Q&A with Ben Musgrave

Ben Musgrave was winner of our 1st Prize in 2005 with his play PRETEND YOU HAVE BIG BUILDINGS, which went on to be produced at the Exchange in 2007. This web chat from 2008 explains his journey towards writing for the competition.

What inspired you to write PRETEND YOU HAVE BIG BUILDINGS?

I began writing BIG BUILDINGS despite myself, actually. I was at Goldsmiths doing an MA in writing for Performance and had to write a play for my final project, and there were some subjects that I was determined not to write about. I had grown up in India and Bangladesh, but had also had this strange experience when I was 13, when my family moved back from Bangladesh to England, and we ended up in urban Essex, and I started going to a school in Romford. It was quite a culture shock. But Romford – certainly in the mid-nineties, when I was there, was rather like the kind of blasted suburban landscape that I DIDN’T want to write about – as places like Romford seemed to grace the stages of many new writing theatres every day of the week, and I’d imagined that I had slightly different values as a writer – while at goldsmiths I thought quite hard about these values – that I wanted to write plays that were theatrically and geographically colourful, that perhaps had an international theme, that explored joyful experience as much as bleak experience. And also that I was interested in writing dialogue that had interesting relationships to the audience. Anyway, I tried to write a play based on these ‘values’ that I claimed to espouse – and on the day of the goldsmiths deadline I was struggling to write some nonsense about hunting for dinosaur fossils in Patagonia. But I realised it meant nothing to me. So I started to write a play set in Romford – even though I’d sworn that I wouldn’t. Nevertheless, what I hope can be seen in BIG BUILDINGS – despite its urban location – are some of those values I’d cultivated at Goldsmiths… And that shock – of entering one very pungent culture after leaving another, is a starting point for the play

How much to the reviews for ‘Pretend you have buildings’ affect you?

Yes, being reviewed can be quite a shock – whether they’re good or bad. Actually, I find any encounter with anyone attempting to reinterpret my words quite difficult to handle (I found it quite difficult to bear reading the interviews with me that came out around the time the show was going on). I think a lot of the feelings about reviews are connected to the question of whether you’re happy in yourself with the show that’s been produced: “have I seen MY play realised on stage”. On the night of the press night of the show, I witnessed MY play on stage. It’s an astonishing feeling – to recognise your world – the world of your play – unfolding in front of your eyes. So as far as I was concerned I was happy, and if somebody didn’t like the play, that was because they didn’t much enjoy being in that world. There were some good reviews, some middling, some excellent reviews, one review that counted the swear-words, and one absolutely vile review. I didn’t spend very long reading the vile one.

Ben, are you a night writer or a day writer?

Some people are quite violently scathing about the need to think hard about the practical ‘pen or laptop’, ‘night or day’, ‘drunk or sober’ kinds of aspects of being a writer (see Hanif Kureishi on this, I think in last Tuesday’s guardian), but I think it’s incredibly important to take your working practices seriously as a writer. The brain is a strange and wonderful thing, and it’s worth exploring the way one uses it. Until December 2007, if I was working on a play, I would tend to work later and later into the night each night, and go to bed with my brain buzzing. Inevitably, it would take me another hour to get to sleep. And inevitably, I’d wake up later and later each morning, and feel wretched. This year, I’ve been waking up early, and trying to do a working day. I find this has made me feel much healthier, although it does mean that I check my email more, and am more distracted by the activity of ‘day’ (whereas the world often seems quieter and less clamorous at two in the morning.

What is the play you would have liked to have written?

Every so often I go and watch a play and think ‘I’d like to have written that’. And I think it illuminates something about your writing when you feel that – even if you would NEVER have written a play like the one you’ve seen. Plays I’ve seen recently/not so recently that I’d like to have written. Dan Rebellato’s STATIC. Bryony Lavery’s STOCKHOLM Abi Morgan’s TINY DYNAMITE Gregory Burke’s THE STRAITS Tim Crouch’s AN OAK TREE Mark Ravenhill’s CITIZENSHIP Caryl Churchill’s CLOUD NINE (and TOP GIRLS) I’d quite like to have written HENRY IV Part One, as well…

I enjoyed reading ‘Pretend You Have Big Buildings’- my interest is really one of dialogue. The play reads very naturally, as a student of ‘English Linguistics’ some of the dialogue resembled actual speech transcriptions rather than typical script dialogue. Did this come about via a process of MA read-through and workshops you conducted? And how much stress would you place on having your play performed read aloud or acted out prior to the competition entry?

That’s quite perceptive. One of the things I became interested in at Goldsmiths was Verbatim theatre, and Verbatim technique. ‘Verbatim dialogue’ has a particular sound to it, a particular flavour, often a particular intensity of detail that I really like – so in a sense BIG BUILDINGS uses made-up verbatim speech! I like the way that real speech can sometimes be quite revealing about a speaker, without DAMNING them (if they’re treated responsibly).

Hi Ben – how’s the new play going and do you have an agent? Also, do you have plans to write for TV and film or are you purely a theatre man?

I got an agent as a result of winning the prize actually. Mel Kenyon at Casarotto Ramsey. My new play… well… it’s taken a while. Partly because I felt self-imposed pressure to write my ‘next play’, and so probably there has been a little bit of ‘difficult second album syndrome’. But at last I’m nearly getting somewhere, and hoping to get a draft I’m happy with VERY VERY soon. Having spent well over a year on one play, however, I’ve also been writing a play about neuroscience for young people, which I’m really enjoying writing, and that process I’ve found almost miraculously joyous, and quick. Will finish that this week (touch wood). As an assignment with tight deadlines, I didn’t have time to get bogged down in concerns about whether this idea was ‘the one’. My first love is theatre, but I am looking at TV, too.

Hi Ben. At this time last year had you finished your play and sent it in? Had anyone read it and given you feedback?

I think I probably sent it in at the last minute. I very nearly didn’t, actually! But the play – in a messy, misshapen form – had been hanging around for a while before the competition – I hadn’t finished it ‘for’ the competition – although I do recall giving it a bit of a polish. It had been read by quite a large number of people – including literary departments – and I had benefited from a lot of dramaturgical feedback. The play wasn’t ‘finished’ when I sent it to the competition (although it was complete in the sense that it had a beginning middle and an end). Nevertheless, I do think a reader would be able to see the heart of the play – to see its spirit. My attitude was that I wasn’t going to spend any more time on it until it had a production. I wanted to get on to other things.

Hi, some people report that their characters do things they didn’t expect! Do you find your characters develop a life of their own? Do you have conversations going on in your head?

I’m not sure about the conversations going in my head, but it’s ABSOLUTELY true about characters beginning to take on a life of their own. Paradoxically, it’s not a question of losing control. When a characters start to take on a life of their own, it’s very likely that you’ve come to KNOW your character. In writing other plays, I’ve spent long periods with only a vague sense of who my characters are, and while that remains the case I feel that the play is paralysed and vague, and I’m anxious and uneasy about it. When characters begin to do things you don’t expect you often get a kind of pleasure: Ah, yes, it’s JUST LIKE HER to go and do that…

What does it take to be a good writer?

It’ll be hard to answer this one in full, because writers and critics have spent millennia trying to get to grips with it. But here are a few provocations: An ability to say: ‘I believe the world looks like this and feels like this and sounds like this and happens like this’. An interest in the world. An openness to provocation and process – being in a constant state of revolution. When politicians change, they get criticised for making u-turns. When writers change, they renew themselves. Eventually, a ruthlessness about the material you have – knowing when to cut. An appreciation of what subject matter has a charge for you. A determination – especially in a high-rent age – to keep going. A way of making heaps of money for one day a week.

Hi Ben. When you submitted Pretend You Have Big Buildings–how sure were you that it was the finished article, so to speak–did you feel that even when you sent it off there was more you could have done–re-written?

Yes, see my response above on this. I was quite clear that the play wasn’t finished, and knew that it needed substantial reimagining – but I felt that the best way of redrafting would be with a specific production in mind – life’s too short to go on redrafting something that’s never going to go on. The first fifty pages were recognisably the same as those that were eventually performed, but in terms of comparing the draft I submitted with the draft that was performed; I probably cut about 50 pages, and added about 70!

Hi Ben, interested to know what you’ve been doing since the play, do you have more scripts in the pipeline?

See above on this, as well. Am currently under commission to the National Theatre Studio, and am writing a play about neuroscience to be performed by young people. Am going to be spending some of this summer in Germany as a delegate to the YOUNG EUROPEAN PLAYWRIGHTS FORUM, where I’ll be generating some material, and I’ll also be spending two months at the MacDowell Colony in America, working on a new play.

What would you say defines the theatrical nature of a play–as I know that a lot of plays actually read more like film or TV scripts–is there one precise quality that you like to focus on that makes the stage the only place where your drama could take place?

Plainly, when writing for the stage, as opposed for the screen, there’s an elephant in the room. Except that the elephant isn’t an elephant, it’s a live audience. And I think sometimes writers forget that. When I said earlier that I wanted my plays to have an interesting relationship to the audience, I partly meant that I like speech (and other forms of text) to fly at me – an audience member – from all angles. There’s more to dialogue than two people speaking to each other in front of a fourth wall. In fact, Raymond Williams counts at least 13 different forms of theatrical address in Shakespeare (i.e. aside, soliloquy, person-to-person etc). In a space like the main house of the royal exchange (which is in the round), there’re no getting away from the fact that there’s an audience in the room, and that that audience might want to feel like they’re part of things – that the action unfolding on stage has a stake for them, too.

Published on:
26 Jan 2015

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