Interview with Horses! Horses! writer Rina Vergano

Rina Vergano is the writer of Wassail Theatre Company’s new play Horses! Horses! (directed by Emma Callander of The Room in the Elephant, Theatre Uncut), which is touring pubs and other venues in Somerset, Bristol, the South West and beyond this coming month. We interviewed her about the show, parenting and theatre and many other things…

Tell us about Horses! Horses! and where the idea came from.

The idea for the show came about a few years back, when I was artistic director of Theatre Orchard and we were exploring the concept of putting live theatre into unusual places in North Somerset; NS doesn’t have a lot of theatres but it does have loads of community halls, churches, beautiful countryside locations and a lot of pubs. With help and support from Kate Yedigaroff when she was the producer at Bristol Old Vic Ferment, we went on a field trip/R&D week in N. Somerset (we being: me, director/dramaturg Emma Callander and writers Adam Peck and Tom Wainwright who contributed a lot to the early development) to meet local people – farmers, postal workers, youth workers and publicans – with the idea of making a show that could be played in pubs. Back then the original working title of the project was Bitter Tales. We met a farmer who breeds Appaloosa (spotty) horses and who had a genuine West Country connection to the ‘Wild West’ and especially to a Native American tribe that also breeds Appaloosas. For me, it was one of those goosebump moments where I knew: there’s a really unusual and soulful story to be told here. So the ‘horse’ connection is a red thread that runs through the show, but it’s also about a landlord struggling to save a failing pub, and about what we will and won’t put up with in relationships. And about our own wild, animal natures and the parts of us that don’t want to be fenced in. While I was working on the script, Emma Callendar usefully said something that unlocked the form for me : if you’re writing a show about pubs to be performed in pubs, then write it in the language of the pub. So the show’s got a spoof quiz, a meat raffle, karoake, pints and crisps and is played in the midst of the pubgoers, with the publicans looking on from behind the bar. It’s always set in an imaginary Somerset pub called the Nag’s Head, whichever pub it’s playing in.

Who else is working on the project?

Emma directed it, and it’s performed by a very strong and musical cast comprising Eoin Slattery playing Ted the farmer, George Williamson playing Johnny the landlord, and Kesty Morrison playing Susie his wife. Greg Hall did the musical direction and sound design and Julie Read did the design. It’s “Made in Somerset” – we rehearsed at the Little Theatre in Wells.

How did you come to work with Wassail and Emma on the show?

Emma was recommended at the start as a wonderful director by Kate Yedigaroff, and I couldn’t have worked with a better dramaturg than Emma. She’s an associate director at The Traverse and has worked very closely with a lot of playwrights, and has read and helped develop a lot of scripts. So she really knows her stuff and is incredibly perceptive, intelligent, instinctual and clear-minded when it comes to helping a writer get the best out of a script-in-progress – on the page and in the room. She also knows Somerset like the back of her hand, and understands the (possibly unfashionable) spiritual elements of the way I write and tell a story. She runs a very democratic rehearsal room in which the writer is very much included – for me as an older writer with an eccentric sense of humour, it’s been a gift to be able to work with her on Horses. Nick White, creative producer at Wassail Theatre, is another gift. Like Fiona at Theatre Orchard, Nick is incredibly hardworking and supportive and a “yes” person. I was a Leverhulme Scholar at the egg theatre in Bath in 2016, and so was writer Jesse Britton, artistic associate of Wassail. Jesse was curious about my work and so I sent him an early version of Horses! Horses! to read, and he sent it to Nick as a script he thought was of potential interest to Wassail. Fortunately Nick loved the script. There’s been quite some serendipity helping this play along: it was shortlisted for TFT’s ScriptSpace award, then the literary department of BOV organised a staged reading of with BOVTS final year students, then Wassail Theatre read it and wanted to produce it, and finally Theatre Orchard was awarded NPO funding. So suddenly a co-production was possible, in association with BOV.

What were the biggest challenges?

In the beginning: my age. Or perhaps believing that my age was an issue was the challenge. I found it really hard to get any potential producer to read it because most producing theatres and companies are interested in developing new writing and new voices – but ‘new’ can mean ‘young’. I’m not young (!) and I’m not that new, though I hope that my voice as a writer always keeps renewing itself. I was commissioned as a playwright and lyricist and had my own women’s theatre company in the Netherlands where I lived for two decades, but my writing career and my own headspace got interrupted by bringing up three three, now grown-up, children that were widely spaced in age. So the past few years I suppose I’m reclaiming my voice as a writer, now that I have the space and time for it again. I think it’s really vital for new writing in the theatre to become more diverse in all its aspects – in race, class, gender and disability, but also in age. It’s easy to exclude voices – especially in a predominately young theatre scene like the one we have in Bristol has – on the grounds of age. Which is a shame because most writers get wiser and better at their craft as they get older. I’m in awe of the way our team on this show just carries on working around their family lives, with lots of kids in the picture: between them they have one brand new baby, three 2-year olds, four school-aged kids, and a pregnancy. They’re clearly made of different stuff to me – or maybe hopefully attitudes and working ethics have changed since I had my kids.

Writer Rina Vergano

Coming back to the show: one of the biggest challenges, risks and also joys of this show is that each pub and each pub audience is different, and unpredictable to a large extent. We opened the show at a tiny intimate country pub in Somerset with a spellbound audience, and the next night took it to a very… let’s say, vibrant!… heaving Clevedon pub on a Saturday night where the cast worked their socks off and pulled it off regardless. That’s the challenge of doing (mainly) free and unticketted work in a pub. But whatever the pub, the audience feedback so far has been incredible – people can’t believe what they’re seeing, in their local boozer. Although the setting is simple and there’s no real set as such, the artistic values and the aspiration to make a really good show – in a pub – are high. So the surprise elements and the ensuing joy levels are high too. I’d say it’s an audacious show to put in a pub: it’s fun, but it’s also deep and serious in places, and goes from raucous comedy to quiet and heartfelt and back again. It’s a roller-coaster.

What do you hope the audience will leave with?

Hopefully a few fake Bank of Somerset banknotes and some beer coasters with horses on that they’ve stuffed in their pockets to take home. The feeling that they’ve been transported out of the pub in their imaginations to another place that’s a bit dreamy, emotional and otherworldly – like being tricked, but in a good way. I hope they’ll take away and mull over all the common ground the play covers, because it’s about being human and fallible. And I hope they leave feeling that we brought a really special piece of theatre to them, in their pub, rather than them having to go to a city or town to see it. That’s very much the Wassail/Theatre Orchard ethos: taking good live work to the people.

Horses! Horses! is at Seymour Arms, Blagdon, on Tue 9 Oct and at The Bristol Improv Theatre on Sat 13 Oct. Find out more here.