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‘Birdsong’ at Richmond Theatre

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Now in the final week of its critically acclaimed tour, Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Birdsong will be running at Richmond theatre until 4th July. Based on the hugely successful and much loved novel by Sebastian Faulks, the play navigates the murky waters of love, honour and memory amongst the all-consuming deathly terrain of WW1. The Somme is revisited, traumas old and new are relived and flashbacks of loved ones become lucid and feverish dreams of a life once lived.

In Faulks’ novel emotion is visceral, romantic and gritty; the sentiments of which lend themselves perfectly to the play. This is despite Faulk’s own initial reservation quoted in the programme regarding a stage adaptation, “Why try to make a painting from a sculpture?” However, Rachel’s scripted version emerges as an important piece coinciding with the centenary of WW1. It poignantly investigates what it felt like, or meant, to be an individual caught up in the war.

The love story of Stephen and Isabelle and their initial meeting in France forms a smaller part of the revised plot than the novel, yet the portrayal of their relationship is equally moving. Stephen is recklessly honest when he falls in love; a naive counterpart to the wiser and older Isabelle played beautifully by Emily Bowker. Fast forwarding to the war when Stephen is a military man and innocence or curiosity is no longer permitted; the play unravels memory to interrogate the lessons of war and the concept of identity in oppression and loneliness.

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace in the 2015 UK tour of Birdsong credit Jack Ladenburg

This is the focus of Birdsong in the theatre, the war and conflicting or idealised notions of duty. Peter Duncan (Jack Firebrace) and Liam McCormick (Arthur Shaw) are outstanding in their heart breaking portrayal of friendship and loyalty in the trenches, going ‘over the top’ moves many members of the audience to tears. In a wider comment on history the play reflects on how close to home the tragedy of war is, or was, for so many people. We are put in mind of the people in our own lives and the stark reality that every man in war is something to someone; brother, son, husband, lover, Father or friend. This is where the show is most powerful as Faulks’ and Wagstaff’s vision of the individual in the web of history is profoundly brought to life.

The stage space at Richmond theatre is small and fittingly the set design is simple and atmospherically sparse. Giant crosses with barbed wire are strewn at the back, in front of a blue sky changing in tone throughout the play. The cacophony of the war takes shape through air siren and artillery sounds, intrusively alarming across the theatre adding to the claustrophobic theme of the narrative. Song is a central part of this production; marching soldiers to the front line and mourning the loss of lives. Musician James Findlay (playing Cartwright) gives exceptional performances at times when the debris of war requires no dialogue.

This is a beautiful play that compliments the novel with a cast who have immense energy and talent. Unlike so many other scripts adapted from novels which are often devised posthumously, Wagstaff and Faulks have collaborated on this project together. Commenting on adapting the work of a living author, Wagstaff has said, “Sebastian somehow struck the perfect balance, responding when asked for advice but never interfering!” As for Faulks, he is optimistic and to the delight of fans of his incredibly gifted writing, he brilliantly treads the boards himself in some of the performances playing the role of a sapper (tunneler) named Wheeler.

The cast of the 2015 UK tour of Birdsong credit Jack Ladenburg

Photos courtesy of Jack Ladenburg

For more information on Birdsong the play visit http://www.birdsongthetour.com/ or see here.

By Tara Flynn

Duane Hanson at The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

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Occupying prime exhibition space in the cosmopolitan Serpentine Sackler Gallery are ordinary and often overlooked working class (which Americans call middle class) figures sculpted by the late American artist Duane Hanson. A cleaning lady with her trolley, Queenie II, is placed alongside a variety of labouring or reflective figures in slouched stances. These include a man on a lawnmower, builders taking a break and an elderly couple on a bench.

Though hyper-realistic, these sculptures appear surreal, eerily life-like, unsettling in their gaze and confrontational as presences. They are aesthetically stunning creations. They are replete yet, in a way, dead. Hanson gives detailed attention to their bruises, stubble, heat-swollen veins and unobtrusively dimpled skin.

Such careful craft imparts a reverent and altruistic tone to the sculptures rather than artistic objectivity or detachment. The reverence reveals the political nature of Hanson’s work. He wants to be kind and sympathetic as well as visually objective in his sculpture. A quote from Hanson in the exhibition catalogue states that; “In the turmoil of everyday life, we too seldom become aware of one another. In the quiet moments in which you observe my work, maybe you will recognize the universality of all people.” Famously, the figures were all modelled on real people, with their clothes and accessories carefully sourced from thrift or second hand American stores.

The verisimilitude of the sculptures imparts a haunting, death-in-life quality to the exhibition. All craft is trickery for the viewer, a distortion of reality. What Hanson blurs is the line between object and participant in the show.

The clearly ordinary and suburban depictions of Hanson’s characters also serve to anticipate the voyeuristic nature of our digital age and transgress traditional taboos surrounding overlooked members of society. We are forced to notice them. The realism of the sculptures is also an anticipation of increasingly significant present progressions in 3D printing technology.

Perhaps the saddest and most disturbing piece in the exhibition is Trash, a dead baby in a bin with a plastic bag over its head; foetal hands are softly clenched. Cynicism resonates profoundly from this piece, perhaps as an indictment of illegal abortion practices rife among poorer American communities in the 1960s.

Certainly the pieces are of their time, Coca-Cola bottles, a branded detergent box, a FILA t-shirt and a chocolate sundae is the era of pop art and consumer goods being inserted into works of art. Similarly, a copy of the farcical and comedic magazine ‘Soap Opera Digest’ lends a retro tone. But this is not the main point of Hanson’s exercise. Books by Norman Mailer and D.H. Lawrence featured in the exhibition lend a sublime postmodern nod.

Ultimately this show is disturbing and mesmerising. The achievement is exhilarating.

The Duane Hanson exhibition runs until the 13th September, for more information see here

Photos courtesy of The Serpentine Gallery.

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By Tara Flynn

 

 

Interview with Maggie Butt on ‘Degrees of Twilight’

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Poet Maggie Butt talks about writing today, her style, and the themes that inform her stunning new poetry collection Degrees of Twilight. The poems in Maggie’s fifth collection were written over an eight year period, and make the passage of time tangible with astounding clarity and poise. Maggie uses history, memory, work and travel as lenses to examine the inevitable pains and sharp pleasures at the heart of our transient lives.

What’s the theme of this book? Why is it called Degrees of Twilight?

The poems in this book were written over an 8-year period since the publication of Lipstick in 2007, and are all the poems which didn’t fit into any of the three themed collections which have been published in the intervening years.  Many of these poems are personal, and though they weren’t written with an overarching theme in mind, when I began to edit them for the collection, I could see clearly the big themes of love and loss, and also a preoccupation with time. So the title comes from a poem which slows down and examines the three distinct divisions of a fleeting moment of every day – twilight.

It always surprises me that there aren’t more poems about work, when we spend so much of our lives doing it.

I hope there’s also humour and joy in the book.

How would you describe your style?

I believe passionately that language exists to communicate, and I pare down and pare down to try to achieve clarity. I think some of our strongest poems are also our most apparently simple – though let me tell you simplicity is not easy to achieve. I was once a film-maker and I also think there’s a strong visual element in most of the poems.

I use a wide range of form. Architects say ‘form follows function’ – I suppose for poets that translates into ‘form enhances meaning’.  The majority of the poems are ‘free verse’ which means I’ve invented a form for them, but there’s also metre and rhyme. The global warming poem ‘Meltwater’ employs the cadences of the King James Bible to issue an old-testament type warning; Hringvegur Snow uses an Anglo Saxon alliterative form to describe a treacherous car journey in Iceland; ‘Letting Go’ had to be a sonnet because the argument of it needed to take a turn at just the right point – although it’s neither a formal Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet.  I’d been aware of the Pantoum for a long time, and when the idea for ‘Time Travellers’ came to me, the repeating, circular form seemed perfect to convey the sense of being surrounded by family photographs, slipping backwards and forwards in time – even if the maths of writing it was challenging! ‘Risk Assessment’ is in the medieval French form of the Triolet, which underscored the theme of the poem, written at the time of the banking crash, that our modern methods of predicting the future are no more reliable than those of the middle-ages. There are also poems like ‘Cherries’ and ‘Wish’ where an almost nursery-rhyme form chimes with the theme of the poem.

What’s the writing process?

I also write fiction and journalism and academic articles, and I have to say that poetry remains the most mysterious. It’s hard to say why a particular idea, or something you see or hear, starts the process of alchemy which turns it into words, when we are bombarded with ‘input’ all day and most of it never becomes a poem.  For example, with Degrees of Twilight, I was driving to work and heard someone talk on Radio 4 about civil, nautical and astronomical twilight, when the sun is 6, 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon. I stopped the car and wrote it down, and before I’d driven another half mile, had to stop again and write down more, as the ideas started to coalesce into particular strings of words.

That’s what normally happens with me, ideas start to form, usually at inconvenient times, in the bath, or on a walk, or driving, or falling asleep, and have to be written down at once. Sometimes then it’s like a trap door opening, and the words come rushing out.  And sometimes you feel very pleased with that first draft, but a few days later you see it needs an awful lot of work. I sometimes think of this inspiration as like finding a treasure washed up on the beach, but you have to spend a lot of time scraping off barnacles and polishing it.  Sometimes though I might have one line for a long time – even years, before the rest of the poem starts to grow around it. From the scrap of paper or the notes on my phone which captured the initial idea, it goes into a long-hand notebook, then onto the computer. Then after several drafts on the computer to my Stanza group for editing suggestions, and finally settles into a form I can stop tinkering with. Some poems are written in both free verse and metrical versions.  There are six, quite different, versions of the sonnet ‘Blue Moon.’ I’ve only ever written one poem which was almost a ‘donné’ which came to me and didn’t have to be much edited – and that’s the last poem in the book, ‘Wish.’ I only had to play with some of the rhymes and add the last two lines. I hope that happens again one day!

Who is this book for?

I want poetry to be enjoyed by everyone, not something which is accessible to the few who know how to deconstruct it.  It’s the most perfect kind of literature for our ‘sound bite’ age. That’s why I perform in festivals and schools, why I’ve been pleased for my poems to be turned into choreography and a mobile phone app, and why I’m thrilled that this book is being published by the London Magazine, which reaches an audience beyond other poets, and in a kindle as well as paper edition, so people can read it on their phones, on the tube, on the beach. I hope they find something which speaks to them, in the way only poetry can.

Degrees of Twilight will be available on 7th July from The London Magazine.

By Tara Flynn

Interview with Louise Brealey on ‘Constellations’

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Following its critically acclaimed run on Broadway, Nick Payne’s award-winning play Constellations is coming back to London. Directed by Michael Longhurst and starring Louise Brealey alongside Joe Armstrong, the Royal Court’s UK tour of Constellations will run at Richmond Theatre from Tuesday 23 – Saturday 27 June.

Based on quantum multiverse theory, this romantic drama continues to explore life with urgency and poignancy, playfully considering everyday choices amongst the ‘what ifs’ we collect along the way. Through the relationship between scientist Marianne and bee-keeper Roland, the play asks questions that are both sad, funny and universal. As much as it is intellectual, Constellations also promises to be a deeply reflective and moving love story.

We spoke to the charming Sherlock actress Louise Brealey about what Constellations means to her.

I like how this play considers the pivot between choice and destiny. Do you think choice determines destiny or do you think our choices instinctively lead us to our destiny?

I don’t believe in destiny. Although my favourite quote from Back to the Future, or any film, really, is when George McFly approaches Lorraine in the diner and announces: “I am your density. I mean, your destiny.” (sic)

Constellations is such a rich and complex piece, proffering many different readings, which is certainly one of the things that makes it so valuable. What stood out to you from the script?

The script is a marvel. A deceptively simple boy-meets-girl, told through the prism of multiverse theory. I also wanted to do it because I knew it would be an immense technical challenge. You have to bring tens of different ‘versions’ of the character alive and it’s a trip.

What do you think of the ‘quantum multiverse’ perspective as a vehicle for understanding the existential issues explored in Constellations? Is it something you had ever considered before – the world we inhabit and the finality of choice as part of a parallel universe?

I hadn’t. My boyfriend, though, was delighted I was doing it, and showed me a million YouTube videos about the double-slit theory that blew my mind. I think the play asks as many questions as it answers.

Constellations prompts us to consider the inevitability of death. Was this difficult on a personal level?

I think everyone over a certain age has thought seriously about their own mortality or that of those they love. For me, it makes me want to live more in the moment.

Your social media presence is refreshingly down to earth – how do you find the balance between celebrity and artist?

On Twitter I just talk about the things I’m passionate about, really. Equality, social justice, Bruce Springsteen. I hope it doesn’t have any effect on my work, or on me engaging with characters. I think people take you as they find you, but I do acknowledge it’s important as an actor to not expose yourself entirely. So @louisebrealey is me, but she’s not the whole me. I don’t tweet about stuff that frightens me existentially or the workings of my heart. It’s an edit. So hopefully I can keep my powder dry in terms of roles.

Constellations

What were the most important aspects of Constellations for you?

It was imperative that me and Joe got on and wanted to work in the same way. You are – at times literally – in each other’s arms up there. No props, no furniture, just us, a honey-combed black stage and the beautiful lights. And thank goodness we are great friends and are always trying to make our work better, listen more, be more truthful. Learning the different universe jumps was a challenge in the time we had, but now we both know the dance and the whole thing has become a joy to play.

What would you tell someone who has never seen the play before? What should they expect?

I’d say it was one of the most beautiful plays I’ve ever read. I’d say it’s incredibly funny and incredibly sad. I’d say it was a smash hit on Broadway and in the West End. I’d say it’s an hour and ten minutes long. I’d say it will make you think about life, the universes and everything.

To book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/richmond *bkg fee applies

By Tara Flynn

Interview with Colin Barrett, author of ‘Young Skins’

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We spoke to Colin Barrett about his writing career and his truly brilliant short story collection ‘Young Skins’. As a young and emerging author he has already won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Impressive to say the least. The short stories of Young Skins are centred in a place described; “…nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” This rings true throughout Colin’s book and its theme of local life. His exploration of the human condition and his intuitive, confident assessment is dark and adopts a consistent sense of foreboding and instability. Yet it is a fragile dynamic that works beautifully, there is something in this book for everyone and the stories are ones that can be read again and again.

The London Magazine Interview with Colin Barrett

I spent a lot of time in a small country side town myself growing up and I have always found it difficult to put my finger on the love / hate relationship young people have with the environment there.  To me your work really probes the hostility towards small towns full of pubs in the recession yet also highlights the familiarity and fondness of home; the beauty of a treacherous wild landscape. It is a very complicated and under examined dynamic I think. So I was delighted to come across your book. The TV Drama ‘Skins’ by Jack O’Connell in 2014 reminded me a little bit of your stories – in that he suggests the countryside or small rural towns are underrepresented as a literary / film artefact. A lot of writers seem to forget that not everyone and everything happens in major cities. There is definitely a trend recently of going back to ones roots and writing about home towns. Is this a theme you want to continue with, the Glanbeigh theme?

I enjoyed writing ‘in’ Glanbeigh. It furnished me with all the characters and scenarios I was interested in writing about, though those subjects aren’t always apparent to you beforehand. It was also of course a way of tapping indirectly into your own experiences. Life, no matter how ostensibly mundane, has an ineffable texture to it, and trying to capture that in writing is a difficult thing. Eventually, you have to start writing back towards your own self and experiences. It’s risky in a lot of ways, but it has to be done. I can see myself setting more material in similar places.

I love how you write your characters, especially those who might otherwise blend into the background. Jack’s mother has an almost ubiquitous presence and her role is so important even though her expression is subtle. Then the alcoholic who lost his fingers for instance, he comes across as a different breed of tough, his character is comic and tragic all at the same time. I think this is an element of addiction that people often forget – the way people make light of themselves or their personality becomes a caricature of the farcical nature of addiction. Did you find a lot of these characters? 

You meet them everywhere. There’s less of them in smaller towns, so they stand out more. One homeless alcoholic in a small town can become a kind of fixture, and can, in some accumulated, community wide way, be looked after or at least humanised to a degree. But walking down certain streets in a city you encounter a dozen of them.

Do you think it is easier to write and be creative when you’re not in London or Dublin or a big city? Coastal towns or small towns are often written as being bleak whereas cities are cited as the place to be creatively. But sometimes I think the opposite is true. What has been your experience?

I can write in both places, but in fact I wrote most of Young Skins in Dublin, while living quite close to the city centre. I didn’t really consider if it was the best place to write or not, to be honest, and that was probably a good thing. I just got down to it. The most practical thing about being in a city is there is more chance of getting to meet and hang out with people with similar interests, that is, other writers. Writing is a solitary and consuming pursuit at the best of times. It’s good to meet similarly impassioned people and know you’re not alone in your compulsion.

On the process of becoming a commercially successful writer:

Like a lot of writers I genuinely thought the things I was writing were not good enough, or about relatively insignificant subjects, to merit winning anything. Young Skins, as a collection, has done well, and it feels only terrific to have received such a positive response, but that was never in my mind as a serious proposition, that I was crafting a prize winner. Just getting the book finished felt like a monumental achievement. I’ve never tried self-publishing so I can’t speak informatively on it.

How important do you think a literary education is in order to write? From my experience a lot of people choose an undergraduate degree that they later feel no longer fits with them, or they change and reach 25 wishing they you had studied something else. Do you think it’s easy to make the transition? Or do you think it’s not necessary and you should just write? How much did your MA in creative writing shape your work?

A ‘literary education’ to me just means reading. Reading extensively, and diversely. No point trying to write if you don’t already read relentlessly. The good thing about writing is you can come to it for the first time, or come back to it, whenever. You can be any age. The MA thing is always hard to gauge: I was working in an office job for five years and by my late twenties felt I had to give writing a sustained go sooner rather than later. And in financial terms, the MA in Ireland was not expensive. (Try not to go into debt to write! -you’ll only end up resenting it.) The few years I’d taken out of college were good for me. I’d matured a little bit as a person, and quite a bit as an aspiring writer. Had I just stumbled into a writing course as a fresh graduate I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of it. But nobody actually thinks you necessarily need an MA to become a good writer.

One of the early reviews of your short stories said that your writing raises important questions. What issues were you trying to highlight or were you just writing what felt familiar to you?

I was not consciously trying to highlight any issues, and I was indifferent to the familiarity or otherwise of the material to my own life. You can write out of passion, or with some ambitious intellectual take of an issue or theme, initially, but you have to go to a cold, disinterested, and essentially mindless level to finish work. I think many readers and aspiring writers find that prospect unsatisfactory or discomfiting, but it’s the truth.

The little details you include make your work strangely comforting because the details are so familiar – the colloquial and constant things that make up Glanbeigh life. It’s a strange dichotomy – these things become nostalgic when you’re reading as someone who is no longer in a place like Glanbeigh, but also a reminder of why you left in the first place. Have you ever spoken to any fans in this position about the book? People who miss the Glanbeigh life they grew up in?

People from where I grew up, and in townlands similar to where I grew up, have only been positive to the book. The ones that have bothered to speak to me, at any rate! They get what’s happening in Young Skins.

The critical reception surrounding your work has been immense. You really capture post-boom Ireland life in a way that I don’t think anyone else has. Do you feel pressure now when writing because your debut was such a great success?

Yes. Lots of pressure. But I was asking for it.

What advice would you give to young writers starting out and trying to make a career or a living from literature?

Read. And start working on being patient, if you are not.

By Tara Flynn

Rebecca the play

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We caught up with Emma Rice, Director of Kneehigh Productions on her latest piece: Rebecca the play. Adapting one of Britain’s most loved novels for a theatrical performance that is faithful to text whilst appealing to contemporary audiences is certainly a daunting task, but one that Emma executes with panache. Her version of Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece captures all the darkness of Maxim’s heart alongside intricate choreography, infectious energy and moments of hilarity. We thoroughly enjoyed this production and were delighted to speak to Emma about her creative direction, tips for emerging artists and not being scared when starting out in the Arts. Rebecca the play is touring now.

The London Magazine interview with Emma Rice

You’ve got a really impressive collection of awards for your directing and a range of successful productions, so thank you for speaking to us today. I was curious why Kneehigh productions have decided on Rebecca and why now? Were you influenced by the Cornwall origins of your production company and the connection that has to du Maurier?

Yes well I think it was long overdue and I’ve been thinking about Daphne du Maurier for a while now. I was investigating short stories which were pretty amazing. Then David Pugh the producer said “How about Rebecca?” And I just couldn’t turn it down. It’s fantastic it feels like it’s sort of a dream waiting to happen. So it feel into my lap really but as I say, Daphne du Maurier is a Cornish female legend and so I’ve been waiting to work with her for ages.

Did you feel pressure to stay truthful to the text or were you happy to shape the story in your own direction?

Well it’s impossible to stay true to the text because she wrote a fantastic great big novel and I need to get it into two hours of exciting theatre.  So I went into it feeling it’s a completely different art form. But I asked myself what is the actuality and what can I bring into it. People can read the book at any time and watch the Hitchcock film at any time, but I wanted to bring something fresh. What I’ve really done, I think, is I’ve given the second Mrs de Winter a big character role. There’s some surprises in what she becomes in my production which I think the book is lacking a little bit. And I’ve also really revamped the third act as I call it which is “the trial”, you know in the book it’s all so exciting isn’t it? Sort of gripping and then suddenly an anti-climax deciding what’s going to happen.  I thought forget that.  I’m going to make this more interesting. I don’t want to do any spoilers but everything in my production takes place either at Manderley or on the beach below Manderley so it’s very elemental and it’s very theatrical.

What would you say were the main practical challenges in bringing this story to the stage and were you influenced by the Hitchcock film of Rebecca?

I’m quite an action based physical director and yet mostly the novel is psychological.  So I think that has been a fantastic challenge for me; to build the tension with the characters and show the pressures that they are under. To really get that. I have been inspired by Hitchcock all my life really; the master of suspense, and so that’s the first time that I’ve been able to put that into practice with theatre. It is so interesting I mean it’s really not about what happens, it’s about what people feel and what people provoke in each other.

As Rebecca is such a dark and mysterious story would you say that this is the perfect combination for a theatrical and dramatic adaptation? Are these the perfect elements for a fantastic stage drama?

Yes. I’m biased obviously as I’m in love with it and working on it at the moment, but I would say the only thing I kind of miss is that it’s not very romantic. People have called it a romantic novel and I would say that there’s not a single bit of romance in the whole book and I wish there were a little bit more.  But actually that’s where the tension lies, this sort of desire for love and it not really being there.

It is strange how people have romanticised the plot so extensively. How would you say that the story of Rebecca interests you on a personal level? 

Well I think I’m always interested by the dynamics of personal relationships and this is very extreme. It’s also very feminist, you know Rebecca herself who obviously never appears. I’m jealous of Rebecca. Not only was she beautiful but she maintained her own boat and she rode horses.  She really was this exceptional creature and I subtitled it with what Daphne du Maurier described Rebeca as, a study in jealousy.  I think what’s amazing is to watch a very likable young women who had stepped into the shadow of an incredibly able woman.  And to look at what that man wants from her. Maxim is looking for a woman who isn’t going to challenge him in the way that Rebecca did and isn’t going to have personal freedom in the way that Rebecca did. I think I’ve given him a little bit more comeuppance than any other version has.

It’s amazing how Mrs De Winter can become such a huge character despite Rebecca’s presence pervading and enduring in the land and the house. Just like the moors are a powerful force in Wuthering Heights.

Well that’s a brilliant thing to say actually because Rebecca is as big as the moors and in this production she is the sea. I mean she lies in the bottom of the sea and the sea is what gives justice at the end so it’s a great analogy.

What advice would you give to young writers starting out looking at directing or textual adaptations?

Keep it simple! Don’t be frightened because what’s the worst that can happen? You make a show that isn’t that great? Ultimately choose something that you are passionate about and keep asking simple questions; like what’s exciting? What do I care about? The rest will work out itself. 

You can get tickets here http://www.rebeccatheplay.com/ and for more on Emma’s work see here http://www.kneehigh.co.uk/

By Tara Flynn

Poetry Competition 2015

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The London Magazine poetry competition

Our Poetry Competition has now closed and we would like to say a huge thanks to everyone who entered and shared the competition with fellow poets while it was running. We have received some truly brilliant and inspirational entries this year from across the world – you have sent us all sorts of poetry and we look forward to reading it with our competition judges. We will be publishing the winner and runners up so stay tuned to hear more on that. Our next competition will be our short story competition – more on this soon!

A conversation with Shaun Usher on ‘Letters Live’

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We caught up with Shaun Usher on the art of letter writing, curating a live literary event and the phenomenal success of his concept which started out as a hobby. Letters Live is running NOW until 4th April and is inspired by Shaun’s book ‘Letters of Note’ and Simon Garfield’s ‘To the Letter’.

Letters of Live is a unique event, reading a carefully chosen selection of letters, with readings from Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey amongst a host of other world class performers.

The interest in Letters Live has grown so much and so quickly, originally what was it that inspired you to start Letters of Note? Did you ever anticipate that it would become as big as it has?

No – it goes back 30 years when I first met the lady who is now my wife – two weeks after we started dating she moved to Spain as part of her university course. She had to spend a year abroad so we decided to stay in touch by letter, primarily, so we sent a lot of letters to each other purely to see how it would go. And it was the best possible start so we kind of fell in love through letters and it was at that point that I was seduced by the whole idea of letter writing and I always thought to myself that one day I would explore the idea further. And then it was in 2009 that I decided to start the website. I was working as a copywriter at the time and one of my clients was a stationery retailer – and that basically led me on to letter writing again and I decided to start a website and it just took off really quickly. I just started it as a hobby but thanks to twitter – ironically, you know the very service which is kind of going to kill off things like letter writing – the website took off and it’s been crazy since then. I’ve never really looked back.

It’s so rare for a concept to take off like this. It’s always lucky but clearly your concept is brilliant and your dedication shows through. I think there’s so many people who would love to do something like this in the Arts. As someone who has managed to make word of mouth and social media work for you; what kind of advice would you give someone starting out with a new concept? We are a magazine who publish a lot of young and emerging authors, how do you craft an original presence online without drowning in the digital world?

Letters of Note is a simple idea, I couldn’t believe that no one else had done it when I first started the website. I was sure that such a blog would already exist so I was lucky in that respect. But if it wasn’t for twitter I wouldn’t be where I am sitting now and I would still be in sales. I would advise people to definitely build up a presence on twitter, and make your output digestable for a twitter audience. We’re so busy these days that we consume things that are very brief. Especially on twitter – what I’ve found is the things that get retweeted the most are the things that take mere seconds to digest. Anything that’s too lengthy puts people off. It’s the same with the book – I write introductions to each letter in the book. I deliberately made these introductions at most a couple of paragraphs long because I know that people’s attention spans are so poor these days, very telling of the times I think. The most important thing is to build up a presence online. Also don’t really think about it too much just continue to do what you love – it will become infectious if it looks like you’re enjoying yourself online and really really revelling in all this poetry or whatever it is your trying to promote.

I definitely agree with that about it becoming infectious. I think letters live reaches out to such a wide audience, it is a truly beautiful event. As someone who doesn’t come from a classic English literature background, what’s the core appeal of letter writing for you?

Well it’s a combination. I love the fact that you can learn about certain moments in history through letters – certain moments in history that you wouldn’t know about were it not for letters or moments in history that you see from a different viewpoint, from somebody that was actually involved like a first person view. I love the fact that these letters also show you a different side to people that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen, so for instance someone like Queen Elizabeth II. You never see her personal side really and then you see a letter she wrote to the US President with a recipe and it really kind of changes your view of people. There’s another one from Iggy Pop and he wrote a beautiful letter to one of his fans who’s having a tough time and it just kind of showed me a different light. A different side of Iggy’s personality – in this day and age as we’re all succumbing to the digital communications and emails and twitter and it’s so bland you know? And then you see a letter that’s hand written and you can look at the stationery and the smudges and the character to the letter. Whereas these days it’s far too easy to write an email and just leave no stamp. So many things – we are losing it and becoming boring.

Do you think that’s why so many people have warmed to your project and wanted to be part of this, because that originality is actually reassuring? In terms of what’s been happening recently, everything has just become so uniform. For me that’s what I liked about it when I first saw it – I found it reassuring and interesting in that respect.

Definitely, it’s quite comforting. Also a lot of these letters – (I read so many collections of letters constantly and I’m always searching for the letters that are self-contained stories), don’t need too much context to enjoy them. So I love finding a letter that’s its own little story, its own little world and I just think it’s priceless – they are so easy to digest and it’s such a beautiful thing.

What’s your favourite letter? Or top three?

It changes all the time. The one I usually say is my favourite is there’s one written by a guy called Robert Pirosh who was a copywriter in the 1940s and he wanted to become a screenwriter. So he wrote a job application letter to all the directors he could find addresses for and it’s just the most perfect job application letter. Cause it’s such a hard letter to get right and make sexy. His letter is a lovely exploration of the English language and he went on to be very successful.

People are fascinated by these letters. Your original assertion about how valuable this exploration is on moments of human nature and what we learn about people – I think that’s very valid, and all the fans definitely do as well. But logistically and practically, how do you source such amazing and archived letters? How did it come about?

The first thing I did was I went to the local library and I went to the section where all the biographies are and usually in every library there’s a few letter collections. This was in Manchester and in Manchester library they’ve got a big section on letters. I literally spent a few days, when I should have been working, just with these dusty old collections of letters – classics from Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf; and just falling in love with it. But nowadays because the website’s been so popular I get a lot of suggestions from readers – a lot of people send me their own letters that they’ve received or that they’ve found or sent. I’ve got a network of archivists around the world now that I keep in touch with, as well as museum curators. There’s so much choice these days it’s actually quite difficult but what a great problem to have. So I get them from books, archives, museums, recipients and so on, loads of different places.

What would be your ideal library or archive to search?

The Harry Ransom center in Texas. It’s a University where they buy up loads of personal papers of people alive and dead. And they’ve got the biggest collection of letters you’ve ever heard of and it’s been my dream to go there for so long. I was meant to go there just a few months ago but because of a deadline I’ve got finishing Letters of Note Volume II I couldn’t go. But I’m desperate to get there. As soon as this books done I’m definitely going. They’ve also started buying up people’s email accounts as well.

That’s really surreal, digital correspondence such a recent idea now being archived too, we are constantly evolving in communication.

Yes but a sign of the times. The curators have realised that as letters aren’t being produced so much anymore we could start preserving emails as well.

What’s next for you?

The book is out at the end of this year. I’m really excited because I’ve been writing it for so long now.

How do you think Letters of Note is going to evolve?

After this I’m going to do a book about speeches – that’s something I’ve always wanted to do for a long time now and it will be in the same kind of style as Letters of Note. I’ve been tracking down all these drafts of amazing speeches – I’m going to be launching a website next year and probably a book

Letters Live as an event is a natural progression from the book which works perfectly but which do you prefer? Presenting your material on paper or being part of a live event?

As long as it promotes letters I’m happy but the event is a lovely event. These letters have gone from paper onto pixels and onto stage, it’s lovely to see them come to life read by people who really know how to do it properly, there’s nothing better, it’s always surreal but the best evening. So many people say ‘we can’t believe this hasn’t been done before.’ It’s the same as the website. It’s amazing that no one’s done this before because it really does translate well on stage and the atmosphere is amazing. If I wasn’t doing this as a career I would still be doing it anyway as a hobby!

You can find more information on Letters Live here.

By Tara Flynn

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