The title of Performers Under Stress's new show might sound like the Uncle Sam recruiting poster of the theater world. In fact, You Need to Read Poetry! is as compassionate as it is confrontational. The devised physical theater piece is partly poetry enlivened by eight actors, but it's just as much about the audience. We talked to director Scott Baker, assistant director Sylvia Kratins, and performer Valerie Fachman about how they use theater to, in Baker's words, "make poetry less off-putting to people."
Your title sounds like a challenge.
Scott Baker: I want the audience to be challenged. I was frustrated because I used to talk about poetry in my daily life — I was an English major. But people feel this barrier to poetry. So, You Need to Read Poetry!, because I need you to read poetry, because I want to be able to talk to you about it.
Why don't we read poetry?
Sylvia Kratins: Poetry is made into this unapproachable, rarefied practice that a normal person can't understand.
Valerie Fachman: I used to write poetry, and even I thought that way.
Baker: Poets haven't figured out how to put poetry back into the community. Too many are sponsored by academia.
Some of the poets you excerpt include Amiri Baraka, Charles Bukowski, and Nikki Giovanni. How did you make these choices?
Baker: The cast. I would just bring in a whole bag full of poems to rehearsal, and there were poems the cast brought in. The ones we chose have a specifically theatrical context and not a lot of abstract nouns. You can hear different voices.
Fachman: Our poems have language that's rich and dramatic. They have stories to tell. "Joy Road and Livernois" by Marge Piercy is like a short play.
In putting the poems together, you also create a narrative. What logic does that narrative follow?
Baker: In the first act, I want people to see what we traditionally think of as poetry. Then there's a Civil Rights section, a Beats section — poetry as part of a movement. Then there are love poems and stories. So it moves from action and revolution to a more personal place. Then Act Two asks, "How can poetry come into my life?"
Act Two features a real poetry reading by local poets or slam poets, two interactive poetry games, and stories of "the poem that saved my life." What purpose do these elements serve?
Baker: To make poetry less mystifying. To make audiences say, "Oh, we're playing with words! It's not scary!"
Contact improv and movement exercises have been a major part of your process. How do you use movement in the piece?
Kratins: This is an ensemble piece, so there was a real need to create a collective physical sense with each other. The fluid interaction of ensemble members gives the piece shape, support, and purpose. Because poetry is rhythmic and musical, we need to keep the rhythm going all the time.
Baker: The focus in this show is on the words, and the movement supports the words. Poetry speaks to us not only through our heads but through our bodies. That's what we're trying to do: use the body to get to the head.
Many poems are meant to be read silently, and there are always poetry readings. How does making a poem theatrical add to an audience's experience?
Baker: Poets are not always the best readers of their work. If you get actors, people who are trained to embody text, that makes the words more accessible for an audience. Theater also gives you a visual to hang onto with a poem.
Kratins: It gives the audience something to confront. When you see a physical image for a poem, it serves as a jumping-off place. We may have 10 different reactions or interpretations, which is exactly the point.
Fachman: People won't sit down with a book of poetry, but they will come to the theater and let you tell them a story.