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. 

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.”