get?
We got one who simply requested 'discipline'. Someone requested something about crows...
In the poem I commissioned [which O'Brien titled 'Backbone'] you found a subsidiary theme about control and freedom. Did you have to find similar subsidiary themes in a topic like 'crows'?
The crows thing was interesting because I thought I'd come across something somewhere about the crow's brain having the processing power of a seven-year old child. I was just clicking through Google to find out more and I found... you know sometimes from a newspaper website it will sort of bundle headlines together? There was something that came up from The Daily Mail that was like 'scientists find crows, dot, dot, dot, tips for a better beach body' or something. The poem ended up being about feeling like you're constantly harassed by crows telling you to change something about yourself.
What are you going to do with these poems? 'Backbone' was the sort of poem you could put into a collection...
Some of them have been sent into competitions. Oxford Poetry might publish a couple in the next issue (although that hasn't been confirmed). I might collect them into a book and call them KickStarter Sonnets or something.