Second blog from Rosemary Harris

Ahead of One Way Ticket opening at Half Moon on Wednesday 30 April, co-writer and performer Rosemary Harris blogs about the process of writing the show. 

The Cool Hand and the Listening Ear 

In case you’ve missed previous blogs on the subject, One Way Ticket is a new polyvocal show written and performed by me with Justin Coe and Sophie Rose, based on the British child migrants’ scandal of the 1950s. Funded by ACE Grants for the Arts, and produced in partnership with Apples and Snakes and Half Moon Young People’s Theatre, it is about to open its London season at Half Moon after a tour of unusual venues in the South East. (2 ships and officially one of the world’s smallest theatres, if anyone’s asking…)


This piece however is not about the logistics of how and where or trying to flog you a ticket or persuade you to getyourself along – apart from anything it’s aimed primarily at that tricky 8 – 12 age group – who are unlikely to be reading this – although the adults who’ve been coming along insist that it’s for growns as much as youngers. So do feel free to join us.

The purpose of this piece is to write about the ways in which we use language that make this spoken word, or live literature, or even (shudder) poetry theatre. Actually, that’s what we’ve decided to market it as, which in itself doesn’t tick the usual boxes where ‘spoken word’ as a label avoids the P word altogether. Although there were some earlier discussions about sound effects, exciting lighting, backdrops etc etc we have eschewed all of that to simply have 3 writer/performers, some relevant costuming, and that’s it. What does all of the rest of the work is the language, and we have been mighty relieved and happy to find does the job. Even with ten year olds who’ve never been to theatre or spoken word before, whose Grans say to us afterwards ‘I’ve never seen her sit still and listen for so long.’ There are some interactive bits, but they have arisen organically, rather than being slapped on because we’re worried we won’t hold everyone’s attention.

Holding children’s attention is what we’ve spent over a year working on the text for. There are many issues that we have worked through. Firstly, with 3 performance poets contributing it’s an unusual starting point, and initially we each wrote bits for our own characters. Bringing them together, the challenge was to create something that doesn’t sound like the textual equivalent of a bad patchwork quilt. Sophie and Justin both often use quite long and relaxed lines in terms of meter, to great quirky and characterful effect. I on the other hand tend to be a scansion Nazi, and I love working within really strict form, although I don’t always write sestinas and sonnets (actually I’ve never really managed a successful sestina). The point being we had to find a way of keeping what was appropriate and rich about the character while providing some tighter formal structure around it to move the narrative forward in a very complex story. For the most part this was done by me as lead artist, (rather than by committee which would probably have taken us another year), pulling the overall piece together, with all of us in rehearsal then chipping in to write and rewrite bits. Eventually you would be hard pressed to say who wrote what. We certainly struggle to remember, which we think is a good thing.
We tried to score the piece as musicians would, changing rhythms throughout. Working in verse can easily become monotonous, as all of us tend to write in natural rhythms that we fall into. Audiences, especially children, aren’t always even aware of the rhythms they are hearing, just whether they continue to be engaged or not. Writing polyvocally also meant keeping an ear out for half rhymes, internal rhymes, rhythm patterns that can be repeated or varied, riffs that can be consolidated or subverted. It all takes time! and a pedantic nature helps: a fascination with the minutiae of it all. Also a very patient and creatively-open cast. All of which we had. Lucky.

Unlike with more naturalistic dialogue, there isn’t much in the way of subtext. Meaningful pauses don’t really work much – it’s the lines that do the job, not what’s between or under them. Of huge help in this, as in much of my previous work, has been the lessons learned from an old drama school book, Playing Shakespeare, by John Barton (former RSC director). It really should be compulsory for all performance poets because of what it teaches about the phenomenal complexity of language structures within the plays. How old Will used rhythm and rhyme and prose and all of the devices as stage directions, as emotional signifiers, as text, subtext and the whole shebang. I recommend it.

A simple example. Monosyllabic words in poetry often carry great weight and portent. Towards the dramatic highpoint of our show, Justin wrote and performs one of the most moving pieces –

‘Dear Mum,
It’s your loving son.
I know that you’ve gone
and you’ve done no wrong…
You did your best for us.
You needed a rest from us. ’

Almost all in monosyllables, which gives it a measured, almost incantatory feel.

And of course the rhythm helps. The form, the rhythm, is the cool hand that holds the heat of the heightened emotion.

Our show packs an emotional punch, about the true stories of British children forced into migration to Australia in the 1950s, away from their families, often for ever. The story and the feelings it evokes could be unbearable. The poetry, the heightened language, both elevates the narrative and makes it feel contained, manageable; something we can bear to be near without losing ourselves. Because always, on some deep level, our brains register the formality of the language and that artifice gives us reassurance, gives us something to hold onto. Children’s audiences need to know there is hope and light and uplift.

In the final section of the show we move to the present day, the language reflecting our own version of contemporary performance poetry, from the point of view of two siblings vying to strut their poetic stuff. Still carrying the story forward, out of the 1950s and into the now, not primarily through the costume changes but through the language, the text, that gives us all we need to tell our story.

Rosemary Harris