As a poet who is used to standing behind a mic, manipulating my voice and being a little physically animated, I took the plunge to write a full length one woman show. The difference between the focus needed for a 10-20 minute set at a spoken word night and an hour and ten minute theatre piece are two completely different things. The transition was an intense process. The energy to fill a theatre stage or blackbox studio space is not the same AT ALL as maintaining attention in busy bar. I discovered that mental and physical stamina is a major issue. Also having an outside eye is crucial because as a poet, I can write and poetise for days but where is the story going? Are the characters clear? Does the narrative make sense? I needed a director. But matching a director to a performing poet was not going to be easy. I met and workshopped with 4!
I’d spoken to a few of my peer poets friends and they informed that they too had found the process difficult. Poets can be internal people, conjuring worlds in their heads that they translate into the word. Dancers will dance. Painters paint and sculptors sculpt. But how do poets who want to turn their imaginary worlds into extended performance pieces communicate them to a director? And how does a director receive and translate that information in rehearsal to the full performance? With further investigation I worked out that a bridge of communication of ideas needed to be worked out. There’s a dynamic 3 Way relationship between the writer, the performer and the director that can become a tangle of objectives if the lines of communication are not established early in on in the rehearsal period.
Back in 2007, theatre director Anthony Shrubsall and I were brought together by sheer fate – a friend of a friend of a friend…. I had been looking for a director for my debut one woman show, “Security”, for 6 months and had developed it with the help of producer, Talita Moffatt and director Mike Kirchner to a level that was great, but I felt the journey for the show was not quite unfinished. I knew that the decision to have a stage set (endorsed by me) was obscuring some valuable exploration of myself as a performer and stunting the growth of the rich characters in the script. The show was written in monologue, spoken word, song and movement and set in a cafe. With tables and chairs to manoeuvre around, the flow of the action on stage felt stilted and my line delivery was good but inside, felt stuttered. I needed a fresh approach.
The first thing that I appreciated about working with Anthony was his capacity to really listen to the writer part of me – she (the writer) had a lot to say about themes within the show, which she examined to the marrow in the bare bones. She had a load more to talk on regarding the action on stage and the relationship between the characters. I admit, it was a lot. But something was revealed. While Anthony listened, I was able to process concepts for performance which were steeped in cultural specificity and the colours and tones in the story that only artistic mind-meandering can. The latter is usually considered a luxury but the jewel was in the doing of it. As he listened he facilitated me to find a new language that lay in between writer(poet) preamble and director “speak” – lots of embellished poetic imagery and grounded, practical performance technique. But I had to work at finding it.
Anthony also had questions. Again, lots of them. His process was to find a neutral ground within his knowledge, experience and etiquette of the role of the director – ‘give me the script, I’ll interpret it into a rendition of my vision, I tell the performer/actor what to do (with clear motivation advice, of course).’ In our conversations, we tusseled for what we thought was the correct interpretation of the ‘Security’. Eventually we found this fertile middle ground, between our worlds and this new place was very exciting. After a week and a half of devising and thrashing a script about, we’d sifted out all the important themes, links between scenes and how we’d play with performance styles. The performer could finally come out the wings. Phew!
Now the performer part of me needed clear instruction from the writer who was full of the emotions and tensions within the character (because she’d written them, obviously) and from the director on embodying the vision of the story in performance. So where did we start?
We began by asking what and where is the natural drama in the language. The rhythms, pace, tension and release in the scenes were clearly notated in the language, back story, personality traits and physicality of the characters. For example, Mahmoud – 47, heavy-set and hairy, Palestinian, lonely, disillusioned and with a slight drink problem meets Ayleen 16, short, of African-Caribbean descent, feisty, street-wise and straight talking. The rhythm of their speech patterns were from different worlds. When they met how were they going to, well, ‘meet’?!
In the story both of them had lost a brother, Mahmoud in the Palestinian conflict. Ayleen to violent street culture in the inner city of London. They ‘met’ in the realm of grief. They found a common language when they discovered how they could assist each other through their pain. But it was in the music of the poetry and the dynamics in the language that gave us clues every step of the way to making the text ‘live’.
Then we asked what is the over arching dramatic arc of the story, such as how the characters evolve and are changed by the end of the show. I, as the writer, wanted to play with many performance styles so answering this question gave the performer a dramatic map to guide her through the show. The writing is goldmine for drama. Anthony’s flexibility pinpointed where and how it could be interpreted.
Next? What could I physically so do as a performer? Well, the writer knew she wanted elements of Hip-Hop theatre, the Shakespearean bard, a’capella song, movement, rap, monologue/duologue and poetry. (Not asking for much.) The original stage set was reduced from 3 tables, 6 chairs, a bar and sofa bed to one table, one chair and a bag with 5 items in it. “Make it work.” the writer said. The performer in me felt naked now, with nothing to hide behind, while the set and props also had to transform, with the trick of movement and storytelling, into more than one thing – the chair: a curb, a bonnet of car and a girl in fight.
Then Anthony assessed the extent of physical ability to move, the dexterity of my voice (Mike had also worked hard on my vocal range) and I, as performer had to really dig deep to rid myself of insecurities about what I was going to look and sound like as this schizophrenic black woman playing 3 men, 1 teenage girl and sort-of genderless narrator. The writer in me had set the performer in me a challenge that the Zena in me was determined to meet. And with Anthony’s willingness to be flexible and go with an organic process which moved him out of his comfort zone as a director used to controlling the overall vision, as a team we got there.
Click to read Anthony’s experience of directing “Security”.
We had both learned so much from the process. I am not a trained actor but learned so much from dramatic and theatrical exercises that I have carried into my performance as a poet to date. And as I ‘learned on the job’ whilst developing ‘Security’, I knew other spoken word artists would benefit from my sharing my experience of working with a director, as there seemed to be trend of spoken word poets writing extended pieces and full blown one-person shows. So we devised a series of masterclasses called ‘The WPD’ for writers, directors, spoken word poets and actors, in which we pass on valuable tools and tips for this unique relationship to succeed.
We piloted The 3 Way at the Albany in Deptford in collaboration with Apples and Snakes Poetry Organisation. (Click for archived promotion.)
“The class emphasized a thorough look at the relationship between text and performance. I was able to uncover an emotional arc in my work that I had not been aware of. This was, I think, the most valuable part of all the teaching as so often in Spoken Word we look at the whole piece in terms of its emotional resonance rather than this wonderfully in-depth understanding of the work.” – Naomi Woddis
“I took part in this two-day workshop with poet Zena Edwards and director Anthony Shrubsall at Apples and Snakes HQ in the Albany. Not only did it help me as a performer, but it changed the way I think about performing. Zena is a phenomenal spoken word artist and it was incredibly informative to see the way a poet can work with a director. – Dan Simpson
“This workshop helped me to renew and refresh my pieces and allowed me to be more theatrical, to take the audience on a journey not just by words alone but through how I used my voice and body to tell the story.” – Dean Attah
“I found Zena and Anthony’s masterclass on the performer/director relationship very useful – not only in learning how they worked together but on the practical aspects of developing, funding, putting on and touring a show. All this, and Anthony’s follow-up advice, has stood me in good stead for developing my own one-person spoken word show.” – Richard Tyrone Jones
Anthony Shrubsall is a freelance theatre director based in London currently specialising in one person shows. In addition to working with Zena his most recent 2012 production with the poet Richard Tyrone Jones, Richard Tyrone Jones’s Big Heart has been in Edinburgh this year prior to beginning its national tour. As is his production of How Not to Make it in Britpop by the comedian Rosie Wilby. LANZA with the opera singer Andrew Bain, ran at the Kings Head, London from December 2010 to January 2011 and was performed again in March this year at the London Sketch Club. Previous work includes directing short films with Terry Deary of Horrible Histories fame and Tate Modern. He trained with Laurence Boswell, the leading edge British director, and worked with him at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, London. A former Artistic Director at the Drayton Court Theatre, London, his previous productions include: The Seagull, Mojo, The Lover, Landscape, and The Bullet. Other work includes the UK premiere of Once Upon Four Robbers by Nigerian playwright, Femi Osofisan, The Government Inspector, Mountain Language, The Dumb Waiter, Shopping and F***ing, Rockaby, Huit Clos, Marat/Sade, and Blasted. He was previously Course Leader and Field Chair for Drama at the University of Northampton, England, and has written and published on Samuel Beckett, Theatre d’Complicite’s Jos Houben, Harold Pinter and Vsevolod Meyerhold, respectively. He is a member of Equity and the Director’s Guild of Great Britain.