Monday, February 21, 2011

Poetry to Playwriting: The Connecting Parts

The Unblocked A's are a group of playwrights who have emerged from PTC's 2010 Block A.

A new year. Our first meeting together as the Unblocked A’s since Block A ended. We had decided to continue meeting as a group to share, offer support, give feedback and keep the home fires burning for writing plays.

The familiar flip chart was still there, in the same place with the same page, the same figures written on white as when we started in October. Same tidy folders. Same chairs. Same square table. Comforting and reassuring, the room was ready for us. We would continue the rotation used in Block A: two people having their work read, then getting feedback. This week it was Nathaniel and I. This was the first full play I had ever finished and I was excited to hear how the pages would translate upon reading.

Everyone did a wonderful job taking on multiple roles and gave imaginative interpretations of what were previously just voices cast to my laptop or muttered inside my head. After I had the chance to digest the reading and feedback, I reflected on some of the challenges I had encountered in writing a play with a poet’s sensibility. When I started writing the play, it seemed to me that the considerations for writing a poem or play travelled two distinct roads.

Contained is the word that comes to mind when I consider the process of finding and creating a poem, the space a poem occupies. Not something tightlipped or repressed, but concentrated. I have the sense of creating a voice that lives under the radar, pulling out small details that often go unnoticed, coming in for extreme close-up on an event or object seemingly ordinary. This sense applies even if the poem is noisy, unruly, long or public. A poem is dense, a compact unit. Whereas, a play just seems larger—epic—even in the building of a small moment or action. Writing the play, I felt there were so many more elements I needed to juggle, questions I needed to answer, which were different to the ones I asked when writing a poem: “What’s the inciting incident?,” “What’s this character’s motivation?,” “Why would that character do this when he just did that?,” “How does the dialogue move the play forward?” Tracking the through lines and narratives of the different characters and story was exhilarating and daunting, yet the scale of the task was something foreign to me.

Now I see the connecting parts.

The first line of a poem is the point of attack, the place where you establish trust with the reader and listener. From this line forward, the world you create supports this trust, deviates from, or challenges, it. In a play and poetry, you create an ecosystem where the placement of a word, or action, has immediate impact upon the others. There is the world composed of the linear accretion of words and actions working their way towards cohesion, narrative and plot, but also a dynamic circular motion where they are interdependent, simultaneously creating new meanings and referring back to old ones.

The voice in a character or a poem needs to ring true when you hear it out loud (that little pea under the blanket will be heard—an elephant is hard to hide in a small room). Poems and plays track the growth and development of a voice, where patterns and behaviors establish themselves through words and lines. A reader needs cues to make the connective leap when a poem moves from ten stanzas of couplets into tercets, something so that she or he doesn’t freeze and give up. An audience needs a sign of some kind, at some point, as to how that shy, barely audible, little man slides into a life of vice with a slick banter that oozes charm and trouble—even if it always was in him. It is a challenge how one continually builds the trust towards that voice, character, or action, so that when the transition does happen, the surprise isn’t a barrier to staying in the present and moving forward with the play or poem.

One of the most interesting exercises I did in Block A—thanks to our facilitator, Jan Derbyshire— was to write an outline of my play, scenes and all. I had never done this before. On the days that I had committed to writing my play, I wrote the scenes out. It was very liberating knowing what I was going to write. I had my template, my direction, the points I needed to hit. How calming! I have yet to try this with my poetry manuscript. I’m curious, though. I know where more poems need to be written, what the themes are, yet it’s difficult to translate how an action in a poem might have a close approximation to the function it serves in a play. Is it in the line breaks, in the stanzas? How would it move the poem forward? These are my questions right now and I’m keen to try it as an experiment.

I think one can always break open, widen the possibilities of an art practice and genre by applying the tools of another one, by asking questions that at first seem illogical, ill fitting, or inappropriate. Perhaps in that locus of discomfort i
s where the richest possibilities lie. I think the line between writing poems and plays is constant, wavering. One day, who knows, maybe I’ll dream up the lighting for an opening stanza in a poem.

Born in Belize, Joy Russell is a poet, writer and budding playwright. Her writing has appeared in a number of anthologi e s and literary journals in the USA, Canada, England and the Caribbean, including The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2008.

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