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How one slam poet brings education and performance together

Slam Poetry has been a breeding group for talented young poets for decades now, and in recent years, it has continued to grow into a global phenomenon. When talented bards take their work to Youtube, their videos often goes viral. And poetry competitions in global cities like Dubai are drawing big audiences and big money.

But slam has always been a place for youth to put their poetry into practice. So I spoke to Khaleefa Hamdan AKA Apollo the Child, who has travelled to Vancouver, Canada, to represent Ottawa in the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam.

12 others from around the country will each present a 3-minute work in three respective rounds, with the winner going on to the World Championship in Paris.  Vancouver Poet Laureate, Rachel Rose, will also perform at the ceremony.

I recently spoke to him about what it takes to become a poet who can not only write and perform, but engage an audience as well. The latter is important, too—the judges at the competition are actually randomly-chosen from the local crowd.

Hamdan is part of Urban Legends, a slam poetry collective based out of the Nation’s Capital. As the current director of the team, he has been tasked with building the image and the message of the group. And so far, he’s succeeded.

In fact, they’ve challenge the conventional setup and developed their own, where they perform in the middle of a circle, surrounded by an audience.

“When I perform now I practice walking around, implementing the circle, making sure I’m utilizing this space.”

“We call it the gladiator circle.”

Urban Legends also brings together a number of aspiring poets who want to improve their work and develop their craft. Many of them are young and come from underrepresented communities, but the stage provides a safe space to express oneself—and improve at the same time.

Hamdan started his career with hip-hop, joining a group called Poetic Element. During that time, he also developed a knack for non-musical Spoken Word, which inevitably lead to Slam Poetry. While the genres are interrelated, Hamdan has found special purpose in his work with Urban Legends.

Hamdan combines a number of different sources of inspiration to craft his verse.  Like many other slam poets, he finds insights in everyday life, but he ultimately uses his work to confront heavier issues. “My key source of inspiration is…everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone can do it that well.”

“And being a person of color—stuff happens, and [my poetry] does talk about current issues, racism, sexual assault. People I know went through stuff like that.”

But Hamdan always keeps a tab on his language, blending his content sharp turns of phrase. And like any skilled poet, he’s also made a concerted effort to adult his work. “I’ve been trying to be a little more positive lately, just for my own sake, to try, even when I write about a heavy topic, to provide a light at the end”

These days, Hamdan has transferred his work to the classroom. He runs workshops for students in high school, in particular for at-risk youth.

Educators should take note of the power of spoken work to empower youth. I’m a big fan of reading traditional poetry—it teaches critical thinking, linguistic skills, creativity—but getting youth to speak and write about issues can have an immediate impact on their life.

“They need to be able to have an outlet,” he said.”Sometimes they feel ashamed to say how they feel, but when you’re writing you don’t have to worry about it. It’s about providing that safe space, nurturing that and channeling how they feel and telling them it’s okay.”

Hamdan hopes to build a career from his writing, and success at the slam poetry competition may help him go in the right direction. Otherwise, events like Individual Poetry Slams help bring like-minded groups of poets together from all around the country.

Wynazz, in all her glory, performing UnCouth, her one-woman show.

Advice from young playwrights on how to write, produce and perform your work

As Fringe Festival season heats up, thousands of playwrights in North America and around the world will be honing their craft and rehearsing into the wee hours of the night to get their vision just right. So I decided to find out what exactly goes into the creation process, and how young creators are turning mere ideas into full-blown productions for the stage.

I first spoke to Windy Wynazz (stage name of Wendi Gross), a San Francisco-based writer, producer and performer about her creation process. Wynazz is performing UnCouth, a one-woman show that combines traditional clowning with personal memoir. Like many plays on the fringe circuit, the play didn’t emerge from nothing, but rather, was workshopped over and over in San Francisco and after its November 2014 premiere at the New Orleans Fringe Festival.

This summer, Wynazz plans to embark upon a North American tour with stops in Orlando, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Wynazz was able to sign up for all the festivals up north after winning the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals lottery, which permits 5 shows from down south to complete the circuit.

I also spoke to Nicola Atkinson, a Toronto-based playwright who is co-producing The Gold One, a piece of experimental theater slated to premiere on April 30th, and will run until may 3rd. The play uses collage to explore a singular concept–gold, in this case–from various perspectives.

Beginning the creation Process

I asked Wynazz and Atkinson to describe their “moment zero” when the play first took fruition in their heads.

“It often begins with props instead of words.” Wynazz, approached the creation process with her medium in mind. Instead of operating on a blank slate, she works and reworks on the scenes with the physical aspects of the performance taking priority”. Ask yourself why you want to write a play and what you want to make.”

On the other hand, Atkinson thought long and hard about the thematic narrative of the play. While she knew The Gold One was going to be conceptual, she wanted to avoid creating a work that was too self-aware.

“One of the most interesting and persistent catalysts for doubt as a creator was that we were so sure what we didn’t want to create. We both knew this piece wasn’t going to be a classically linear story, it wasn’t kitchen sink theatre and we knew we didn’t want it to be entirely meta, as many solo shows are.”

Inherent to both of their creation processes is a need to connect the sensory aspects of theater to the play itself. While it may be well and good to quietly sit down and begin writing, it does a lot of good to actually ask what emotional energy exists in your ideas.

For the writing process, though, Atkinson committed a lot of mental energy to getting everything she could on the page. “I like writing early early mornings and late late nights. Sometimes I will write for 6 hours without stopping and sometimes all I can get down is 2 lines about something that perhaps relates to the story”.

“Knowing yourself and honoring where you are at and working from there has always been the key for me.”

Rework, Rework, Rework

Wynazz heeded the advice of the San Francisco Clown Conservatory, who helped her rework some of her ideas.”No idea should be precious and they could all be good! Try many!”

After first trying out her play in San Francisco, Wynazz was doubtful that she would be prepared to pull it off. “It suddenly seemed like too much, the show wasn’t actually quite ready, some friends felt it wasn’t politically correct.” But instead of heeding the advice of too many people, she instead sought the advice of people close to her, who either oversaw her work or had an experienced perspective in the field.

But like many other creators, Wynazz thrives under pressure. “I’m beginning to learn that I work best at the last moment. I rarely have anything finished until right before it is due.”

Atkinson stressed that much of the doubt begins and ends with the creators. The Gold One was no exception. Producing conceptual theater can be challenging because of the issue of plotting.

“We would get to these points where wed think to ourselves, well there HAS to be a linear story, so we would try to impose a story upon the piece or on the characters life.”

Reworking the play is more than just editing and rehearsing. It often helps to hone in on the ultimate intention of the play: What purpose to the play try to fulfill, or what pressing questions does the play ask? But overthinking what you “have to do” can lead to even more struggling.

“This, of course, led us into a foreign hallway where we had to force the writing and the story and the initial idea would fade away.”

But they persisted. For Atkinson, sometimes it all comes down to having solid rehearsal sessions. Frustration may persist, but practice will get the play to where it needs to be. “A perfect rehearsal though is when the team, in this case a team of 2, is confident, willing and curious enough to push themselves to what they believe is the end of their imagination in order to create something outside of themselves.”

Find Your Purpose and Your Community

In the development of their plays, both Wynazz and Atkinson found that their work could only get so far without the help of others. Producing theater is ultimately a collaborative experience, and often, as various people within the industry hold different skill sets.

“If you do something enough, you can’t help but get good at it.  And bring someone into the process with you even if just as a sounding board.  For me, other humans are vital to the process.”

For young playwrights, actors, directors and stage managers, creating something from scratch can be daunting. But in the end, patience and practice–as well as getting out of your comfort zone–can be fruitful to building your work and even expanding your skill set.

“I’m for sure not the most talented, I just live and breathe this stuff,” said Wynazz. I essentially have no other hobbies but clown and theatre.  If you do something enough, you can’t help but get good at it.

“Read everything and read at random,” said Atkinson. See as much theatre as you can. Strive to really develop your own taste. Try not to stick to a certain style or author or era if this is a new world for you.”