‘Why theatre? Why now?’ is one of the most cutting questions I’ve ever been asked about my work. Sitting in a room of 20-odd ‘youths’ at the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) Fresh Ink playwriting camp, Dan Pritchard (then ATYP’s literary manager) had hit the nail on the head so succinctly that 2 years later, this is still the key question I ask myself when I sit down to write. You can apply it to pretty much any art form to get a sense of the immediacy of the work, and how audiences could receive the work within the context and time period you’re working within. Why poetry? Why fiction? Why dance? Why film?
If you want to suspend an audience’s disbelief and aim for realism, film can often work much better than theatre. No matter how involved the audience is in what’s happening on stage, it’s difficult to forget that you are sitting in a fold-down seat next to a bunch of other people watching some actors perform. A few times when I’ve been bored at Main Stage productions, I’ve found myself counting the lights in the rigging, or trying to figure out how much the revolving stage cost. However, this can also be used in theatre to great effect - some of the best works I’ve seen in the last few years are acutely self-aware of the fact that they are performance. In theatre, every show is a new show, with actors breathing new life into the text every time they perform it to a new audience.
Getting something from the page to the stage can be a complicated process, especially in theatre. So many people need to interpret the text you’ve written before the audience gets their chance at interpreting the work. This is also one of the most exciting things about writing plays - the end product that you present to the audience is the result of a collaboration. I’ve had a crack at directing my own work a few times, and that hasn’t always been the best idea. In some ways it’s great, because the message of the piece is cohesive, and you have great opportunities to mould the work as you make it. However, it can also be really hard to extricate yourself from the ‘writer’ role when you’re directing the piece, and it can be all too tempting to rewrite a section that isn’t working in rehearsals, even if it doesn’t necessarily need to be rewritten.
we are young and we are invincible / we play with the poison, the vial, the crucible is a line from my first ever spoken word poem ‘James Dean’, which I’d rather you not have the chance to analyse too closely. Some slam poets (myself included) will never show you a copy of their work written down, because it’s not meant for the page, it’s meant to be spoken. There are rhymes and enjambment you can get away with behind the mic that would seem lazy or trite on the page. In some ways, spoken word is more about conveying an overall message or feeling - something ‘big picture’ rather than sitting down and carefully analysing each line, every image on the page for a hidden meaning.
I am a firm believer that all poetry is meant to be spoken - that above all, it’s an aural art form with rhythms that can only really be appreciated when read aloud. However, it still feels like there is more difference between poems for the page and poems for the stage. When I first started performing at poetry slams in Melbourne, some of the more seasoned performers behind the mic explained that in performance poetry, the delivery and form are just as important as the content. In other words, the rhythm and rhyme, the way you hold yourself when you speak, breathing into the audience’s ears or riling them out of their seats, is just as important as whatever the poem is actually about.
“Know your critics” was another gem of advice from the ATYP Fresh Ink camp - playwright Lachlan Philpott explained that not every opinion is what you need to hear as a writer. Of course there will be people that don’t like your work, or disagree with the fundamental intention. If we know our audience and have a clear intention, the feedback we should be looking for is comment that will aid the intention of the work. Ross Mueller, who mentored me through ATYP’s first Fresh Ink mentoring program, noted that the most useful criticism assesses the work on its own terms, looking at the intention of the piece and where it succeeded and failed in conveying that.
Some of the most useful advice I’ve been given about writing for stage can also be applied to other forms of writing, and mostly centres around economy of language and action. For example, in his book ‘Theatre’, Mamet points out that a preoccupation with your own feelings makes characters as boring onstage as it does offstage - “No one is enthralled by the spectre of his fellow feeling something.”
Each medium I work within works best to convey certain things - I’ve found that the poetry I’ve written that’s emotionally forthright has impacted an audience more than plays which employ the same method. In theatre, conversational subtext and action are much more important in order to get the audience to feel something. It all depends - a woman eating a man’s heart can be cliche and poetic in either medium, so I guess it depends on the execution to a certain extent as well, which is the craft of knowing your medium. Writing is essentially storytelling, and learning the strengths, weaknesses and particularities of a medium (i.e. theatre or poetry) within ‘writing’ as an art form is one of the best ways to ensure the medium fits the message, and your intention is effectively communicated to your audience.
Izzy Roberts-Orr is a Melbourne writer who grew up between Alice Springs and Footscray. She is currently in Europe en route to Edinburgh Fringe. Her most recent project is a blog of daily writing at throwdownwords.com.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.