Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Collapsible Poetics Diary

Monday, April 28

Weekend in Maryland visiting with Sadie's maternal grandparents, flew back from Washington and arrived at O'Hare around 3:30. (Sadie was golden on the plane and I got to read a good chunk of Gabe Gudding's Rhode Island Notebook, fortuitously and startlingly found while browsing at the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda. More about that in another post.) Homeward, get groceries, drop off Emily and Sadie, and, without having left any time to grab dinner, drive into the city in search of Links Hall, which turns out to be a stone's throw from Wrigley Field. I'm the last to arrive; my collaborators Fred Sasaki, Melissa Severin, John Beer (who's responsible for this whole Poets' Theater business), and dramaturg (poeturg?) Rodrigo Toscano are already upstairs in the shambling old building and moving around the performance space, which looks like a dance studio with bleachers at one end and no mirror or barre. The El goes by pretty regularly outside the row of windows facing east. Quick introductions and then Rodrigo's showing us some video of previous productions of the plays we'll be performing.

I write "plays" and it seems like the right word insofar as we'll be at play; also there are scripts and lines for us to read, along with very precise stage directions. But it quickly becomes apparent that a wide gap yawns between poets' theater and regular-type theater, at least as Rodrigo envisions it. First off, there's zero interest in illusionism, which is why for almost all of the pieces we'll be holding and reading from scripts (though there is one piece dynamic enough that it requires the players to memorize lines--thankfully, I'm not in that one). Rodrigo says he wants the labor to be transparent--"This is not a product" he says, more than once. Another point is that although we each play distinct parts, there are no characters per se, nor does the primary dynamic of each piece--what generates its tension and energy--derive from conflict between characters. (This violates the first rule of drama that I always teach to students: that each character must palpably want something, and the desires of the characters inevitably conflict.) The tension rather derives partly from the good-old-fashioned Brechtian alienation effect
--most of the pieces feature some sort of confrontation with the audience, while deliberately withholding the ordinary theatrical satisfactions of plot or realistic dialogue--but also from the players' own struggle with the language. There's a fair bit of Spanish in the longest piece I'm performing in, which I've never studied--nevertheless, Spanish I must speak. Still, it remains theater: we are bodies moving in space, saying lines, handling props, interacting with each other and an as-yet imaginary audience.

After we watch the videos we get right to running through the long piece that features John, Melissa, Fred, and myself. And there we all are, first kneeling, then squatting, then lying, then actually writhing on the floor, performing the intricate movements in Rodrigo's script. I'm nearly middle-aged, I think to myself as I sprawl there, pretending to stab little creatures on the floor with a pencil. But there's actually little time for self-consciousness: Rodrigo is a professional, he's done this before, he knows exactly what he wants and he has specific instructions and pointers for each of us. And I'm surprised to discover fewer inhibitions than I might have expected from myself. It's liberating to come out from behind the podium, but it also helps that I'm just a player, an interpreter of Rodrigo's work and not my own. I'm a collaborator, in every sense of that word, but not the author. Plus you can't take on a role that asks you to snort like a pig (you'll just have to see it to see what I mean) and worry too much about your dignity. I also haven't eaten anything since a sandwich at the Washington airport hours and hours ago, so I'm a little lightheaded.

We go at it pretty hard until well after the official stopping time; then Rodrigo "releases" me since I'm only in one long and one short piece; the others remain behind to work on two other pieces that I'm not in. I didn't request this, but it's good sense on John and Rodrigo's part, knowing as they do that I have a new baby and job responsibilities this week. In fact, somehow between now (9 PM) and the drive home and tomorrow, I have to prepare for the final workshop of my final poetry writing class, which happens at 9:30 AM tomorrow. So that's going to be two days of rehearsal preceded by frenzied and intense activity. The rest of the week will hopefully be a bit smoother.

Tuesday, April 29

The last day of classes at Lake Forest goes well, and I'm genuinely sorry to see this batch of students go: they're a terrific bunch. The poetry class workshop is always fun; I had been a little more concerned about the final meeting of my senior seminar, which I'd billed as a mini-symposium on creative writing, plus treats (I bring Twinkies, which prove to be literally inedible; one of my students brought homemade brownies and peanut-butter cookies and wins the implicit contest). This could have been a shapeless mess, but it's actually energizing: we discuss such questions as what creative writing is for and why should one bother with certain kinds of writing when film and TV and video games do a much better job of rendering what are essentially nineteenth-century realistic narratives. I don't know if I really persuade anyone that they should aspire to write more like Dodie Bellamy than Sarah Paretsky, but I may be the last voice they hear for a long time that isn't a wholly owned subsidiary of the market.

After class it's time for the annual Senior/Faculty Cocktail Party, which is surprisingly fun. The kids are all dressed up and bursting with pride at their accomplishments, rubbing elbows with faculty in a familial way. I sip a little wine and felt sentimental about my first year as a prof for a while, but soon I have to shake myself loose and shake a few hands before hopping in my car and driving home to Evanston for an hour or so of dinner and family time. Sadie bouncing in my lap while Emily puts dinner together; at one point she opens her mouth and lets out a long, long, catlike yowl, then blinks at us in surprise as if to say, "Who said that?"

Back in the car: rehearsal starts at 8 tonight so there's little traffic, but then I slam into a cacophony of cabs, cops, and Cubs fans: there's a game tonight. I call Rodrigo on my cell and tell him I'll be a bit late, but it sounds like he's just arriving himself. Round and round in widening concentric circles until I find a spot three blocks south on Belmont; not too shabby. Arrive at the hall and meet Rachel Damon, the lighting designer and stage manager: the first part of the evening will be devoted to blocking each piece and figuring out what to light and where. Fred's later than me and when he comes in he tells us why: some asshole slipped into the perfect parking space he'd found just outside the hall. We debate for a moment the respective merits of kicking the guy's ass versus keying his car; the latter option is rejected as being too passive-aggressive. I argue that karma will surely visit an appropriate doom on the jerk. Meanwhile Rodrigo is constantly in motion. He seems to be a little disappointed when Rachel tells him that, because it's a white room, even one light will basically illuminate everything, making it impossible to do much with deep shadows; but he quickly recovers. Improvisation is a big part of poets' theater, after all.

Tonight I'm noticing a couple of things. One is how readily we submit to Rodrigo's direction: you would think getting a bunch of poets who don't really know each other to work closely together like this would be like herding cats, but we all immediately and instinctively bow to his benevolent dictatorship (a dictatorship, in a sense, of the proletariat, given Rodrigo's day job as a labor organizer). He knows exactly what he wants and he's willing to work harder than anyone else to get it: these are prerequisites, I think, for anyone who wants to take on the daunting task of performance, much less directing. He's not shy about making us work, either: "I'm going to work you guys to death," he says with no discernible irony. But he doesn't need to browbeat us: we do it willingly. There's a kind of soldier's comradeship that carries us through; maybe that explains why theater folk are called "troupers." So although my joints are aching from yesterday, and I eventually sprain my left wrist rather badly when I do a clumsy job of moving a table, I don't even think of complaining. The show must go on.

The other thing I'm starting to notice is the nature of poets' theater itself and how fundamentally paratactic it is compared with more traditional theater. Most plays organize the stage space, the actors' movements, the dialogue, and the relationships of the characters hypotactically: if it's done right we are never confused about who's married to whom, or why the count launches into a soliloquy, or whether that chair downstage is supposed to be just a chair or a seat on the subway. Every element is relatable to every other element, and this is a big part of what enables the audience's suspension of disbelief. Poets' theater, on the other hand, bears the same relation to a regular play as verse does to prose, or lyric to narrative: mere simultaneity of being and acting is all that's provided to cement the relationships of players, space, props, and audience. The language is important, but not as central as you might expect: it's just one element in a group of visual and spatial elements. It's their arrangement that is "poetic" and that will evoke, I hope, thoughts and feelings in the audience not easily arrived at through conventional narrative means.

Another hour or so crawling on the floor and bellowing in Spanish: Rodrigo seems pleased with our performance overall, and he's even more pleased with our rendering of a shorter piece that will launch the evening; he says we're setting the template for it. Without actually coming out and saying how badly I'm mangling the Spanish language, he tells me not to worry, because my struggle with the language is part of the piece--translation and the crossing of borders is one of its major themes. So when it's time, at 10:30, to pack up and go home, I'm feeling pretty good about our two-nights progress, in spite of my throbbing wrist.

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