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Janis Rapoport. Differences and Similarities in the Creation of Poetry and Plays from a discussion of the work of Janis Rapoport by the author given on December 11, l996 in the MAP workshop room

Differences and Similarities in the Creation of Poetry and Plays


I'm going to begin my talk this evening with a confession. Until Rory Runnells suggested this topic, I had never thought of it in a conscious way. When I mentioned what I'd been asked to speak about to Rick Chafe (dramaturge on the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's production of 10 X 10 -- of which my script THE SHIVA BOX is a segment) he said that he himself had been thinking fairly often about this subject since we started working together (via e-mail) several months ago. Most of what follows arises from some of his questions and my answers.

All the examples will be from my own work because I'm dealing with these issues from the inside out, so to speak, the issues being: sources of ideas, research involved, language, imagery, process, structure and production.

Before talking about any of the above, I'd like to mention briefly how I became interested in writing poetry and writing for the theatre and I'll try to explain the connection between the two. The first poem I wrote was for a school assignment in grade 9. We were studying AS YOU LIKE IT that year as well as several of Shakespeare's sonnets. And one day our homework was -- not to write a script in verse, thank goodness -- but to write a sonnet. We were so relieved we obediently went home and tried to write something that might be of interest to our peers in what is actually quite a difficult form. That grade nine effort, on the subject of fishing, is the only sonnet I've ever written and probably the only one I ever will.

As for playwriting: I started, in a way, by answering an advertisement in THE GLOBE AND MAIL. This was a very small ad, maybe one inch across and two down, and it was calling for submissions to Toronto's Tarragon Theatre for what turned out to be the theatre's first playwrights' unit. I had never written a script, although the idea had always appealed to me. What I submitted was a batch of poems that, in a manner of speaking, had characters or were written in voices with particular points of view. To my enormous surprise I was accepted into the program. There were eight others, all but one of whom had already written some kind of script: for radio, film, television, theatre, whatever. Later I was told, by Bena Shuster the dramaturge and Bill Glassco the artistic director, that they had picked one fiction writer and one poet to see how difficult it would be for us to write for the theatre. The play I wrote while at the Tarragon --AND SHE COULD EAT NOT LEAN -- was later produced in Detroit.

The impetus to write plays probably began much earlier, from a childhood desire to be an actor. My career was brief -- first in radio as Fairy One or Fairy Two for a program called CHILDREN'S THEATRE OF THE AIR which was directed by my then drama teacher in Toronto, Marjorie Purvey. As a thirteen-year-old I was in DARK OF THE MOON, directed by a young Leon Major during the inaugural season of the Ontario summer arts camp Manitou-Wabing. When Leon wanted to remount the show in Toronto, he contacted all the parents for their permission. Not only did my father withhold the necessary permission, he told Leon exactly what he thought of "that obscene play". There was talk of a lawsuit if Leon would be continuing with his plans. I remember playing Anne Frank at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan the summer I turned sixteen. I also remember, while at the University of Toronto, playing all the female characters in an evening of dramatized Robert Frost poems, including "Death of the Hired Man". Unfortunately, family circumstances didn't permit the pursuit of my early dream of becoming an actor. Perhaps that goal became sublimated into writing, first poetry, then plays.

Where do the ideas come from ? And how do you decide how best, i.e. in which genre, to express them? A poem, for me, often begins with an image or a series of images. Sometimes a play does too. For example: the title poem of my new book AFTER PARADISE (Simon & Pierre, The Dundurn Group, 1996) is made up of a series of images. The poem also has a few characters but they are very much in the background here.

The idea for the excerpt of my play THE SHIVA BOX (mentioned previously) that's currently in 10 X 10 at The Prairie Theatre Exchange also started with an image, the image of a Shiva Box. As yet a Shiva Box is not part of the Jewish cultural tradition, probably because only a single one exists and it's in a museum in Toronto. The original Shiva Box was created by fabric artist Temma Gentles as part of the "Uncommon Objects" exhibit for the first Ashkenaz Festival held at Harbourfront during the summer of 1995. Basically, a Shiva Box is an embroidered fabric box with ample room for memorabilia of the deceased as well as letters, photos, an audio tape and other objects. At the end of the seven-day intensive mourning period, the box is presented to the immediate family as a symbolic gesture of closure.

My connection to the first Shiva Box was through the conception and writing of a 40-line poem that Temma then silkscreened onto a damask scroll. That scroll is intended to be the only permanent item in the Shiva Box. Whatever else is placed there depends on the individual families. In the play of the same title it's the characters themselves who are inside the Shiva Box along with their memories of the deceased. One phrase, altered slightly, from my poem "From This Time Forth and Forever" is spoken by the Chorus in THE SHIVA BOX. The phrase in the play is "bearer of my dreams" and in the poem: "Let us offer a prayer brought by angels, / as the weave of your life is now spun / into the memories of children, bearers of your dreams, / from this time forth and forever."

I wrote one of my earlier plays GILGAMESH, based on the epic itself, because the director and actors first tried to write it themselves and found they couldn't. The idea for DREAMGIRLS, a piece about abused women, came from an actor friend who wanted me to write a part for her. In turn, I asked her for a list of ideas. She polled people she knew in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood and came up with about twelve quite good suggestions. The one that really grabbed my attention was the topic listed simply as "battered women". The was back in the mid-70s when such a subject was close to being taboo.

There was a slight problem with my friend's idea, and that problem was me. I had absolutely no idea how to go about crafting a play on a subject about which, thankfully, I had no firsthand knowledge.

One of the solutions to that problem was research. I research everything I write or write about but proceed much differently for drama than for poetry. For example, with DREAMGIRLS, I contacted the woman then in charge of the Toronto shelter "Women in Transition", someone called Anne Cools, whose name you may recognize -- Anne is now Senator Cools. Shortly after meeting her, I began volunteering at "Women in Transition" in Toronto. Simultaneously I was doing my research: gathering stories and listening to speech patterns, word choices and intonations. Anne also contacted previous residents whose histories she thought might be useful for my project. The Macedonian character "Vera" is based on one of these women. All of the former residents contacted, in fact all of the residents past and present, generously gave permission for me to create dramatic characters from material gathered in interviews and through observation. The character of "Hazel" ended up being a composite of two of the women living in the house at the time, both from the Maritimes, with fourteen children between them. For practical reasons, the character "Hazel" has five.

At one point in the play, "Hazel" decides to borrow "Ruth" 's fur coat. "Ruth", is from England, in her 40s and married to a doctor. They've been living in Scarborough but he leaves her and the children very suddenly and as "Ruth" has no relatives nearby and no money of her own, she and her two very young children also end up as residents of the transition house. While "Hazel" is modelling "Ruth" 's coat, "Ruth" herself arrives and insists that "Hazel" remove the fur coat and hand it over immediately. "Hazel" complies, even though underneath the coat all that "Hazel" is wearing is "Ruth" 's rather sexy and transparent lingerie.

Whenever I'm doing research I try to cover all the bases, so to speak. I certainly thought I had with DREAMGIRLS. Nevertheless, the threat of litigation loomed even before the show opened, not from any of the women who had so generously shared the stories of their lives but from my own ex-husband. Had he seen the show? No: he didn't go to previews (or Canadian plays). Had he read the script? No: the only existing scripts were being used by those associated with the production. Apparently someone had shown him the entertainment section of the weekend TORONTO STAR, featuring the director and myself as components of the cover illustration. The follow-up article was substantial in range as well as in length. My ex complained angrily that I had misrepresented his character and was trying to damage his reputation as a doctor, etc., etc. What could I possibly have had in mind making him the husband of someone called "Ruth"? He just wanted me to know I'd be getting a lawyer's letter shortly and so on. I think the word injunction may have been thrown around a few times as well. In retrospect I ought to have let him carry on because, as anyone who saw the play knows, there are no male characters in DREAMGIRLS. However, I tried explaining just that, as calmly as possible. Then I remember saying, "So which of the five women do you think you are, anyway?" End of conversation.

Researching ideas for poems hasn't been as risky, so far. However, there's one poem about which I was ultra-cautious, partly because of what almost happened over DREAMGIRLS. In the early '80s, while visiting Nova Scotia for the first time, I came across a place near Lunenburg called the "Ovens". This is a natural beach site with enormous caverns rising up from the shore and has been converted into a provincial reserve with an outdoor chapel, gift shop and so on. Back in the 1860s the Ovens was a magnet for goldseekers. After exploring the terrain, some of which was accessible only via flimsy ladders that allowed limited access to the upper insides of the caves, I became fascinated by what had taken place, on the beach right below where I was standing, almost a century and a quarter ago. The next day I went to the archives in Halifax and began examining a variety of material: from geological analyses to land claims to methods of panning for gold and/or separating it from the ore that was mined. And because of the threats from my ex over DREAMGIRLS, I took one more precaution which was to advertise in the local newspapers for descendants of those whose names I had found associated with goldseeking activity at the Ovens. Come to think of it, I don't know exactly what I would have done had any descendants materialized. As I recall, the only reply I received was from a freelance journalist situated in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia who strongly advised me not to write about the gold rush in an historical or any other manner. I ignored his advice. The poem "Going for Gold" was published in my 1991 collection UPON HER FLUENT ROUTE. And that was the end of that.

Sometimes research is relatively easy. For example, dreams, which may be able to be reshaped into something literary. All the images in a poem of mine called "Misinterpretation of Dreams" (AFTER PARADISE) came directly from a dream. It was only after I started looking up the various dream symbols in a couple of popular dream "dictionaries" that I realized the coherent throughline of my dream was the universal negativity of the meanings behind the symbols. So I incorporated these symbolic opinions as a kind of commentary. The dream was partly about a journalist -- not the one from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. The poem is for two voices, the dreamer and the (mis)interpreter of the dream. A couple of months after the poem was published I came across a column in THE GLOBE AND MAIL that contained information about a type of cyber cookie that in essence is a secret and invisible spy-file that can be kept on internet users. So, beware anything that contains cookies.txt. The cookies in "Misinterpretation of Dreams" are perhaps equally sinister in their mind-control capabilities.

The language in "Misinterpretation of Dreams" is partly lyrical and partly analytical. In the poem about the Nova Scotia gold rush to which I referred earlier I tried to give the flavour of life in the mid-19th century by the words that I chose. For example, one of the sections of the poem is called: "The Ideal Place for a Legitimate Gold Adventure". I doubt you'd hear such a phrase used for that activity now. There is a narrative thread that holds the various sections together, much like a narrative thread you might find in a play.

In writing plays a great deal of attention has to be paid to language, obviously, because often that's all there is. In my particular writing, probably because I was first a poet, there may be more "poetry" in terms of the sounds of words, their rhythm and phrasing than what you might expect in contemporary writing for the theatre. When I was working on GILGAMESH, for example, my natural inclination was to write the script as a poem. After all, the fragments extant from the original Sumerian tablets appeared to be in verse. Shortly into the first rehearsal, however, I realized that such an approach wouldn't work. But the show was scheduled to open in three weeks. So, while the director and actors were developing the movement sequences -- including dance and acrobatics -- and experimenting with vocal range and technique, I went off to the library and found an expanded translation/interpretation of the inscriptions that were found on the ancient stone tablets. The EPIC OF GILGAMESH, as you probably know, has as one of its elements the retelling of the nature and impact of a devastating and lengthy flood, the same flood it is believed as recounted in the Old Testament during the time of Noah. But it was the reading and rereading of what had been deciphered from the fragments themselves that ultimately gave me the key to unlocking the door in a pretty solid wall I felt had been blocking me from finding the way to approach the writing of the script.

Here is "Enkidu" 's death speech, from scene 7:

"Between the gate of heaven and the gate of earth ... a man-bird whose face is dark ... talons and nails tangle my hair, tear my skin ... I follow the man-bird ... no return ... cave of dust ... palace of darkness ... those who were men ... see no light ... open death wounds framed in feathers ... where limbs once grew, anguish and pain ... walls of the cave, fragments of flesh ... breasts and thighs crumbled to dust ... heroes ... and kings ... eating darkness and dust.

It was I who killed Humbaba, I who wrestled the Bull of Heaven. Now I must die a death of shame. Curse the hunters who led the whore to me. And for her, a curse for all eternity. Let brambles and thorns tear open her feet. Drunkards and beggars will vomit in her face. By day she shall wail in the shadow of the walls. By night she will sit in the crossroads of dust to sell her body.

In DREAMGIRLS the language is much more naturalistic. However, in order to have believable dialogue for characters of different generations and backgrounds and from different geographical locations, I had to listen very carefully to speech patterns as well as speech content. In the case of the character "Vera" whom I mentioned earlier, after I'd written her lines I checked out their accuracy -- in terms of word order, sentence structure, rhythm and cadence -- with a friend of the mother of a young woman working as a public relations trainee on the first production of DREAMGIRLS. The friend had not long before arrived in Toronto from Winnipeg and was of Macedonian descent. After consulting with her I was able to make the necessary adjustments without difficulty.

For THE SHIVA BOX, which I may develop into a full-length piece, I'm trying for a language of memory for each of the different characters so that the alternating and intersecting monologues are imagistic, rhythmical, heightened and emotional when necessary. With regard to the Chorus, I'm back to the fragmented style of some of GILGAMESH but not in the same way and not for the same reasons.

I'm going to move on, briefly, to process. For me, the creative process in writing poetry and plays is similar: I get an idea, do as much research as required, let that germinate for a while then eventually sit down and start writing (longhand on lined paper). With plays though, at some point the characters start talking to me and, if things are going really well, they talk through me. In fact they are so attached to me and vice versa, people in "reality" don't seem nearly as vivid while I'm involved in this intense way with my characters.

Structure is something I generally don't think about too much during the initial phases of the creative process, which means that later on there's often a great deal of ordering and then reordering to be done, especially with the plays.

Once I've taken a poem as far as I feel I can I put it away and sooner or later it turns up on the page(s) of a magazine or a book or more briefly and ephemerally at a public talk or reading such as this. No matter how far I've taken any script though, it always seems there's a lot more work to be done once the material passes to a director and actors. That process can be as challenging and as unique as the dynamic that emerges through the energy and opinions of everyone who becomes involved. Sometimes negative, sometimes positive.

I think in the end experienced writers have to trust their own instincts on what emerges from their individual creative processes and then accept input from others who understand, are sensitive and care about what we are doing, whether those offering comments are colleagues,editors, publishers, dramaturges, actors or directors. And that special kind of collaboration that builds towards a book of poetry or a production of a play is common to both genres.


Janis Rapoport's works copyright © to the author.


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