Flo Read graduated from Oxford last year, and has written numerous acclaimed plays which have been performed both nationally and internationally; Twin Primes won Best Production and Best Writing at the 2015 Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) New Writing Festival, and Cold Warm went to the Edinburgh Fringe last year. She chats with Megan Husain about her experience of writing and survival tips for Oxford.
I came to meet Flo at the Peloton Espresso café in Cowley, and started off asking her about how she first got involved with theatre. Flo explained that she started writing as early as she can remember, but that the critical turning point for her occurred at age 14, when she wrote her first play during a course with Simon Stephens at the Lyric Theatre: “It was an amazing experience which started me on a road to the realisation that as long as you do something, as long as you write, as long as you read, you can make that thing into the thing that you do… You don’t need any qualifications, you don’t need anyone to tell you that you can write, you can just do it yourself.” This get-up-and-go attitude is something that has clearly stuck with Flo. Writing plays at the same time as getting through an English degree at Oxford is no mean feat, and she readily admits that it was trying at times: “When people say, ‘Oh, you went to Oxford, that must have been amazing for your writing’ – in fact it was the other way round: my writing was bad for my degree, because I decided to just focus on it so much.”
However, Flo is equally keen to stress how tough life in theatre has become upon leaving University: “Everything becomes a lot more difficult. People tried to warn me, subtly, maybe too subtly, but it needs to be said that it is a safety net when you’re at university. It’s easy to be the most respected when realistically you’re in such a bubble of student writing as opposed to ‘real’ writing, so to speak. It’s very hard to experience or even imagine the amount of difficulty you can have in creating things and getting people to put them on when you’re out of that bubble.” On asking her what she’s up to at the moment, though, it doesn’t seem all doom and gloom. Flo is still writing religiously every day, and is hoping to take a new piece on tour in the summer. She explains that now she has the chance to focus more on writing: “The past few years I was concentrating so much on productions and making shows. I’ve now turned my attention much more to what’s on the page, and how that can be read as a text, rather than always thinking how the show will look in reality.” Her passion for theatre is palpable: “I write daily, I always write, no matter what I’m doing. Even if I’m in a full-time job I’ll still be writing because I have to live, but this is the thing that keeps me alive.”
“I write daily, I always write, no matter what I’m doing … This is the thing that keeps me alive.”
We then get on to the juicy stuff: where she gets her inspiration from and how she writes. Flo explains: “The usual writing process starts with thinking, lots and lots of thinking. I take time out every day and I just think for ages.” But after that, writing is very fast, and from the first moments of having an idea to the final product, it usually takes her no more than a month. Twin Primes was written in 3 days, and Cold Warm in only 48 hours. She explains the importance of this urgency: “While it’s new, you have the energy to push it forward, and as soon as you start becoming jaded or bored with your own idea, that’s the end.” Where do her ideas come from? It seems that most come from external influences: “Recently I’ve been reading a lot of news, because I’ve found it really helpful to read stories that are current and then move from there in terms of ideas; that’s where my most recent piece is coming from now, out of a news story from 2016 about two girls who adopted a child from a shopping centre in Manchester.”
I ask her whether anything is autobiographical or personal in her work, and am met with a staunch response: “Suddenly it’s become important to a lot of people that writers only write about their personal experiences and I don’t buy into that. I write about things that I purely imagine and when people ask me whether it comes from personal knowledge, the answer would generally be no. I suppose all humans have human feelings, and so I have the same feelings as people but it’s always going to be complicated; no good play is purely autobiographical, because a play that is purely autobiographical is just you talking to someone else about yourself, which is what we do all the time, every day. You have to have imagination otherwise you haven’t got a story.”
Finally, I ask Flo for advice for budding playwrights in Oxford. She is hesitant to pinpoint any exact pearls of wisdom, but stresses how important it is not to worry about being part of a crowd. “Nobody ever succeeds without being able to do something on their own,” she says, “and although it’s an amazing thing to have a support network, when you are left to do something under your own steam, you get the best out of yourself. Never be afraid to step out of the group and just do it (…oh, that was the Nike advert!)” Her dry humour strikes again as we chat about books, and with a smirk she tells me that she’s in the middle of reading I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. She adds: “The more you read, the better you write. I 100% believe that. I cannot imagine if everyone read all the time: everyone would be writers! Let’s just hope they don’t though, because I can’t take the competition!”
We end on a heartening note about living in the present as I ask more generally for tips on surviving Oxford: “I can’t really give a single piece of advice on getting through Oxford, considering I only just survived, other than to remember how lucky you are, and to take the good with the bad. Looking back, I have a lot of bad memories of the place, but also some of the fondest memories of my life, and while they were happening I didn’t really notice them.”