Dreams of May, with one of the classes there. The poet and Victorian scholar, Carolyn Oulton, has put the play onto the curriculum of her course in "Writing Across Genres," and so I spent a good part of Wednesday afternoon talking about the how's and why's and fielding all sorts of penetrating questions. What fun! Here are some of the things we discussed:
* Writing for the theatre means you have to think about the visual as much as the aural. This lends itself to poetry which also demands an awareness of the use of space, but of course, a poem on a page is a much smaller space. The physical movements of the actor speaking the words is just as important as the words themselves and actually effects the power and understanding of the text...which is, after all, the point.
* Dreams of May is a one-woman show written entirely in poetry. It is a series of 22 linked poems, and so I had to find a way for one poem to logically flow into the next. Although the dramatic, narrative arc was clear to me, getting from one poem to another would not necessarily be clear to the audience. So I had to come up with a device that would act as a catalyst to the character's thoughts and subsequent speeches. I used the set of a seat on a train, and the props found within the character's bags to serve that purpose. If you read the play or see it, you'll understand how it works. But for the students I felt it was important for them to understand the need for creating those links between speeches. Actors tend to use each other as a way to bounce into their own lines. When an actor is alone on a stage there needs to be some other way for them to move themselves along in the time of the play. I used props, lighting and music to do that.
* You need to think about time. How long will your piece be? If the play lasts for 10 minutes, can it be staged on its own? Can you ask an audience to sit through 2 hours of one person on stage acting out poems? Sounds obvious, but it isn't something that a poet would necessarily think of.
* A poetry play is a rare thing, and this led to the inevitable discussion of marketability. Any sensible person would assume such a thing was not at all marketable, either as a produced play or as a published book. I explained that if I had known enough about either the publishing or theatrical industries when I sat down to write this piece, I never would have written it. And that would have been a shame, because it has been produced several times (against all odds) and has been published twice (also against all odds). No, it's not making anyone rich or famous, but people who have seen it still talk about it and it continues to be one of my works that people respond to most enthusiastically. So even though I never should have written it, I'm glad I did. And that in itself was an important lesson to teach the students, but also to remind myself of. Because I know a lot more about both publishing and theatre now. I know very intimately the frustrations and difficulties of both. And I know that I do now stop myself from writing some things which I would otherwise like to try. Since Dreams of May was first produced in 2006, many people have asked if I might write another poetry play, perhaps a companion piece which could be produced along with it. I can easily imagine such an evening in the theatre -- 2 such pieces performed with an interval between them. I even have an idea of what, or rather who, the second piece might be about. But I've never given myself the time to develop the idea, precisely because I now know how difficult, how unlikely, it would be to bring such a piece to life. But by encouraging these students I started to encourage myself. So I might just bring the idea off the back burner and move it closer to the front. We'll see.
One last thought...I noticed that a couple of the students had bought original versions of the play on Amazon. They were cheaper by a pound or so, and every pound counts when you're a student, to be sure. But that did lead to a discussion of how the play has changed over time, the changes I made from the first edition to the second, and how a poem, perhaps, is never really finished, as long as the poet is given a chance to address it once again.
All in all, a great day, a great opportunity, and one, it seems, I'll be able to repeat from year to year. And needless to say, if anyone out there would like me to come along to a group or class or book club or whatever to have a discussion like this, I'd be thrilled to do it.