Thursday, 16 July 2015

Free Dramaturgy: Richard O'Brien @ Edfringe 2015

Haunted House Theatre present 
a new verse play by Richard O'Brien

Free for All runs at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall T1, Nicolson Street, Aug 17-22 & 24-29, at 9:35pm (1 hour). 
Tickets £10 (£8 concessions, £7 students). 

A new free school sets a town's parents at loggerheads over the one thing that really matters to them: their children's future. When lifelong activist Kerry is persuaded to attend an open evening at the Waters' Edge Academy, she discovers she's not the only parent making sacrifices. But why is Martha's mother so against her getting what she wants: a competitive skillset and a life she can afford? Before long, the ghost of Anthony Crosland, the 1960s Labour education minister who introduced the comprehensive system, has started wreaking havoc on the interactive whiteboard. This might have something to do with Kerry's concerns. 

Engaging with questions of choice, control and the death of the post-war utopia, Free for All is a modern verse play by award-winning poet Richard O'Brien, described by Andrew McMillan as 'one of the strongest poets of his generation'.  Director Rebecca Martin, who co-founded the Sydney Theatre Award-winning pantsguys productions, says: 'We set up Haunted House Theatre to revive a kind of theatre where the power of language can make anything happen.'

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Richard O'Brien: The script came first, because its form is so specific - we were interested in seeing how verse drama would work in a totally contemporary setting. The play takes place at the open evening for a free school. 

There have been a lot of debates in the media before and after the election about the role of free schools in the education system, and so much of the rhetoric of politics in general lately has been centred on the distinctions of class and access to opportunity, what kind of future we want to build for our children, and how what’s happening now does or doesn’t match up to the political past of the country, so those are the kind of ideas we wanted to bring out in the work. 

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
It’s the world’s largest arts festival, and it’s a place where audiences are open to something new and different. I’m researching verse drama for a PhD, and putting verse on stage today feels quite experimental: we’re interested in how audiences respond to it. 

We’d love to find out what people make of contemporary poetry in the theatre who aren’t necessarily part of the poetry scene, and who might not have come across it in the theatre currently being produced around them, so Edinburgh seems the perfect place to find that kind of open-minded, receptive audience.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
They can expect to see a titan of 1960s left-wing thought playing childish pranks on an interactive whiteboard while a group of anxious parents think hard about their life choices. They can feel the cadences of language being used in a way which both brings out the poetry of natural speech and deliberately goes beyond what’s possible in realist theatre. And they can think ‘Well, that was different.’ 

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
In the sense of dramatic structure, dramaturgy is really important to us. One of the interesting things about verse in theatre is it creates a norm which lines, moments and characters divert from, so in writing the script and reworking it with the company, that was one of our main focuses: how we make these elements of form and structure not just tell the story, but be part of it? 

We were also interested in taking traditional dramatic structures and reworking or dismantling them - although it’s only an hour long, we talk about the play in terms of acts, and the trajectory of the piece through them is really from what seems in ‘Act One’ like a very 20th-century, satirical social comedy of manners to, by ‘Act Three’, something much less naturalistic, much stranger. Where you end up is a very long way from where you begin. The language changes as it shifts through these gears, and although we’re not going full Sarah Kane, we’re interested in exploding what starts as a well-made, familiar theatrical world into something more brutal and broken.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work -  have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
By doing verse drama I suppose we’re explicitly grappling with a tradition, which was the default setting for theatre up until about two hundred years ago. I’m throwing those terms around quite loosely, but if you were doing something tragic it was fairly well understood that poetry would be part of it up until at least the Romantic era. 

But what’s interesting is that people mostly stop using verse for comedy after the Restoration, where it actually has so much potential, so the tradition I’m interested in goes back to plays like Jonson’s The Alchemist: fierce satire where the language is doing a lot of the dramatic work. I think Christopher Fry is sadly overlooked and I’d love to channel some of the power of his language, and in recent years I think Peter Oswald and Tony Harrison are doing some of the most interesting stuff in modern verse drama - Harrison has been a big influence on our Ghost character, who speaks in couplets. 

Outside of that, Joe Orton is a writer I really admire: he’s able to approach really serious topics through a comic lens, and the structure of farce allows him to really leave the normal world behind, and I got a similar kick from reading Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
Most of our collaboration has happened in the rehearsal room - seeing the scenes performed has helped me and the director, Bec Martin, find a lot of ways to cut the script to put tension and action first, and get us away from thinking too much about what the language is doing in and of itself and turn to what it’s making happen onstage.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work? 
We’re aiming to involve the audience throughout the show as fellow participants in the open evening (don’t worry, no one’s going to make you get up and dance.) Beyond that, we are really interested in audience response - our website,, is going to have a survey where we’re hoping to collect feedback and opinions from people after they’ve seen the show, and give us a sense of how they thought the verse impacted on their experience in the theatre, and on what they made of the production as a whole. In Edinburgh this won’t be possible, but in the tour we’re doing in January we’re going to hold talkbacks to discuss these questions in more depth. 


Writer Richard O’Brien was a winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2006 and 2007, and the 2015 London Book Fair Poetry Prize. He is the author of three pamphlets, your own devices (tall-lighthouse, 2009); The Emmores (The Emma Press, 2014) and A Bloody Mess (Dead Ink/Valley Press, 2014). His work has featured in Poetry London, The Salt Anthology of Younger Poets (2011) and The Best British Poetry 2013. In 2013, he read at the BBC Proms for a recording broadcast on BBC Radio 3. 

Andrew McMillan describes him as ‘one of the strongest poets of his generation’, Sabotage Reviews praised 'a love poetry that is almost courtly in its complexity, like a fnely wrought love-token, and deeply pleasurable to read,’ and Richard’s work has also been favourably discussed in a Times Literary Supplement feature on the best pamphlets of 2014. He is working on a practice-led PhD on Shakespeare and the development of verse drama, funded by the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

Rebecca Martin is an Australian theatre practitioner and co-founder of award-winning Sydney Theatre company, pantsguys Productions. 

Her credits include for stage: A View of Concrete, The Mercy Seat,The Shape of Things, autobahn, Punk Rock, After the End, Cock. For screen: The Great Gatsby, Cedar Boys, Neighbours, Underbelly. As director: Julius Caesar, The Knowledge, autobahn, Lord of the Flies, God: A Play, Black Comedy. Rebecca trained at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, and has a BA from the University of New South Wales and a Masters from the University of Melbourne. 

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