When the Audience Performs the Play

At Qwiklit, one of our missions has always been to explore new ways of both creating and appreciating the literary arts. Last, I got the chance to enjoy a rather unique experience in the intimate setting of Toronto’s Theatre Centre during last year’s SummerWorks’ Festival.

Soliloquy in English, a book also performed as a work of narrative theatre, interrogates the role of English in the 21st century as a homogenous language accessible to everybody. By seating a small group in a circle, the play subverts the traditional paradigm most theatre is beholden to. But by doing so, the audience becomes the performing cast and is both relaying and digesting the play at the same time. 

Blenkarn, the author of the work, has continued the play’s run across Canada and recently performed at rEvolver Fest in Vancouver. 

Understanding how language influences the world became a hot topic in 20th century literary circles. Nations fragmented by European influence through the form of colonialism sought to defy the imposition of European storytelling, performance and language structures upon their culture.

Soliloquy in English is a rather grounded exploration of a topic pored over ad nauseum in academic circles. Instead of making bold statements about the state of the world or the place of the English language in a globalized world, Soliloquy lets the audience determine the pace and the tone of the play itself. Consider it this way: How can we believe that a global language can be owned, in any circumstance, by a certain group of people?

Blenkarn crafted the play out of several dozen interviews conducted in various countries where English simply plays a different role in society. For some, English was a passport for sharing knowledge and being able to travel around the world. For others, the practical application of English meant more opportunity in the educational and tourism sectors of the country. 

One comparison I can think of is Svetlana Alexievich’s literature, itself a hybrid of real voices combining to produce a literary whole. Famous for her books on Afghanistan, Chernobyl and Russia, the Nobel Prize-Winning Belorussian journalist told stories through the eyes of others while rarely, if ever, inserting herself into her narratives. While theatre and nonfiction have gone hand in hand, rarely has this been done in an interactive manner, where the audience doesn’t simply listen to the narratives, but performs them as well. 

The play’s form draws on one very particular conceit that guarantees that every reading, no matter who attends, will mean a different experience. After each passage—the majority of which are quoted accounts from Blenkarn’s interviewees—the reader is forced to pass the book to their right, to their left or across the circle.

At first, the act seems like a strange gimmick, but soon, you begin to understand that the passing is in essence a trust-building exercise, and each reading a character-building exercise. Each reading, be it a syllable or a long passage, requires that you have faith in both the person reading and the ability to concatenate disparate voices into a cogent whole. 

But Blenkarn is evasive about pigeonholing the work into a genre or medium. “I’m actively trying to not create a concept for ‘what it is’”, he said. 

What I personally found most interesting about the play was its ability to address many of the intuitive challenges of understanding the English language. For theatre to engage the next generation of readers, we need to rethink the relationship between telling and listening. Those who subvert the traditional dynamic of “viewing from afar” will help us better understand how language can both liberate and constrict us. Instead, it might be better to top enjoying art from afar and join the circle. 

How one slam poet brings education and performance together

Breville Espresso Machine

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.